Nope. You weren’t “just joking.”


Lady and I watched the Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe the other evening, and it was as awful and beautiful as you imagine it was.

I say awful because the coin of the realm when it comes to a roast is “insult humor.” These jokes are brutal, and they’re not just directed at the so-called “Guest of Honor.” Everyone on the dais is fair game, and the jokes “go there.” Most of them are so brutal, I’m not even going to think about transcribing them here. Of the more tame ones, there were jokes about Peyton Manning being inferior to Eli, perennial roaster Jeff Ross’ weight, Ralph Macchio’s lack of fame, and my favorite:

I’m sorry. I don’t want to badmouth Jewel. God already did.

(In an entirely different category was the barrage of humor laden vitriol for Ann Coulter. Either she really is the Devil as most roasters suggested, or her publicist needs to be fired for booking her into that situation.)

But the Roast was also beautiful. It was beautiful because the point of a roast is to simultaneously honor someone while knocking them down a peg. If you are being roasted, it means you have lived an amazing and privileged life. Rob Lowe got that message in spades. It was clear these were people who enjoyed him, even though they were not above reminding him from whence he came. **COUGH COUGH SEX TAPE COUGH COUGH**

The same goes for anyone on the dais. If you show up there, you had better have a thick skin. And they did. To a one (well, except Ann Coulter, who clearly didn’t understand what was happening), they were able to laugh at themselves. You saw the recognition in their eyes. “Oh yes. I know this place. This is the place where I can’t pretend I’m something I’m not.”

I told Lady beforehand that her probable expressions of disgust would not be welcome. Roasts are exactly what they are. No one gets to insist on pity, nor does anyone get lambasted for their jokes. And no one was surprised by a single thing said, which is the point I keep coming back to: A roast only works because of the social compact surrounding it. Everyone involved has agreed to the rules. Everyone involved knows the score. And so, as odd as it might sound, amongst the brutal, disgusting, horrific name calling is safety and honesty.

And it’s the safety and honesty of the “comedy space” that makes it powerful. Comics are, in my opinion, the court jesters of our day. They get to say things to us that no one else can, because they are skilled at softening the blow. (OTOH, roasters are battle hardened; softening the blow would be an insult.) But us mere mortals need to remember a few rules:

  1. No one is ever “just joking.” There is no such thing as an “informal roast.” You’re just being mean.
  2. Don’t “joke the joke.”* Unless you’re playing the Dozens, you kinda look like a jerk by taking over your friend’s joke and “improving it.”
  3. Don’t “un-joke the joke.” Humor has its place because it often helps us deal with things we, otherwise, don’t know how to reflect on. Take your sour-puss seriousness elsewhere.
  4. Don’t explain your jokes. It’s not your fault they don’t get it.
  5. Puns and Dad Jokes are always in form. Always.


*h/t to Josh Molina, from episode 1.19 of The West Wing Weekly.