The recent announcement that James Franco would be the subject of the next Comedy Central Roast has been met with general enthusiasm. “Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?” wondered The Atlantic Wire. “You can add ‘good sport’ to Franco’s long list of titles!” said E! Online. Amos Barshad wrote in Grantland that Franco’s selection was “a pleasant surprise from the network, and should, at the very least, make for a solid change of pace.”
After all, such roasts—targeting tabloid wash-ups like Pamela Anderson, David Hasselhoff, and Charlie Sheen—have gotten increasingly painful to watch over the past few years. In a culture obsessed with building up celebrities and tearing them down, roasts have become a transparent game of image control and reputation management. Sheen’s publicity team consciously undertook his 2011 roast as an attempt to redeem him in the wake of his very public, tiger-blood-fueled implosion. Donald Trump’s roast was a predictably tacky affair, featuring a cringe-inducing appearance from "Jersey Shore"’s The Situation. Comedy Central executive Jonas Larsen told The New York Times a few years ago that the roasts have become useful publicity stunts for its subjects: “You can air out all your sins and gain absolution on one night,” he said.
But a good roast should be about poking holes in a celebrity’s image, not plugging them, and the best roasts have been people for whom the room was filled with genuine warmth and an organic sense of community. Betty White was a good roastee for this reason. Chevy Chase made for a notoriously depressing one—only a handful of his “Saturday Night Live” colleagues even showed up. The Friars’ Club began its tradition of roasting one member a year in 1949, with the first televised roasts airing in the ’60s. Its motto was “We only roast the ones we love.” Take Jack Benny’s tame, affectionate roast of Lucille Ball in 1961: “I must say, with all respect to Lucy, why all her exposure on TV might upset some comedians, might make them jealous. But personally I don’t give a damn. I couldn’t care if she’s on 60 times a day. If she wants the public to get sick of her, that’s her problem.”
Comedy Central took over the roasts in 2003 with a mostly fond roast of Denis Leary. But the Friars’ Club still occasionally does its own. It chose Quentin Tarantino in 2010, who seems like an ideal subject: widely admired, in the throes of professional success, but not without notorious quirks (a foot fetish, for instance) that made for great fodder. (Word is that Uma Thurman poured wine into her shoe and had Tarantino drink it.) But the evening wasn’t televised. It was a quiet, self-contained send-up of an industry icon for the benefit of those who know and like him.
Roasting Franco will be a very different game. His entire career feels like image management as a kind of performance art. The Ph.D., the indie directing credits, the book of poetry to be published by Graywolf Press next year, even the considerable energy he devotes to lampooning himself: It is hard to think of a star more obsessed with his own persona. In “This Is the End” his character was, more so than any of the others, a clear riff on his actual public perception. He wore a turtleneck sweater and his house was populated with penis-shaped modern art. His Oscar-hosting gig was a failure of self-parody: Instead of spoofing the ennui of Hollywood, he mostly just managed to bore his audience. Still you could see the wheels turning, the ironic distance being strenuously engineered.
Franco himself announced his Comedy Central roast in an Instagram video: a grainy close-up of his apathetic face on a dark background. “Hey yo, what’s up,” he said listlessly. “I’m gonna get roasted on Comedy Central. Be sure to check it out. They wanted me to tell you that. Alright. Hahaa.” This is Franco’s m.o.—he wants to overachieve to the point of megalomania and still maintain an air of apathy. He is constantly prodding audiences with the question of whether he takes himself mortally seriously, or is hoodwinking Hollywood with his act. So it’s possible that Franco’s Comedy Central roast will be a funny evisceration of that very trait. But if it’s another self-conscious ploy to send up his own pretentiousness, one more meta publicity stunt on his own behalf, it will be just as unpleasant to watch as Charlie Sheen’s.