“Do you think this is a bad idea?” James Franco asks Seth Rogen in the latest promo for his upcoming televised roast. “No, honestly, I actually think a Comedy Central roast is the perfect thing for your career right now,” Rogen responds. He adds, “This is Rob Schneider, right?”
Although it’s just a joke, the ad does bring to light the fact that Comedy Central doesn’t usually land stars of Franco’s caliber for its roasts. In recent years, the network’s roast victims tend to be respected comedy veterans in the twilights of their careers (Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr), celebrities who are walking punchlines already (Donald Trump, David Hasselhoff, Charlie Sheen), or in the case of 2009 roast subject Larry the Cable Guy, a fictional character played by comedian Dan Whitney. But Franco, whose roast was held in Culver City Sunday evening and will air this coming Monday, is lightyears above these folks in the Hollywood pecking order. Comedy Central has pulled off a major coup in booking Franco, an A-list, Oscar-nominated actor whose films this year alone, like hits Oz the Great and the Powerful and This Is the End, have grossed over $600 million internationally. So, how did Comedy Central go from roast victims like Flavor Flav and Pamela Anderson to James Franco? And more importantly, can they now continue to grab roastees as famous as Franco, or the collection of movie and TV actors that make up Franco’s dais, for future Comedy Central roasts?
When James Franco was announced as Comedy Central’s 2013 roast victim, it may have surprised some that a working movie star would agree to be mocked on basic cable in a seat normally reserved for celebrities who are regularly late night punchlines. But if you’ve paid any attention to Franco’s career, you know he prides himself on being unpredictable, taking on an eclectic selection of projects over the years. Past unexpected moves by Franco include going to grad school while continuing to pursue his acting career, making a behind-the-scenes documentary about SNL, writing a book of short stories, releasing a Motown album, and playing a recurring role on the daytime soap General Hospital while claiming it was some weird piece of performance art. The Comedy Central roast is just the latest piece in Franco’s collection of weird career moves, so it’s not shocking he agreed to do the event. Any other big movie star doing the event, on the other hand, would have been pretty surprising.
Of course, with a celebrity like Franco at the center of the event, it’s expected that his dais would be made up of bigger names than Comedy Central’s usual roasters. Mostly pulled from Judd Apatow’s comedy collective, Franco’s panel consists entirely of movie and TV actors (Aziz Ansari, Bill Hader, Jonah Hill, Nick Kroll, Natasha Leggero, Seth Rogen, Jeff Ross, Andy Samberg, and Sarah Silverman), none of whom — besides Jeff Ross — you’d see popping up at Comedy Central’s regular D-list celebrity bashings.
The Franco roast harkens back to the pre-Comedy Central days of celebrity roasts like the New York Friar’s Club’s classic events or Dean Martin’s televised roasts. Here, the victim is an entertainer who’s still on top, surrounded by his friends and peers instead of a schizophrenic grab bag of performers Comedy Central put together — most of whom have never met the roastee.
This year’s roast also coincides with the Comedy Central events growing in popularity and relevance over the past few years. 2011’s Charlie Sheen roast made headlines and scored big ratings, even if it was for having a trainwreck as its guest of honor, and Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino captured the national spotlight for his much-derided performance at that year’s Donald Trump roast, as well. More importantly, comedians who perform at the roast have been experiencing more industry success lately, with the annual event serving as a launchpad for future Comedy Central stars. Roasts were breakout career moments for Anthony Jeselnik and Amy Schumer, who are both starring in their own hit shows largely as a result of roast performances, and longtime Comedy Central roast regular Jeff Ross now has his own series on the cable channel, as well. While the Franco roast’s dais consisting entirely of established names means there won’t be a breakout star like Schumer or Jeselnik this year, Comedy Central’s roasts are still partly riding on the momentum of launching those two stars in recent years.
As long as James Franco’s roast didn’t go disastrously — and reports from the event say it definitely didn’t — this could be the start of a new direction for Comedy Central’s roasts and the key to landing more A-list movie stars — or at least, TV stars — to be victims in future years. Being able to show other potential roastees a successful James Franco roast that was fun, didn’t make him look bad, and didn’t hurt his career, could help the network to score someone as big as Franco next time around. As far as who the next roast victim is, Seth Rogen seems like a logical pick, with Franco as his roastmaster, of course. Or anyone on Franco’s dais, like Andy Samberg or Jonah Hill, would be a major coup too, assuming that everyone at the event had a good enough time. As long as Monday’s James Franco roast receives a warm enough reception, expect to see another big name at the center of next year’s roast too.
Or Comedy Central could just go with Rob Schneider.