With his acerbic wit and fearless confidence, comedian Jeff Ross has become America’s favorite insult comic due largely impart to the Comedy Central Roasts that have helped make him a celebrated household name. Originally from New Jersey, Ross joined the legendary New York Friar’s Club in 1995 and has since become the clubs head roaster or “Roastmaster General.” On his new tour, “Jeff Ross Roasts America” the comedian plans to experiment with a new concept called “Speed Roasting” where he’ll be inviting audience members to join him onstage for a personal berating by the Roastmaster himself.
caught up with Ross from his home in Los Angeles and talked to him about his first time doing stand-up, advice for aspiring insult comics and fellow Garden State artists Yo La Tengo
Do you remember the first time you did stand-up?
: Interestingly I don’t get asked about that much. It was April Fool’s Day 1989. It was in a place called the Ye Olde Tripple Inn in midtown Manhattan on 54th Street.
Was this part of the comedy class you took with Lee Frank or was this something you did independently?
This was something I did the night before graduation from that class, because I wasn’t prepared for the class. So my buddy Mark from college, he sort of talked me into taking the class and then going to the open mic to just see what it was like. And it was exhilarating, I got my first laughs; my first public giggles and it was very exciting. I remember it being about five minutes but it felt like I was up there for 15 seconds. It just goes by and you don’t even know it’s happening really. I remember getting my first laughs and getting heckled by Navy guys; sailors who were in town for fleet week, compounded with making cute girls laugh. I was always shy, so to suddenly have this weapon; jokes, humor, the microphone – I was really inspired by that. That’s a drug you can easily become addicted to.
As you developed over the years how did you cultivate your sharp wit and keen reflexes with regards to improvisation?
I think it happened gradually to be honest. I think it was a step-by-step process that I wasn’t even aware of. You just start defending yourself from bullies in grade school, and then people you work with as you get older into your teens and twenties; I worked in restaurants and catering halls. I had people from every walk of life and every ethnicity and every religion; and we would all make fun of each other and you start to learn how to verbally spar. Then overtime it slowly crept into my comedy. I started out as a storyteller and evolved into an insult comic.
When do you think you found your voice as a comic?
I think it happened the day I was invited to my first roast. I was very excited. I didn’t know much about roasts. I did my research and this was pre-YouTube, so I had to go to the Museum of Broadcasting and see what the format was like and where people drew the line. When I walked out at that first roast, which was a roast for Steven Segal in New York, I got chills. I felt like I found my arena, my Yankee Stadium.
One of these days I’m going to have give him a big hug and hand him a couple hundred bucks.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who wants to be an insult comic?
Don’t let them see you sweat. It’s an old cliché but it really is true. As an insult comic you have to have brass balls. You have no surefire plan other than to attack. To be on the defense as an insult comic is to fail. So you have to not back down, no retreat, no surrender and never apologize. Just stand by your material. Conviction, confidence and furthermore, some karate lessons might help.