“Sometimes, you just do what you’ve gotta do to keep the machine moving.” Hannibal Buress wasn’t really joking. As the penultimate act on Comedy Central’s Roast of Justin Bieber, which taped on Saturday on the Sony lot in Los Angeles, the Chicago comic took it upon himself to get real for a second. After quipping that his fellow panelists looked like “Tyler Perry’s Of Mice and Men,” Buress put in plain terms exactly how he felt about the guest of honor: “They say that you roast the ones you love, but I don’t like you at all, man. I’m just here because it’s a real good opportunity for me.” He added, “Actually, you should thank me for participating in this extremely transparent attempt to be more likable in the public eye.” Buress paused for effect before adding: “And I hope it doesn’t work.”
The Broad City star’s time at the podium was uproariously funny; he had some of the night’s best lines, joking that Snoop Dogg looked “like a rejected Mortal Kombat boss” and noted that roast master Kevin Hart had to be “back on Shaq’s keychain by midnight.” But his pointed comments near the end of the night put the rest of event in its proper context. Bieber, who ended the show’s climactic rebuttal segment with a stammering, long-winded plea for a second chance from his fans and the public at large, seemed to be at cross purposes with the panel of comic assassins all night. Previous editions of these Comedy Central shindigs have felt like friends and colleagues coming together to celebrate one another, albeit in the most acid-tongued fashion imaginable. This felt more like a networking opportunity for the participants (did you know you can buy Ludacris’ new album, Ludaversal, the day after the show airs, on March 30th? You do now!) — most of whom have at least a decade on the 21-year-old bad boy.
That’s not to say it wasn’t funny. Kevin Hart, undeniably the film industry’s marquee-name comedian of the moment, did a superb job as master of ceremonies — which didn’t stop folks from laying into him about his indiscriminate career choices again and again. Veteran roaster Jeff Ross was the subject of Bieber’s funniest jab, about hitting the journeyman comic’s Saturn in the parking lot. Natasha Leggero suggested that the pop star honed his dance moves by dodging coat hangers in his teen mother’s womb. (This was the closest anyone came to “losing” the crowd; everyone in the audience was more than game to see the manchild of the hour get taken down a few pegs.) Surprise guest Will Ferrell, who came in character as fake news anchor Ron Burgundy, ran down an itemized list of the Canadian pop star’s transgressions, making him the only roaster who spent so much as half his time at the mic on the night’s supposed subject. For the most part, Bieber got off scot-free; as a tool to ingratiate himself to people by giving professional shit-talkers the chance to treat him like a piñata, the roast fell decidedly flat.
In fact, the most damning indictment of the subject came in the form of Chris D’Elia, whom it was pointed out again and again is the singer’s favorite comic. His set was staggeringly tasteless, touching on: rape; ISIS beheadings; Eric Garner and the NYPD; Kevin Hart killing his ex-wife; Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual assaults (twice); slavery; Bruce Jenner’s gender reassignment; and, finally, one last ISIS joke, for which Bieber stood to enthusiastically applaud. The star of NBC’s Undateable seems to revel in what he considers taboo humor, but he attacked all his subjects in the most irredeemably fratboy manner possible. Leggero’s description of D’Elia as “Dane Cook with half the talent and a rich father” was totally on point; the notion that this guy is who the singer considers the pinnacle of funny is a far bigger slam on him than just about anything the roasters could’ve said.
And the alpha-male stand-up wasn’t the only one who misread the temperature of the room. Though many of the digs at first-time roaster Martha Stewart’s expense noted she’d done more prison time than the two (black) rappers on the stage, her joke that implied the phrase “n—-r-rich” in describing Hart was woefully misguided. The rest of the low-hanging fruit was dutifully plucked again and again, to diminishing returns: Leggero was a slut; Stewart was old; Hart, O’Neal, Buress, Ludacris and Snoop were black. Three jokes about the deceased Paul Walker fell flat; after the roast, Bieber himself said he could have done without them.
There were, however, moments where the comics dealt with edgy material more deftly. Saturday Night Live newcomer Pete Davidson, who opened the proceedings with one of the night’s livelier sets, recalled the true story of his father dying in the World Trade Center on September 11th — then said that Soul Plane, which starred Snoop and Hart, was still “the worst experience of [his] life involving a plane.” When Ross later made a crack about Davidson’s dad and the W.T.C., then quickly apologized to Shaquille O’Neal (“I know that was one of your favorite buildings to climb”), the massive former NBA center doubled over for so long that Hart pretended to check for a pulse. And as blazed as Snoop seemed throughout the evening, his off-teleprompter rant about Bieber’s use of a racial epithet, which will surely be cut from the broadcast, was as animated as it was hilarious.
So the roast was a celebration, just not of Justin Bieber. Still, it’s ridiculous to complain when you got to witness what felt like so many rare moments: How often does Snoop Dogg get to make less-than-subtle plays for Martha Stewart’s affection? How many days a year does Shaq get to revel in the fact that he had a rap career, even if You Can’t Stop The Reign is the butt of every joke? When else does Jeff Ross get treated like he’s famous? Yes, Bieber seemed stiff and was evidently uncomfortable throughout the evening, but seeing comedians hit bullseyes with clever banter about their fellow roasters — Davidson explaining to the younger attendees that they might know Ludacris from their parents’ Now That’s What I Call Music CDs, or Leggero praising the diminutive Hart for doing all his own stunts, “like getting in and out of the bathtub” — are as much as a reason for tuning in to these verbal battle royales. If not for Bieber’s name on the giant marquees that flanked the stage, you could be forgiven for forgetting he was the star. Given how much the young man squirmed through out this career-rehabilitation publicity go-round, maybe he’d like to forget, too.