That Hurt.

The Comedy Central Roast of Ricky Vaughn

Brad Pitt is a movie star.  Brad Pitt has, on at least once occasion, worn a sweater[1].  That is the extent of my personal knowledge of Brad Pitt, but it does not even begin to adequately reveal the man’s nature in any real sense, nor even within the media-created identity that is presented to us.  It’s fascinating to consider the people whom we have the most information about are almost always the people we know the least.

Not that it hasn’t been for thousands of years, but identity is an especially tricky conceit nowadays.  The internet, along with the pleasures of real-time sports updates, has created a fascinating dynamic to the age-old philosophical question of who we are as human beings, for now we are able to create and project ourselves to the world through a medium that by its very nature obscures truth, or at the very least alters our perception of reality.  Human interaction has long been the source of identity, we create our self-image in the model of those around us and we present to them, honestly or not, that which we either believe ourselves to be or, more often perhaps (and certainly much more interestingly) that which we desperately want to be.  The relative value of this paradigm notwithstanding, it undeniably exists to some extent, and the easiest way to see it is by pulling up your friend’s Facebook and Twitter account.[2]

So I was thinking about this while watching the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen.  Now I don’t know anything about Charlie Sheen, not in any way that really matters, and what was painfully obvious while watching the roast was that nobody else on the dais did either.  The jokes weren’t particularly funny, and many of them were aggressively unfunny, which is the second worst kind of unfunny there is, behind only trying-too-hard-in-an-improv-sort-of-way unfunny.

Comedy Central regularly produces a series of celebrity roasts, a time honored comedic tradition in which the roastee is good-naturedly and affectionately made fun of by those who know him best and, crucial here, like him.  The most recent recipient of this basic cable honor was Charlie Sheen, whose self-indulgent and occasionally entertaining media frenzy has blessedly abated, at least for the moment.  Not much of the show was particularly funny, preferring to use shock to garner a response from the audience, a tactic which works really well once.  Regardless, the program was doomed from the beginning.  It’s operating off a flawed model.

Ruthlessly taking shots at people requires a measure of affection or else it’s not comedy, it’s just people saying mean things.  The Comedy Central model, which has been in place for roughly a decade now, hits the right beats, but it increasingly misses the point, becoming less and less funny with every passing roast.  This first came to serious notice with the Chevy Chase roast, a spectacle that was written about nicely in an Entertainment Weekly piece by Daniel Fierman.[3]

In practical terms, the problem is largely one of perception, since for a television audience it doesn’t matter as much if the participants know/like one another as long as we perceive that to be the case.  At the core of it, entertainment is illusion, so camaraderie, false or otherwise, is still camaraderie.  We don’t know any of these people beyond their work on stage and screen, their press junkets and the tabloids.  The irony is that the work product, the movies and performances, are far more real than the persona that’s been created through the media, and we feel as if we know the person for both when really, we’re fooling ourselves.  It’s the classic Picasso line – art is the lie that reveals the truth.[4]  It doesn’t matter if the people on stage roasting one another genuinely know and like each other, but we’ve got to believe they do, otherwise the whole house of cards collapses.

This is exactly what happened a few years ago when Chevy Chase was roasted.  Chevy Chase didn’t know the majority of the people roasting him, it was obvious he had little to no connection with most of them, and the whole affair was painful to watch and likely ten times as painful for Chase to sit through.  At the end of it, Chase uttered the line, “That hurt” and walked off stage.  Comedy Central chose not to broadcast the “That Hurt” line, which is curious since they still showed the entire affair leading up to this moment.  Apparently, acknowledging how awful the experience was for Chase might diminish the enjoyment for the audience, but there were no such worries about the experience itself.  Comedy Central has chosen not to re-air this roast, which shows some measure of taste, I suppose, but the fact that the format hasn’t changed is illustration that the lesson hasn’t really sunk in.

The most interesting portions of the Charlie Sheen roast are the few moments when dark emotion seems to rear its ugly head, and while I can’t say with any certainty that the moments were in fact real, they could very easily be creations of the actors or for that matter the editing room, it felt real in a way that drove home the ugliness that these roasts have come to symbolize and embrace.  Amy Schumer makes a joke to one of the other roasters, Steve-O, who made his name in the Jackass television show and films, about his recently deceased friend, Ryan Dunn, who was killed in an auto accident.  “’I’m sorry for the loss of your friend Ryan Dunn,” Schumer joked.  “I know you were thinking, “It could have been me,” and I know we were all thinking, “Why wasn’t it?”

There’s a moment at the end of the clip – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6M6dI7V-f4 – where we watch the reaction of Steve-O, and I won’t pretend to know what he’s thinking, but it sure isn’t ‘ha-ha’.  Strangers taking shots at one another is only funny if we the audience have the sense of community that friendship creates, an illusion of camaraderie.  This is why comedians insulting comedians can feel authentic, there’s a familiarity borne from their profession.  When no effort has been made to create such a feel, however, when the persona created on stage is anything but a friend, then it’s just a stranger insulting the memory of your dead friend.

If it’s not possible for these roasts to end, and they’re way too popular to end, I wish Comedy Central would go out and find some people who actually know/like one another, and if that’s not practical, then at least find some decent actors.  I don’t care which, because the beautiful part of our modern age is that if you do either, I’ll never be able to tell the difference, because for all intents and purposes, and in every sense, there is no difference.  And then I’ll laugh.


[1] Brad Pitt walked past me once and he was wearing a sweater.  It happened quickly, and I didn’t have the chance to ask him about a rumor I heard.  The rumor goes that at a very young age, Pitt was working as an extra for central casting.  He left a job in the middle of the day to go on an audition, and when Central Casting found out, Pitt was blacklisted.  The owner allegedly saying something along the lines of, “You’ll never work in this town again!” (the exclamation point is essential in my version of the rumor).  When Pitt became a star, he mandated that no film he worked on could use Central Casting, and has held to that vendetta to this day.  Additionally, the rumor mill continues in that whenever Pitt meets an extra from Central Casting, he tells them to deliver a message to the home office – “Still working.”

[2] Nobody cares about your friend’s trip to the grocery store to buy peanut butter, but this information undoubtedly contributes to our perception of the individual’s identity.  We know they go to the grocery store.  We know they buy peanut butter.  And we know they’re a bit of a doof for writing about it in a public forum.

[4] This is my favorite Picasso quotation.  However, my all time favorite quotation is a tie between Socrates when he said, “Wait, I drank what?” and God, who famously uttered, “Nietzsche is dead.”

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