Burnt to a Crisp

He’s flambéed Pam Anderson, speared Jerry Stiller, and eradicated Flavor Flav; but how exactly did one man firing squad Jeffrey Ross make his way into roasting? “I used to play cards at the Friar’s Club with some other comedians, and at this Charity Golf Tournament there I started making fun of [head of the Friar’s Club] Freddy Roman,” recalls Ross, speaking from L.A. while filming a segment of the Jimmy Kimmel Show. The Friars got a kick out of the young comedian’s chutzpah and asked Ross back a few weeks later to do his first gig. “It was Steven Segal,” Ross remembers. “Milton Berle brought me up, and he introduced me saying, ‘Our next comedian just came from a benefit for lesbians with dildo rash: Jeff Ross!’” Hell of an introduction, but what happened next? “I went up, shook Steven’s hand, looked at the crowd and said, ‘A lot of you don’t know me, but I feel uniquely qualified to be here today because I’m also a shitty actor.’” Faster than Segal could issue his patented wrist snap, Ross was on his way to roasting celebrities in front of a national audience for Comedy Central.

Watching Ross rip into Courtney Love or Andy Dick on live TV, you might get the impression that he’s a mean guy at heart. But actually, laying into people with his ribald wit is something he says he does out of love and respect. While he was growing up, his father owned a Kosher catering hall in New Jersey, where Jeffrey worked and practiced his craft. “I’d make fun of the bride and groom, the bar mitzvah boy, goof on the Haitian guys in the kitchen, or the Scottish waitresses that were always stealing the liquor,” he says with a laugh. Even though his background seemed perfect for it (all you need to become a Friar is “A bad childhood and a sport jacket”), the film school grad hadn’t given comedy much thought until a friend invited him to join a standup class. From there, what Ross calls a “happy accident” blossomed into a career full of razor-laced one-liners and sketch-format silliness.

These days, when Ross isn’t doing roasts and making television appearances (including a cameo he recently did for the new season of the Sarah Silverman Show), he’s touring the U.S. and abroad doing standup for the most unlikely of fans: U.S. troops. Ross documented his experiences entertaining troops stationed in Iraq in the 2005 film Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie. “The first time I went it was sort of a guilt trip,” says Ross of his USO performances he now makes with regularity. “But now I feel a sense of responsibility. It’s something I’ll probably do forever.”

Ross is returning to Iraq this November, but for now he’ll be roasting the audience members that attend his standup shows. “Anybody in the front row, especially in these comedy clubs, is open game,” Ross says with a laugh. But folks don’t get mad. “They know me. I only roast the ones I love.” Ready to be a subject? Catch the “Meanest Man in Comedy” do his worst Thursday through Sunday at the Improv Paradise Live (5700 Seminole Way, Hollywood). Tickets cost $21. Call 954-981-5653, or visit www.improvftl.com.
Oct. 4-7, 2007

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John Linn