Flanked by a squadron of dancing German maidens and swinging his best Vegas-ready groove, David Hasselhoff -- former "Baywatch" star, European rock god, ex-"America's Got Talent" judge and drunken YouTube sensation -- stormed into a packed Sony Studios soundstage and launched into a hearty rendition of the '70s classic "Hooked on a Feeling."
"I'm high on believing that you're in love with ME!" "The Hoff" crooned, maneuvering through a throng of cheering fans and celebrities for the taping of "The Comedy Central Roast of David Hasselhoff," which premieres Sunday on the cable network.
But sometimes love hurts. A highlight reel showcasing Hasselhoff's career was punctuated by the cringe-provoking home video of him shirtless on the floor of a hotel room, slurring his words and drunkenly trying to eat a hamburger while his daughter pleaded with him to stop.
And as he sat above the proceedings in a lifeguard chair, a parade of comedians and a surreal mix of personalities including former costar Pamela Anderson, wrestler Hulk Hogan, actor George Hamilton, comic Gilbert Gottfried and talk-show host Jerry Springer spent more than three hours killing Hasselhoff softly with their jokes, labeling him a washout, a lush and a has-been.
"How can you embarrass a man who so thoroughly embarrasses himself?" quipped roast master Seth MacFarlane, creator of Fox's hit "Family Guy." Comedian Lisa Lampanelli cracked that Hasselhoff's liver was so black it could have sex "with two of the Kardashian sisters." Greg Giraldo told Hasselhoff that when alcohol does its taxes, "it lists you as a dependent."
"How's that chain of all-you-can-eat-off-the-floor restaurants working out for you?" joked Jeffrey Ross, stealing a look at the guest of honor. As the comic carnage continued, Hasselhoff grimaced, moaned and shifted in his seat, but a smile rarely left his face.
Hasselhoff, 58, is the 15th "guest of honor" of the Comedy Central Roast, a series of annual specials which have grown in the last few years into the network's most popular offering, attracting between 2 million and 3 million viewers. Uncensored versions of the roasts have been hot sellers on DVD, also boosting the visibility and profiles of Lampanelli and Ross.
Producers say the Hasselhoff roast, which follows comedic skewerings of Anderson, Flavor Flav, William Shatner and Bob Saget, is perhaps the most lavish and meticulously produced yet.
A tradition of teasing
The Comedy Central roast is a steroid version of the tame televised roasts Dean Martin hosted in the 1970s. And in the end, the "roast" is a crash course of affection and tribute for the roastee. The jokes, while vicious in content, are never meant to be personally harmful. It is one of the few forums where seasoned comedians and celebrities can feel comfortable in blasting one another with the understanding that nothing is to be taken seriously.
After the Hasselhoff event, Ross said, "This is what the true comedians do when we get around each other, when we can feel the freedom of creativity."
The tradition of "roasting" began with the Friars Club of New York, a fraternity of show business insiders, in 1909 and became a more formal event in 1949, when Maurice Chevalier was the first "roastee" at a luncheon. Distinguished by dirty jokes and ribald humor, the events are designed to honor celebrities with "spectacular careers.'"
Said Michael Caputo, general manager of the Friars Club: "We only roast the ones we love." Quentin Tarantino is scheduled to be roasted by the Friars Club this October, with Samuel L. Jackson as roast master.
Still, the no-holds-barred nature of the roasts have sparked controversy. A 1993 Friars roast of Whoopi Goldberg drew fire when then-boyfriend Ted Danson appeared in blackface and used racial slurs. The Pamela Anderson event in 2005 was nearly overtaken by Courtney Love, who repeatedly interrupted the proceedings with outrageous and apparently inebriated behavior.
In 1998, Comedy Central started airing roasts held by the Friars Club of New York before deciding in 2003 to produce its own.
Agreeing to be mocked
When he agreed to participate in Comedy Central's event, Hasselhoff knew his campy acting career, his enormous popularity in Germany and his problems with drinking would make him an easy target, particularly because he has mostly stayed quiet about his notoriety.
Yet he prepared for weeks for the grilling and approached the event not as an ordeal but as the best and funniest way to address his notorious past and put it behind him.
Said Elizabeth Porter, Comedy Central's senior vice president for talent and specials: "David was game, thoughtful, strategic, hilarious and open. He can say, 'I've fallen down and messed up. And you know what? I'm going to deal with it in a humorous way. I'm going to deal with the elephant in the room, drag it out, shoot it and then it's done.' "