Last weekend, my girlfriend and I scored last minute tickets to Comedy Central’s Roast of Rob Lowe (which the network will air on Labor Day). As a person intensely interested in subplots and hidden narratives, a Google search on the way to the event sent my brain into a frenzy. Why was Jewel one of the roasters? Why was Peyton Manning one of the roasters? And, most urgently, why was Ann Coulter one of the roasters?
Eventually, the answers were illuminated as follows:
- Some thread of personal connection.
- Some thread of personal connection.
- To sell a book about Donald Trump.
Unless Lowe and Coulter are pen pals on the sly, their public interaction is limited to this tweet and the Maher appearance it was meant to promote. That’s not much to go on.
Hollywood is mostly liberal, Rob Lowe is kind of a political free agent, and Ann Coulter espouses a private-label brand of extremism that many people simply call “bigotry.” So, considering the crowd in the room and on the dais, it wasn’t a surprise to discover that people weren’t wild about her being there. The result was a sort of unicorn situation in the history of Comedy Central roasts: comedians roasting someone they actually despised.
Fun, right? No holds barred! Roast to the death!
Well… almost. Forgive me for my weak constitution (bleeding heart liberals gonna bleed) but there was also a tinge of sadness to the Coulter burn-fest — mostly because Coulter’s reaction to being called a “hatchet-faced b*tch,” wasn’t particularly fun to watch. She’s claiming she was just “bored” now, but that feels like spin. At the event, you could see that this woman, who’s made a career of spewing bile, was caught behind enemy lines without the one weapon in her arsenal, a voice. As the last person to speak before Roast Master General, Jeffrey Ross, Coulter had to stay quiet for about two hours. Without her reminding us of her terrible ideas, the stream of Coulter-hate that poured forth felt both well-deserved and still maybe just a touch too mean.
I know, I know! I’m rolling my eyes too! I hate suggesting that anyone could be too mean to Ann Coulter. She claims women shouldn’t vote, she endorses war-for-oil, she slams teachers — I have no shortage of grievances. But what really irks me is something broader, the way she frames her thoughts. I don’t care that she insults liberal men, for instance, but it drives me crazy that her insults are based on homophobic and gender-driven pejoratives.
What it really boils down to is that there’s an art to being roasted — you have to play along and laugh and look like you’re in on the joke. Lowe had it, Rob Riggle definitely had it, Coulter doesn’t (diss!). As a result, the whole thing wasn’t quite as joyful as I might have hoped. My girlfriend — an Iranian immigrant and activist who pretty much resides at the nexus point of all things Coulter despises — said, “That’s too far, I feel bad for her,” when Jimmy Carr explicitly told Coulter to kill herself. I didn’t quite agree, but I did sense the damaged kid hiding behind Coulter’s half-cringing smile. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is hating someone is less fun when you also feel a teeeeeensy bit sorry for them.
Remember how I said I love subplots and hidden narratives? The picture below shows Coulter on her hands and knees, talking to her personal staff throughout the entire third commercial break. At the after-party, a rumor went around that Coulter had never seen one of these roasts and didn’t know that everyone on the dais got roasted. Was she trying to get them to do last minute rewrites? Did she want to make her jokes harsher? Meaner? Regardless of what comes out, I will forever believe that her publicist was begging her, “Is there any way you could try to laugh along and look less pained?”
Jewel’s very first joke, clearly the joke of the night, nailed what much of the room seemed to be feeling:
“As a feminist, I can’t support everything that’s been said tonight. But as someone who hates Ann Coulter, I’m delighted.”
That line brought the house down not just because of the delivery (spot on) but because it did what comedy does best: releasing tension through laughter.
By the time Coulter got on stage, however, any passing sympathy the crowd felt for her quickly evaporated. She made it clear that she was only there to promote In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!, she talked about why people up on the dais should vote for Trump, and she made political comparisons that failed to land with her audience. But the boos clearly didn’t bother her once she was on the podium. Now that Coulter finally had the mic, she was happy to play the professional wrestling heel — absorbing the crowd’s jeering as if it gave her power.
