In the Golden Age, when Hollywood was one vast fraternity, when everyone knew everyone, when the fan magazines printed what they were told and not a letter more, the Friars Club was the frat house of the campus’s more rambunctious element; the enclave where madcap cut-ups liable to set a studio chief’s wastebasket on fire took refuge from the stuffy world of showbiz. And in that cozy little fraternity, the Friars Club Roasts functioned as something akin to wedding banquets: occasions for the brotherhood to show their love to their most celebrated brethren in the only way wiseacres know how, by teasing them within an inch of their lives.
Sixty some years later, a panel of seemingly randomly selected comedians and tabloid fodder convened in a cavernous sound stage to rake over the coals a man known as America’s most horrific open wound with the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen, the latest installment of the network’s salute to the nation’s greatest train wrecks.
The spectacle descends from the Friars Club Roasts of old in the same way Jersey Shore descends from On the Waterfront; the setting may be similar, but all that’s missing from the original is every bit of its humanity. And therein lies the story of much of our culture during the past decades.
Actually, the roasts didn’t even come out of Hollywood, but from the even cozier show-business world of New York theater, which populated the Friars’ NYC headquarters. In the club’s early days, their black-tie dinners would often dissolve into pile-ons at the expense of a member, according to the club’s official history. “FRIARS KID MISTER HARRIS: Veteran Theatrical Manager Butt of Jokes at Dinner,” read a 1910 New York Post headline. After breaking out willy-nilly for a few decades, however, the Friars eventually felt the need to formalize the process, to give some ritual to the mayhem. The first official Friars Roast was held in 1949 in honor of Maurice Chevalier.
Under the aegis of Dean Martin in the 1970s, the private rite became a public spectacle, broadcast on NBC sporadically from 1973 to 1984. The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts retained the chummy form of the Friars events, and much of the same chummy cast (Foster Brooks, Red Buttons, et al.), but under the klieg lights, the intimacy withered. By the end of their run, the network could no longer even be bothered to get the stars together in the same room, filming the event on several stages around the country and patching the pieces together in the editing room.
And then, after a decade and a half more or less on ice, the tradition was revived by Comedy Central in an oversized, monstrous new form, when it began airing Friars Club Roasts. The network’s own branded run started gently enough in 2003, still built around a night of comedians skewering other comedians, with a mere sprinkling of tabloid fodder. The first event featured a night devoted to actor-comic Denis Leary being mocked by funny people Jim Breuer, Jeff Garlin, Conan O’Brien, and Colin Quinn, with oddballs Doctor Dre, Gina Gershon, and Christopher Walken creating a bit of off-kilter interest.
Breaking through the basic cable clutter is no easy task, however, and a little bit of gossipy bottom-feeding can go a long way, as many a basic-cable network—from VH1 to TLC—has found. The salutes to comedians soon gave way to the evenings devoted to knocking America’s foremost basket cases like punching bags. Instead of Don Rickles or Johnny Carson on the hot seat, we saw getting the treatment serial spousal-abuse survivor Pam Anderson; admitted crack-addicted, confessed girlfriend beater, and dating-show buffoon Flavor Flav; perennial rehabist David Hasselhoff; and finally, airing Monday night, the perpetrator of the most public act of self-destruction in American history, Charlie Sheen.
While the roasters are often very, very funny, among the most biting wits in America, it has never been entirely explained what exactly is funny about making fun of people who are falling apart, and mocking people who are barely in control of their lives, let alone able to give it back as good as they get. The roasts never seek to knock down the truly powerful, to give a dose of humility to those at the top of their game. You don’t see the likes of Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg in the Comedy Central hot seat, nor, for that matter, Sumner Redstone, the ultimate overseer of the network’s parent company. Instead, the events take on targets so easy they come with their own punchlines tattooed on their foreheads. The roasts have become a comedy rendition of an Us Weekly cover, spewing outrage at celebrity misdeeds, all the while building them up as the obsession of the month.
Comedy needs no excuse. If something is funny, it doesn’t have to explain itself. A good joke trumps all ethics and standards, which is why comedy can push into areas considered taboo in normal conversation. However, if one sees a mob laughing uproariously at a homeless person vomiting on himself in the streets, one is entitled to ask, what the hell is wrong with that mob that they find this funny?
Of course, many will protest that Charlie Sheen is no victim here. He was paid for his participation, and on the back of this event he can begin to rebuild the shattered pieces of his career. "He signed up for it" is the phrase that excuses all sins in entertainment. As though making sure everyone is in it consensually is the sum total of our moral, ethical, and aesthetic obligations to humanity.
By sitting and gamely laughing along as the roasting panel took their best shots at his drug history, his spousal abuse, the damage inflicted upon his children, Sheen robbed his rap sheet of its power. Laughing along with the jokesters, he showed that it’s all just a big shtick—the self-destruction and broken lives in its wake. No doubt if, as his appearance suggests is entirely possible, he turns up dead in the coming months, that will be part of the shtick too, nothing to get worked up about. And in case anyone was still hanging on to any lingering uptightness about that point, as the curtain raised, host Seth MacFarlane made it explicit by reading a mock Sheen obituary in his opening remarks.
And speaking of funny, what about that wacky rapist there on the couch? The guest of dishonor competed for the most-grotesque-spectacle prize with one of his roastees, convicted felon Mike Tyson. Already culturally defanged by his appearances in the Hangover films, Tyson’s rehabilitation took another step forward as he joined the crew and sat gamely by, laughing his head off on the couch as comics took playful jabs at his record of sexual assault. William Shatner in particular distinguished himself with an extended bit walking the former champion through the right way to rape a woman and get away with it. I will be curious whether that makes it to the broadcast version. One wonders if Comedy Central called Tyson’s victim and asked whether she had any zingers she wanted to contribute.
Again, if there is one area of free speech that should be protected, it is comedy. Humor should be allowed to go wherever it feels compelled. A joke that offends no one is not doing its job. But there is a difference between making a joke about a crime onstage at a dark comedy club and making a joke while sharing a couch with the perp. The former upholds a moral code, or points out its flaws and contradictions; the latter, by casting it all in good fun, condones.
The roasters of Charlie Sheen ultimately broke flesh but not bone. The network claimed there were no taboos for this night (the world will never know the hilarity we were robbed of when Pamela Anderson took her hepatitis status off the table for her roast, or when Shatner himself asked that his wife’s drowning death not be used as comedy fodder). But in the end, the comics trod lightly upon the truly scary topics. Only one really went into the “what about the poor kids,” for instance. The final result, beyond beginning Sheen’s rehabilitation, was to reinforce that showbiz really is a fraternity after all. Not an old-time one like the Friars group, but one more appropriate to our age, in which people (and networks) seeking attention at any price will always have each other to help them get it.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Comedy Central's roasts began in 2003, which is correct. But the network began airing Friars Club Roasts in 1999.