Earlier this month, on April 6, one of the greatest roasters of all time, Don Rickles, died at the ripe age of 90. He had the reputation of being the meanest mouth in show business. But in today’s anti-bully culture, he would be described as a bully. I invite you to watch a clip of the master performing his devilish art on Ronald Reagan, when he was governor of California.
Apropos Rickles’ passing, I am writing about an online phenomenon called “Roast Me.” On Roast Me sites, people invite visitors to insult them. The most popular is on Reddit. I was introduced to Roast Me by a parenting column describing it as appalling, a new venue for bullying. The truth is the opposite: Roast Me is an antidote to bullying.
Today’s counterproductive anti-bullying messages
The world has been trying unsuccessfully to combat the problem of bullying by teaching children how terribly harmful insults are. By promoting the revised jingle, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can scar me forever,” beginning from pre-school, anti-bullying educators have been hoping that by getting everyone to internalise this message, bullying will disappear from society.
Instead, this teaching has spawned a fragile generation who are more vulnerable to insults than ever. Bullying continues to be called an epidemic. News reports of children taking their own lives because they cannot tolerate being insulted are proliferating worldwide.
The dynamics of verbal bullying and the antidote
The dynamics of bullying are simple. The child gets upset when insulted. The insulters enjoy seeing their target getting upset, so they continue. The target thus gets stuck in an endless cycle of being insulted and getting upset. The solution is to stop getting upset when insulted. That is the purpose of the traditional jingle,
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.”
And that’s what the young people who make themselves targets on Roast Me are doing: developing resilience. They ask visitors to hit them with the worst insults they can think of, and they handle them without getting upset. In fact, they enjoy being insulted. Thus, Roast Me is not a venue for bullying, but its antidote.
The popularity of roasts
When in you’re in the mood for laughing, just find a roast. They put famous celebrities in a hot seat and their friends, relatives and colleagues take turns going up to the podium to insult him/her. Everyone, especially the roasted celebrity, laughs. The more scathing the insult, the greater the laughter. Furthermore, the most successful insults are based on true flaws or misdeeds of the celebrity. Finally, the celebrities get their turn to insult their roasters. The roast ends with hugs and other displays of affection.
A few decades ago, the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts were a resounding hit on TV. In more recent years, Comedy Central has been hosting celebrity roasts. The White House Correspondents’ Association holds an annual dinner in which the POTUS. is roasted. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were roasted and roasted each other — at a Catholic fundraiser, and even the Cardinal did his part. While there were also many positive statements made during the speeches, not a single one of those drew laughter. Only insults got laughs.
If insults can scar people forever, then why are roasts so popular? Why do people, including the targets of the insults, enjoy them?
Why insults make us laugh
When we do something biologically bad for us, we feel pain and, conversely, when we do something biologically good for us, we feel pleasure. Thanks to Reader’s Digest, we all know the saying, “laughter is the best medicine,” and scientific research has proven that laughing is healthy for us. But what makes us laugh?
Look at the following ten statements and decide which are funny and which aren’t.
- Your smile is contagious.
- I would ask how old you are, but I know you can’t count that high.
- You have impeccable manners.
- You’re so ugly Hello Kitty said goodbye to you.
- You are the most perfect you there is.
- When you were a child your mother wanted to hire somebody to take care of you, but the Mafia wanted too much.
- You light up the room.
- You must be the arithmetic man; you add trouble, subtract pleasure, divide attention, and multiply ignorance.
- You’re more helpful than you realise.
- You are so ugly, when you look in the mirror, the reflection throws up.
Did you find any of the statements funny? If so, it is likely that not a single one was an odd numbered. The funny ones were among the even numbered.
As much as compliments are pleasing to give and receive, they do not make us laugh. Insults do. But not just any insult. It has to be clever. Saying, “You are ugly” is not funny, but adding, “your reflection throws up” makes it so.
If laughter is healthy, then making fun of people must have a biologically positive purpose; it can’t only be negative. Perhaps the major purpose is to let us know what’s wrong with us. Otherwise, we can’t improve ourselves. As George Orwell said,
“The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.”
