The Comedic Circle of Life: Trevor Noah, Justin Bieber’s Roast, and the State of Insult Comedy

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Stand-up comedy is a rough business. It takes years and years of unpaid training, and even if you happily toil at open mics and late-night slots at your city’s comedy club, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to make a living at it. That’s because, even if you think you’re funny, the rest of the planet might disagree with your assessment. Comedy is one of the few art forms that requires an audience to be in attendance when you practice. Doing stand-up in an empty room isn’t stand-up, it’s talking to yourself. You don’t know if a joke actually works until a real human being is allowed to interact with it. Hot off of his triumphant reveal as the new host of The Daily Show, South African comedian Trevor Noah found out today that some of his early material did not work.

The narrative of his ascent to the Valhalla of televised political satire flipped when a deep dive into Noah’s Twitter account uncovered some jokes that were clearly meant to be edgy but just came off like hack nonsense. One really junky tweet read, “Originally when men proposed they went down on one knee so if the woman said no they were in the perfect uppercut position.” Maybe with the benefit of a tag that expands on the history of spousal abuse, we could find an actual joke, but there is no tag. There’s just a little dollop of unfunny brutality to dance around in your head for awhile. That joke, and others that prod Jewish people,1 overweight people, and women fail the most important test of any edgy joke: It has to be funny. Insult comedy of the sort practiced by Trevor Noah on Twitter and by the many writers and performers on last night’s Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber has to fulfill that requirement above all else. The question is, who gets to decide what’s funny — the comics or the audience?

Ludacris did not seem like he was having a very good time at the March 14 taping of the Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber. He sat eerily still through portions of the show, his face straining into a rictus grin for the sake of the cameras. This became particularly acute as SNL cast member Pete Davidson used Ludacris’s friend’s memory as a punch line and he had to pretend like he was having fun. “Just this past year, Justin [Bieber] got arrested for drag racing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t with Paul Walker. What? He’s doing great! He’s got a movie coming out,” Davidson said, periodically glancing toward Luda’s seat for an approval he was not going to get.

As more and more pointed barbs about his dead friend were delivered, more audience members started to whisper among themselves. Had they gone too far? Could they get away with maligning a fallen movie star with his buddy just a few feet away? “‘Move, bitch, get out the way!’ is what Paul Walker should’ve told that tree. Too soon? Too fast? Too furious?” Jeff Ross said later in the show, as the audience alternated between gasping and laughing at the obliteration of a taboo. It was an industry crowd — savvy enough to know to expect this sort of verbal savagery, or maybe just acutely aware that their job was not to make a scene while their colleagues tried to fashion a television show out of the proceedings.

From my vantage point at the far end of the studio, Ludacris looked pissed, but not shaken enough to disregard politeness and refuse to talk to the perpetrators of the offending material. Davidson and Luda sat next to each other during the show and exchanged words more than once. He could have tossed a panoply of four-letter words for all I know, but at least they spoke. I left the show wondering how many of his pained reactions were real and how many were for the benefit of the numerous cameras circling the stage. Was this really the first time he’d heard these jokes? Hadn’t Ludacris been prepped? Didn’t they rehearse this material? Were they really going to air this?

I wouldn’t have to wait very long to get my answer. On March 16, Comedy Central announced that all references to Paul Walker’s death would be removed from the broadcast. “Roasts often push the limits of good taste and we give the participants full rein to try things knowing we have the edit to shape the show. Sometimes the line is discovered by crossing it,” a spokesperson for the network told The Hollywood Reporter. Comedy Central felt compelled to get out in front of a potential controversy and preemptively apologize to hypothetically upset viewers about jokes they will never see performed. Such is comedy’s new circle of life — a symbiotic relationship between the outrageous and the outraged.

Mainstream live-event broadcasts like the Oscars, the Super Bowl, NBC’s purposefully campy musicals, and presidential debates are parsed by critics for weeks after they air because they’re some of the last remaining broad cultural moments that this country’s demographically fractured viewership has left. Unlike those events, the Comedy Central roasts are taped weeks in advance, giving the producers ample time to remove sensitive material. Still, the roasts cultivate a sense of danger and an air of the unpredictable that makes actual live broadcasts so appealing to TV audiences. Even if people are offended, those products still have a way of finding an audience.

