James Franco's Roast of Comedy Central: Genius Unscathed?

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If you watch the early roasts of then '60s and '70s, you’ll see a table of ribald besties letting the cameras film what they’d most likely be doing anyway: sitting around drinking and taking the piss out of each other. And, because it was the '60s and '70s, they did so with fairly gentle language

If you watch roasts of the last 15 years as produced by Comedy Central, you’ll see the transformation of tone that occurred as Comedy Central opened the roast format to any notorious B-level celebrity who needed a mortgage check that month and agreed to grin and bear it while a stable of Comedy Central’s hired guns lobbed low fruits at the public disgraces of the target’s life.

James Franco’s Labor Day roast was already remarkable because the target of the evening was an A-list celebrity with a great deal of connections and cultural capital, doing the roast presumably for a sense of whimsy. So we had a couple of first-timers and a higher caliber of comedians who probably had a manager telling them any chance to get on a stage with James Franco was a chance they should take. Franco himself reminds me of conceptual artist Nikki Lee and the series of photography projects she did where she infiltrated herself into very tight cliques at every level of society by dressing and acting according to their maxims for months on end. Her work was a comment on social boundaries and (presumably) an endurance run of personal alienation...

...and similarly, Franco seems determined to live the life of not just the A List but of every level of entertainer, from artist to soap star. Clearly, in his mind, doing the roast was slumming it with (and for) the dregs of that world. (He basically described the audience as a bunch of teenage stoners on Twitter.)

The tragedy of the night was that Jonah Hill went up fairly early and his set was a perfect storm of terror, defensiveness, and never having had to tell his own jokes in public. Maybe he felt that, because of his public weight-loss struggles, he had a target on his back, but Hill fired some unnecessarily dirty blows, shaming the lovable Bill Hader for leaving SNL for “T-Mobile commercials” and incomprehensibly dressing down Andy Samberg for “returning to TV” (the shame!). It was clear Hill was aiming for maximum hurt, not merely going off of career material he’d looked up online for reference, when he took aim at Sarah Silverman and his jokes moved from the topic of career success to needling stereotypically female psychic wounds: her age and assumed infertility. In every case (except of course, James Franco's) Hill showed a level of petty, personal cruelty sharpened by his own sheer terror.

The viciousness of Jonah Hill, I would argue, upped the ante for a lot of the comics: They could and did seek emotional justice by singling Hill out later in their performances with suitably merciless barbs. Only two of the partcipants really rose above the level of terrified back-biting: Hader, who handled the fracas by assuming an alternate persona—an old man in a tracksuit representing Hollywood—and keeping things fairly gentle. And Samberg, who notably had the most graceful routine of the night, pulling a Norm MacDonald and roasting the concept of roasts itself by essentially giving everyone compliments.

However, all of the stage was guilty of a TORRENT of gay jokes such as I have not heard on primetime TV since... well, since never. Not to mention that Aziz Ansari (who, as Samberg pointed out, is actually from South Carolina) was targeted again and again for being “Indian” (Franco himself compared him to a monkey in a bell boy suit). I understand the bleeding edge of comedy and that the more things we are not "allowed" to joke about, the "funnier" they get, but what are we, really, to make of a bunch of privileged millionaires simply describing gay sex, with no discernible punchline, and to laugh as that's passed off as comedy? Or millionaires merely throwing off racist remarks and standing back to wait for applause? I know hateful jokes at roasts are a beloved tradition, but then again, so is female circumcision. (Top-hat cymbal brush, laughs!)

This might perhaps be what Franco was asking us to consider, as he ultimately delivered the cruelest rebuttal when he dismissed the roast as his latest art piece and described all the comics who had written their material, gotten dressed up, and would later pose for obligatory pictures with him as “untalented, malformed” freaks. It takes a monumental amount of privilege to “ironically” get a cable network to build and finance a Labor Day special around you, and to set all that up to ultimately make fun of it only emphasizes a god-like power over your industry. It's sort of on a par with going down to a strip club in the middle of the day and yelling at the dancers for being slutty. While I have to thank Franco for opening my eyes to how outdated and ultimately depressing this format is, I wonder if the psychic collateral damage was worth it. 

If Franco honestly wants us to judge this as an art piece, I’d say he succeeded in conjuring up problematic associations and visceral disgust in the viewer, and making a relevant comment on this form as a pressure tap in a hyper-materialist industry that simultaneously makes it a virtue to be non-judgmental: The almost surgical dissection by the most “successful” guy onstage of the other entertainers careers, the hateful “othering” potshots at two of the most traditionally targeted groups, gays and minorities, by everyone involved—it all makes me want to turn off my TV and move somewhere where the two main industries are publishing books and brewing beer. So thanks for the catharsis, genius, but ultimately Franco gave Comedy Central the ratings they wanted, the Twitter chatter they desired, and got a bunch of young viewers who normally don’t watch roasts to tune in and hear a bunch of hateful bigoted and homophobic messages being condoned as comedy. So tell me, genius, are you slaying or are you feeding the dragon?


... Is the roast format all in good fun, refreshingly real, or deeply depressing?

... Will all the comedians involved with the roast enjoy a jump in fans/ratings/Twitter relevancy, or just the meanest ones?

... Is James Franco a legit genius or a guy who needs to hear the word “no” more often?

... Was Jonah Hill scared out of his mind, or what? Why did he go so hard to the hole with Sarah Silverman?

... Do you think anyone wept after the show?

... Are you more or less likely to watch roasts in the future, after having seen this one?

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