Tough Crowd: On Base with Comic Jeffrey Ross

Comedian, celebrity roaster and now author Jeffrey Ross sits behind a rectangular foldup table in a supermarket, in front of a promotional wall of Bud Light cases with built-in iPod speakers and an adjacent column of Funyuns. On the table are copies of Ross’ book, I Only Roast the Ones I Love: Busting Balls Without Burning Bridges.

The supermarket is sparkling-clean and cavernous, with a somewhat beige, out-of-time, anywhere-in-Middle-America feel. But this one anchors a strip mall in the heart of Camp Pendleton, the Western hub of the United States Marine Corps, about 20 miles south of the Orange County–San Diego County line.

“Marines usually don’t buy books, because they have to carry everything they own on their backs,” Ross says in a manner that’s nakedly honest and very funny.

The trickle of Marines entering the market is a diverse bunch. Some come expressly for Ross’ book signing. Others happen upon it while shopping. Some are chiseled, sinewy and physically imposing. Others appear gentle, cerebral and, dare one say, more intellectual than the leathery, gung-ho stereotype.

One tall, slender, bespectacled lance corporal in intelligence work makes a point of saying that his specialty requires lots of reading.

One female Marine, a nurse, proudly shows off her tattoo, which reads: “F*** You.”

Ross has performed for troops in hot spots throughout the Middle East, developing an affinity for those in camo uniform. The feeling seems reciprocal. Ross respects their grit, determination and bravery, and they seem to respect his blunt, politically incorrect and seemingly unflappable comedic persona.

“The best show I ever did in my life was in Al-Assar, about 80 miles from the Syrian border,” Ross says while a couple of Marines peruse his book. “It was in this tight little room that used to be a palace. It was like a release of tension in them, and emotions.”

Ross says he harbors no hesitation about safety, despite a mortar attack just before his arrival at a Middle Eastern hotel.

“One time we did a show in front of Saddam’s ‘Birthday Palace,’ in Tikrit,” he says “and the rumor was that he was nearby, hiding. And, lo and behold, they found him there five weeks later. So we’re assuming that he heard the show.”

As Ross talks, he is approached by Corporal Donald Peltier, a slight, amiable Marine in civilian attire, with his wife and child in tow. Peltier has been deployed twice into combat.

Visits to war zones by Ross and other entertainers “just feel morally good, because when you go out there, we don’t got our families, the kids aren’t there, and to just bring some kind of happiness to some of those guys ... ,” says Peltier. His voice trails off involuntarily as he chokes back tears.

If show biz is a constant battle, then perhaps standup comedians are the grunts of entertainment. It cannot be totally insignificant that they use words like killing, bombing and destroying, that they have to deliver a “punch” and that crowds are described as “hot,” “cold” or “dead.” Even the act of going first in a show lineup is referred to as the chillingly martial “taking the bullet.”

In a twisted way, warriors and comedians — especially street-smart roast comedians — have some common ground.

“Out in the middle of Iraq, no flak, no Kevlar, and getting shot at constantly, that’s exactly what it must be like for a comic,” Peltier says. “All those people, every single night ... you get one heckler — oh, God, that’s gotta be horrible.”

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