The only thing worse than a joke you can predict is a cruel insult you can predict. The Comedy Central Roast, long before its parody on The Office or its cartoon youtube parodies, has been useless comedic dead air. Some of the greatest comedians working have had their wit rendered soggy and flaccid by the roast format, and when a roast does get too real, it’s mysteriously cut. Andy Samberg’s roast of James Franco is notable as an act of roast subversion, with the jokes all backfiring on Samberg’s sad character, but the bit is self-conscious and obvious from the very start, and the joke is still mean, just at a different target than usual. Even the anti-roast is weak and neutered.
There’s a single roast that I love, and it’s this one, by Norm MacDonald for f Bob Saget:
Imagine tuning into this roast, expecting some Weekend Updatestyle cruel zingers, and then getting hit with “John Stamos has a reputation for being a bit of a swinger, did you know instead of an umbilical cord, he was born with a bungee cord?”
Norm’s jokes aren’t merely bad on purpose, Norm borrows his demeanor, punch lines, and delivery from an office party in the 1930s. “She may be a vegetarian, but she’s still full of bologna in my book” is funny, but not nearly as funny as Norm standing stiff at the podium like a pale twig, waiting for laughs, and then turning to the comedians onstage and muttering “I…” It’s impossible for me to spoil Norm’s jokes, because his jokes are somewhere between antique and atrophy, more grandpa jokes than dad jokes. The comedy comes from the fact that he’s telling them, and he’s telling them like this, a conceptual comedy act. It makes me giddy to imagine his set sandwiched between Giraldo and Ross.
Beyond a lovely work of anti-comedy, this roast functions as a sort of social experiment. This roast puts on display the minds of the comedians onstage, their willingness to go along with the bit, and the gradation between those who get it and those who don’t. There are those, like Jon Lovitz, Gilbert Gottfried, and Jeff Ross, who get the joke immediately. Some of them, like Greg Giraldo and Saget himself, get it after a couple rounds. Some, Cloris Leachman included, remain clueless for the majority of the roast. By the time of “Bob’s never bought christmas seals, he told me he wouldn’t know what to feed them,” everyone is on board. The wonderful thing about Norm MacDonald’s comedy is that he wants the audience to laugh, but will never pander to them; to a fault he will do his act and you’ll laugh on his terms.
Once Norm comes to Bob Saget, he is willing to acknowledge the bit in a small way, a lifeline to those in the audience who don’t quite understands what he’s doing. His joke, about well-wishers wanting to “throw [Saget] down one, a well,” is followed by Norm’s only real adlib: “they want to murder you in a well, seems a little harsh, but apparently they want to murder you in a well, it says here on this card.” One of my favourite moments of live-broadcast montage comes here, with Norm giggling at his own bit ever so slightly, hard cut to Jon Lovitz, red faced and hysterical. Comedy is subjective, we’re so often told, and this act demonstrates that subjectivity. You can chart someone’s exact sense of humour from the time that they start laughing at this act.
This is out of character for the roast, but also for the roaster. Norm, at this moment, was known for some tremendously mean comedy, whether that’s his performance at the ESPYs, the White House Correspondents Dinner, or his many cruel jokes on Weekend Update. But Norm has been vocal about his disdain for insult comedy: “I can’t insult people. I don’t know how to insult people and call them names and stuff. Because I would feel really bad because everything you say, it has to be like true.” He said this in an interview with The Big Lead, where he also gives us the key to the act: “I found the jokes in a book my dad gave me when I was a kid called Jokes For Retirement Parties. When I started stand up, that’s when he gave it to me. It was really sweet of him. Like he had this stupid, fucking corny book, ‘Hey maybe this will help.’ And its all these jokes for a guy’s retirement party. I’ll just take the jokes out of there.”
Norm’s roast isn’t just a hilarious bit of comedic presentation, but an example of the sly populism of his comedic philosophy. He feels comfortable making provocative jokes about highly paid athletes, and the most powerful people in the world, but not about his friends and colleagues, especially not nice people that he doesn’t know. Norm does not hate the audience, he deeply respects them: “Like with stand up, I don’t do any anti-humor because it’s just not fair to the audience, you know, when they’re paying and stuff like that.” He will only try this kind of anti-comedic stunt when no hardworking people have bought a ticket wanting a nice night out.
Norm was told to “be shocking” and he was shocking. But it’s not just shocking how unfunny his jokes were, it’s shocking how good-natured and kind they are. He takes “you roast the ones you love; to a new level, with his punchlines straight out of the 1950s, with his straight-man delivery, and with lovely touches like his folksy reading of a joke about Saget’s wavy hair “waving goodbye, on account of he’s goin’ bald!” I cannot watch the act without giggling at incredibly small moments, whether it’s the voice crack and upward inflection on his delivery of “What the ‘H’ is that for?!” or the way he handles the cards, or the way he says “This concludes the joke portion.” But the good nature of both Norm and Bob comes through in his final, not-a-joke tribute to the man: “One thing that binds us as comedians is that we’re bitter and jealous and we hate everyone else who has any success but Bob has honestly never had an unkind word for anyone.” “You roast the ones you love” may be a lie (even Donald Trump got a roast) but it’s never been truer than Norm’s reading from the book his dad gave him.