Pretty much an American invention, a “roast” encourages celebrities to mock and make fun of another celebrity, who is present and obliged to laugh along with the crowd. The first official roast took place at the New York Friars’ Club in 1949, the same year its subject–French entertainer Maurice Chevalier–performed at a Communist-sponsored protest against nuclear arms in Stockholm. Chevalier, it happens, was also accused of collaborating with the Nazis during the French Occupation (later to be acquitted) and after the roast was refused re-entry into the US because he’d signed the divisive Stockholm Appeal. Declared “potentially dangerous” by the US State Department, Chevalier–known for his trademark straw boater hat and cane–was ripe in ’49 for comical political dissection. Yet he is best known for singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” in his thick accent in the movie Gigi.
Today, cable TV network Comedy Central owns the American roast. And its latest subject (or object), Roseanne Barr, is no little girl – though the likes of Tom Arnold will try to convince us that we should thank heaven for her. Barr has issued no public opinion on the nuclear issue, though she has been rightly credited with showing Americans a different kind of nuclear family than they were used to seeing on TV. Roeseanne’s eponymous 1980’s TV series, scripted though it was, may have been America’s first dose of reality TV on primetime. To caretakers of the status quo, she was like Chevalier also considered “potentially dangerous.” She’s also famously a rather big target.