For someone who only recently turned 21, Justin Bieber is remarkably well known for feats few people would try while sober. Whether it's drag racing in a 30-MPH zone, drumming (and mugging) in his briefs, or falling off a skateboard in front of Madison Square Garden, he is seemingly always doing something that would only be attempted by your most obnoxious friend in college.
Certainly the guy must be aware of just how much people love to hate him. But does he actually, deep down, care about what people think? Let's say you gathered together 50 comedians and celebrities to hurl their worst insults at him for a televised event—how would he take it? And by watching him, would we see a glimpse of the "real" Bieber, human, pitiable even? Or would be it, as Hannibal Burress noted in an unaired barb, an "extremely transparent attempt to be more likable in the public eye"?
This was what I wanted to find out. And so, on a recent, sweltering afternoon in March, I drove to Culver City to attend the taping of "The Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber" at Sony Pictures Studios. I had been set up with a press pass and even a spot on the red carpet, where I could ostensibly behold the young pop star in the flesh.
It turns out the red carpet was actually white and the guarded domain of some of America's most indefatigable and socially adept celebrity video, radio, print, and internet reporters and bloggers, bearing a phalanx of camera crews, microphones, and digital recorders. Attired in bow ties or flowing dresses, nearly every one of the journalists appeared to possess preternaturally square, periodontally sound white teeth. As for me, I had unknowingly arrived looking more like a member of the catering staff (black pants, black shirt, black shoes). Every now and then I'd catch one of the servers directing an admonishing glance my way, as if to say, "You belong to us," before hurrying off to rearrange stream trays or locate napkins.
As celebrities began to arrive, the other members of the press jostled me out of the way as they vied for the attention of the various VIPs and almost-VIPs, shouting out the same list of inoffensive questions, for which they would always receive equally inoffensive if occasionally confused replies:
Question: "Why do you think Justin agreed to be roasted tonight?"
Reply: "He doesn't have to prove himself—he's a millionaire!"
Question: "On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your level of Bieber Fever?"
Reply: "Zero! No, but seriously, he's very handsome and successful."
Question: "What's your favorite Bieber song?"
Reply: "I don't know, man. I'm not really that familiar…"
At the end of the white carpet, a headset-wearing conductor coordinated a bandstand of teenagers, dressed up in their best piano recital wear, to scream on cue. Their shrill, piercing cries helped bring a kind of Kids' Choice Award flair to the proceedings, while also keeping us miserably conscious beneath the oppressive heat. I snapped blurry iPhone photos of passing celebrities, which I then texted to my boyfriend.
The other journalists, more experienced in Hollywood affairs, dominated the carpet, deftly maneuvering their cameramen into the best spots, weaving their microphones through mazes of each other's heads, and baiting celebrities with provocative tactics. One journalist had even dressed herself as Bieber, complete with "Baby"-era bowl cut, leather hoodie jacket, and individually glued on mustache hairs. In the end the only notable person I managed to actually speak to was Gloria Allred, the powerful Hollywood attorney. I had been standing directly in front of her, awkwardly snapping my cellphone shots while she calmly answered questions about Bill Cosby's repeated denials of rape and her 1987 induction-through-lawsuit into the previously all-male Friars Club, originators of the celebrity roast. As she was about to leave, I whispered, "YOU'RE AMAZING," and she winked at me, and for a moment I forgot about the stultifying, sun-choked atmosphere all around us.
After two hours of sweating and taking snapshots of Ludacris and Martha Stewart, I looked up to find that Justin Bieber had finally arrived, hair slicked back, mustache pubescent, although his mouth was set in a kind of grim expression, as though embarking on something unpleasant (which he was). Sweeping past the throngs of reporters yelling his name, he looked relieved to reach the orchestra of shrieking Beliebers positioned at the end of the carpet.
Once Bieber had completed his lap, the studio crews immediately set to work dismantling the carpet set, breaking down the bandstand, rolling up cables. We were ushered into the press room, a curtained-off area in the center of a cavernous studio lot, where we the press sat together on plastic folding chairs and viewed the roast as it was broadcast across two 40-inch TV screens. Reporters typed furiously on their laptops as I doodled on a legal pad and helped myself to catered brisket and an open bar.
Throughout the broadcast, the press room collectively chuckled or groaned appropriately, and although the roasters dutifully lambasted Bieber's dumb teenaged hijinks, it was all a little uncomfortable to watch. Not because the roasters were especially harsh—roast regular Natasha Leggero noted that, "Justin's fans are called Beliebers because it's politically incorrect to use the word retards," while fictional anchorman Ron Burgundy defended Bieber as a "full-grown man… a man who sings songs for nine-year-olds and cuts his hair like a gay figure skater"—but more because Justin looked so painfully earnest and expectant, almost fearful. We were watching a handpicked court of celebrity jesters politely indulge a tyrannical boy-king who very clearly and desperately wanted to be liked.
At the end of the proceedings, Bieber launched into an apology for his past bad behavior and thanked God for "never giving up on him." Through the television screens, I could sense a sudden hesitation in the audience. Could it really be so simple, that our obnoxious millionaire antihero was just a misunderstood and lonely child?
My warm feelings, as it turns out, were short-lived. After the taping, Bieber swung by the press room with Snoop, Shaq, and Jeff Ross in tow. For an international pop sensation, the guy has less offstage charisma than you'd expect. He suddenly became an uncomfortable, gawky teenager in a room full of curious adults, answering several questions with "yes," "no," or "whatever." Only when a younger reporter from Buzzfeed asked conspiratorially, "What are you doing to celebrate tonight?" did he respond with any enthusiasm: "I'm going to Vegas… on my jet, bitch!"