Comedy Central specials help feed into ‘teardown’ culture

Photo CC Jamie McCaffrey. Edits Marta Kierkus

While Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts are usually advertised as being a jovial, good-natured time, these specials seem to be designed to cater to society’s unhealthy obsession with schadenfreude.

By now, everybody knows that troubled pop star Justin Bieber volunteered to be the latest object of scorn for the popular series. For around two hours the 21-year-old singer endured a barrage of scripted insults that were directed at his career, past relationships, and sexual orientation.

Dealing out vulgar jokes at someone’s expense is what comedy roasts are all about. But the format of this most recent televised event—where the roastee was mocked by a bunch of strangers rather than friends—is highly suspect. Not only does this lack of familiarity remove any sense of comedic comradery from the proceedings, it makes the event seem mean-spirited and calculated, like people only showed up to further their own careers by dragging someone else into the gutter.

This wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, since this mentality is reflective of the overriding culture of teardowns and shaming that seems to dominate our society.

We have become entirely too preoccupied with exploiting the weaknesses and fallibilities of others—attacking them like rabid pack animals for the sake of entertainment or personal gain.

Twitter is probably the worst venue for these kinds of shaming campaigns, where innocuous comments and out-of-context quotes are used as ammunition to ruin people’s lives.

Justine Sacco—a former PR consultant for InterActiveCorp—is particularly familiar with this kind of attack strategy. After writing a dumb post about AIDS in Africa on her Twitter in 2013, the resulting online hate and harassment caused Sacco to lose her job and her professional reputation, something that continues to haunt her to this day.

This dynamic is especially prevalent in the realm of politics, where smear campaigns and attack ads are the rule, not the exception—especially in an election year.

The biggest offenders in this trend are celebrity “news” websites like TMZ, organizations that make a profit off exploiting and sensationalizing people’s misfortunes and personal struggles. A lot of this coverage veers into the realm of bullying, where transgendered people like Bruce Jenner are openly mocked and young starlets like Taylor Swift are slut-shamed.

And people eat this shit up. Attempted Twitter career assassinations seem to happen every week (just ask Trevor Noah), political attack ads are composed 24 hours after a new opposing party leader emerges, and gossip websites like TMZ experience tens of millions of site visits every month.

Many will argue that events like the Comedy Central roasts are not anywhere on the same level as these cynical endeavours, since the subject of scrutiny actively consents to their own harsh treatment. But that’s the problem: celebrities like Justin Bieber—and other famous roastees like Charlie Sheen, David Hasselhoff, and Flavor Flav—are so engrained in this teardown culture that the only way they know how to remain relevant is to have a bunch of strangers verbally flog them in the public square.

Unfortunately—based on the ratings success of the Bieber roast—it’s a foregone conclusion that Comedy Central will produce more celebrity roast specials, which will continue to perpetuate this unhealthy mentality to the millions of people who watch.

Hopefully the next time around they actually manage to surround the celebrity roastee with some genuine friends and well-wishers (like during James Franco’s televised roast), since that would at least help to siphon away some of the overriding meanness that’s become associated with this event and our culture of shaming at large.