The Justin Bieber Roast

Humor Techniques and Lessons-Learned From a TV Celebrity Roast.

Last Night, March 30, Justin Bieber was roasted on Comedy Central.  I commend Bieber for stepping into the ring.  It had risks and rewards.  It was a good Roast and Bieber received his share of stinging jabs.

A Celebrity Roast is traditionally made up of hard-core, nightclub-style jokes. They push the limits of good taste.  Sure, they could edit the footage and cut all the jokes about sex, body parts, and body functions.  But then they’d have to find a five-minute slot in which they could air what was left of the roast.

But if you’re not easily offended, there is much to be learned from looking at the substance and style of the Celebrity Roast.

Poking fun at yourself is one of the safest forms of humor.  Justin Bieber admitted to not being a professional funny-man.  This lowers the expectations and magnifies the surprise factor which strengthens the jokes.  A Bieber line:

“Look, I’m new to comedy, but here’s a joke: What do you get when you give a teenager $200 million? A bunch of has-beens calling you a lesbian for two hours”  He zaps the Roasters calling them a bunch of has-beens.  And he piles on by criticizing them on going over-board on the gay/lesbian jokes. Off to a nice start.

We are reminded throughout the Roast of the Comic License principle.  This is an understanding between the comic and the audience that the performer may stretch the truth, even lie, to get a laugh.  Much of what is said in a Roast is not fact, it’s just made up for the sake of the joke.  Of course the best humor has a ring of truth.  If you’re ever in a roast, you’ll find yourself saying things you know aren’t true.  So don’t plan on running for President, unless your roast performance is at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

A common line for a Roast rebuttal, since this is a celebrity roast, is to imply that a participant is NOT famous or NOT funny.  This is usually easy to do because some of the participants are  minor celebreties and some are not comedians.  Generic lines come in handy:

-        Presenter X, you were great.  But the next time you’re in a roast…be funny.

-        Presenter X, you were selected to go first on the roast…because they knew you’d make the other comics look good.

-        Presenter X, you were quite the comedian…but don’t quit your day job.

-        Presenter X, your monologue was so dull it doesn’t even need a rebuttal.

Shaquille O’Neil was a presenter.  Let’s imagine we want to write a line taking advantage of the fact that he’s not a comic.  And we don’t want to use a completely generic line.  We might use something like:  “Shaq, We’re glad you’re here, because it’s nice to have people on the agenda who aren’t funny.  Although I have to admit that you make me smile because you are always dribbling.”  Not super funny, but better than a totally generic line.

A basic humor principle is that The Truth Is Funny.  Even though much of what is said in a Roast is not true, the better lines usually have a ring of truth.

If I had been assigned to write an opening for Bieber’s rebuttal, I might have written something like:

“Tonight was a dream come true for me…to be more specific…it was a nightmare.  I realize it could have been worse.  The comics with TALENT might have been available. And not only did we have to settle for comics on the lower rungs of the comedy ladder, we still had to fill in the holes with a home decorator and a basketball player.”  This suggests:

– That the roast was a bad experience.  But hopefully it was fun.

– That the quality of the Roasters was not good, which was not true.

– That two honorable professions can be used as insults.

– That the truth is the roast was both a dream and a nightmare.

A good joke is often a blend of truth and exaggeration.  Within every comic falsehood, there is usually a ring of truth.  When we are the target of a joke, whether or not in a roast, we need to remember that it’s just a joke, and be the first to laugh.  If you have a good sense of humor and can laugh at yourself, it disarms your detractors.

And the final lesson from a roast is to close with nice words, a mini-tribute, directed to the Guest of Honor.  It leaves the participants and audience with a positive feeling.

It was a well-done roast.  I enjoyed it, although my personal preference would have been to cut back on the comedy-club edge.  In my opinion it would have been even funnier.  I enjoyed the people who presented, and Justin Bieber did a great job.  Well done Comedy Central.