X Close

The age of the comedy roast is over Satirical annihilation has become a sanitised ritual

Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan and James Franco, at The Roast of James Franco (Lester Cohen/WireImage)

Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan and James Franco, at The Roast of James Franco (Lester Cohen/WireImage)


October 18, 2023   4 mins

The spotlight beams down on the stage, illuminating the faces of the evening’s celebrities, who are seated in a semicircle like ancient oracles of comedy. At the centre of it all is the roastee — the guest of honour — who will soon be subjected to a brutal barrage of jokes. “James Franco…” started Natasha Leggero’s demolition job 10 years ago. “Acting, teaching, directing, writing, producing, photography, soundtracks, editing — is there anything you can do?” Then there was Gilbert Gottfried’s audacious pivot at the Hugh Hefner Roast, held just two weeks after 9/11, which descended into the “filthiest joke ever told”.

But as much as these moments underscore the art form’s past audacity, they also highlight the pallor that has settled over it. Once a platform for such biting wits as Don Rickles and Joan Rivers, the comedy roast has become a sanitised ritual, a showcase of quips that hardly go beyond the skin. Perhaps the last time we heard a roast joke that truly shocked was in 2019, when Blake Griffin took the mic to thank Caitlyn Jenner “on behalf of black men everywhere” for giving her daughters “daddy issues”. Since then, roasts have transitioned into an assembly line of safe, formulaic jokes that don’t even scratch the surface.

Yet looking at the roast’s decline, perhaps it’s understandable that nowhere in the entertainment world is the existential crisis over the rise of AI more palpable than in comedy. After all, there is no field of creative endeavour that’s become more dependent on cliches, groupthink and repetition. But while the malaise is widespread, the roast, in particular, looks set to be an early casualty.

Consider the recent “roast battle” between a human comedian and an AI counterpart. Earlier this year, Matt Maran, a comic from Queens, faced off against a ChatGPT-powered version of Sarah Silverman. Maran faltered early, attempting several jokes that clearly misfired. In contrast, the AI dished out jokes without so much as stopping for a sip of water. Though the AI was unflappably corny — “you’re as edgy as a butterknife,” it told Maran — it won the roast by ceaselessly throwing cliched barbs that were more agile and responsive to Maran’s hit-or-miss material. (Perhaps the AI’s biggest hit: “You’re from Long Island and you lost your virginity to a prostitute… talk about starting from the bottom and staying there.”)

Yet rather than serve as another warning of a Skynet-like robot takeover, this episode was more an indictment of human comedians’ inability to excite. Look past the hype, and ChatGPT stands as a glaring example of AI’s limitations: its output may be rapid and cost-effective, but its algorithms still can’t replicate the spark of human wit or the depth of human emotion. It certainly can’t capture the true essence of laughter: what French philosopher Henri Bergson described as “a slight revolt on the surface of social life”. In his view, comedy is not just about robotically eliciting a laugh; it’s a social endeavour. The emotional connection between the human comedian and his human audience isn’t just beneficial — it’s essential for the success of the joke.

Ironically, then, it’s almost as if AI were precisely calibrated for churning out the type of lame, uninspiring content that now defines roasts as well as late-night comedy — a genre that has long suffered from a lack of originality; jokes about SNL being “Saturday Night Dead” have made the rounds almost since the show premiered in the late Seventies. Given one or two fast-working hack writers to oversee its output, ChatGPT could easily pump out entire seasons of it.

And perhaps it already is. Joe Toplyn, for instance, a former writer for David Letterman, has ventured into this uncharted territory with his bot, Witscript, which takes topical headlines or themes and generates what it believes to be the “best” joke, leveraging algorithms to optimise for elements such as timing and punchline effectiveness. The output is beyond cornball: in response to a user prompting it to make a joke about the Bidens’ aggressive German Shepherd, it wrote: “Sounds like he was more of a BITE-en than a Biden.” Yet for all their banality, Witscript’s jokes are merely a reflection of the modern comedy circuit.

By contrast, genuinely artistic comedy will always thrive on a certain rebellious spirit — a willingness to stake out and work on that edge. This is the comedy of David Letterman in his early years at NBC, of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross at HBO’s Mr. Show in the Nineties, of contemporary comedians such as Sam Hyde and Nick Rochefort of Million Dollar Extreme. This is the comedy that doesn’t just elicit laughter, but also provokes thought.

Recall that last show’s most unforgettable sketch, in which Rochefort portrays a burnt-out teacher so convincingly that it is almost uncomfortable to watch. His character wrestles with self-loathing and moral apathy, manifesting a bleak internal monologue that touches on career failures, his complex sexuality and an eagerness to escape his dismal reality. This form of humour is deeply unsettling — it ends with his imagined suicide set to rock music — and yet groundbreaking, the likes of which AI can’t come close to replicating. Here, then, is an important clue for saving the traditional comedy roast from automation: re-embracing the raw, unfiltered humour that made roasts a staple of American comedy in the first place.

Yet, if we are to be brutally honest — in the true spirit of the roast — the odds of such a revival seem extraordinarily slim. From economic pressures that favour risk-averse humour to a polarised comedic landscape that leaves little room for edgy jokes, the variables are stacked against a revival. The recent Writers Guild of America strike exemplifies the trend, with the industry’s creatives clamouring for a bigger slice of an increasingly bland pie — temporary protection from the bots — rather than attempting to surpass them by creating great art. As a result, any hope of reigniting the fire in the roast seems less like a potential future and more like the fading light of a bygone era.


