The Roast of Joan Rivers

Comedy Central aired the Roast of Joan Rivers on Sunday, so NPI Roast connoiseurs  John S and newcomer F.P. Santangelo (not related to the former Montreal Expo) sat down to discuss it:

John S: The Joan Rivers Roast wasn’t the best roast Comedy Central has ever done, or the worst; at this point the franchise has become so entrenched that consistent viewers know who and what to expect. The target at this point is incidental to the mere act of roasting. I’m not really a Joan Rivers fan, and I certainly wasn’t tuning in to see Kathy Griffin, but I think these Roasts are an underrated comic venue. The knock against them is that they seem to be exercises in repetition: Each comedian takes his or her turn making the same jokes. For this particular roast, the jokes seemed to oscillate between “Joan Rivers is really old” and “Joan Rivers has had a lot of plastic surgery.” What’s great about a Roast, however, is that it allows each comic on the dais to showcase a personal flair and interpretation of the same basic jokes. Sure, some of these comedians turn in jokes that are stale and boring and probably written by some intern, but plenty of comics have turned the Roast into a personal showcase. Gilbert Gottfried and Jeff Ross have each created a distinct voice in Roasts, and both were in traditional form at the Joan Rivers Roast. By far the funniest man on the dais, however, continues to be Greg Giraldo, who always seems to find the perfect balance of edgy, clever, and original humor. Giraldo is the Michael Jordan of Comedy Central Roasts, and he turned in another stellar performance on Sunday. Do you think Giraldo lived up to his own high standards?

F.P. Santangelo: Sure, Greg Giraldo was great. Of course, you’d probably forgive a guy that talented if he didn’t bring his best material to a Roast of someone like Joan Rivers, but I thought he turned in a solid set. Hopefully he’ll catch a little more publicity after his upcoming  special (“Midlife Vices,” Sunday, August 16 at 10 pm on Comedy Central). I agree that he represents the gold standard for roasting, but what also distinguishes him is his versatility as a comedian. I’ve never seen Jeff Ross or Gilbert Gottfried excel in any other venue (Aladdin doesn’t count), but Giraldo is a great stand-up comic. I guess it’s just interesting that to be branded as a lethal roaster might have been the best thing to happen to Jeff Ross, and only a bittersweet success for Greg Giraldo. Of course, what’s frustrating is that many members of the dais aren’t even comedians, so the supposed opportunity to “showcase a personal flair” is often replaced by mediocre material delivered by terribly unskilled celebrities like Maureen McCormick, Donald Trump, and of course the completely inept Farrah Fawcett. If laughter really is the best medicine, that’s probably why she died.

John S: Haha, yes, I completely agree. There is an overabundance of unfunny people reading poorly written scripts in an effort to boost their profile or get comedic street cred. This Roast had Trump and Brad Garrett filling that role. I don’t want to sound delicate, but I really didn’t need to hear Donald Trump talk about Joan Rivers’ vagina. I think at times these people are included due a personal relationship with the target (Trump chose Rivers as “Celebrity Apprentice,” John Stamos hosted the Bob Saget Roast because he co-starred with Saget in Full House) or just to appeal to a certain demographic (I presume the demographic that doesn’t like comedy). I think this is an odd worry for the producers to have since, as I said earlier, I think Roasts are a brand in themselves. More people probably watched this roast because of the track record of Comedy Central Roasts than because they are big fans of Joan Rivers. If that’s true, then the dais should be people who have proven that they know how to roast celebrities, like Giraldo, Ross, Gottfried and a few others. Brad Garrett and Kathy Griffin should stick to what they know (whatever that is). 

F.P. Santangelo: Despite the fact that the non-comedians tend to suck, there is a certain appeal to their inclusion. People will want to see Brad Garrett at a Comedy Central Roast for the same reasons they want to see Ron Jeremy on The Surreal Life (i.e. bad reasons, but still existing ones). There’s an intriguing fusion of reality and planned presentation at these Roasts that shouldn’t be overlooked. Since I’ve already taken my shot at Farrah, I’ll point out the Courtney Love fiasco from the Pamela Anderson Roast. Her “performance” would have been classic reality television if it were filmed in a different context. I’m not saying that this blend is always a good thing, but it can sometimes be more interesting than a comedy show that’s entirely staged, like “Michael and Michael Have Issues” or a reality show that isn’t really funny at all, like “Last Comic Standing.” It also gives you a chance to see the way the comedians interact with each other. I think it’s notable that Jeff Ross and Greg Giraldo have, to my knowledge, never exchanged insults, while both have mercilessly destroyed Lisa Lampanelli. While that certainly doesn’t qualify as “reality” television, you do occasionally get a true sense of how the comedians feel about each other, whether by noting who they target and how, or simply by observing how one comedian reacts to another’s jokes.

