Stand-up comedian and writer Jeff Ross would be a wildly observational and cuttingly caustic – yet hopeful, even positively poignant – comic artist even if had not discovered the roast form that made him famous beyond belief through many a Comedy Central roast special. He’s got a great background story, diverse interests in education and tastes and the smarts to relay it. And, though Ross can play stand-up comedy crowds like a conductor leading an orchestra to mad laughter, the roasting format, a loving brand of tribute wrapped in jovial bile and bruising insults first put forth by the comic members of the New York Friars Club, is perfect for a comedian as wise, quick-witted and playful such as he. He can dish out the jokes, as much as he can take a roasting.
Plus, the New Jersey-born RoastMaster General is a hardcore Bruce Springsteen fan, one whose devotion can be witnessed by racing to the bottom of this feature for my exclusive as it relates to the title of this feature.
Ross’ stand-up tour schedule in taking him through Punch Line Philadelphia (March 17 – 18) and Mohegan Casino in upstate Pennsylvania (March 24), before heading out to San Francisco’s Cobbs Comedy Club (March 31-April 1).
A.D. Amorosi: What do you recall about coming to comedy in the first place – not the quote unquote funny-as-a-kid bit, but the mechanizations of getting you to your first stage appearances circa 1989?
Jeff Ross: It was nothing short of a happy accident. Or a miracle. I had never thought about being a comedian. I was into filmmaking, and studied that in college. Shortly afterwards, my college buddy Mark Chapin suggested that I take a class in comedy writing and performing. I took his advice and tried it out as a way to have a social life, and not really for ambitious reasons. I loved it right away. We had to do open mics at the end of the class, and I never looked back.
A.D. Amorosi: And Catch a Rising Star in New York was the first comedy club where you had any real impact?
Jeff Ross: I wouldn’t call it impact. They gave me 20 bucks a night just to sit there in case any of the scheduled comics didn’t show up. But I got to see Jon Stewart, Bill Hicks, David Brenner and Adam Sandler work, live and in person. To me, that was a good place to be.
A.D. Amorosi: I ask about Catch a Rising Star as its owner, Rick Newman, died not so long ago, as did Mitzi Shore from The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Richie Tienken, the founder of Comic Strip Live in New York, Budd Friedman, the founder of the Improv Club, and Keith Johnstone, the creator of Theatresports. All of these legendary club owners are recently departed, and my question is do you feel as if the new generation of comedy club owners and theater bookers have the same sense of curation as did the OGs you came up with? Where are they?
Jeff Ross: I think you’re asking a philosophical question. Where they are, literally, is at the back of the club judging us. It’s interesting. My feeling is that comedy club owners, the old ones and the new ones, seem to be just where they should be: standing their ground in their protection of comedians. More and more, I see the clubs adding security, and looking after putting phones in pouches so that the audience isn’t recording us, but rather laughing at us, and being in the moment. I feel as if comedy clubs are the last bastions of free speech in America – where there are little or no repercussions for saying whatever it is that you want to say. You are allowed to say what you want, allowed to make mistakes, allowed to try things and experiment. That’s one of the reasons that I love the clubs.
A.D. Amorosi: Are you a pouch guy or not a pouch guy?
Jeff Ross: I’m a pouch guy. I prefer it. I feel more emboldened on stage knowing that I am not being recorded, and having my words being taken out of context.
A.D. Amorosi: The last time we spoke was before the pandemic, for the Bumping Mics tour that you did with Dave Attel. We spoke then about coming to your roasting, how a large part of it came naturally form coming up with a tough family in a bunch of tough neighborhoods. But tell me please about getting involved with the Friars – the gold standard of legendary roasters and toasters.
Jeff Ross: Roasting is an art form, but it is also a great tradition. I didn’t know about any of that before I was a comedian. I found out when I got asked to participate in my first roast, and had to go back and dig them out – at the Museum of the Broadcasting in New York City and watch the old roasts. Immediately, I felt like a man out of time. How did I miss this generation. I felt as if was born in the wrong era. Over time, they have become in vogue – so much so that roasting is a cultural moment for a celebrity. I roast people on stage. I did a charity roast at an Oscars party the other day to people who made donations. I’ve roasted inmates, I’ve roasted at the border. I roasted Mr. Peanut at the Super Bowl. At this point, it has become… I don’t know…. Our national pastime.
A.D. Amorosi: Because of your roaster’s reputation, do you believe that people are suspicious of meeting you dare they get burned?