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

MoustacheClubUS

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

14 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
8 months ago

Don Rickles was the main game in roasts and Rivers was okay, but plenty of the rest of the Dean Martin era roasts were more noteworthy for their lack of humour, their ostentatious fake laughs and their ridiculously overplayed thigh slapping (and the smoking). Just because they were supposed to be funny doesn’t mean they were. They were the flip side of the old saying “if you can’t fake sincerity…”
Nowadays Jeff Ross is an excellent roast-master, but he works a far darker shade of blue that the old stagers. I have friends whose opinions I rate who reckon the Jeff Ross / Jimmy Carr show in Melbourne early this year is the funniest thing they’ve ever seen.
And contra Bergson, I think we all agree that the true essence of laughter is a fat man falling over.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

I’ve lived in NYC since 1984 and have attended numerous comedy shows; I live a block away from ‘Stand-Up NYC’ for starters. No one has made me laugh harder than Joan Rivers. I’ve seen her several times, but there was a very memorable evening at Michael’s on the Eastside where Joan performed late at night AFTER she had performed earlier in the evening in the play ‘Broadway Bound’. She was in her 70’s at that point. We sat at the very back in Michael’s basement. Halfway through Joan’s performance, a stunning woman in an orange-red, ruffled ballgown came sweeping in through the crowd and sat herself directly in front of Joan. Clearly, they knew each other. The mystery woman was the socialite Nan Kempner who had been at an event earlier that evening, hence the stupendous couture gown. At that moment, Joan directed her performance at Nan – she was so funny and I was laughing so hard I could barely catch my breath. That has never happened to me before or since. Joan Rivers was at the top of her game, a pro, and truly, truly funny. I miss her lots.

Amos Farrell
Amos Farrell
8 months ago

Umm…ever heard of ricky gervais? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCNdTLHZAeo

jane baker
jane baker
8 months ago

Don’t know about AI but now that REAL LIFE is more mad, irrational,satirical and unbelievable than any.satirist or even 1970s style stand up comic could even portray there’s nothing left for potential comedy writers to say. Just one example ; back in the old days as I was taught at school people were so ignorant and superstitious that they used human sacrifice to appease The Gods. There had to be an unceasing flow of blood to appease these fickle and ruthless entities. Now we are educated and sophisticated and we don’t do that. So what was that about I just heard on my radio. An estimate that yesterday,just in one day 600 persons died in our latest go-to conflict,all to keep those arms makers happy and those taxes supporting the powerful. I expect tomorrow another so many hundred will perish. And we don’t do human sacrifice!

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago
Reply to  jane baker

That gets an uptick from me for its originality and, dare i say it, humour!

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
8 months ago

The “Roast” from the start was a ritualised version of what workplace humourists have always done.

David Giles
David Giles
8 months ago

Jokes about Biden’s DOG? Really? Leave it alone. When your owner needs a pooper scooper more than you do, life can be rough.

starkbreath
starkbreath
8 months ago
Reply to  David Giles

A pooper scooper and a muzzle.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
8 months ago

Correction: the age of comedy is over.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
8 months ago

Boy, is it ever. We live two blocks away from ‘Stand-Up NY’ on the Upper Westside in NYC. We have been going to performances there for 30 plus years (the highlight of which was a midnight drop-in of Robin Williams). We have witnessed the ‘Fall of Comedy’ first hand. Last summer we dropped in one night when about 6 to 8 comics did their schtick. It’s a small club and it’s easy for the comics to see the entire audience. With no exception, that night each comic noted how old my husband and I were – one noted that my hair ‘matched the silver wallpaper’ – yes it is, but hardly funny. Another comic pointed out that my husband was so distinguished that he “could feature in a Cialis commercial” – I mean “how’s it doing, Bud?”. We did not take offense at all. It was not only not funny, every performance was just boring. As we walked out the door, there was a group standing on the side walk, including the manager and some other people who had attended the performance. The manager meekly apologized to us for the ‘old people jokes’. As we walked home, we noted that clearly none of the comics listened to each other, they did their set and walked away; None of them could see how repetitive and unimaginative their ‘jokes’ were. We also noted that it seemed like ‘older folks’ are okay to make fun of because every other group – gays, blonde bombshells, binary, trans, children, blacks, other ethnic groups, etc – are off the table – but old folks are fair game. Ironically, it was not a ‘comical evening’ at all but just sad and pathetic.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
8 months ago

UK comedy is generally more self deprecating (rather than making fun of others), so I don’t think ‘roasts’ translate very well into our comedy culture.
Some of the clips I’ve seen seem genuinely toxic.

tug ordie
tug ordie
8 months ago

Give Doug Stanhope’s best albums a listen:
Something to Take the Edge off:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fStPFPaTLjQ
Beer Hall Putsch:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQJ-CnXv4p4
The latter has some of the most incredible, jet black but ultimately life affirming material (he discusses the assisted suicide of his mother)

Maximilian R.
Maximilian R.
8 months ago

The author and everyone interested in the roast-culture of comedy should watch “Kill Tony” on YouTube. Any episode will restore one’s faith in the art-form immediately.

Jimminy Timminy
Jimminy Timminy
8 months ago

Maybe I missed the golden age of the roast as an art-form, but I’ve always found them to be unbearably cringey. For me that style of humour is best when it’s spontaneous and when the recipient has a chance to fire back – the staged nature of the roast (where the ‘victim’ is usually glad of the opportunity to revive their flagging career after some embarrassing public misstep) takes a lot of the fun out of it.