Before his career renaissance as Boston Legal‘s Denny Crane, William Shatner’s legacy was pretty well wrapped up. His performance as Captain James T. Kirk, with his clipped, exaggerated acting style, is as embedded in American culture as Bugs Bunny. Recently, after years of resisting the role that made him famous, Shatner has come to terms with his Trek past, becoming a self-aware, meta-comical presence on television, not just as an Alzheimer’s-afflicted lawyer, but also as a spokesman for Priceline.com and Direct TV. William Shatner is no longer Captain Kirk. Captain Kirk is SHATNER.
And so, a Comedy Central Roast of William Shatner sounds like a good idea: the man once performed dramatic interpretations of “Rocket Man” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” starred in T.J. Hooker, and inspired legions of bad impressions. Shatner’s career is as infamous as it is legendary, and looks like a joke-rich vein. Unfortunately, this roast is anything but rich.
Host Jason Alexander — apparently selected, he says, because he was “inspired to act” by Shatner — puts it best when he calls the assembled roasters “a veritable “‘Who’s that?’ of comedy.” Jeffrey Ross, Greg Giraldo, and Lisa Lampanelli are primarily known for their appearances on previous roasts. Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols and George Takei also grace the stage, but their inclusion only serves to demean their own careers, which make Shatner seem like Olivier by comparison.
The format is much the same as other Comedy Central roasts. After Shatner enters the theater on a horse and takes his place onstage in the original captain’s chair from Star Trek, Alexander throws a few zingers, then hands over duties to the comedians. The show has comic moments (commenting on Shatner’s weight gain, Ross says, “You have let yourself boldly go”), but the roast isn’t so much funny as it is forced. It’s essentially a bunch of comedians trying to outdo one another with crass jokes (Giraldo: “William Shatner has been in more turds than Andy Dick’s penis”), borderline racist jokes (Patton Oswalt: “Lisa Lampanelli’s fucked more black guys than the Tuskeegee experiments”), and homophobic jokes (again, Giraldo).
In the case of Betty White, what’s shocking is who’s telling the joke. Shatner’s costar on Boston Legal, White is a veteran of many Friars’ Club roasts from back when Nichols, who is black, “wouldn’t have been allowed in.” She claims to have had sex with Shatner just before the show and that she caught “plump little troll” Oswalt “going up” on Farrah Fawcett, whose train wreck of a performance is like a peek into an alternate future where Anna Nicole Smith lived.
Missing from all the filth and fake fury is spontaneity. Many roasters saunter up to the podium to do their bits with sheets of crumpled paper, their rehearsed readings devolving into mere drunken recitations. The worst of these is the night’s final performer, Lampanelli, whose shtick includes black jokes, Jew jokes, Japanese jokes… you get the picture. Her 21st-century vaudeville one-liners (“Jeff Ross is so unlikable that on MySpace, even Tom won’t be his friend”) owe less to Henny Youngman and more to a men’s room wall. Her halting, stilted act is humorless and insulting not to Shatner, but also viewers.
Viewing this roast once, in its original, edited version, I laughed, at times very hard. Re-watching this uncensored DVD, however, was an exercise in patience. Bonus features include throwaway red carpet interviews by a clearly drunk Jesse Klein (of VH1 fame) and a minute and a half of Shatner discussing the show with the producers. Though my jaw dropped when I heard a former Golden Girl working blue and Sulu telling Kirk, “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,” after the shock wears off, these jokes don’t stand on their own.
Good stand-up — Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Bill Cosby — feels crafted, like a compelling novel or classic album. These brief walk-ons sound as if they were scrawled on cocktail napkins in the green room before the show. The comedians’ nearly complete disconnection from the guest of honor speaks to Shatner’s cultural status: anyone off the street can make fun of the guy.