Insult comedy is alive and well in stand-up, thanks to headliners like Lisa Lampanelli, Anthony Jeselnik and Bob Saget. But few comics do it as harshly and effectively as Jeff Ross.
As “Roastmaster General” of Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts, Ross is continuing a tradition that started more than six decades ago at New York’s famous Friar’s Club.
And after leading roasts of celebrities such as Donald Trump, James Franco, Roseanne and William Shatner, Ross has found that his own audiences want only one thing.
“People were coming to my shows just to get roasted — and even volunteering for it,” said Ross, who headlines the Boulder Theater on Feb. 5. “And I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of a hook, and no one else is doing this kind of interactive free-for-all, so why not?'”
We caught up with the noted cannabis lover before his “Jeff Ross Roasts You” show in Boulder to talk insults, weed and more.
Q: It seems like roasting people, famous or not, is walking an extra-thin tightrope on stage. Has it ever backfired on you?
A: I get slapped or punched about once a show, usually in the shoulder or stomach. But it’s inevitable and it’s fun. People always want to know where they can see a live roast, and this is their chance.
Have you found that there’s a certain “type” of person who likes to be roasted?
A lot of times if people are pregnant or really weird-looking, they really want to be part of the show. So I’ll bring these pregnant ladies and audience members up on stage, which always makes security nervous.
What are the elements of a good roast?
As we speak I’m preparing to do Howard Stern’s birthday roast, and he’s a perfect example of somebody you have to make fun of with backhanded compliments. He’s the king, and you have to treat him as such. Before anything else, roasting is an honor. You’re paying tribute.
And you obviously have a certain reverence for the form itself, given your history with it.
That’s true. You know, a well-crafted insult is a compliment, in my opinion. It comes from a very solid place. I don’t think it’s true that it always hurts peoples’ feelings. You want them to go home feeling good, like they want to come back and do it again. Now, I don’t believe the same thing necessarily happens at a speed roast of a live audience.
Are you harder on non-celebrities?
Just by coming to my show they’re telling me that they’re into that kind of comedy and have a sense of humor and thick skin. So I think I hit the fans a little harder than the celebrities.
Are all your roasts improvised, or do you have stock lines?
I don’t know if stock is the right word, but definitely certain themes recur. There’s always the stoner, the pregnant chick, the fat guy, the chick with her boobs hanging out. I can go to those places pretty easily. But people can also smell it when you’re doing a stock line, and my audience is pretty sophisticated when it comes to that, so they’re not afraid to call me out if I’m going to the easy jokes!
Speaking of stoners: you’re a noted weed enthusiast. Are you more inclined to play Colorado now that we have recreationally legal cannabis?
It wasn’t a coincidence that I’m doing that show in Boulder, and I feel like I would love to shoot a big special there one day because of it. It seems like it’s everywhere out there.
I asked this of Doug Benson, whose online show “Getting Doug With High” I know you were on recently, but: why do comedy and weed go so well together?
It’s great for writing jokes. It just is. It’s great for listening to jokes. It’s not great for flying planes or driving bulldozers, but for what I do it’s perfect. It opens your brain up to be more generous with wacky ideas and takes your anxiety away when you’re an audience member to just laugh. You know, laughter’s the best medicine and right now the way Obamacare’s going, it’s the only medicine available.
I feel like that should have triggered a rimshot sound effect…
Seriously, I think it’s going to replace alcohol in 10 years. We’re all going to be a creative country of easygoing stoners.
If you would have told me even five years ago that there was the possibility it could be fully legal at the federal level in my lifetime, I’m not sure I would have believed you. Do you think it will be?
That’s a great question because I used to risk my life to get weed and it comes to me now in this way where I can go to a store and say, “I want this kind for when I go to sleep, and this kind for when I write jokes, and this kind when I want to be romantic.” It’s pretty uncanny. I can’t believe it! It’s just like the candy store, but we have the keys to the candy store now.
Why do you think it’ll eventually replace alcohol?
I’m not a big drinker, and marijuana to me… you take a puff, and it’s like having an after-dinner drink. It doesn’t even have the same negative connotations it used to have. I can’t help but think of Brody Stevens’ great joke from the Oddball Comedy Tour: “80 percent of comedians smoke pot. The other 20 percent? They’re not funny.”
I’m assuming you’re going to smoke when you’re here in Colorado?
If you look on my Twitter feed for the Boulder show we’re talking about, people are already asking me if they should bring weed to the meet-and-greet. It’s great that it’s really out there now, whereas it used to be this sort of underground thing and even a criminal thing. Personally, I’ve gotten pretty cavalier about where I smoke. I’m not trying to hide it in the basement of the comedy club anymore.
Here in Colorado we’ve got several comedy shows that market themselves as being “4/20-friendly,” meaning you can openly smoke pot there and the management won’t hassle you. Where do stand on that? Do you think it could be just as bad as cigarette smoking was in the ’80s and ’90s at comedy clubs?
I remember when I first started doing stand-up I would lose my voice by the second show, not only because people were smoking but because they were blowing it toward the stage and the performer is getting everyone’s second-hand smoke. And that’s hundreds of people, potentially! It was hard and it really turned me off to cigarettes, but I think with weed, I can’t imagine that happening. Weed feels like the type of drug where you take a puff or two before the show and then you just let it happen.
What about your fans who don’t smoke weed?
I like my shows. I’m an equal opportunity offender on stage, and going back to pregnant people, I want them or the airline pilots to have just as much fun as the stoners, and I don’t want them to worry about second-hand [pot] smoke. So hopefully it won’t come to where everybody’s smoking in the clubs because I want everyone to feel loose and free to do their own thing. But there’s something kind of, I don’t know, beautiful about what’s going on right now, and it makes me really curious about the people there and what it’s like to be a performer there. A nation of stoners… is that true? I don’t know, but people would be a lot funnier and a lot more mellow.