By most accounts, the comedy roast was born at New York’s Friars Club, where, each year since 1949, members have gathered to skewer, satirize, mock, and otherwise insult their peers. Comedy Central broadcast these events from 1998 to 2002; after that, the channel started doing its own roasts, and it’s produced 13 of varying quality since. The latest, which aired Monday night, was a very tame takedown of Justin Bieber.
That tameness isn’t too surprising, as in reality these specials are almost entirely run by the roastee, who gets to recruit the roasters, deem certain topics off-limits, and decide what jokes make it to broadcast. More than punishment or comeuppance or even comedy, these roasts are about promotion. They’re publicity stunts masquerading as punch lines, and no celebrity—Charlie Sheen included—has come out of one looking worse in the public eye.
So you can see why Bieber yearned to be roasted. At worst, the experience would be no different than the Internet smackdowns he gets daily; at best, it’d be an endearing crucifixion. The haters could hate, and he could sit to the side, repentant and humbled and well-intentioned. After three years of declining album sales and countless tabloid scandals, perhaps a good burn or two would help pop’s prodigal son rise again.*
Alas, no such luck. The problem’s not that the singer is irredeemable, or that the roast’s comedy was lacking, though both may be true. Bieber just looked very, very alone. For comparison: In 2013, when Comedy Central decided to stop roasting has-been comedians and instead go after James Franco, the actor was surrounded by friendly company. Frequent co-star Seth Rogen led the ceremony, and peers like Jonah Hill, Andy Samberg, and Bill Hader joined the fun.
Bieber’s roast was different. Apart from Pete Davidson, the people roasting him were much older, much more random celebrities like Shaq, Snoop Dogg, Kevin Hart, and Martha Stewart. Most of their jokes were directed not at Bieber but at each other, and the result left the singer looking like a stranger at his own show. He didn’t look subdued or jocular or secure; he looked friendless. For someone with $200 million and just as many fans, that’s a pretty striking achievement.
His concluding remarks only made things worse. After some competent jabs at his critics, Bieber ended the roast with a naked plea for forgiveness, confessing that “I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, but we’re turning a new leaf here.” It was a flat-footed apology, one foreshadowed by the night’s best joke: Hannibal Buress slamming Bieber for “this extremely transparent attempt to be likable in the public eye.” That line was cut from the broadcast, but it perfectly captured the competing forces that made the roast so counterproductive for its subject. The sheer artifice of the event—the way it oscillated between Bieber’s transparent attempt at redemption and the roasters’ transparent attempts to deny it—only magnified the star’s self-serving facade, leaving little room for genuine emotion or sincerity. Bieber may crave atonement, but he’ll first need to find an audience willing to grant it.
Correction, March 31, 2015: This post originally misstated that Justin Bieber hasn’t produced music in three years. He released his Music Monday tracks and their accompanying compilation album, Journals, in the fall and winter of 2013. The post also originally misspelled Hannibal Buress’ last name.