Comedy Central roasts are machines designed to dole out pellets of delicious outrage to viewers and online pontificators. The celebrity roastee sits on the couch, comedians and random B-listers dish out titillating insults, and viewers at home gasp, “Did they just say what I think they said?!” So, acknowledging that I am playing a role in what is essentially a tightly scripted basic-cable drama: Did they just say what I think they said?!
The Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe aired on Monday night, and along with jokes about Lowe’s good looks (scathing!) were quips about the hilarious time he recorded himself having sex with a 16-year-old when he was 24. “You look like you’re sculpted,” said comedian Nikki Glaser. “You put the statue in statutory rape.” Jewel—yep, that Jewel!—revised the lyrics to “You Were Meant for Me” to tease Lowe about the incident. “Rob, you are such a whore, you completely forgot we hooked up before,” she sang. “You showed me your penis, when I was just 16-ish.” You get the idea. Lowe’s wife and their sons, who are just younger than he was when he made the tape, were in the audience as he roared with approval on stage.
The jokes were referring to events of almost 30 years ago. The young Brat Packer was in Atlanta for the 1988 Democratic National Convention, where he was scheduled to speak in support of Michael Dukakis. He met two women at a party hosted by Ted Turner at a club downtown, took them back to the Hilton where he was staying, and recorded the three of them in bed together. One of them turned out to be 16, and unfortunately for Lowe she grabbed the tape on her way out the door. The recording became public when the girl’s mother found it and filed a civil lawsuit against the actor for seducing her daughter. Clips aired on shows like Entertainment Tonight, pirated copies were rumored to be screened at clubs, and Lowe’s red-hot career was suddenly in peril.
Sixteen was two years above the age of consent in Georgia in 1988, and both Lowe’s hook-ups that night were willing partners. They even appeared to know they were being taped. (“Look at this when you’re done,” the tape shows Lowe telling them, “and see what you look like.”) In his 2011 memoir Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Lowe writes that he assumed the women were at least 21 because he himself had been grilled by the doorman upon entering the club.
Time eventually turns most scandals into one-liners, so the fact that Lowe’s indiscretion has become roast fodder should not be surprising. But time also turns some one-liners into scandals. Bill Cosby’s 1969 stand-up routine about slipping “Spanish Fly” into women’s drinks is now sickening to hear. Lowe’s offense is neither that appalling nor that clear-cut, of course. But a 24-year-old celebrity hooking up with a troubled 16-year-old is not something that has come to look cuter in the last three decades.
Lowe eventually paid the girl and her father an undisclosed sum, and luckily for him, they stayed out of the public eye. More luck: The district attorney chose not to prosecute him for recording a “pornographic movie” with a partner under 18. (If he had been charged and found guilty, he could have faced up to 20 years in prison.) Lowe has now been sober for more than 25 years—he has credited the sex tape with pushing him toward sobriety—and married to the same woman for almost as long. The spectacular bad judgment of that night in Atlanta is apparently long in the past. But what does it say about his judgment now that he seems to find it funny?