We don’t generally have comedy roasts in the UK. Imagine This Is Your Life but instead of the avuncular Michael Aspel, you have George from Seinfeld. And rather than being surrounded by friends and family, the celebrity is encircled by past co-stars known to feel a strong sense of genuine animosity towards them, alongside C-list comedians itching to raise their profile whilst feigning mild interest in their work.
Bill Shatner occupies a peculiar space in the pop culture consciousness. Frequently lambasted by his own fanbase for his oft-imitated speech pattern, his hair (or lack thereof), his weight, his bizarre singing style and his proclivity for not turning down any work made available to him (American Psycho 2, anyone?), the man is also revered as a cult legend.
Hosted by Jason Alexander, who makes a completely valid point that you might never have heard of any of the roasters (and if that goes for the Americans, what chance do we have?), the agenda for the evening becomes clear. Everyone takes it in turn to approach the podium and insult each other. Then they insult Shatner. Then they pretend they don’t really mean it. Rinse and repeat.
It’s easy to ridicule Shatner, but to take the piss in an inventive new way might prove a little tricky. So, how did the professional comedians come up with new material? Easy – they don’. They merely resort to calling each other cunts.
After Shatner’s entrance to the studio on horseback (and why not?) he is ensconced in the captain’s chair and almost immediately assumes the posture of a stroke victim. As with the majority of the guests, you get the strong impression that he’s desperately trying to smile through the pain of both the barbed comments from complete strangers as well as the awkward attempts at humour. He’s no stranger to self-mockery and seemingly takes the roasting well. Apparently, the only off-limits topic was his finding his wife dead in a swimming pool.
Among the comedians taking part is Lisa Lampanelli. Apparently, she’s supposed to be America’s Queen of Mean and yet her material is amongst the tamest. Reading her set from a crumpled piece of paper with a stilted Andy Parsons-esque delivery didn’t help endear me to her. Andy Dick, one of the few I’d heard of, spent the majority of the evening licking people. Others I recognised included Fred Willard, Farrah Fawcett, and Artie Lange of Howard Stern. George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were the only Trek stars who elected to take the opportunity to publicly vent their respective angers, and there are short pre-filmed segments from Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman and Sandra Bullock.
Shatner himself is mostly silent throughout. Every so often the camera will focus on his rictus grin for a reaction shot and you’d be forgiven for thinking the disc is skipping. Only Nichelle Nichols seems taken aback occasionally, but this is perhaps understandable given the nature of some of the comments thrown her way.
I’m not quite sure why this is only now coming to DVD, having been aired on US TV in 2006, but after ex-Golden Girl Betty White makes an offhand comment about outliving Artie Lange, a prediction that almost came true after his suicide attempt earlier this year, I was morbidly awaiting a comment directed toward Farrah Fawcett regarding her mortality. The nearest we got was an advisement that she stay out of the sun. Close, but wrong kind of cancer.
I don’t have a problem with the concept of a roast, and I’m all for public tributes of celebrities done in a humourous, non-sycophantic manner. This was pretty much the opposite. Rather than displaying any genuine affection, each individual set was essentially a vicious diatribe followed by that clichéd phrase, “but, seriously, folks,” and then professing some adoration for Shatner that even he didn’t buy. I don’t know why this exists.
Thankfully, the DVD is uncensored. I can only imagine how infuriating this must have been in the aired version with every other word having to be bleeped out. It is, though, strangely missing an intro segment with Bill Shatner calling Leonard Nimoy and asking him to be part of the evening.
The only really enjoyable pieces are the sporadic pieces of archive footage of Bill hamming it up in various shows and commercials, just because he couldn’t turn down the paycheck… Ah, I think I’ve just realised why he agreed to this.
There are barely any extras on this disc. A ‘making of’, a paltry few red carpet interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette help fill up the disc.
Comedy Central: Roast Of William Shatner is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.