Singer Justin Bieber gets roasted to a crisp

Roast muse Justin Bieber keeps a composed smile amid the ruthless banter of Comedy Central stars. (credit: Courtesy of Comedy Central) Roast muse Justin Bieber keeps a composed smile amid the ruthless banter of Comedy Central stars. (credit: Courtesy of Comedy Central)

The long-awaited public bashing of teen heartthrob and hairstyle trendsetter Justin Bieber finally aired on Monday. Comedy Central has aired 14 total roasts, including this most recent one, since it first started the Comedy Central Roast in 2003. The idea of a “roast,” of course, has been around longer than this particular television event, but Comedy Central’s roasts are the biggest and most spectacular roasts in existence. Justin Bieber is the youngest “roastee” to ever participate in the show, having just turned 21 in mid-March. The evening of insults, which can be viewed on the channel’s website, are sure to make viewers laugh uncontrollably and feel like terrible human beings at the same time. But the roast also was surprisingly thought provoking, begging the question of “What is the role of comedy in society?” and what that says about what people find funny.

The Bieber roast was seen by 4.4 million viewers, viewers who are presumably fascinated and frustrated by Bieber’s antics. As current college students represent the age group that grew up with Bieber, they have been close witnesses to Bieber’s rise and fall. Pete Davidson, the youngest cast member on Saturday Night Live and one of the roasters present Monday evening, even called Bieber out on being such a successful and wonderful member of “our generation.”

Other roasters present included Snoop Dogg — yes, he’s back to Dogg from Lion — Ludacris, Martha Stewart, Hannibal Buress, Natasha Leggero, Shaquille O’Neal, Jeff Ross, and Chris D’Elia. Kevin Hart served as an unbelievably funny roast master. Just seeing Hart and O’Neal playfully tussle with each other made the entire show worth it.

Davidson presented one of the most interesting and hilarious roasts of the evening. Much of a roaster’s job is to try to thoroughly destroy other roasters sitting on stage with carefully rehearsed punchlines, before roasting the roastee himself. Some of these jokes are offensive in such a way that they push comedy farther than audiences are used to, and some are insensitive and clearly hurt their targets.

During the roast of Charlie Sheen, comedian Amy Schumer famously angered Jackass star Steve-O by mentioning the death of his fellow castmate and friend Ryan Dunn, which had occurred just a few weeks earlier. Davidson drew gasps from members of the live audience when he talked about his father, who died in the attacks on 9/11. He said to Bieber, “I lost my dad on 9/11, and I always regretted growing up without a dad. Until I met your dad, Justin. Now I’m glad mine’s dead.” There were audible groans and a smattering of slow applause from the audience, who did not know how to react. That was the first of a couple 9/11-themed jokes, and the first of many jokes during which the audience winced.

Various jokes were said throughout the evening that visibly upset the roasters. Hart did not seem to approve of any of the ISIS jokes used, and Ludacris did not seem to appreciate a joke that made fun of his role as a father. Both of their reactions are understandable, but it does raise a few questions: What is the role of comedy in our society? How does humor impact the way we view what’s important? Is comedy a useful tool in combatting societal problems, or does it exacerbate them?

A recurring theme throughout the two-hour episode was the way that the female participants onstage were routinely made fun of. Instead of making fun of career, appearance, family, past life experiences, or even race, most jokes directed toward the female roasters almost exclusively made fun of their sex lives. While these jokes were funny, they begged the question of what is considered funny in this country. Comedians who routinely deliver jokes that walk the line between funny and offensive often talk about comedy as a great tool to talk about difficult subjects. Comedy can also be used to help people heal and get audiences to think about tragedy, while at the same time allow them to emotionally compartmentalize.

This ability makes comedy’s role in this country difficult to understand. In terms of Justin Bieber’s roast, the network apparently cut out a joke delivered by Jeff Ross about the late Paul Walker, so occasionally comedy is truly censored. However, while comedy is great when it comes to joking about difficult issues, is it possible that comedy can play a role in the development of society and progress toward a more equal and just future? When these questions are put in the context of the roast, the answer is simple: Comedy can play a role that furthers equality, but a Comedy Central Roast is not the place where that happens.