It's difficult to know where to place celebrity roasts amongst the current cultural climate.

Their raison d'etre has always been to stand as an exception the relative decorum of pop culture, a place where wild opinions and offensive jokes are free to exist for an hour or so, after which things go back to their cordial norms.

But as we are all so painfully aware, decorum left the building a while ago. Wild opinions and offensive jokes currently run free both on the internet and in the highest offices of power. So are roasts still relevant? Even as a cheap laugh?

Bruce Willis (L) and Emma Heming attend the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis at Hollywood Palladium on July 14, 2018 in Los Angeles. Photo / Getty
Bruce Willis (L) and Emma Heming attend the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis at Hollywood Palladium on July 14, 2018 in Los Angeles. Photo / Getty

That was the question I asked myself when I was invited to attend The Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis in Los Angeles recently. Here's how my experience played out:


I arrive at 4.00pm to take my assigned position on the red carpet amongst the international press corps.

They usually stick New Zealand at the very end of the carpet in the last spot, so by the time any celebrities get to us, if they even bother stopping, they're well and truly sick of talking thanks to the 25 or so journalists to my left.

So you can imagine my surprise when I discover that instead of being last, I'm fourth to last, with Germany, Sweden and The Phillipines on my right. New Zealand must be coming up in the world!

The California sun beats down as we await the roasters and celebrity guests. Just before they begin arriving, the German reporter brazenly moves up the line taking a spot several metres to my left, rendering me now third to last. This is unquestionably the worst thing a German person has ever done.

Some low-level talent saunters through before the first two big roasters adorn the red carpet: basketballer-turned-unlikely diplomat Dennis Rodman, and Cybill Shephard, Bruce Willis' co-star from the '80s show that made him famous: Moonlighting. They pose for photos together, do a couple of interviews and ignore the international press entirely.

Perennial roaster Jeff Ross appears next. The man known as the 'RoastMaster General' traditionally wears a somewhat outrageous costume for roast red carpets, and today he's dressed as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, accompanied by two women in North Korean military garb. And the gimp from Pulp Fiction, who is led on a leash by a little person also dressed as Kim Jong-un.

A general view of atmosphere during the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis at Hollywood Palladium on July 14. Photo / Getty
A general view of atmosphere during the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis at Hollywood Palladium on July 14. Photo / Getty

Ross doesn't look like he's going to stop for us international plebians, but then one of the women accompanying him reacts with delight to my little 'New Zealand' sign, squealing that she loves New Zealand and that her boyfriend is a Kiwi. Turns out her boyfriend is LA-based Kiwi musician Connan Mockasin. She drags Ross over, and I'm hopeful to get a quote, but all he can get out before being whisked away by a publicist is that he loves Connan Mockasin. Good to know.

MC for the evening Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, who played young Bruce Willis in Looper, arrives looking sharp in a white tuxedo. Does he stop for international press? He does not. Neither does roaster Edward Norton, who co-starred with Bruce in Moonrise Kingdom and just directed him in the upcoming film Motherless Brooklyn.


Bruce Willis arrives. The Brazilian journalist to my right correctly theorises that he won't stop for us. Roaster Martha Stewart walks the red carpet, but gives us no joy either.

Then David Hasselhoff, who was roasted in 2010, arrives, and poses for photographers in the classic "I'm talking to KITT on my watch" pose.

Amazingly, he deigns to stop and chat to the international press and we all crowd around hoping to get something usable, but spends the whole time waxing lyrical about the German arm of media outlet RTL to the journalist representing the Dutch arm of RTL.

Bruce's daughters Scout, Rumer and Talulah Willis dash past blowing kisses but not stopping. The red carpet is done. Time for the main event.

Us journos are seated at a table on the outer rim of the Hollywood Palladium, a storied venue on Sunset Boulevard.

Following an introductory video which layers new audio over Bruce's big scene in Pulp Fiction opposite Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), MC Joseph Gordon-Leavitt introduces Willis who drives in on a chopper like the one he rode in Pulp Fiction.

Comedian Nikki Glaser is the first roaster. She has a lot of harsh material about Cybill Shephard's advanced age. So far, so harsh, but her Willis material seems relatively soft.

Kevin Pollack comes out next and gets plenty of laughs, especially from his famously good impression of Christopher Walken, Bruce's Pulp Fiction co-star.

Shephard then steps up to the podium and makes a meal of her famously contentious on-set relationship with Willis. She has to retake several jokes, but acquits herself quite well despite clearly being inexperienced with this sort of thing.

Bruce is getting off pretty easy so far, with the evening feeling a bit more like a tribute than a roast.

Lil' Rey Howery (Get Out) is next up. "What am I doing here?" he asks up front. His lack of a real connection to Willis informs his set, which nevertheless includes a loving tribute to Die Hard.

Following him, the night's most unlikely roaster, Edward Norton, goes high concept with his contribution, skipping over his fellow roasters (who are usually subjected to mockery alongside the roastee) and giving a lengthy speech about how he wishes he was more like Willis: "You get away with everything. Can I cock my eye and say some cryptic shit that literally not one person in the room understands and have everyone laugh their asses off? I cannot."

Martha Stewart is next and is just okay. She previously participated in the Justin Bieber Roast..

Veteran comedian Dom Irrera follows her and absolutely kills, endlessly ribbing Norton for his past relationship with Courtney Love: "You never got famous enough for her to have you killed". Constantly abandoning jokes halfway through telling them, Irrera seems to have mastered the art of not giving a shit, and is arguably the only one going all in tonight. "Comedy Central roasts only the best people. Bruce, Donald Trump, that guy from Baywatch."

A "surprise" guest shows up next, and it's Bruce's ex-wife Demi Moore: "I look at our marriage like The Sixth Sense. You were dead the whole time."

It's time for Dennis Rodman to roast. He's been the subject of many jokes this evening about his relationship with Kim Jong-un so we expect him to come out swinging, but he really struggles. Repeatedly messing up his lines, starting again and emphasising the wrong part of the joke. He keeps apologising for his performance, explaining that he's never anything like this before. We can tell, Dennis. He limps to the end of his set.

Then Jeff Ross comes out and doesn't disappoint, starting his set of with "Tonight we honor the reason the world has a Vin Diesel. F**k you."

Ross touches on all the recurring themes throughout the evening: Bruce's baldness, his lack of Oscars, his singing career, the terribleness of his more recent films, most of which go straight to DVD. Again, it's a relatively kind affair, for a roast. Not nearly as harsh as they can often get. Maybe that's what roasts are for now. Niceness. Because the rest of the world is one big roast.

The final speech is from Bruce himself, and he takes the opportunity to clarify once and for all that "Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. It's a Bruce Willis movie!" Then he gets out his harmonica.

• The Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis screens tonight on Comedy Central at 9pm.