The Decline of Roman’s Empire

Comedian Marc Maron stood behind the glowing glass podium wearing a tuxedo and a befuddled look. “Am I bombing already?” he asked the black-tie crowd at the Sept. 28 New York Friars Club roast of Chevy Chase, after telling a couple of stinkers.

Tepid laughter rose up from the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom. He had his answer.

“Terrific. Great,” Mr. Maron said. “I’m the first nobody to get up here and tank.”

By the end of the evening, Mr. Maron could find some solace in the realization that though he was the first nobody to tank at the Friar’s annual exhibition of comic bloodletting, he was certainly not the last. The potential for failure has always been a key component of the roast’s heady appeal. “The mixture of some people being incredibly funny and some people bombing is part of the tension of roast,” said Bill Hilary, executive vice president and general manager of Comedy Central, the cable network that for the last five years has been taping the events and airing an edited, expurgated version.

But this roast was decidedly different. Mr. Hilary, who was in the Hilton audience on Sept. 28, agreed that “some people bombed like I’ve never seen them bomb before.” Indeed, though the roast had its moments of comic ingenuity, for the first time in a long time it was dominated by mediocrity and, at times, worse. In addition to Mr. Maron, Andy Kindler and Kevin Meaney landed with incredible thuds, and a number of other comedians-Greg Giraldo, Greg Fitzsimmons-were underwhelming at best.

If there was some greater meaning to be found among the groans, uncomfortable silences and flop sweat, it was this: the art of the roast-of eviscerating a man with a combination of comedy, anger and truth-was dying. A generational chasm had opened between the older comedians who had learned how to kill in the smoky nightclubs and private Friars Roasts of the 60′s and 70′s, and the younger generations who had grown up with therapy and cable channels, hungry for talent that maybe wasn’t as sharp as it could be. And as Comedy Central’s cameras rolled on Sept. 28, that dissonance had become evident.

But help is on the way. On Sept. 30, Friars dean Freddie Roman told The Observer that he was in the process of arranging for six seminars to be held over the course of the next year to teach the club’s younger comedians “how to deal with the roast.”

“I just want to teach them to go to the next level,” said Mr. Roman, who added that he’s going to approach such roastmasters as Buddy Hackett, Dick Capri, Jeffrey Ross and other killers to train the comic plebes. “Unfortunately, I’ll have to be at most of them,” he said.

Mr. Roman explained that the seminars will give the greenhorns “a little primer” on “how to prepare” for a roast, as well as “how not to be intimidated” up at the podium. Other pointers: “You have to know when to get off,” he said. “Sometimes you’re a big hit and you’ll say, ‘I’ll stay another five minutes.’ And then you’re in the toilet.”

And Mr. Maron, take note. One other rule that the Friars vets will be teaching, according to Mr. Roman: “You can’t walk out to the audience and say, ‘I’m going into the tank here.’ You can’t put that thought into the audience’s mind.”

On one hand, that gave the event a kind of ironic symmetry with its guest of honor. Mr. Chase’s career had its moments of brilliance-most notably during his work on the inaugural season of Saturday Night Live in the mid-1970′s-but it also has been dominated by mediocrity (roles in the movies Under the Rainbow , Oh, Heavenly Dog! and Memoirs of an Invisible Man ) and worse: his six-week-long stint as a Fox talk-show host.

On the other, it made the event often hard to sit through. As roaster Todd Barry said during his time at the podium: “It’s just pretty sad when the most talented guy at the Chevy Chase roast is Chevy Chase.”

And perhaps that’s what Mr. Chase wanted. In the days following the roast, Friars members were grumbling that Mr. Chase was not the warmest or most cooperative of honorees, even though he’s one of only two members-Milton Berle being the other-who have been roasted more than once.

“Chevy put a pall on everyone prior to the roast,” said one high-ranking Friars member, who added that Mr. Chase’s lack of warmth “intimidated” some of the younger comics who had little or no relationship with him.

But the disappointment of this year’s roast suggests that Comedy Central and the Friars have come to a crossroads. The Friars dais this year was noticeably bereft of the great roast veterans. Friars Abbot Alan King was supposed to be there, but apparently missed his plane. Dick Capri, who has killed in previous years, was relegated to the audience. Jeffrey Ross, a young comedian who works in the old-school style and has been a hit at the last four consecutive roasts, was nowhere to be found. And Gilbert Gottfried, who had people coughing up bits of lung at last year’s roast, simply sat on the dais like a slab of lox in a white tux.

Representation of the Friars old guard fell to one man, Friars Dean Freddie Roman, who had to bear the brunt of the prostate and steam-room jokes that inevitably get hurled at the veterans. The evening’s roastmaster, Late Show with David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer, had a couple of good ones: “Freddie first gained notoriety when he and Icarus flew,” he told the crowd, adding that Mr. Roman was “so old the Gallo Brothers are using his ass for a wine cellar.”

Comedy Central’s five-year-old agreement to cablecast the roasts has been a boon-financially and otherwise-to the Friars Club, but it has also come with a Mephistophelean catch: The cable channel’s key demographic is 18-34, and as Mr. Hilary told The Observer , “We need that younger mix.” Asked if the channel was no longer interested in the older comedians who know their way around a roast, Mr. Hilary first said: “Al Franken’s not that young.” Then, later in the interview, he added: “I’ll be honest. I don’t want the show to be irrelevant to our demographic.”

But Mr. Hilary, who only needs to fill 40 minutes of time, said: “We’ve got a great show.” That show will premiere on Comedy Central on Dec. 1.

Mr. Roman concurred: “It wasn’t our worst roast ever and it wasn’t our best. But because of the magic of television editing, the hour will look hilarious.”

No one was thinking about tanking when the Friars roast of Mr. Chase began. The balding, graying Mr. Chase, looking a bit like Hunter S. Thompson in his tux and impenetrable sunglasses, was led to his big maroon Barcalounger. He was flanked by a massive dais that was populated by Oz creator Tom Fontana, Oz actors Chris Meloni and Dean Winters, tennis player John McEnroe, his wife, former rocker Patty Smyth, actor Tony Lo Bianco and what seemed like half the payroll at David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company: Ed producer Rob Burnett, as well as two of the show’s stars, Julie Bowen and Lesley Boone; Late Show producer Maria Pope, Late Show warm-up comedian Eddie Brill and the Late Show band. Besides Laraine Newman and Al Franken, no one from SNL showed up.

A spokesman for Worldwide Pants said the group had turned out to cheer on Mr. Shaffer. And just as he had done at a roast of Richard Belzer last year, Mr. Shaffer proved himself worthy of the job.

Mr. Shaffer, who’s one of the Wallendas of showbiz parody, opened the evening accompanied by a bevy of chorus girls in skimpy red outfits with black fringe.

“A man gets the dais that he deserves / How sad the dais,” Mr. Shaffer crooned.

“Ooooooooooooooh,” went the chorus girls.

“You call this a show? / How can you roast a man when no one will go / And sit on the dais? / Jack-shit for a dais / How sad the dais / It blows!”

Then Mr. Shaffer took a little poke at himself. “I know what you’re thinking / Who’s Shaffer to talk? / This guy got his job / Sucking Letterman’s cock.”

But then, after dunning himself, Mr. Shaffer pretended to get angry. As the music still played, he delivered a faux screed of showbiz bitterness: “Yeah, well, fuck you-fuck all of you, at least I’m earning a check. I’m serious. You can all go fuck yourselves, until I say-” The chorus girls surrounded him and calmed him down.

“You’d think, though, Chevy would be doing better than he is,” said Mr. Shaffer. He wore a black tux, an off-white tie and sunglasses. His clean-shaven head glimmered beneath the television lights. “After all, he is one of the few straight members of Hollywood’s gay Mafia. The gay Mafia is just like the real Mafia except the phrase ‘sleeps with the fishes’ refers to Anne Heche’s twat.”

“What happened to Chevy’s career?” Mr. Shaffer wondered, then replied: “I can answer that question in three grams.”

“I gotta tell you it’s too bad that Chevy isn’t beloved in another country, like Jerry Lewis is in France,” Mr. Shaffer said. “Think about this, even in Korea where they eat fucking dogs they still don’t think he’s funny. They think he’s likable, they just don’t think he’s funny. Actually they don’t even think he’s likable.”

Mr. Chase’s poker face betrayed a grin.

“North or South,” he asked Mr. Shaffer. It was the first of several interjections that Mr. Chase threw to derail his tormentors.

Mr. Shaffer shrugged him off then attacked the dais. He identified the Oz actors, Mr. Meloni and Mr. Winters, as “two guys who spend every Sunday night getting brutally ass-fucked in the shower, and then they go film the show.” He also said he had “two words” for Food Network personality Bill Boggs: “Why?”

Then it was back to Mr. Chase. Mr. Shaffer said that his wife, Janey, was not in the room. “She’s blowing Mike Myers so he’ll give Chevy a job in his next picture. If everything goes well, Chevy could be driving that little midget back and forth to location.”

When the laughter subsided, Mr. Shaffer dropped a beauty of a show-business insider’s joke: “How about that new Saturday Night Live book,” he said. “They were pretty rough on Chevy. I haven’t seen anybody eat that much shit since the biography of Danny Thomas.”

But, Mr. Shaffer added: “Tonight, it’s all about the love.”

The roastmaster then introduced Mr. Franken as a guy with “big balls. Unfortunately, they’re on his chin and they belong to Cedric the Entertainer.”

“I have to give Chevy credit,” Mr. Franken said in his slow drawl. “Chevy Chase is in on the joke of having become a joke. [Joe] Piscopo, for example, doesn’t get it.”

“But I think a serious contribution that Chevy had made to our society is to show people how to deal with a chemical dependency problem,” Mr. Franken said. “I’m talking, of course, about Chevy’s heroic struggle against his addiction to back pills.

Because of Mr. Chase’s honesty about his addiction to “back pills,” Mr. Franken said: “I think there are a lot of kids out there, Chevy, who because of you are dealing with their backs through stretching, lifting with their knees and sleeping on a firmer mattress because they were scared straight after seeing the double feature of Under The Rainbow and Oh, Heavenly Dog! “

Noting the lack of big names on the dais, Mr. Franken said: “There’s a reason for that. Which is that Chevy has always been an arrogant prick. Which Paul, Laraine, Beverly and I never held against him, unlike Steve Martin, Marty Short, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Lorne Michaels, Goldie Hawn, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, Christie Brinkley, Randy Quaid and evidently his wife.”

Mr. Franken said that when he sat down to write his roast speech, he thought: “Maybe roasting Chevy is almost too easy. I mean there’s just a wealth of stuff to go after, the bad movies, the painfully embarrassing talk show, the drug addiction. The career down the tubes. But then I thought maybe it isn’t too easy. Maybe this is going to actually be kind of tough. Because the basic premise of every roast is that underneath all the kidding, the cheap shots at the guy’s career, the personal foibles …. Underneath all of that, there’s always a subtext of real affection for the guy and I don’t know anyone here who actually likes Chevy.”

According to Mr. Shaffer, Ms. Newman was “due here at the Hilton anyway to blow a Shriner. And we’re thrilled that she’s performing double duty tonight.”

Ms. Newman, looking like she’d had a bit of work since her SNL days, told the crowd that she had dug out her diary from her first seasons at the show. Her Dec. 2, 1975, entry read: “Dear Diary. The show is being plagued with bad luck. Danny had a psychotic break. Belushi’s gone missing and Lorne had a polyp removed from his colon. The biopsy showed that the polyp was actually Chevy up Lorne’s ass.”

Mr. Shaffer liked that one. His baby’s wail of a laugh cut through the white noise of the crowd.

From here, the roast took a nose-dive. If Todd Barry-”If I were a casting director for dinner theater in Wilmington, Del., I would have an erection right now”-did respectably then Mr. Meaney, star of the short-lived sitcom Uncle Buck , dropped the equivalent of Fat Man on the audience. Mr. Meaney said it was his first roast and there was no reason to doubt him. Inexplicably, he sang a rendition of “Winter Wonderland” to Mr. Chase alternating as Johnny Mathis and Ethel Merman. At one point, he told the crowd: “It’s nice when you can individually thank people in the audience for laughing.”

The confidence level returned to the room when Richard Belzer replaced Mr. Meaney. Mr. Shaffer introduced him by saying that on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit , Mr. Belzer plays “Detective Munch.” Added Mr. Shaffer: “I don’t have the end to this joke, it’s just something, something, something Rosie O’Donnell.”

Mr. Belzer countered that Mr. Shaffer looked “like he’s been blowing Moby.”

Mr. Belzer didn’t exactly kill. His opening shot at Mr. Chase-”I knew Chevy when he was almost nice”-got a lukewarm response. But he also showed no fear toward the audience. “Don’t give me fucking courtesy laughs because I’ll go out in my limo and get a blowjob in five seconds,” Mr. Belzer said when the joke sputtered. “I’m the kinda guy I don’t have to get fuckin’ laughs, so you better shape the fuck up right now.” That earned him applause.

Mr. Belzer’s second joke about Mr. Chase was better. “Chevy’s dad told me that when Chevy was a little boy he used to masturbate a lot and one day his father caught him masturbating and said, you keep doing that, and someday you’re going to be starring in Fletch Lives .”

Most of Mr. Belzer’s parting shots were reserved for Mr. King, but since he didn’t show, Mr. Belzer used them on Mr. Roman. “I don’t want to say he’s a bad comic, but Jack Ruby had a longer television career,” Mr. Belzer said.

Mr. Chase’s Vacation co-star Beverly D’Angelo was next. Mr. Shaffer told the crowd that the blond actress, who’s looking a little zaftig since giving birth to twins, had “just sunk her teeth into one of the meatiest roles of her career. But enough about Al Pacino’s cock.”

Ms. D’Angelo proved she could dish it out as well as take it. She then sang a little song that if it had a title would be called “I Can’t Fuck Without Falling in Love” which she said was the explanation she used to rebuff Mr. Chase’s advances on the sets of all those Vacation movies. “I can’t sit on a bone without wanting to pick up a phone/To say, Mama, I found Mr. Right!” went some of the lyrics. “I play the fool after I play with a tool,” went some more.

Greg Giraldo told Mr. Roman it was “an honor to share a stage” with him. “Coincidentally, my two year old son is also sharing a stage with you,” he added. “That stage where you refuse to wear your diaper but you can’t stop shitting on yourself.”

“My fucking luck, Alan King’s plane was late,” Mr. Roman said.

Stephen Colbert, correspondent of Comedy Central’s Daily Show was up next and he offered a nuanced, ironic ribbing of Mr. Chase that sounded like something you might read in The New Yorker . He was definitely a member of a new breed.

“As far as drug use is concerned, so what I say,” Mr. Colbert said. “A lot of performers, probably many on this dais here, have used drugs to relax them, to make them confident, to make them funny. And if there is a drug that can make Chevy Case funny, then I say that is a wonder drug. And a heaping bowl of whatever that drug is should be brought up to this dais and force-fed to Kevin Meaney.”

Mr. Colbert concluded his segment by saying he’d like to offer “a little bit of warning to the rest of the people” who were going to roast Mr. Chase. “Before you attack him, think,” he said. “There may come a day in your darkest hour when you are a shadow of your, albeit paper-thin self. And when that day comes, I hope that you are cheered up by something that Mr. Chase so famously said. He’s Chevy Chase and you’re not. If that doesn’t cheer you up, then I don’t know what will.”

Mr. Colbert’s schtick was about as far as you could get from the typical roast joke, and it was cleaner, but it was well-received-”That was great,” Mr. Shaffer said when he was done.

But the old way was not dead either as stand-up Lisa Lampanelli bracingly demonstrated. “She’s been called a cross between Don Rickles and Archie Bunker,” Mr. Shaffer by way of introduction. “But in fairness … she’s got a much younger looking penis.”

“True, I’ve got a big one. And I’ll fuck you Paul,” said Ms. Lampanelli who looked like someone had crossed Edie Falco with the Amazon race. “I will bang you like a dinner bell on the Ponderosa.” Ms. Lampanelli then warned Mr. Shaffer that if they did mate, he’d get stuck “in the crack of my ass.” She also told the roastmaster that “Everytime I see you on TV, it reminds me to clean my dildo.”

Then Ms. Lampanelli said of Ms. D’Angelo: “Apparently, Al Pacino likes the scent of an old woman.” Ms. Lampanelli returned to Ms. D’Angelo and her chemistry with Mr. Chase in the Vacation pictures. “I haven’t seen chemistry like that since Rosie O’Donnell poked Tom Cruise with her strap-on. In fact, it’s nice to see Rosie O’Donnell,” she said, then added: “Oh, that’s Freddie Roman.” Ms. Lampanelli’s follow-up on the Friars Dean: “Freddie Roman is here. His testicles will be here in 20 minutes.

And Ms. Lampanelli added that Vegas Vacation “sucked more than Pamela Anderson during a callback.”

Then Ms. Lampanelli did what she called her “fake sincere ending.”

“As my hero, Don Rickles would say, a comedian’s humor is directed to have us laugh at ourselves. We made a lot of jokes, but you’re truly immortal, if for nothing else than your role in Caddyshack alone. Right?” she said. There was applause in the audience.

Then Ms. Lampanelli demonstrated why she won’t have to attend next month’s roast primer. “Generation after generation, will always remember you as the guy we had to sit through to see Bill Murray.”

“Boy,” Mr. Chase said when it was all over. Mr. Shaffer laughed his laugh and then, as did most of the roasters, took their lumps. “In all sincerity Paul, I don’t like you much more than David Letterman does,” Mr. Chase said. “If I want to invite a bald, Jewish piano player up to the house, I’ll call Madeline Albright.”

But near the end Mr. Chase sounded a bit introspective-as introspective as a guy like Mr. Chase can be. “It did hurt,” he said. “It did feel at times like stuff I really think about myself…I know it was all in quote good fun, but boy it’s tough being me when you really do have some of those feelings. “On the other hand, you all came tonight,” he said.

Then he looked at the rest of the dais. “And I don’t think you came to see them.”