The roasts that Comedy Central puts on a few times a year can be a tricky thing. Earlier this year when they roasted Larry the Cable Guy, I thought it would be an impossible task -- comedians were essentially being asked to make fun of a fictional construct. However, the comics brought their A-game and were able to come up with enough funny one-liners to make the roast worthwhile.
With the most recent roast of Joan Rivers, there's a new set of problems. Rivers is an icon from a different school of comedy; she's a classic figure, and most of her contemporaries are either no longer around or not relevant enough to be considered appealing to Comedy Central. That means that the network is forced to trot out its usual roster of roast comics (Jeff Ross, Greg Giraldo) -- many of whom are beginning to repeat themselves -- or bring up some B-list non-comics (like actor Brad Garrett or Tom Arnold) to take shots at Rivers. It was an unsuccessful mix, and whatever alchemy made the Larry the Cable Guy roast work as well as it did was missing from the night. The whole thing seemed tired.
While I think roastmaster Kathy Griffin can be a funny comic, her strength is usually goofing on celebrities in a catty way. Cattiness is all wrong for a roast; to Griffin's credit, she didn't go this route, but her approach still felt very stiff and pageant-y. She seemed uncomfortable in her role as she delivered mostly unsuccessful lines that felt very written. Plus, the only joke fodder she brought to the dais was plastic surgery (pretty well covered by Joan Rivers) and red hair.
As he seems to usually do, Greg Giraldo played lead-off. That's a smart choice -- he gets things off to a good start and gets everyone warmed up quickly. It also sets a difficult standard for the rest of the comics to follow (a fact that roaster Tom Arnold even pointed out), particularly here; besides occasional good joke here and there, the Joan Rivers Roast sagged from the moment Giraldo left the stage until Rivers herself took the mic to close the show out. In case you're wondering, that was a nearly 90-minute time difference.
The remainder of the roast suffered from familiarity and complacency, to the point where Jeff Ross even repeated jokes from earlier roasts. Other material ranged from racist to homophobic without being a comment on either racism or homophobia; Brad Garrett, in particular, trafficked in some ugly stereotypes that weren't funny or even clever. If your only trick is to be shocking, at least find a smart or surprising way to do it. Nearly anything is forgivable when it's funny.
Whitney Cummings had the most to prove at the roast, as this was probably the most high-profile set she's performed yet in her career. She was a great sport on the dais, always seen to be laughing the loudest and suffering the barrage of "who are you?" material nicely, but ultimately delivered a somewhat uneven set. For every sharp line she fired off, she'd have another that was meant to be outrageous or shocking but fell flat ("Speaking of watermelon, Robin Quivers is here..." Ugh.). All in all, Cummings came out a winner, holding her own with the other comics and appearing to have a good time. That's more than can be said of a few of the other roasters.
No one seemed to be having a worse time than Joan Rivers. Whether because she wasn't happy about being skewered by comedians she has no relationship with or hasn't even heard of or because the jokes simply weren't very funny, Rivers spent most the roast looking displeased (maybe it's just the plastic surgery; I'm not even trying to be funny). However, when it was finally her time to approach the mic and deliver her rebuttal, she gave the roast the much-needed shot of adrenaline it had been so sorely lacking. Rivers woke the whole thing room, delivering an angry, fast-paced and funny rant about how the night had both destroyed her faith in comedy (a bit about Carl Reiner swearing was a highlight and felt genuinely spontaneous) and confirming that she couldn't retire just yet. Her set had a point of view and an energy that no other comic had (save for Gilbert Gottfried's ambitious but mostly unsuccessful sex story). It took a comedian in her 70s to show everyone else how it's done.
I don't think the Roast of Joan Rivers has killed the Comedy Central roasts, but it should give them reason to reevaluate how they do things. Maybe they need some fresh blood on the dais, or maybe they need to wait until they've got just the right guest to roast. In any case, the Roast of Joan Rivers was a disappointment. It was uglier than it was funny. The same cannot be said of Joan Rivers.