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Every Comedy Central Roast, From Worst to Best

From Flavor Flav to Larry the Cable Guy, we rank every one of the network’s insult-athons

Flavor Flav and Charlie Sheen

Flavor Flav and Charlie Sheen

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It's an age-old, and admittedly odd, tradition: A famous person gathers together a room full of friends, celebrity fans and some of the funniest stand-up comics working today — and then invites them to say the most horrible things imaginable about him or her in front of a crowded room and TV cameras. The history of professional roasts dates back to the Fifties, when the private organization known as the Friars Club gave its male members — women were not allowed in until 1988 — the chance to put on tuxedos and take low-blow pot shots at other comedians. It was all in the name of affectionate (if incredibly aggressive) fun, with the Friars' friendly-fire tradition eventually making its way to cable in 1998. Then Comedy Central began producing their own take-no-prisoners celebrations in 2003, and the channel has shouldered the responsibility of broadcasting cultural icons getting ripped to shreds ever since.

As Justin Bieber prepares to join the ranks of the roasted on March 14th (the network will air the event on March 30th), we look back at the complete roster of Comedy Central's insult-athons, ranked from worst to best. Warning: None of these are for the faint of heart or easily offended. All of them, however, feature comics taking the gloves off and hitting way below the belt. With friends like these….

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12

David Hasselhoff

When this roast was filmed in 2010, the beloved but deflated David Hasselhoff was being remembered for a pathetic online video in which he drunkenly ate a hamburger while his kids begged him to stop drinking. The set is Baywatch-themed. George Hamilton, Hulk Hogan and Jerry Springer are on the dais. Greg Giraldo is excellent per usual, and Jeff Ross, Lisa Lampanelli, Whitney Cummings and Gilbert Gottfried all get a few good jabs in. (Cummings FTW: "When I tried to buy your music on Amazon.com, it said 'users who bought this item also bought…a shotgun.'") Hoff is a good sport throughout, but there's hardly a reason for this to happen. As Pamela Anderson tells him, "When they roasted me, I was relevant."

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11

Bob Saget

Yes, Comedy Central roasted a man best known as Danny Tanner on Full House and the host of America's Funniest Home Videos — in 2008. To be fair, Saget is a stand-up comic and a notably dirty one, but let's say this isn't an incredibly timely choice for the national viewing audience. And though the former sitcom star looks a little mystified about being there, he's more than willing to let chums including John Stamos take him down. Stylistically, the peanut gallery is all over the place — from Jeff Garlin's breezniness to Gilbert Gottfried's relentlessness — but the best, and most surprising, set comes from none other than Norm MacDonald. His beyond awkward dad jokes were an honest response to a producer's suggestion that he be shocking; by making a full 180-degree turn to ultra-cheesiness ("Bob has a beautiful face, like a flower. Yeah, cauli-flower!"), he stole the show.

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10

Roseanne Barr

For a groundbreaking sitcom star and comedienne who's paid her dues and offered no shortage of ammunition for a roast, it's shocking how unremarkable how Barr's roast is. For every comic like Amy Schumer who beautifully works the room (regarding the lineup, she quips that it's "a real who's-who of an Activia commercial so far"), whimsical, less-than-stellar picks such as Carrie Fisher and Ellen Barkin have a tendency to slow things to a halt. Give Gilbert Gottfried credit for the level of commitment in his hateful comments and Anthony Jeselnik turns in another solid set of dark, snide and biting jokes. (His version of a fat joke: "Here's something positive: You had gastric bypass surgery in 1988, and then you beat it.") But it's Barr who ends up hitting the bullseye, taking aim at her ex-husband Tom Arnold. "He was very funny," she says, "but Jesus Christ, how many fucking jobs do I have to get for that guy?"

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9

Rob Reiner

In Reiner's roast, you can feel the smoke-filled, chummy back room of Friars Club slowing having its furniture rearranged by a network seeking viewership. Old-guard regulars like Freddy Roman and Abe Vigoda are there, but so are younger outsiders, like Kevin Pollak and walking punchline Vanilla Ice. Reiner is a wonderfully jovial target, egging on attackers who jab him about marriage to Penny Marshall, his weight, and then his weight again. Robert Smigel's appearance as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is the best example of playing both sides against the middle, mocking the age of the club's members and its rituals while readily participating in them: "Have you ever seen Alan King naked in the steam room? Normally I have to eat grass if I want to puke."

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8

Flavor Flav

Though roastmaster Katt Williams decried what he'd later call the "crispity crackily crunchy coon" jokes in the 2007 broadcast, the roast holds up despite the plethora of jabs about Flav's skin tone. (As Jeff Ross crudely puts it: "The fact that Flav is black is like the fifth thing that's wrong with him.") Still fresh from the sloppy, unfortunate reality mess Flavor of Love, and wearing his signature clock as well as a gold crown, the Public Enemy hype man looks to be having the time of his life, even cackling at Carrot Top's prop comedy. The usual suspects — Ross, Lampanelli, Giraldo — kill, of course, while the seemingly out-of-place Patton Oswalt more than holds his own. ("Thank you, pimp in a thimble!")