Humour is an antidote to narcissism
It is difficult to enjoy relationships with narcissists, and no other personality type has been as freely and massively attacked by popular psychology in recent years. Narcissists need to believe they are perfect and to be treated like they’re perfect. They cannot tolerate being criticised or insulted, and may even go into a rage when their image of perfection is assaulted.
Humour gives us pleasure because it is nature’s weapon against narcissism, preventing us from thinking we’re perfect.
Two sides of humour
There are two sides of humour. One side is being able to laugh at other people. Whenever we laugh at comedy shows, political satire and jokes, we are enjoying other people being ridiculed. We are chipping away at their narcissism. That’s why the media love making fun of Donald Trump. They want to drown him with evidence of his imperfections, and the public drinks it up. Donald Trump may be the best thing that ever happened to Saturday Night Live.
But if it is healthy for us to laugh at other people, whom are others going to laugh at? Us, of course! Logically, it can’t only be healthy to laugh at other people. It also has to be healthy for others to laugh at us.
Furthermore, it has to be healthy for us to laugh at ourselves. Those of us who can’t, suffer from excessive narcissism, from emotional fragility. Rather than laughing when made fun of, we get angry and upset. Emotionally mature people can take and make jokes about themselves.
John Gottman, the world-famous marriage therapist and researcher, found that a sense of humour is a necessary ingredient for a good marriage. The couple needs to be able to laugh at each other and at themselves, otherwise they take every little emotional insult too seriously and live in a state of constant resentment. One of the things that disturbs me most about Donald Trump is that he is far better at dishing out insults than taking them.
The wisdom of Sid Caesar
One of the most influential comedians of the previous century was Sid Caesar. He said,
“Learn to laugh at yourself, and you will find yourself laughing at things that would make other people cry.”
It means that if we can laugh at ourselves, it becomes very hard for anyone to hurt us emotionally. Rather than crying when people ridicule our imperfections, we will be able to laugh along with them.
Laughing at ourselves involves realising that we are not perfect, that others see our imperfections better than we do, and that people do not hate us because we are imperfect. In fact, people will like us better if we can make fun of ourselves, than if we demand they treat us like we’re perfect.
And that’s why the subjects of roasts laugh. Not only aren’t they getting upset when insulted, they are enjoying it, and the worse the insults, the harder they laugh. They are exhibiting the emotionally healthy response to insults. They can laugh at themselves and can serve as models for all of us.
Why are celebrities roasted?
The reason famous celebrities are publicly roasted rather than random people off the street is that celebrities are the individuals we are most likely to suspect of being narcissistic. The roasts show us that even the people we most admire and envy are not perfect, know they are not perfect, and can enjoy being made fun of publicly. If those we put on pedestals can enjoy being made fun of, then so should we.
And that’s where the Roast Me phenomenon comes in. Those who participate are not satisfied being spectators of roasts. They want the pleasure of being part of the live action. So they eagerly invite visitors to hit them with their best insults, and the visitors happily oblige. They try to outdo each other with insults, and they can rate each other’s insults and even insult the insults. A simple nasty insult gets low scores. A clever one gets high ratings. Thanks to the rating system, participants guide each other to become better at making people laugh.
Engaging in roasts, whether as insulter or target, is not evil or subversive. It is healthy and fun. The purpose is not to hurt people, but to promote resilience and sense of humour. They embody Sid Caesar’s sage advice. No one can hurt them by ridiculing their flaws.
We want kids to be resilient, not fragile. We need to replace the standard anti-bullying teachings with the wisdom and example of our great comedians.
Teaching people to be able to laugh at themselves may sound easier said than done, but I’ve been doing it for 40 years through the use of role-playing. By the end of one session, not only are most of them able to handle insults without getting upset, they even laugh if the insult is clever. The tens of thousands of professionals that have attended my seminars have witnessed this phenomenon in action.
Perhaps an effective ancillary tool for helping victims of bullying is to have them visit Roast Me or watch some of the countless roasts available online, so they can observe others handling the sharpest of insults. Just make sure that if you do so, you are referring them to a source whose content is age-appropriate. Don Rickles is a good choice, because though his insults are scathing, they are approved for prime-time viewing.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman is Director of Bullies to Buddies, a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems.