At one point during the Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber, host Kevin Hart asks the guest of dishonor, "This is like suicide. Why would you do it?"
It's less a quip, than the serious, central question of the roast, which airs Monday night. The TV special marks a risky move for a tarnished teen idol with a latent self-destructive streak: Either he's hammering another nail into the career coffin or he's betting humor will exorcise his largely self-made demons and spur a rebirth at age 21.
But as history shows with these bawdy Comedy Central insult fests, there's a thin one-liner between being in on the joke and becoming a joke.
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David Hasselhoff's 2010 roast – which aired as he tried to come back from an embarrassing and sad viral video of him writhing drunk on the floor eating a cheeseburger – marked his permanent transformation into a campy figure ("It's kind of ironic that you made millions playing a lifeguard, because every night you drown in your own sorrows," Jeffrey Ross told the former "Baywatch" star).
James Franco's 2013 stint on the rotisserie seemingly started out as another whimsical detour in his polymath path, but turned ugly at times ("If anyone bombs here, they're just doing an impression of James Franco at the Oscars," Nick Kroll cracked in one of the tamer barbs of the night).
The most unlikely triumph came for Charlie Sheen whose 2011 roast, following his self-immolation, ignited his Phoenix-like rise from the ashes (as host Seth McFarlane told the fallen "Two and a Half Men" star: "I never thought I would live to see the night that you would live to see this night").
Bieber might like to think his veins also are coursing with tiger blood, but his behavior over the last year-plus – including a DUI arrest and the egging of a neighbor’s house – suggest a cub out of control.
He's displayed, until recently, little sense of humor about his reported hard partying ways and his fall from his initial good-kid grace. That's a shame, because he showed glimmers of a talent for comedy in his 2010 "Saturday Night Live" appearance, playing a cute crooning schoolboy to Tina Fey's swooning teacher.
Now Bieber is a running "SNL" gag, with Kate McKinnon portraying him as a dim, ants-in-his-pants poseur. "My brain is broken," McKinnon-as-Bieber declared in a sketch last year.
To Bieber's credit, he praised McKinnon's recent takeoff of his Calvin Klein ad, tweeting, "Well played. lol." In another promising sign, Bieber reportedly turned serious after being roasted by the unlikely likes of Snoop Dogg, Martha Stewart and Shaquille O'Neal. "I've lost some of my best qualities. For that, I am sorry," Bieber said. "I'm looking forward to being someone who you guys can all look at and be proud of."
After the taping earlier this month, Bieber tweeted: "Tonight was one of the best nights ever. Thank you to everyone involved. Thank you."
His feelings might change after Monday's night roast airs as Twitter users render the final verdict. In meantime, check out a preview as Bieber bids to smash his bad-boy image and wipe the egg off his face.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.