There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a powerful, rich celebrity—especially one you dislike—be humiliated by their peers in the name of harmless fun. It’s a redeeming quality to be able to make fun of yourself, and a celebrity roast tests the limit of humility on a large scale. The recent roast of actor Rob Lowe, however, left a bitter aftertaste about the nature of celebrity roasts and the intentions of those who participate in them. Celebrity roasts are not just meant to insult the star—they’re also meant to celebrate and appreciate them for their achievements, work and overall good spirit. Many “roastees” are incredibly successful or iconic individuals who contribute in some way to our society.
The Aug. 27 roast of Rob Lowe transformed these good-natured intentions when the spotlight was temporarily shifted to a different roastee—conservative political commentator, Ann Coulter. Coulter was cast as one of Lowe’s roasters—using her airtime to promote her new book about presidential candidate Donald Trump—and was later ambushed with insults from Lowe and the rest of the roasting team.
Coulter isn’t exactly a popular personality; she regularly offends and angers people from all sides of the political spectrum with her tweets, television commentary and books. Some of the insults directed at Coulter criticized her racism, Islamophobia and ties to white supremacist groups. Arguably, these roasts were based on some truth and were clever ways to shame Coulter’s offensive and rude behaviors through humor.
Comedian Jimmy Carr, however, stepped over the good-humored boundary of the roast and insulted Coulter with unequivocally inappropriate jokes. Not only did Carr used transphobic language to describe Coulter’s appearance, but blatantly told her to kill herself. Other roasters based their insults completely on Coulter’s appearance too, comparing her to a horse and a skeleton. This strategy can be seen as a lazy and cheap attack, since Coulter’s career and actions could write the jokes themselves.
Usually anything goes at a celebrity roast—including toilet humor and mean jabs at one’s appearance. But Lowe was meant to be the night’s target, not Coulter. It was uncomfortable to hear Carr throw such aggressive and ignorant insults at the latter. Carr’s unjustified roast reflects a low quality of comedic talent on his part.
But it has proven difficult to police comedy, and it’s a constant topic in art and entertainment circles. Some comedians criticize “political correctness” and believe comedy can satirize any topic, no matter how serious or offensive it may be. Usually major tragedies or traumatic disasters are off the table, yet there are always comedians out there who want to see just how far they can push those boundaries.
Smart, professional comedy shouldn’t reduce itself to racism, homophobia, transphobia and other offenses. The real test of a comedian’s talent is how cleverly they can construct anecdotes and jokes that have a collected meaning all the way up to the punch line—and not jokes that just make fun of a person for their appearance or weight.
The inclusion of a surprise roast of Coulter was definitely satisfying—but only for those who dislike her attitudes and prejudices. The fun nature of the celebrity roast should be kept lighthearted and appreciative, not become subjectively harmful to those who are watching it. The celebrity roast is a prime example of comedic discourse that struggles to understand the appropriate limits of its craft.