Jeffrey Ross is very nice guy who makes his living saying very mean things. A veteran of 20-plus years of slugging it out in the comedy clubs, Ross has dramatically raised his profile in recent years by reviving the musty old tradition of roasts, where celebrities are skewered right to their faces. Once the boozy purview of cigar-smoking oldsters and Rat Packers like Dean Martin, the "it's all in good fun" yet harsh roast format has become popular with today's edgiest comedy stars, in part because it lets them swing below the belt with full force. Nobody does it better than the smart-mouthed Ross, who holds the prestigious crown of "Roastmaster General" at the N.Y. Friar's Club, and has been the anchor of many Comedy Central Roasts of everyone from Flavor Flav to William Shatner to Donald Trump. He's bringing his act to the Magic Bag, and will roast the holy heck out of any audience member brave or foolish enough to volunteer for the hot seat.
Metro Times: Were you a comedy nerd? One of those kids that stayed up to watch The Tonight Show and take notes on the comics?
Jeff Ross: No. I didn't even know what that was. I remember sitting on the top of the stairs and hearing guys like Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett on with Johnny Carson. As far as knowing what that was; I would hear my parents laughing, and I think it sort of sunk into my brain a bit. I wasn't until later with the rockstar comedians like Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, the Blues Brothers, and Cheech and Chong that I really knew what true stand-up was
MT: Because you're so often associated with the Friar's Club and roasts, people think of you with older comics, like you sniff Freddie Roman's jock or something.
Ross: I have smelled Freddie Roman's jock and it's wonderful.
MT: Did you get to know Milton Berle?
Ross: I got to spend quite a bit of time with Uncle Milty, and he was a very sweet man.
MT: Really? Because I've heard rumors that he could be a little testy.
Ross: He was a very nice guy; it was his penis that would get a little testy. If you recall, his penis was the size of a tree trunk.
MT: Well, there was no room in the pants so it got a little grouchy.
Ross: It probably got uncomfortable. I didn't see the testy side; I saw a very sweet endearing comedian who lived a long life and was very willing to share his knowledge and his material, and he turned me on to cigars right before Christmas one year. Which made me very happy. And he was always willing to share a chopped liver sandwich with a young, struggling comedian.
MT: People kind of goof on Milton, but you can't really ask for more longevity in a career; that's impressive for any comic,
Ross: It seems comedians last to forty-five or ninety-five; there's not much in-between. We lose them really young or really old.
MT: Hopefully you'll get to do more roasts than funerals soon; it's been a tough run lately.
Ross: It's been pretty crazy. I just got back from New York, our good buddy Patrice O'Neal passed away. It was a tough one.
MT: And Greg Giraldo and Mike Destefano; it's been rough. It seems you crash and burn early or you're Joan Rivers and you go forever.
Ross: You just sort of have to make every show count; you have to make your life worthwhile. That's the key.
MT: What keeps you fired up and interested, and coming to places like Detroit?
Ross: It's about enjoying the process. When I get to Detroit — which is a city I've been asked to play many times; I'm finally coming — I have a feeling it will remind me of my early New Jersey audiences, where everybody has a thick skin and a good sense of humor
MT: That's pretty accurate.
Ross: Yeah. In Jersey everyone thinks they're a comedian. Everyone can take a joke or deliver a joke. It's a rough place to grow up sometimes, and I think Detroit probably shares that. I get a lot of mail from fans asking me to come to Detroit, so I'm pretty pumped about coming. I'm going to experiment with "speed roasting" some audience members
MT: When you become known as the roastmaster, now, I'm sure everywhere you go people expect you to make fun of them. That has to be a bit of a pain right?
Ross: It's only a pain if it happens on an airplane or at a funeral. If it happens at my shows, it's exciting; because people consider it an honor to be dishonored publicly for some reason. So it will be volunteers only.
MT: The worst gigs are like where you get hired to insult someone at a birthday party, but you've turned it into an empire.
Ross: [giggles] Yeah, man, you have to pick a lane. Dave Chapelle taught me a long time ago: "Pick a lane." This is it.
MT: You got to roast the caped crusader on the show Batman: Brave and the Bold. How cool was that?
Ross: That was intense, man. I was so intimidated. Batman is a larger-than-life figure. He's much taller in person than he is on the cartoon.
MT: Who is your dream target that you haven't gotten to roast yet?
Ross: Wow. Um, it seems like Herman Cain right now would be the best roast possible.
MT: Would he get the jokes?
Ross: No. Just stopping the show to explain the jokes to him would be the best part. Just all the accusers and girlfriends, think of how many roasters we would have.
MT: What would it take to get Rickles to do one of these roasts?
Ross: You know we beg him every year, but he's untouchable, he's just the king. If we ever got to do that roast it would be a happy day for me, a proud day.
MT: I think all the comics would be terrified he would just show them up.
Ross: Yeah, he would go on at the end and rip everyone, just school everyone, that's for sure. He's not just old-school, he's pre-school. He's a legend. He belongs on "Mt. Roastmore."
MT: Are you surprised when sometimes people, even some professional comics, still get offended at these things?
Ross: In the end it's all serious business and we wear our theoretical bulletproof vests so that the punch lines don't hurt. Sometimes new audiences don't know the rules; which is that there are no rules. Look, you can't be offended; it's a "roast." Slowly people are learning roasting philosophy: that you can't be hurt by words. Hopefully that will apply soon to life in general.
MT: You're going to make a better world one joke at time Jeff.
Ross: Roasting saves lives my friend.
At 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030; $28 advance.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.