NEW YORK It's a tradition of the celebrity roasts at the Friar's Club that everything goes - that no joke is in such bad taste that it cannot be told. Friday, that tradition may have ended, as a roast for Whoopi Goldberg turned into such a tasteless display that some audience members hid their faces in their hands, and others left.
They cringed in disbelief during the opening monologue by actor Ted Danson, Whoopi's lover, who appeared in blackface and used the word "nigger" more than a dozen times during a series of jokes that drew smaller and smaller laughs, until finally the audience was groaning and Danson faltered as he tried to plow through his written material.
At one point he even ate watermelon.
His performance, the worst train wreck since "The Fugitive," was witnessed by more than 3,000 people filling the ballroom of the New York Hilton hotel at a $250-a-ticket charity benefit by the show biz organization. A blocklong dais featured more than 100 celebrities who sat stoneface through the monologue, including such prominent African Americans as New York Mayor David Dinkins, performers Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Anita Baker, RuPaul and Mr. T, and boxers Michael Spinks and Sugar Ray Leonard. A closed-circuit camera showed them looking embarrassed and uncomfortable.
During Danson's monologue, talk show host Montel Williams turned his back to the audience to study the closed-circuit screen. Then he stared at the floor. Next to him, director Gilbert Cates, who helmed the last three Oscarcasts, muttered, "This is terrible. It's way over the line. He's completely lost it." Williams nodded speechlessly, got up and walked off the podium. He later wired Friars chairman Bob Saks, comparing the event to a rally for the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation.
Friar's roasts, which are never taped for telecast, are traditionally raucous and obscene.
But the specter of a white man in blackface repeatedly using the word "nigger" and other strongly coded words seemed to cross a line that was sensed by most of the people in the room. The event demonstrated that the painful history of black-white relations in America is still too sensitive to be joked about crudely. Goldberg, whose real name is Caren Johnson, has used her entire career to try to break down racial stereotyping, and in encouraging Danson's approach she may have thought it would play as satire. But, as stand-up comics say when their material isn't working, he was dying up there.
Perhaps sensing that the material was not working, he lost confidence in his delivery, and his monologue seemed endless. "She dared me to do this," he said at one point. Danson, who played the bartender on TV's "Cheers," has been in a relationship with Goldberg since the two co-starred last year in "Made in America," a comedy about an interracial romance.
Dinkins said later that he was embarrassed and that the jokes "were pretty vulgar and many were way, way over the line."
Goldberg, seated next to Danson, laughed and smiled at the material. Speaking last, she defended her friend: "Let's get these words all out in the open. It took a whole lot of courage to come out in blackface in front of 3,000 people. I don't care if you didn't like it. I did."
Goldberg said in a statement Saturday that she knew what Danson and other speakers were planning and that "made the day particularly fun because these were people who love me.
"If people on the dais and in the audience were not aware of what the day was supposed to consist of, they should have checked to see what the tenor of these roasts are, and then made a decision as to whether or not they wanted to participate."
Black model Beverly Johnson also defended Danson's performance:
"If you can't see the humor at a place where there's supposed to be over-the-line jokes, then there's something really wrong."
Contributing: Associated Press