On Sunday night, Comedy Central broadcast September’s notoriously scorching roast of Chevy Chase at the Friars Club in New York City. Witnesses at the time had called the roast relentless, and, sure enough, the night’s vituperation, a third of it deleted by the censor’s screech, recalled Lord of the Flies. Even by roast standards, this night was venomous.
Comedy Central, which has acquired the rights to broadcast many of the Friars Club’s roasts, set up the show with a black-and-white sequence of prison guards leading a figure in shackles through swinging doors. Host Paul Shaffer then pulled a lever, presumably to fry the condemned man, while the camera cut to an audience in peals of terrifying laughter.
While Chase sat in a red chair stage left, a motley slate of comics took the podium to tell him he was washed up and that he had squandered his—his—whatever—his talent—by simultaneously overestimating himself and taking too many “back pills” (as Al Franken put it). Greg Giraldo, one of the younger comics (and many were young; another recurring gag was that no one famous showed up) pointed to Chase as “living proof that you could actually snort the funniness right out of yourself.” Shaffer himself mused, “You made us laugh so much. And then inexplicably stopped in about 1978.” (Shaffer was a game, right-on MC; with his practiced laugh, he alone appeared to try to keep the night upbeat.)
The abrasive insult comic Lisa Lampanelli flaunted her libido and her weight, belting out sailor talk (“That guy’s so gay my ass hurts”). Some of her other jokes concerned her own obesity, but she wasn’t fat enough to pull them off. Laraine Newman charged Chase with meanness, drug use, and abject failure. Oldie Richard Belzer summed things up with his super-scripted punch line: “The only time Chevy Chase has a funny bone in his body is when I fuck him in the ass.”
Jeez. I had been ready to laugh, but I eased off as Chase, in sunglasses, brooked the insults—and a full, tragic portrait of the enigmatic wastrel emerged. Arrogant young comic, former addict, maker of failed family movies: The shards of Chase’s persona almost seemed too negligible to put together, much less take apart again. But then I began to wonder if there were any way, in light of the fact that so many people now openly revile him, to admire Chevy Chase again—if for no other reason than that someone ought to.