It's no secret that the Internet can be a hub for bullying. What may come as more of a surprise, however, is that some people actually ask to be bullied in the form of personal roasts. During a roast, swarms of people target one individual for the sake of comedy.
The Friars Club is responsible for the cultural visibility of roasts, having hosted formal roasts since 1949. From 1998 to 2002, the Friars Club worked with Comedy Central to air high profile roasts of celebrities on TV, and though this particular partnership has since dissolved, both places still host their own ridicule sessions. Last year, Comedy Central famously roasted embattled musician Justin Bieber.
Roasting, however, isn't limited to A-listers.
Reddit has a well-known thread called RoastMe, where regular people open themselves up to chastising from strangers, and the page has more than 200,000 members.
So why do people subject themselves to roasts?
It might seem odd to welcome a wave of insults on a platform that is already well known for bullying, but many understand the appeal.
In 2004, psychology professors published a study about the social consequences of disparagement humor, or jokes that belittle or denigrate others. Study co-author Dr. Thomas Ford told ATTN: via email that this type of amusement functions as a "social lubricant." This means that roasts, which are a form of disparagement humor, can serve as a way for people to feel more comfortable around each other.
"In 1972, [sociologist] William H. Martineau proposed that disparagement humor can function as a 'lubricant' or an 'abrasive' for social relationships depending on the social setting in which it occurs," Dr. Ford said.
Dr. Ford added that if a roast takes place among friends who already like each other, so long as it is "interpreted in a light-hearted, non-serious, 'humor mindset,' it doesn’t have to be perceived as a threat or an insult."
Rather, roasts can strengthen bonds in communities.
Dr. Ford cited a Native American ritual as an example of how people connect in a playful manner.
"In a 1998 ethnographic study of American Indians, researchers observed 'razzing,' a form of disparaging humor that’s much like a roast, which functioned to affirm common bonds among participants," Dr. Ford told ATTN:. "So, people might subject themselves to roasting and social disparagement when they’re confident in the intention to use humor to affirm social relationships among friends."
Nichole Force, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and writes comedy club reviews for the Los Angeles Examiner, told Everyday Health in 2011 that roasts can be an "initiation" of sorts into a social circle.
"Roasts are to comedians what ‘jump-in’ initiations are to gang members — a means of determining whether or not the initiate is strong enough and worthy enough to be a member of the exclusive club,” Force said. “They are not enjoyed so much as endured.”
Last fall, journalist Amy Molloy revealed in a piece for The Telegraph that she enjoyed being roasted on Reddit's RoastMe thread because it drew attention to her.
"[E]ven though every comment [about me] was scathing, I finally understood why so many roastees were doing this when I felt a strange sense of pride at noting my picture had been viewed 2,326 times," she wrote. "After all, I'm part of the generation that thinks all publicity is good publicity, and believes it’s better to be talked badly about, than not talked about at all."
She added that there's something to be said about negative comments from people who have no attachment to the roastee and are therefore totally honest with their criticism.
"Perhaps it’s a sign of our times that Millennials are turning to the Internet for feedback," Molloy wrote. "After all, if you want an honest opinion on your hair style, who would you trust – the hairdresser you paid to cut it or a stranger who has nothing to lose?"
Laughing at ourselves can also make us more attractive.
A 2008 study published in Evolutionary Psychology found that self-deprecating humor has the potential to boost sex appeal.
"Many studies show that a sense of humor is sexually attractive, especially to women, but we've found that self-deprecating humor is the most attractive of all," anthropologist and study author Gil Greengross told The Guardian in 2008. "[In the study], the frequent use of self-deprecating humor in sexual contexts - with potential mates, established mates or sexual rivals - was astonishing. People who used this humor were considered to be far more desirable as mates."
There are limits, though. The research also found that self-deprecating humor might backfire for lower status people compared to their higher class counterparts.
"Think about the secondary-school child whom nobody liked, who makes fun of his shortcomings in sports," Greengross continued. "His peers mocked him and he was considered more pathetic that he was previously. This is high-risk seduction. It is not for everyone."
Why people love roasting others.
Dr. Ford's 2008 study revealed that people enjoy disparagement humor against others because it heightens their own sense of self.
“Roasts point out moments in which people are stupid, clumsy, defective, and unfortunate,” Dr. Ford told Pacific Standard in 2015. “In that moment, we feel good, because we’re not by comparison defective. So we can get a lot of amusement by getting that sudden boost in self-esteem, because we’re not as idiotic as the person being roasted.”
Dr. Ford told ATTN: that while roasts can be fun and entertaining, there's always the possibility that they'll cross the line and hurt someone's feelings.
"Roasts might run the risk of 'going too far,' of poking fun at something about a person they are not able to laugh at," he said. "If a person is not able to interpret the roast in a light-hearted, playful mindset, it might hurt rather than amuse."