There was one final moment of unexpected Coulter pathos, though. When she was supposed to insult Jewel — something about the singer’s teeth — she broke into her own joke to apologize, saying, “they’re making me say this.” It’s something many non-professional roasters would have felt and said when insulting Jewel (who exuded warmth) but it was unexpected from Coulter. It was also the most humanity I can remember her showing in a public setting. The moment was so jarring that the guy working the teleprompter must’ve fallen out of his chair, because the scroll stopped halfway through Coulter’s set and she had to literally beg for it to go back on.
In the end, Ann Coulter didn’t go to the after party and she probably won’t send a Christmas card to Jimmy Carr, or Pete Davidson (who called her a “racist c*nt” and a scarecrow), or Nikki Glaser (who also wished her death), or Peyton Manning (who compared her to a horse), or… you get the picture.
Some other notes:
- Power Rankings Of People Who Did Not seem To Have Fun At The Rob Lowe Roast: 1) Ann Coulter, as mentioned, 2) Sheryl Berkoff, Rob Lowe’s wife. She must have expected that Lowe’s sex tape with a 16-year-old was going to be solid roast fodder (and it was brought up a lot), but we sure didn’t get any reaction shots of her laughing mirthfully at those jokes. When Lowe came to the podium he said something that made his wife laugh, which he mentioned aloud with surprise and called out as a rarity. By the time the camera snapped to Berkoff, that laugh was a far-off memory.
- Apparently Peyton Manning has a weird/huge head? Literally every comic mentioned this (while only Nikki Glaser was bold enough to mention the sexual assault allegations against him and the subsequent settlement by Tennessee). The athlete got a massive standing ovation before starting his segment and did a pretty solid job. Pete Davidson and Rob Riggle seemed thrilled to be teased by him, with Davidson was mouthing things about how awesome it was as it happened. Manning also had a really solid Tom Brady joke at the end that brought the house down.
- Rob Riggle was the only one to break out of the traditional setup-punch roasting pattern. He was mean, then kind of reacted to his own meanness. It had a nice rhythm and helped him come across as insanely likable. His most winning joke? “The only thing shorter than David Spade is Jewel’s greatest hits album.”
- Ann Coulter wasn’t the only one to cringe at insulting Jewel’s appearance. When David Spade introduced her with a joke about her teeth, the mic screeched and cut out. Spade said, “I’m not saying that again” as the cameras reset. He sounded dead set, but a few seconds later we were rolling again and he delivered the line, as it was written. Showbiz!
- Jeffrey Ross really is the Roast Master. Ross is at an interesting point in his career right now where things are going well for him, and any “out of work” jokes made about him have a little less juice. Dressed as Prince and playing guitar, he was experimental and funny and just generally had the air of a person who was the king of his castle. He was one of the first people on the dance floor at the after party and kept dancing until music went off around 2 a.m. Being around him on a very small dance floor for three hours left me with the impression that he’s the least-entitled famous person on the planet.
- Some of the jokes about Pete Davidson’s dad dying in September 11th shocked a laugh from me, others fell flat. I’m not saying you shouldn’t tell these jokes — Davidson has never spoken out about minding them — but if you do, you’d better be ready for the audience to go quiet.
- Met Rob Lowe. He really is that handsome in real life. Lucky bastard.
Remember how I led off with loving subplots and hidden narratives? Here’s the one I’m left puzzling over: How will the editors cut down and piece together the show I saw? Coulter has already slammed the network and I’m not the first one to say I’ve never seen attacks quite so personal. Will Comedy Central try to downplay that or embrace it? Will they leave in the worst of the Coulter stuff, knowing that their audience probably sides against her, particularly in an election year? Will they shield us from reaction shots that might stir sympathy? America is divided and Ann Coulter is in the business of deliberately and intentionally deepening that divide. Even if you like her, you can see that she’s in the “separating people business,” not the “connecting people” business. Now the ball is in the court of Comedy Central, a huge cable network with all sorts of interests, to make some major calls in post production. It’ll be fascinating to see what stays on the cutting room floor and what makes the screen… and it’s only a few days until we find out.