Comic Jeff Ross' balls are as big as his mouth, which has been on fire every week on his new Comedy Central show, The Burn With Jeff Ross (airing Tuesdays nights), where he rips “the world a new asshole, one crack at a time.” You probably know Ross as the Roastmaster General, the network's go-to guy for its annual celeb roasts, at which he's shown up dressed at Gaddafi and Joe Paterno.
For his latest gig, Ross and three fellow comics — guests have included Gilbert Gottfried, Marc Maron and Ralphie May — skewer the week's roast-iest topics, from reality shows to celeb birthdays and deaths. “The only thing bigger with HIV is Nigeria,” he said of Magic Johnson's 52nd birthday. Virtually nothing is off-limits: You don't even wanna know what he says about Tony Scott's recent suicide in an upcoming show. Ross even travels around town on a Segway roasting the usual L.A. vermin: meter maids, club bouncers, the paparazzi: “You guys put the die in Princess Di.”
After a taping of the show's third episode, which included Mary Lynn Rajskub, Bobby Lee and Jim Norton, we caught up with Ross and asked him about the art of the burn, and how it all comes from love.
How does The Burn differ from other satirical, pop culture news shows like The Daily Show, The Soup and Chelsea Lately?
What separates the show is that it's on once a week. It's not a nightly treadmill. It's a pointed mission, like a missile, as opposed to a rat-tat-tat. So we're saving ourselves for this one explosion. If I had to do it every day, it would be a different muscle. Roasting is my thing and it's best served once in a while. People are happier to see me when I'm not around a long time [laughs].
You have a group of writers. Do they write jokes for both you and your guests?
They write with me. Some of them have come from the roasts, the Comedy Store, Daily Show and Conan. We've got a pretty good pedigree. And there's four on staff for whom this is their first writing job. I really want the roasting to be about the future, not the past. But the comics write their own material. We've also asked fans who they think we should go after. I want it to be interactive. I feel like I'm roasting the world at large vicariously through you.
When word gets out that I'm roasting Roseanne [subject of Comedy Central's last roast], everywhere where I go — whether it's in a cab in New York or a restaurant in Chicago or my Facebook or Twitter — people go, “Say this about her” or “say that about her.” They're reinforcing the feeling that I'm not doing this just for me. They wanna see the big shots taken down a notch.
How do you pick your topics?
I ask the writers to come up with their stories, and they come from different places. Every day, my cousin Ed [Ross' on-air sidekick] goes through his research in front of all the writers. He'll find a story about a teacher who just got caught having sex with four of her students, and I'll say, “That sounds good. Read me that story.” You want something worthy of the people on the dais to weigh in on. And I test it out on my friends, on the crew, in the clubs.
In the first episode, comedian Amy Schumer poked fun of the small podiums you used onstage, which have since gotten bigger. Even your props get roasted.
You can thank Gary Mann and Jim Sharp, our executives at Comedy Central. They were sick of hearing our comics burn the set. We spent a ton of money on this cool, raw, gritty-looking set, and, of course, the podiums become bigger than the show.
One of the show's segments has you visiting stars on their home turf. (You hit up John Stamos at his house and asked him if he was gay.) Who've you booked for the future?
I don't know. I book it week to week. The Stamos one I shot on my iPhone. I want it to look organic. And it shows that roasting isn't bullying. It's voluntary and it's fun. It all comes from the good place.
How often do you get heckled in public?
Certain comedians will get heckled. But when you're known for insulting people, they don't do it like that. They come right up to you and go, “Nice haircut, Carrot Top.” It gives me license to do it back. It's a connection as opposed to something that's confrontational. I don't feel heckled. I feel love.
Just how much love have you felt?
I was taking pictures of my friends in front of my billboard that Comedy Central put up on Sunset and La Cienega. When somebody drove up to the light, he said I looked like Lionel Richie in white face. Then, then they said that you can see my nose from Los Feliz. I thought that was pretty good.
You were recently quoted in a Huffington Post article on stand-up comedy that centered on the age-old question of how far is too far. How have you for the most part kept yourself out of trouble when so many other comics have been coming under fire lately?
You go on instinct, and the instinct is to find the context. Know your room. Know your audience. You can't always be subtle in tragic situations. But even when comedians stumble, it's OK. It's unfair for those guys to get called out for doing a joke in a comedy club. It's no different than a tennis player getting called out for having a bad serve on a practice day. A comedy club is a safe haven, a temple of free speech. Comedians need to be able to try out their jokes and people need to relax. Buddy Hackett was a good pal of mine, and when I asked him about the national sense of humor after 9/11, he told me, “Comedians feel pain more than most people. That's our trade. So when I'm ready to make a joke, the world will pretty much be ready to hear it.” Comedians aren't insensitive, they're extra sensitive.
How much longer do you think you'll be doing the Comedy Central Roasts?
'Til I'm 100.
Your favorite roast?
Whoever's next. The second it's over, I forget all the jokes. I never think about roasting that person again. The writing is as fun as the performing. So it doesn't matter what your favorite is because it's not gonna be as good as the next one.
What five comics, living or dead, would you pick to roast you?
Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Red Buttons and Jan Murray — the Mount Roastmore.