“They say you only roast the ones you love,” Hannibal Buress began during his set at The Roast of Justin Bieber, “But I don’t like you at all, man. I’m just here because it’s a real good opportunity for me.” Joking or not, Buress’ comment is the best way to describe the overall feel of Justin Bieber’s roast. The stage was packed with comedians and celebrities — Kevin Hart (as roastmaster), Natasha Leggero, Pete Davidson, Jeffrey Ross, Snoop Dogg, Martha Stewart, and more — but the roast itself was tame and shrug-worthy, even with such an easy and arguably deserving target. The problem is that most of these roasters weren’t here to roast someone they love, or even a peer, but instead a 21-year-old pop singer who asked for this as a birthday gift.
The best Comedy Central roasts — the most shocking, the wittiest, the ones that cause the audience to clamp their hands over their mouths in amused disbelief at what is being said — happen when the roasters have a rich and personal history with their victim. It’s not only funnier to see friends take cheap shots at each other, but it also means that these insults have more depth, nuance, and knowledge behind them. However crass they may sound, these jokes actually have meaning. It’s why the best punchlines at last night’s Bieber roast weren’t the ones directed at the kids himself but the ones roasters directed at other roasters: their friends and peers. It was friendly fire, and some of the best moments came from the targets’ amused reactions. Bieber, by contrast, occasionally looked uncomfortable and perhaps even regretful (especially when the jokes targeted his relationship with Selena Gomez or the video where he was caught singing the N-word), though he sometimes forced a laugh.
The problem with roasting Justin Bieber isn’t so much that he’s a very easy target (though that’s certainly a factor) but that the people roasting him barely know him as a person. They were just enjoying the opportunity to perform a set in front of a large Comedy Central audience and hone their stand-up performances. Some did a fine job — Natasha Leggero is always great at this kind of humor, Buress’ hilarious inability to even fake niceties landed, and Pete Davidson was much better than expected — but the roast still lacked those original, memorable burns that we watch roasts for. Instead, we got the usual suspects: Justin Bieber is gay! Justin Bieber looks like a lesbian! Justin Bieber wants to be black! These jokes were old years ago, but the lack of originality isn’t necessarily indicative of the comedians’ failure. It seems more likely that the problem was, no one knew much about this young singer outside of his 2010 earworm “Baby” and his most well-publicized legal troubles.
The Roast of Justin Bieber was not a trainwreck as many expected it would be — the weirdest and most awkward part was Bieber’s own “sincere” moment, as he stonily read an apology for his recent actions off a teleprompter. But it wasn’t a fun watch, either. There was no love in this roast, and it showed.