John S: I think both of us are more interested in the dynamics among comedians than your average person, even your average viewer of Comedy Central Roasts. I like to see who the comedians themselves find funny, how they react when someone bombs, and who does the best ad-libbing. Giraldo, for example, is really fun to watch even when he doesn’t perform: When Tom Arnold botched the reading of two jokes in a row (one at Giraldo’s expense), Giraldo cut him off saying, “Try that joke again, but this time with a better punch-line,” which was funnier than most of the evening’s prepared jokes. He also laughed a lot during Whitney Cummings’ performance, which was a lot better than I expected— partially because I wasn’t expecting much. But this dynamic is probably what a lot of people are interested in when these shows have just general, non-comedian celebrities involved: the so-called “reality-show” drama you mention. The theatrics at the Pamela Anderson Roast were probably the best example of that, and I think that ended up being the best Roast (if I remember it correctly). This one, though, didn’t even get that drama. The noncomedians (Melissa Rivers, Trump) they added didn’t serve to A) offer a unique take on the target, (as Stamos did for Saget) or B) provide as an alternate target for the other roasters (as Love did with Anderson). I think this Roast may have ended up being a little stale, since I can’t think of any takeaway line (like, “Chris Benoit is a better father than Flavor Flav” or “How is it possible that Courtney Love looks worse than Kurt Cobain?”). I wonder if you feel differently…

F.P. Santangelo: I would venture to say that this Roast, if not the worst in overall quality, certainly had the worst dais. It was bad both because of the seemingly illogical make-up of its cast and because of a few especially poor performances. Leary’s Roast had Colin Quinn, Nick DiPaolo, Adam Ferrara, Jim Breuer, Mike Birbiglia, Gina Gershon, and Jeff Garlin. Again, that was the Roast of DENIS LEARY. Regardless of what you think of any of those performers individually, collectively they form an impressive cast of actual comedians or otherwise appreciable personalities. Try to name half as many from the Roast of Joan Rivers. Of course, this speaks to the fact that, as unlikable as Denis Leary can be, he’s somewhat of a comic’s comic. While I don’t think that his Roast was the best, in some ways it was closest in form to the ideal Roast, in which someone funny and well-liked is torn apart by his friends and colleagues, who are also funny and well-liked. And while ideally it’s easy to form criteria for the selection of a Roast victim, it’s quite difficult to apply those criteria to past roasts. For example, Larry the Cable Guy is a hugely successful comedian who is known by other comics and who has been featured on Comedy Central. He’s an excellent choice, except for the fact that Larry the Cable Guy isn’t actually funny. And who the hell would choose to roast Flavor Flav, a man whose ever diminishing influence has probably been nothing but negative and at best trivial?

Yet, as you already noted, that Roast had some incredibly funny moments (I’ll also throw in another Kimmel line; “Flavor Flav is the reason George Bush hates black people”). So while I think that the Joan Rivers Roast was a bit weak, I can’t say that it was predictably so. A few great lines could have sent it the other way: My favorite line, although I don’t think that it was the funniest, was from Jeff Ross when he told Joan Rivers that she looked awful, and that “Kanye’s mom had a better plastic surgeon.” I say it’s my favorite because I think that A) Kanye West is an unbelievable egotist who deserves a lot more abuse than he gets and B) even though joking about the untimely death of someone’s mother is highly insensitive, especially when the victim of the joke has earned the sympathy of millions by expressing his devastation through song, comedy should nevertheless not be bounded by any type of censorship, and Jeff Ross often seems like the only guy who’s willing to take a stand for that principle.

John S: Well, now you’ve come close to making me eat my words in calling this Roast “not the worst,” as I did in the beginning. The fact that the second best performer on this dais may have been Whitney Cummings, who I couldn’t identify in a lineup before seeing this, doesn’t bode well for future Roasts. I think it’s telling that you point to the Denis Leary Roast, because that one in particular had a much more personal vibe, either because most of the dais knew Leary personally, or simply because his Roast was six years ago, before Roasts became a cottage industry for Comedy Central, who turn out a new roast every six months now. I think, as you mentioned in regards to Giraldo’s career earlier, there is something a little disappointing, from a performer’s perspective, in being best known as a roaster (it’s kind of like Michael Ian Black being best known for his work on “I Love the ‘80s”), so I think a lot of people shy away from doing multiples. Giraldo and Ross are the only ones who seem to do these consistently, even though Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, Jeff Garlin, etc. could all really thrive in this setting. I guess once you reach a certain level of success, though, these roasts seem less appealing.

Which is kind of why I’m rooting against Giraldo’s career— and I’m only half kidding. Because while I think Giraldo is great and should be way more popular than pretty much every other stand-up comedian out there now, I would be pretty disappointed if he stopped showing up on these daises. As I said initially, I do think roasts offer a nice showcase of humor when done well, and I’m willing to put up with Kathy Griffin, Lisa Lampenelli, Mario Cantone, etc. if it means one good set by Giraldo or Kimmel.

One response to this post.

  1. […] The Roast of Joan Rivers « No Pun Intended […]


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