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Archy Goes to a Roast

I felt like Archy the cockroach, viewing life from the underside.

In this case, however, it wasn’t the physical grime of a New York alley, but the moral grime of a Friars Club Celebrity Roast in the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

You know what a roast is, other than being a hunk of meat.

A roast “honors” (their term) a person of note by ripping him or her to bloody shreds before a large audience and then, at the end, saying it was all in good fun, let’s kiss and pray and laugh together.

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I’ve only been to one of them, and that was a roast of Zsa Zsa Gabor the other night.

It was a dirty, mindless little performance by Milton Berle and a dozen or so others at the head table, during which scatological humor was elevated to the towering level of a dog’s behind.

Zsa Zsa bore it all with a dim smile, and at the end responded at a level of articulation generally matching the intellectual quality of the evening.

I am told she suggested that the judge who sentenced her for slapping a cop should be made to clean toilets, a reference to her own sentence of 120 hours of community service.

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In a way, they were all cleaning toilets that night, and the thousand or so who paid $150 each to be there seemed oddly appreciative.

Only Archy and I, and maybe one or two others, were uncomfortable with what passes as humor in the private enclaves of show biz.

Archy, a philosopher and poet, was created by the late author-journalist Don Marquis in the early decades of this century.

The little cockroach wrote of New York’s underbelly by hurling himself at the keys of a typewriter in the middle of the night in an abandoned newspaper city room.

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The New York of which he wrote consisted of Mehitabel the cat and Broadway the lightning bug and a winsome moth who sought, for better or worse, the secret heart of a flame.

The underbelly of Hollywood, of which I write today, is brighter and cleaner and glitzier that the back alleys of Archy’s days, but there’s a kind of wretched sadness to it too.

Take that Friars Club roast.

We had an aging beauty queen of minimal talent being taunted by old-time comedians straining to recapture past glories through endless references to the human erogenous zones.

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They should have held it at a Pussycat Theater.

I was there because, like Archy, it’s my job to be at such desperate little gatherings, even when good sense dictates otherwise.

And, like Archy, I am no stranger to sexual humor.

I was raised on the streets of East Oakland, spent a hitch in the Marine Corps and began writing a newspaper column at a time when people like Lenny Bruce were redefining public obscenity as a weapon of social protest.

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I even wrote a short story once about a couple who met and fell in love through an obscene telephone call.

All of those experiences contributed to my present ability to absorb the vilest kinds of comments relating to bodily functions. You want to talk dirty, fine, I’ll talk dirty.

But not before an audience and not to rip the heart out of another human being in the name of humor.

I’m sure Archy felt the same way.

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I didn’t stay for the whole evening. I left shortly after the circumcision joke, or maybe it was the joke about the gorilla’s penis or about Zsa Zsa’s sexual capacity, I can’t remember.

It really didn’t matter, because those I spoke with the next day said it was pretty much the same throughout.

Feminist Gloria Allred, the first woman admitted to Friars Club membership, called the evening racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and anti-religious.

Veteran entertainment columnist Frank Swertlow said it was probably milder than other roasts he’s attended, which leads me to wonder how bad these things really get.

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Uncle Miltie, as Berle is often called, was the master of ceremonies, and from the outset left no doubt as to what the night would hold.

He began with a description of Gabor as the queen of you-probably-know-what. That precipitated a long, slow slide into the sewer which, apparently, is the trademark of the Friars.

If there was a redeeming quality to an evening like that, it was its intent to raise $100,000 for the homeless, which I guess it did fairly easily, judging from the size of the audience.

As Archy once wrote, “coarse jocosity catches the crowd.”

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Well, maybe so, but you’d think that comics who have been around a thousand years would be able to make people laugh without playing with themselves in public.

Even coarse jocosity ought to have self-imposed limits.


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