The Comedy Central roasts needed a change. After several years of roasting washed up or ironic celebrities like Donald Trump, David Hasselhoff or Charlie Sheen (plus the occasional comedy icon like Joan Rivers or Roseanne Barr), things have gotten pretty stale. The same faces would show up roast after roast, telling the same jokes; it was the to the point where we could predict everything that the comics up on the dais would target in their acts. Sure, comics like Whitney Cummings and Anthony Jeselnik got a big boost off of some strong roast sets, but the overwhelming sameness that had creeped in over the last few years was threatening to kill any goodwill I once had towards the roasts.
So kudos to the network for switching things up for the Roast of James Franco, easily the strongest roast in years. Instead of roasting some easy target, the guest of honor was an A-list actor who's actually still relevant (whether or not he is an "easy target" can certainly be argued, since there's plenty for which he can be made fun), being roasted by a group of comics and actors who don't typically do the roasts. What made it all so much better, though, was that many of the guests on the dais are actually friends of Franco and not just comics for hire; it lent the roast the same kind of ball-busting good spirit found in so many of the Judd Apatow movies in which this group made names for themselves. It didn't feel mean. It was fun. Fun goes a long way at a roast.
Seth Rogen played roastmaster and did a fine job, opening with a strong set that felt a lot more like a guy teasing his buddies than it did a vicious attack, even if some of the jokes were pretty sharp. Mostly, he was on hand to be his affable, laid-back self; it was fun every time the camera would cut back to the dais and show Rogen sitting in the chair of whoever was up at the podium, laughing more and more as the night went on and he grew more and more inebriated. Jonah Hill, another close friend of Franco's, had a really good set, too; his whole shtick was that he was only going to say "nice" things about his friends on stage, which fit in perfectly with the "Hollywood asshole" persona for which he was attacked the other night. Between that and his weight, there wasn't a person on stage who took more hits than Hill, and that includes Franco.
Andy Samberg and Bill Hader, both formerly of Saturday Night Live, knew they were out of their depth in a roast situation (and seemed uncomfortable at the prospect of savagely making fun of their friends). So both came up with their own clever way out of a traditional roast set. For Samberg, it was to just tell lame non-jokes that were mostly compliments; at first, it was irritating, because it felt a little like a cop out and was too reminiscent of what Norm Macdonald did at the Bob Saget roast. But the longer he went on, the funnier his act became -- particularly as it morphed into something about Samberg being a scorned ex-lover of Franco's. Bill Hader's set was even more inspired; rather than taking the podium as himself, Hader came out in character as the President of Hollywood, who proceeded to rip into everyone for their bad career choices ("Hi, Jeff Ross, I'm Hollywood. I don't believe we've met.") As is his way, Hader disappeared inside the character and totally crushed it. Plus, he was laughing harder than anyone else on stage during every other set. It was impossible not to smile every time the camera cut back to him cracking up. He was the best audience there was.
Otherwise, it was pretty much business as usual. Nick Kroll and Aziz Ansari were both funny, especially because neither is a comic we've seen on the roasts before (Ansari, in particular, got a lot of mileage out of making fun of the laziness of so many of the jokes, trafficking as they did in homophobia and outdated racist stereotypes). Sarah Silverman and Jeff Ross, both roast veterans, were dependable but predictable. Ross is such an institution at these things that he might as well be on autopilot. He had a couple of good jokes because he always does, but compared to what some of the other guests were doing, Ross's act was too reminiscent of the tired groove into which previous roasts had slipped.
Finally, Franco took the stage for his rebuttal. Whereas the guests of honor usually have some good lines (written by professional comics, of course), Franco's response was actually low on the actual jokes. Instead, he continued to commit to being James Franco, insisting that the roast was actually one giant art installation. His was the least funny set of the night, but because it was true to his "character" and continued to be different from the usual roast routine, I didn't mind it too much. Franco was a great sport all night, and his set was good-natured and fun, just like so much of the roast overall. It was a fun night, hanging out with friends goofing on each other. Here's hoping Comedy Central can reinvent itself again for the next roast.