Comedy Central began airing roasts in 1998, first producing and broadcasting the events made famous by the exclusive New York Friars Club — private gatherings meant to celebrate a club member through the fine art of insult comedy — before striking out on their own in 2003. At its best, the roast genre is a bitches brew of initiation ceremony, trial by fire, bonding experience, and tribute. At its worst, a roast can be a gladiatorial arena for famous people to settle petty old scores. The art form, by its nature, requires a feeling of safety. Everyone has to be on the same page and open to whatever is said, no matter how vile, as long as it’s funny. Sometimes, the roast formula fails miserably. Ted Danson, then-boyfriend of Whoopi Goldberg, wore blackface to her Friars Club roast in 1993. He ate watermelon and used the n-word numerous times, garnering a media smackdown from which it took him years to recover. The final Friars Club roast to be broadcast on Comedy Central was for Chevy Chase, a program so painful to watch that even among roast aficionados it has taken on legendary status. It exists only in grainy clips on YouTube, an aesthetic ugliness that adds to the pain.

“What happened to Chevy Chase’s career? I can answer that in three grams,” host Paul Shaffer said in his opening monologue, alluding to Chase’s notorious predilection for illicit substances. The show would continue along those lines, mocking him for his pathetic career, his flabby body, and his narcissism. The jokes, as harsh as they were, aren’t significantly worse than what you’d hear on the average roast, but what’s missing is the clear sense of fun and good spirit that typifies the best of these events. The constant cutaways to Chase’s aggrieved visage aren’t terribly dissimilar to the miserable faces that Ludacris pulled at the Bieber roast taping. It’s not hard to read body language when it’s being disseminated into millions of homes through a coaxial cable. Chase’s body is screaming “Get me the hell out of here!” It’s a study in discomfort: After every searing punch line, we have to see Chevy’s bloated face in all its ashen agony.

But, according to veteran roast writer Jesse Joyce, those reaction shots can sometimes be used to artificially goose that response from an audience. Joyce has been writing for the Comedy Central roasts since the Flavor Flav edition in 2007, an opportunity he got after touring with the late Greg Giraldo. Since then, he’s been a mainstay on the writing teams for the franchise. He also wrote for the Seth MacFarlane–hosted Oscars in 2013. That show infamously featured a musical number called “We Saw Your Boobs” that earned MacFarlane a surplus of scathing reviews the morning after. The show’s critics pointed out that the skit objectified women and, worst of all, visibly upset women in the audience. The producers most notably cut to Charlize Theron during a particularly inauspicious moment and captured her horrified face. “People point to the fact that, ‘Did you see how offended Charlize Theron looked when that happened?’ She was supposed to! She agreed to do it, dummies,” Joyce said. “Don’t you know at this point how entertainment works, that it was planted in there?”

The expectations of an Oscars audience are drastically different from the expectations of those watching a Comedy Central roast, though. A roast viewer and a roast participant expect and consent to insulting jokes. Conversely, people watching the Oscars expect a pleasant awards show with a bit of middlebrow humor thrown in. It’s damn near impossible for a show viewed by more than 37 million Americans to please everyone. It might not even please everyone in the audience.

This is another reason for the failure of the Chevy Chase roast. We realized he didn’t want to be there. He appeared visibly unhappy about subjecting himself to verbal abuse, so it became more uncomfortable than funny. Justin Bieber made a great roast subject because, despite jokes like calling his ex, Selena Gomez, “the least lucky Selena in all of entertainment history” — which implied that she would have been better off getting assassinated by the head of her fan club instead of dating Justin Bieber — he looked like he was having a good time. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he was so willing, considering that this show was a fairly transparent attempt to rehabilitate his bruised public image. After pissing in a mop bucket and abandoning a monkey in Germany, it stands to reason that the only way out of perpetual damage-control mode is to show a modicum of humility. He had a vested interest in being cheery about the material being thrown at him. The crowd at the show had the benefit of food, drink, and blessed air conditioning to keep them happy. Of course, when it’s millions of people in their homes watching a roast rather than 200 people doing so in a private club or a dining room, the complete buy-in of the audience becomes much harder to guarantee. In the room, the Bieber roast was that ideal space for transgressive humor.

The show was a production that, like other pretaped events looking to replicate the energy of a live broadcast, prodded those of us in the audience to approximate the frenzy of an uninterrupted ceremony even after long breaks in filming that stretched the evening toward the four-hour mark (that’s including the meal they served us, which consisted of grown-up approximations of “kiddie food,” including pizza, Twinkies, and Pop Rocks, that, presumably, an eternal prepubescent like Bieber would love). Seat fillers, cordoned off in stadium-style bleachers, would be hustled down to take the place of anyone who had to take a leak while Shaq got his makeup redone. “Uptown Funk” was turned up or down on the overhead speakers depending on how excited the producers wanted us to be. When you watch the finished product, you see a lively, no-holds-barred, consciously edgy affair. Being in that room, I can say that even the jokes that rubbed up against the line fared pretty well, but, again, what works in the room doesn’t always work at home. Comedy Central mentioned “discovering the line” in its statement regarding the Paul Walker jokes, but sometimes the network finds that line after it’s too late.

At the Charlie Sheen roast in 2011, Amy Schumer delivered a joke about Ryan Dunn, the Jackass cast member who died in a horrific car accident not long before the show. Steve-O, Dunn’s friend and fellow Jackass alum, was in the audience. Right after a punch line about people wishing Steve-O were the one who died instead, the show cuts to Steve-O’s horrified face.

At the time, Schumer was a relatively unknown comic. This was before her show on Comedy Central catapulted her to stardom. It’s reductive to say that her success was due to her work on the roast, but it certainly did make her more known to the general public. It was a knockout punch of a joke, but without the mortified reaction shot, would it have been nearly as impactful? The genre of comedy typified by the Comedy Central roasts might not even exist without the tension between comics and angry audiences. If there were no one to draw the lines, comics like Jeff Ross would have nothing to cross. Social propriety and politeness give roast jokes their power.

Roasts are designed to inflame emotions and get people talking, and in the case of Schumer’s joke, it worked. It will forever be a part of the story of the Comedy Central roast series. So will all the jokes about Pete Davidson’s father dying in the World Trade Center and the jokes at the expense of Selena. Gay jokes, racist jokes, sexist jokes, and explicitly sexual jokes are expected at these shows. It’s one of the last places where this type of humor is practiced for mass consumption. Whether you think that’s good or bad, these shows continue to be popular because of the catharsis of watching people say all the horrible, nasty, vile things the rest of the country imagines they could verbalize. To perform at a roast is a tacit endorsement of this type of entertainment. For Ludacris, though, it wasn’t, according to Jesse Joyce:

“After the roast, I saw him whizzing by on a golf cart. I had heard he was very uncool about how the whole thing went down. So I said, ‘Hey, man, you nailed it,’ because for whatever it was worth, he didn’t fuck up a single joke we wrote for him. He just kinda glared at me and gave me a ‘pfffttt,’ like really dismissive, and drove off.  I then heard one of the other writers who was oblivious to his mood afterward came up and introduced himself, like, ‘Hey, Luda, I’m one of the writers,’ and one of his people got all up in his face, like, ‘That was you? You wrote that Paul Walker shit?’”

I don’t fault Ludacris for being upset. It’s every person’s right to be offended, and jokes about a recently deceased friend would be hard for anyone to take. I do fault Ludacris’s publicist for allowing him to participate in an event that someone going through the grieving process would find totally unpleasant. These shows are taped, rather than live, for a reason and have to be cut sometimes, but at least spare the poor man an experience he probably wasn’t ready for.

For Pete Davidson, Trevor Noah, the writers of the Bieber roast, and countless other comics, the search for the mythical line of good taste is never-ending. Like a drunk man fumbling in the dark for his bedside table, the only way to find it is to fail miserably and make a huge mess. It’s just that the mess you make is going to end up in public.

Filed Under: TV, comedy central, Roast of Justin Bieber, Ludacris, Justin Bieber, amy schumer, Jesse Joyce

Dave Schilling is a general editor at Grantland.

Archive @ dave_schilling