Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Roasts and the First Amendment

Greg Beato has a terrific post at Reason online about the long tradition of Friar’s Club roasts and how they helped push the boundaries of the First Amendment out a bit further. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of that tradition. And I like this opening riff:

On Sunday night, eight of the most medium-sized names in showbiz convened in Studio City, California to roast Joan Rivers and her anatomically approximate face sculpture. When the event airs on Comedy Central on August 9th, and the insults commence, you may forget there was a time in American history when it was not considered appropriate to crack jokes about a 76-year-old grandmother’s toxic vagina. Lucky for us, that time is long gone, and for this, we owe a debt of gratitude to Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, and all the other mid-century yuk-meisters who practiced the art of speaking the unspeakable at Friars Club roasts years before Lenny Bruce got busted for subjecting audiences to obscene grammar lessons or George Carlin compiled his list of seven words you can never say on television.

This one will be a bit more difficult for me to watch than most. Why? Because I genuinely dislike Joan Rivers. The old standby line for the Friar’s Club roasts is “we only roast the ones we love.” But I find Joan Rivers to be absolutely vile and repulsive. And while it may be fun to see vicious jokes told about her, it’s always seemed more fun to me to see vicious jokes told about someone who doesn’t really deserve them.

Roasts are the Rodney Dangerfields of free expression: They don’t get any respect. When we credit the iconoclasts who believed that the freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment should be as expansive as Sasha Grey’s fun tunnel, we turn first to literary sorts, like H.L. Mencken, Henry Miller, and Larry Flynt, and second to more cerebral funnymen like Bruce and Carlin. In part, this is because the Friars Club roasts, along with similar events held at The Masquers Club and other locales, were private affairs, with no women or waiters allowed. But we also snub roasts, one suspects, because they had no greater goal than coaxing horse laughs from filthy-minded drunks. Which of course is why we should value them all the more: How free is free speech when the only way you can unleash masturbation gags upon the public is to write a masterpiece on the order of Ulysses?…

“Erotic humor is far & away the most popular of all types, and an extremely large percentage of the jokes authentically in oral circulation, in this and apparently in all centuries and cultures, is concerned with the humor–often unwilling, unpleasant, and even purposely macabre–of the sexual impulse,” wrote folklorist G. Legman in his encyclopedic analysis of smutty humor, Rationale of the Dirty Joke. Finally, thanks to the Friars Club roasts, America’s comics were acknowledging humanity’s intrinsic comic baseness rather than ignoring it. Finally, they were using their comic skills to push against the bounds of propriety, instead of merely tickling the public with childish euphemisms and coy innuendo. Cursing with abandon, reveling in their unconstrained crudity, erstwhile Catskills tumlers elevated themselves, at least temporarily, from jokers to truth-tellers by way of the completely liberated dick joke and their willingness to turn a roastee’s pretenses and peccadilloes into comic fodder, no matter how squirm-inducing the process…

Over the next few years, subsequent Friars Club roasts got more coverage in newspapers than they had in years, and in 1998, Comedy Central partnered with the organization to produce a televised roast of Drew Carey. “Ladies and gentlemen, Drew Carey is to comedy what Mariah Carey is to comedy…[He] looks like Buddy Holly and Barney Rubble had a baby and then peed on it,” first roaster Jeffrey Ross exclaimed, setting the tone not only for the rest of the show, and all the televised roasts that have followed in its wake over the last decade, but also for cyberspace at large.

Emphatically blunt, hyperbolically caustic, eager to slaughter sacred cows, or really, any animate creatures that wander into their cross-hairs–is there any better way to describe the voice that speaks from the Web’s message-boards and online comments sections than the voice of a comic in full-blown roast mode? At exactly the same time millions of people were venturing online and experimenting with how best to express themselves in this medium, Jeffrey Ross, Greg Giraldo, Lisa Lampanelli, and all the other heirs of the mid-century Friars were offering up a template to emulate on Comedy Central’s roasts: Be ruthless, be shocking, and don’t shy away from speaking the unspeakable.

That is exactly what I like about roasts. There are no rules and virtually no mores on what can and cannot be said. In a world full of silly euphemism, where it’s perfectly okay to use one word to describe a particular act and considered the height of moral failing to use another word to describe the very same act, this is liberating, perhaps even vital to the sanity of those of us who chafe at such restrictions.

When it comes to comedy, I’ve always liked the bomb throwers. I’d almost rather react to a joke with “oh damn, I can’t believe he just said that” than with laughter. That’s why I like Doug Stanhope so much. Here’s a perfect example, the abortion bit on the second half of this video: