Roasted: Why we like watching others (think Justin Bieber) cringe

By Deborah Swearingen

Host a roast, and America will watch.

Roasts, like the one that polarizing pop star Justin Bieber will be subjected to on Monday, are the pinnacle of schadenfreude. Well-known comedians, actors and other stars take turns making fun of a chosen celebrity, who must sit back and take the heat, millions watching their embarrassment on TV, until the end – when they are given time to fire back.

Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina, said comedy roasts can be a positive form of public humiliation. Photo by Deborah Swearingen.

Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina, said comedy roasts can be a positive form of public humiliation. Photo by Deborah Swearingen.

Televised roasts have been a hit since their inception. Nearly 3.2 million viewers tuned in to Comedy Central in 2013 to watch the Roast of James Franco, a celebrity far less controversial than Bieber.

But, as a society, why are we so infatuated with seeing real-life people taken down a notch on TV?

“We often find it entertaining to find others making a fool of themselves,” said Randy Covington, a media ethics professor at the University of South Carolina. Covington also involves the idea of humiliation in media in his ethics classes, referencing a 2002 New York Times article on reality TV.

“More than sex, more than violence, humiliation is the unifying principle behind a successful reality show,” the article reads.

Viewers can also bond over the embarrassment of others, particularly when they are celebrities, said Mathieu Deflem, a pop culture enthusiast and USC sociology professor.

“We get a certain pleasure, if you will, in trying to remove people from that pedestal,” he said.

Roasts predate reality TV, Covington said, adding that they are typically a more gentle form of fun.

Deflem said that roasts can be productive, referencing an anthropological concept called mocking relationships, which shows that under certain circumstances, a person is mocked to resolve an existing tension.

“By mocking the other person, you actually show respect because you affirm that, well, there is that tension and that they have a certain authority,” Deflem said.

roastgraphiceditedHe added that a roast can actually be considered a form of praise. He said that although the jokes are a bit contrived, the celebrities always laugh along and make light of the situation.

Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, is hoping that the roast on Monday night could be a step in the right direction for his client as well. In a video interview with Inc. magazine, he said that the roast came at just the right time, given Bieber’s recent troubles – the teenage pop star was arrested for drunken driving a year ago.

“Part of it was just Justin being able to take it on the chin, and show the world that, look, I screwed up. I know I did. Let’s all talk about it. Let’s all laugh, and let’s move on. Because I’m a young man, I’m growing up, and I’m sorry,” Braun said in the interview.

Hosted by comedian Kevin Hart, Bieber’s roast features other celebrities like comedians Hannibal Buress and Natasha Leggero, rapper Snoop Dogg and even former basketball player Shaquille O’Neal. Deflem said he found it striking that so many celebrities were participating.

“So they think it’s OK to be associated with him,” Deflem said, smiling.

It’s the young star’s first go-round in roasting, so beware Beliebers – it gets a bit harsh.


Photo credit for top image is Joe Bielawa.

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