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7

Joan Rivers

Always game to work, comic icon Rivers patiently presides over a guest list described by Greg Giraldo as "a couple of trolls, a fairy and a giant going after a sunken-eyed monster obsessed with jewelry. It's like Lord of the Rings." The performers aren't exactly Rivers' crowd, and there are unexpected characters working the podium such as Robin Quivers, but it actually gels; Whitney Cummings' performance was so assured (regarding the prevalence of elderly comics onstage, she remarked "I don't know if I should be telling jokes or calling out bingo numbers"), it helped launch her into the Hollywood consciousness. And unlike most of the other honorees, Rivers knows how to close: After slapping roastmaster Kathy Griffin, she delivers sharp material and gives herself a big, self-congratulatory finish that restores balance after the verbal beatdown she endured. There's a reason she's referred to as a legend.

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6

Larry the Cable Guy

"How the fuck are you so popular!?" Greg Giraldo fumes at the cutoff-shirt-and-ballcap-clad character on the throne before him. No answer is forthcoming, but the rest of the roast proves that while Larry and the other Blue Collar guys play directly to their audience's sensibilities, they can take a joke. Forget the predictably bland sets from a host of personalities including Toby Keith and Maureen McCormick; concentrate instead on the all-around bizarre appearance of a spacey Gary Busey, which ping-pongs between a deader-than-deadpan monotone and angry outbursts. With vigorous sets from Giraldo, Ross, and Nick DiPaolo, and Lisa Lampanelli on host duty, the majority of the show sings along at a rapid clip. To paraphrase the man of the hour, it gets it done.

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5

William Shatner

Captain James T. Kirk casts a long shadow here, but Shatner has enough strange hobbies — e.g. spoken word, being a weirdo in commercials — to keep things interesting. George Takei and Nichelle Nichols hold it down for the crew of the Enterprise; the rest of the dais of comics and nerd-comics — give it up for Patton Oswalt — toy with Shatner's ego while avoiding Andy Dick, who manages to lick the faces of nearly everyone onstage. This night may have also been the first time people got excited about perky Betty White talking dirty: "We all know Shatner's nuts, but George has actually tasted them!" No one boldly goes where no man has gone before in terms of ribbing Bill for his lack of acting chops, but with this much comic force kicking into warp speed, they don't need to.

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4

Donald Trump

While its honoree comes across as kind of a joyless prick, and the show is without the reliable Greg Giraldo — who passed away the previous fall — the Trump roast features some of the most consistently on-point performances of any of Comedy Central celebratory cutdowns. Lisa Lampanelli and Whitney Cummings arrive with knives out, a bit in which Marlee Matlin's interpreter gets replaced by a politicized Gilbert Gottfried works brilliantly, and Snoop Dogg stays alert enough to make his material pop. (Even Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino's notoriously disastrous set is fascinating for comedic rubberneckers.) The smirking Anthony Jeselnik probably sums up Trump best: "The only difference between you and Michael Douglas from Wall Street is nobody's going to be sad when you get cancer." Boom.

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3

Pam Anderson

Chatty, silly and slightly anarchic due to the presence of a visibly intoxicated Courtney Love smeared across the back of every frame, this fun, raucous 2005 affair finds Anderson still in the public consciousness enough to be a good target. Nick DiPaolo assaults everyone, Bea Arthur reads tales of anal sex and Sarah Silverman praises the animal-loving Anderson's "good work with the one-eyed trouser snake." Jeff Ross' joke about Love — "How is it possible Kurt Cobain looks better than Courtney Love?" — draws gasps from the audience. But the comedian is such a consummate pro that he not only wins the crowd back, Love even simulates fellatio on the man later during the ceremony. (She went into rehab shortly after the shoot.) For anyone needing proof that anything goes at these events, this is Exhibit A.

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2

Hugh Hefner

Sure, going after Hef feels like shooting fish in a barrel. But in the world of roasts, easy targets can inspire comedians to transform overworked premises into barbs with perfect accuracy. Take this summation from roastmaster Jimmy Kimmel: "What can you say about Hef that hasn't already been said by 1,000 young women with his cock in their mouths?" There's also a kind of easter egg in this roast, material that was cut from the final broadcast but was highlighted by 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, that pushes it to legendary status. The roast itself was filmed in late September 2001, and Gilbert Gottfried made jokes about the World Trade Center attacks that were too close to home. Rather than give up, Gottfried redoubled his efforts in telling the well-known dirty joke known as "The Aristocrats," and won only the audience's love with a wild torrent of filth. In one fell swoop, the diminutive comic led the room through some of the most cathartic, you-have-permission-to-laugh-again howling you've ever heard. It's one for the ages.

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1

Charlie Sheen

Roasts succeed when a willing target with a thick skin has skeletons that refuse to languish in the closet; in this regard, raving Vatican assassin Charlie Sheen, circa 2011, is perfect. Thankfully, the dais — an excellent mix of professionals, funny weirdos and unpredictable personalities like Mike Tyson — know how to exploit even an obvious mark. "How do you roast a meltdown?" asks Jeff Ross, clad in Muammar Gaddafi getup. Sheen beams while taking his lumps from these strangers, a madman thrilled by a downfall of his own design. And while there are many stand-out performances, this roast celebrates the emergence of one big talent while immortalizing another. Amy Schumer's sly, assured first roast appearance seduces and stuns the crowd; her line "You're like Bruce Willis: You were big in the Eighties and now your old slot's being filled by Ashton Kutcher," is one of the best ever uttered during a roast, period. And Patrice O'Neal, in what would be his final TV appearance, ditches his notes at the podium. Slowly, methodically, the comedian picks off his fellow roasters with a befuddlement and frustration so honest that it blows everyone away. It's ruthless, earth-scorching and hilarious — exactly what these events should be.

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