Jeff Ross: It’s interesting. People assume that all the time, and are leery of meeting me. I can however, promise you that if you meet me in public, I come in peace. I’m off duty. I don’t roast you, and I definitely don’t want you roasting me.
A.D. Amorosi: I am sure that you have a code as to how far you can or will go while doing a roast. Is there any bridge that is too far to cross when roasting you?
Jeff Ross: My looks. I’m very sensitive about my appearance. I’m just putting that out there. I’m kidding. I would be such a hypocrite if I put guidelines or guardrails to the insults I can take. I dish it out I can take it. Even if it looks as if it hurts, I’m not going to let people see that. I feel as if being able to take a joke is a very important part of life.
A.D. Amorosi: Stand-up comedian Whitney Cummings is bringing back old school hardcore, foul-mouthed roast on OnlyFans. What say you?
Jeff Ross: I went to a taping. I totally enjoyed it. It was thoroughly off-the-rails hilarious. It was a real punk rock roast. I love roasting in all of its forms. I want all my friends to do it The bigger that roasting is, the better my life is.
A.D. Amorosi: One of the more positive impacts of your roasting comes come when you did Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at Brazos County Jail at Comedy Central. Two months ago it was reported that a Texas murderer on death row from College Station, who gave an interview for your Comedy Central special, is now having his sentence appealed – Gabriel Hall. That’s amazing.
Jeff Ross: His lawyers are now able to appeal to the court, which is fascinating. Roasting for me is not just a career, but an education. I learn about all sorts of issues and social justice ideas coming to light. I always think of stand-up comedy and roasting as a backstage pass to history. I get to see and hear things that most people don’t often get the chance to do – though that case was odd and uncomfortable. That show in that jail humanized the men who were incarcerated, and shined a light on criminal justice reform. I’m very proud of that work.
A.D. Amorosi: Am I right? That though you don’t express yourself politically onstage that – on a personal level – you have this deep, abiding socio-political background?
Jeff Ross: Yes. And I do try to never be preachy onstage. My beliefs do, however, come out subversively on stage. I don’t like to hit things too head on. I’m more persuasive if I sound as if I’m not dictating to the crowd. Comedy allows people to learn and laugh at the same time.
A.D. Amorosi: The other day you did the 800th episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, a program of which you also did the first one. Maron. Todd Barry. Dave Attel – are these guys with whom you came up your family, your goombahs?
Jeff Ross: Actually, they are. I love all three of those guys. There are so many people with whom I came up with in comedy that I am close with still. I had dinner with Caroline Rhea the other night. I saw Paulie Shore in Vegas right before that. I just ordered two Rich Vos t-shirts off his website. I love to support my colleagues and friends. It’s fun seeing the people that I started out with stand the test of time. It’s very gratifying to have my class of beginners become the… comedic superstars of our time.
A.D. Amorosi: Now, look at all the guys you just mentioned, your generation, and let’s consider them next to the comedy giants with whom you became deeply close to from the Friars Club – Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Milton Berle. You’re at an interesting crossroads of the two worlds. Can you see yourself, Maron and Attel putting on tuxedos in 20 years and hanging around, talking about the old days?
Jeff Ross: (laughs). I don’t know if it will be tuxedos or sweatpants, but I do feel as f we are part of a tribe. We stick together because we feel comfortable with each other, and can bust chops and talk smack without offending each other. I do feel as If I am a comedian before anything else, and hope that I am one of those old guys just sitting around telling old stories.
A.D. Amorosi: So, I’m seeing Springsteen the night before I’m seeing you. And without pinning you to the “fellow Jersey guy” thing, what sort of love, inspiration or wealth of good feeling do you have for Bruce?
Jeff Ross: I’m glad you ask. I’m seeing Bruce Springsteen at the same show you are, coming in early at the very generous invitation of Little Steven Van Zant. I am very excited as I have very good friends in that band – love Nils Lofgren, love Max Weinberg. And, I recently got my first tattoo – a Springsteen-inspired one that reads “Born to Roast.” This is an exclusive me telling you this.
A.D. Amorosi: So, before I let you off the phone, what is the most wildly funny thing you have witnessed within the last several days?
Jeff Ross: Oh, my goodness. OK. It’s one of those things… I did a speed roast a couple of days ago for the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, a fund raising benefit out on my comedian and media mogul Byron Allen. He spontaneously asked me to roast some of the volunteers, and Chrissy Teigen’s mom raised her hand, made a donation, and wanted to get roasted. The desire for people to want to be roasted always amazes me – that people want to be the center of attention, even when there’s a target on their back. Better still is that she took the jokes quite well as gave them right back at me.