As the New York Friars’ Club Roastmaster General and a regular on Comedy Central’s televised roasts, Jeff Ross is quite used to offending people. But what does he find offensive?
“People who are offended, to be honest with you. Crybabies, people who can’t take a joke, people who try to police free speech. I find that offensive,” Ross told The Weekender during a recent phone interview.
“If you’re getting laughs, then it can’t be too soon. I do occasionally think it could be too much. I try not to pile on a subject. I think anything is worth a joke or two if it’s a well-crafted idea.”
The 48-year-old has been working on that craft since he was a kid, though he wasn’t always training as a comedian. It was simply part of growing up.
“When you grow up in New Jersey, everybody has thick skin. Everybody thinks they’re a real ball-buster, and I think that’s part of it. Plus I grew up in a catering hall, a big restaurant, where ethnic humor and jokes about being the boss’ son definitely permeated my skin and toughened me up,” he recalled.
“It was sort of a happy accident where a college buddy, many years ago, sort of talked me into trying (stand-up comedy) because he thought I’d be good at it, so it wasn’t something I was dreaming about. It was something that happened accidentally and then sort of became a dream.”
He always knew, though, that he would be doing “something different,” studying film at Boston University and writing training films and working in advertising after college.
“I definitely didn’t see ‘insult comic’ (as a profession). There’s no guidance counselors who make that recommendation,” he cracked, instead envisioning himself as a filmmaker or a professional in the music industry.
“It was during the big boom in the stand-up world in New York, and I started hitting the open mics and next thing I knew, my hobby became my career.”
He describes his early jokes as “more observational and self-deprecating,” discovering insult comedy years later.
“My act featured love poems at the end of my set, which I still do on occasion. That was kind of my hook, and I didn’t really have the roast reputation until later in life. I didn’t even know what roasting was when I was a kid. It was just sort of another happy accident along the way, and when I figured out when these roasts were sort of my lane, I latched onto it. And it’s already gotten bigger than I ever could have imagined. The (Comedy Central) James Franco Roast is airing all over Latin America this weekend, so I just couldn’t have imagined that would ever happen.”
Ross was invited to a New York Friars’ Club Roast after members, looking for new blood, had seen him perform at a charity golf tournament. After making a few jokes and feeling right at home, he was asked back for a roast of action film star Steven Seagal.
“That was an easy one. My opening joke was, ‘A lot of you probably don’t know me, but I feel uniquely qualified to be here today because I’m also a shitty actor,’” he quipped.
While he doesn’t feel there’s too much of a difference between the Friars’ Roasts and the popular Comedy Central Roasts, he noted that the latter tends to be a more visual experience, with Ross often dressing up as newsworthy, sometimes deceased targets like Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi and Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.
“I feel like the Friars’ Roast is more of a show because it all happens in an hour and a half, and Comedy Central…gets edited down to a greatest hits package, where the Friars’ Roast you get to see people bomb and stuff. It’s got a little bit more of a narrative to it. I can goof on people for bombing and stuff or whatever happens,” he pointed out.
“Comedy Central, to their credit, they really mine the best parts. They put in sort of the sweet spots and the biggest jokes.”
The Paterno jokes may have hit a little too close to home for some Pennsylvanians, but Ross believes comedians have an obligation to do more than just make people laugh.
“It’s up to the comedians to shine a light on the dark sides of society. Otherwise, people forget. I remember asking my sister, who’s a special ed teacher, whether it would be all right to dress like Penn State coach Joe Paterno for the Roseanne (Barr) Roast. She said, ‘Well, Jeff, how many kids did we know growing up who were abused and molested?’ and I thought about it and I said, ‘None.’ She said, ‘Because no one ever talked about it.’ She said comedians have an obligation to shed light on the bad guys and the bullies. That’s what comedians try to do.”
It also requires a lot of work, including research on his famous marks.
“For James Franco, I watched his films and I read his poetry and watched his ‘Inside the Actors Studio.’ I really take it seriously. It’s like going to battle for me. I really dive into it. I like to roast from the inside out. I like to really understand the subject. And he’s an academic, so I really took it on like a research project,” he said.
He even had the opportunity to roast an animated Batman in “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” forced at gunpoint by the Joker to verbally take down the Dark Knight.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Ross said of the opportunity. “That’s when I really realized that roasting was just bigger than me. It was going to go on for generations because here were these Batman writers writing me into history. Now essentially the Roastmaster General is a character in Batman’s world too, so I was very, very flattered by that and the fact that I got to kick the Joker’s ass with a flying batkick really made me happy.”
With a book on the subject and a TV show called “The Burn with Jeff Ross,” he feels that roasting has developed from exclusive gatherings into a cultural movement.
“More and more, people are roasting each other and roasting each other at work parties and bachelor parties and backyard barbeques, so it’s not just about celebrities. For instance, when I do my show in Pennsylvania, it’ll actually be a roast of the audience. At a certain point, I’ll invite anyone to come on stage and be roasted, so if you’re reading this right now and you’re odd-looking or pregnant, you have a civic obligation to come on stage in my show and let me roast you,”
Yes, that’s right – when he brings his stand-up to the F.M. Kirby Center on Oct. 25, anyone in attendance could be burned during the “speed roasting” portion of the evening. But without extensive research to back up his jokes, what is the key to such off-the-cuff comedy?
“I think just listening and looking and not rushing the jokes and just trying to size up what it is. And also trying to surprise people. Inevitably, somebody will come up and they’re really tall and I’ll ignore that and I’ll make fun of their clothes. You catch them by surprise,” he explained, receiving everything from “tears of joy to fists of fury” in return.
“I haven’t escorted anyone out yet. Occasionally, I dismiss people before they even get onstage because they’re too drunk. People generally love it. They feel like it’s a badge of honor to get roasted. It’s sort of a souvenir. I think they enjoy being up there.
“Or they try to get me back, which I always enjoy… No one’s really crushed me yet.”
The only jokes he avoids are those that separate men and women, and for good reason.
“I feel like if a guy or a gal buys a ticket and they come to my show on a date, I want to put them in a sexy mood. I want them to have fun. I want to laugh you right into the bedroom after my show. I don’t want to create tension or any sort of negative dynamic,” he said.
“I want people to leave my shows horny.”
Leaving them randy or just plain happy, Ross clearly revels in pleasing audiences, even if he has to get mean to do it. Hoping for a third season of “The Burn” as he finishes filming his part in the upcoming comedy “The Wedding Ringer,” he feels like his career is all “flowing forward,” even if it wasn’t the one he intended to have.
“As I said earlier, this career has been full of happy accidents, so I don’t really know what’s in store,” he noted.
He only knows who his next target will be, and nobody is safe, not even The Weekender. When asked what his livelihood would have been if those happy accidents had gone a different way, he can’t help but bust our balls as well.
“I’d probably be interviewing some famous comedian right now.”