Live From The Alec Baldwin Roast: Insult Comedy In The Era Of Cancel Culture Anxiety

I didn’t read the talent list before I accepted a press invite to Comedy Central’s Roast of Alec Baldwin, and it turned out that was probably a good thing. I might not have accepted if I’d known that the list of luminaries lighting up the dais would include: Blake Griffin, Ken Jeong, Caitlyn Jenner, Caroline Rhea, Nikki Glaser, Jeff Ross, Chris Redd, Adam Carolla, and Robert DeNiro. It was like an AI-generated list of comedic low-hanging fruit.

An hour of Caitlyn Jenner jokes? Honestly, it didn’t sound all that enticing. But it did raise an interesting question: in an era when comedy is so often a front in the culture wars — the weeks before the taping saw the release of Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr specials promising to offend and trigger us, and the week after gave us the Shane Gillis kerfuffle — where does an ancient tradition of “edgy” humor like the celebrity roast fit in? Is a format predicated on ironic invective and Borshty one-liners still relevant, or is it the rhinestone-encrusted death rattle of a once relevant artform?

It was a long evening, largely funny though occasionally not, and I came away oddly heartened. I came away thinking maybe, just maybe, it’s not comedy itself that’s gone out of style. Maybe it’s the idea of comedy as something cool, or the idea of comedy as brave, raw, unfiltered truth-telling that’s getting old. The roast was devoid of any pretense of biting satire or truth-to-power and strips comedy down to its basest form — a cheesy lounge act, a kind of magic show. And maybe… it’s better that way?

There was a time in my life when stand-up comedy meant a lot to me. I devoured every joke book I could get my hands on when I was a kid and I had an encyclopedic brain for them. Blonde jokes, Polish jokes, dead baby jokes, the interrupting cow — I loved them all. I didn’t know what a “Polack” even was or the societal implications of being blonde, but I loved the structure. A condensed story with a twist ending.

Later in life, I forcefully loaned out Chris Rock and Patton Oswalt and Mitch Hedberg specials to friends and love interests as if they were the Rosetta Stones of my personality. I even went on to perform comedy myself for a good 10 years, though almost never in the obsessive, hitting-three-open-mics-per-night way that becoming a touring comic requires (partly because I was never 100% sure I wanted to be a touring stand up. Success in that line of work seems to mean not dying in a hotel room).

These days stand-up comedy just… doesn’t mean that much to me. I don’t know if I was just too close to it for too long — seeing your friends do the same-ish 10 minutes 200 or so times will certainly sour you on some aspects of it. That feeling of comedy’s creeping irrelevance: personal issue or larger societal trend? I go back and forth, but it feels like somewhere along the line we put comedians onto this pedestal as “brave truth-tellers.” We started dissecting and quote-tweeting their material as if truth-telling was the aim all along. It felt like a misread of the comedic act in the first place. Comics who once benefited from this perception — Chappelle, Louis CK — now rebel against it.

These days we’re oversaturated with stand-up comedy and when a special actually does manage to cut through the noise, it’s almost always in political terms. Just the other day, rightwing milk boy Ben Shapiro called Bill Burr’s new special “shocking and audacious. “The wokescolds will be out in force on this one,” he tweeted, with the kind of call-to-action typical of today’s comedy recommendations. Oh no, I have to watch this special so that the wokescolds won’t win!