As the longtime "Roastmaster General" of the Friars Club and Comedy Central, Jeff Ross is typically the shocker, not the shockee. But even the comedian once described as a "one-man verbal assault unit" was stunned during an unplanned moment at the recent highly rated and hilariously raunchy roast of Justin Bieber.
Ross, who's a producer of the Comedy Central staple as well as a performer on the shows, asked the young pop star beforehand who he'd like to see in the lineup. "Without hesitation," Ross said, "he mentioned Will Ferrell. And I thought, fine, but that's not gonna happen."
Weeks later, however, Ferrell did show up at the taping, in character as iconic anchorman Ron Burgundy. "I looked at Bieber and he lit up; he was just so delighted," recalled Ross. "Burgundy came out with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and just as he walked up to the podium, without even looking at Bieber, he flipped the lit cigarette right at Bieber's face. Justin kind of winced as it hit his hair and flew off. I was the only one close enough to really see that angle. And I thought, wow. Of all people, Will Ferrell has the most edgy moment of the roast."
Bieber had turned 21 shortly before the event. "A week earlier, this would have been child abuse!" Ross laughed. "But Bieber, to his credit, really manned up and was a great sport, and I thought it was one of the best roasts we've ever done."
Now Ross is attempting to out-do himself at this month's Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. Beginning July 21st, he's presenting an unprecedented five-night comedy event dubbed Roastmaster Invitational: The 2015 World Championship of Competitive Roasting, featuring sixteen headliner comics from around the globe. The American contigent includes Tony Hinchcliffe, Joe DeRosa and Sarah Tiana; other participants will be revealed in the coming days.
I spoke with Ross about the upcoming Montreal event, as well as his life and career, backstage before a recent theater appearance. But first, Ross took a moment to graciously greet a family of fans who'd been ushered into his dressing room. He shook their hands, said "Hi, I'm Jeff," then pointed to me, a bearded man in my 60s. "And this," he added, "is my lovely wife Denise."
SN: What can fans expect to see at the Roastmaster Invitational?
JR: It'll be a March Madness-type tournament. They'll see something they don't normally see in comedy: essentially, verbal boxing, with guys going head to head and getting very personal. It'll be a safe haven to say all the words and ideas that we don't necessarily get to say in public anymore. We'll turn that club into a Temple of Free Speech.
SN: You've called this art form of roasting the Oscars and the World Series of the comedy world. How so?
JR: They're like the Super Bowls of comedy, in that the Super Bowl has good games and bad games, but you remember each one forever. I feel like the Comedy Central roasts are like that now. It doesn't matter if you're a fan of Justin Bieber or not. You're curious about how he's going to take the jokes, and what we're going to say. So it's like the Super Bowl in that way; you remember the good plays and the bad plays.
SN: The Friars Club roasts used to be relatively tame, but these days, it's anything goes. How do you draw the line between what's funny and what's bullying?
JR: I never feel like I'm bullying; it doesn't even occur to me. I was always the guy who protected the underdogs from the bullies. I think comedy is a form of self-defense, and I've always wanted to take down the bullies and the bad guys in the world.
SN: Any examples come to mind?
JR: Well, when I was a kid, there was a bully in my high school (in New Jersey) who used to jump out of hallways and punch me and everyone else in the nuts. And I thought, the next time he comes after me, I'm gonna get up and hit him back.
But when he punched me in the nuts again, it hurt so bad, and I was writhing around on the floor and couldn't get up. So instinctively, I started making fun of him. And when I did that, everyone laughed except him. He was embarrassed and a little bit humiliated, even though I was the one on the floor. And I learned the power of the insult.
SN: What did you actually say to him?
JR: I remember he had hairy knuckles and he was bigger than everyone else. He had a big forehead, so I said "Is that a forehead or a five-head?" Who knows if I made that joke up on the spot, or if I'd heard it before? It didn't matter. Everybody laughed. And a young roastmaster was created.
SN: You've been compared, quite favorably, with some of the legendary comedians of the last century. But I don't remember your idols, such as Rodney Dangerfield or Buddy Hackett, ever taking on any issues.
After Bob Hope died in 2003, however, you were inspired by the U.S.O. tours he used to do, and you went to Iraq, entertained the troops, and made a documentary about it.
You've made speeches to Occupy Wall Street crowds, and this year, you performed for inmates in Texas and produced a highly-praised special called Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at Brazos County Jail. Why take on the tough topics?
JR: Comedians were always motivated to do good; I saw that in some of the people I admired and looked up to. But they would normally do it behind the scenes. If they did a benefit, or political thing, or supported a charity, they would do it quietly. It wouldn't be part of their act, it would be part of their life.
But for me, I don't really have a life without my act. I think if I were married and had kids, I wouldn't have done a show at a jail. So I feel like at a certain point, my act and my life come together. And I'm still processing what that means... what I should do with that energy and that power, if you will, to make people laugh about sad subjects, and to bring humor where there is normally only darkness.
SN: You have a big birthday coming up in September. Your thoughts on turning 50?
JR: I've put a lot of pressure on myself to have a big bash. This just might be the wedding I'll never have. But more and more, I'm thinking I should just enjoy the process of getting older and smarter, and maybe funnier.
To be honest with you, turning fifty sounds intimidating, but I look better than most of my friends, and in my humble but experienced opinion, comedians are ageless. I'm making teenagers laugh, and I love that. If you're funny, you're funny, and it doesn't matter how old you are.
SN: And think about it; you're less than halfway to the goal Bob Hope set for you. He made it to 100.
JR: Yeah! I'll be Blob Hope!
For details on Jeff Ross' "Roastmaster Invitational" in Montreal, go to www.hahaha.com.