Where: Morty’s Comedy Joint, 3625 E. 96th St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday; 6:45 and 9 p.m. Saturday
Jeff Ross wants you at his shows this week at Morty’s Comedy Joint — especially if you can play piano, because then there’s a chance you’ll get to accompany him. But if you don’t have that talent, he’d at least like you to sit in the front row, wearing “the dumbest, ugliest clothes.”
“And I hope they bring their fattest, stonedest friends with them for me to make fun of,” the comedian known as the Roastmaster General said. “Remember: I only roast the ones I love.”
We’re catching Ross at a perfect time: The man who’s roasted the likes of Hugh Hefner, Rob Reiner and Jerry Stiller just finished the most-watched celebrity roast of his career: the three finalists on “Dancing With the Stars,” Warren Sapp, Lance Bass and winner Brooke Burke. He has a new DVD, “No Offense,” which was recorded in his first-ever headlining appearance in his home state of New Jersey. And there’s still much residual good feeling about his 2005 film “Patriot Act,” which documented his trip to perform for the troops in Iraq.
And if that weren’t enough, this is his first time performing in Indianapolis.
In an interview that took place the day after the “Dancing With the Stars” finale, Ross was in a great mood. Talking about Burke, he said, “She’s so beautiful that Lance Bass hit on her. The joke I didn’t do: ‘Brooke Burke is great at what she does. What that is, we have no idea.’”
Here’s what else he said:
NUVO: How did you get to be Roastmaster General, and did that require Senate confirmation?
Ross: Actually, both houses of Congress. A roastmaster has to die and then you are anointed.
NUVO: But really, how did you start doing these roasts?
Ross: It was definitely a series of happy accidents. At the Comedy Cellar, one of the clubs I would always work in New York, to get to the bathrooms in the restaurant upstairs, you had to walk through the middle of the room. I learned how to pick people off as they went to the bathroom. It was sort of a very odd dynamic. Over time, I’d start getting invited to the Friars Club in New York to play poker and have a sandwich with other comedians, and I made fun of one of the guys at a golf tournament. Next thing I knew, they asked me to be a part of their big annual roast luncheon. I killed in my first one; I roasted Steven Seagal. They’ve asked me back ever since.
NUVO: At the Pam Anderson roast, you said, “How is it possible that Kurt Cobain looks better than Courtney Love?” That's an amazing joke, but it must have taken a monumental amount of nerve to say to her face. How do you summon that nerve?
Ross: If enough people tell me not to do it, I have some sort of tic inside me that just makes me do it. I tried it out on a bunch of friends. Jimmy Kimmel said there’s no way I could do that joke. I took it out of my script and wound up putting it in the margin, just in case. When Courtney started charging me like a rhino in the middle of the show, I thought she could take it. And the truth is, it was a benefit for PETA, so I thought somebody would put her out of her misery and hit her with a stun gun or something. But there were no safe traps there that night. She had to go down hard.
To her credit, she was a great sport about it. She was on my lap 10 minutes later, flashing me. She had her head in my crotch. There’s pictures of that on my MySpace page. She is a trooper and a good sport, and a lot of people say I saved her life because I told her the hard truths. I’m proud of that.
The last thing you want to do at a roast is hurt people’s feelings. You want everyone to leave a roast saying, “That was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, and I hope they roast me again, or roast me next year.” You don’t want to burn bridges.
NUVO: They brought you back to roast the three finalists on “Dancing With the Stars.” How strict were they about what you could say?
Ross: Interestingly enough, ABC and the producers trusted me. I’d done enough live television with them on the earlier episodes. They knew I knew where the line was. I don’t think they wanted a paper trail, so they didn’t hear my jokes. They gave me license to kill, so to speak.
NUVO: You were relatively gentle, I think.
Ross: Gentle? I called a 300-pound linebacker [Sapp] fat. I don’t know what you did today. You think that’s gentle; I thought he was gonna take a bite out of me. He gave me the evil eye all day long. He did not make it easy for me. That was very, very tricky. That was not what you think. He has a great sense of humor, but as you’ll see in the tabloids, he can also blow up at people on occasion. He is very competitive. He’s a charmer, but he’s also 300 pounds, and famous for sacking people. By the way, he’s had more sacks in his life than Lance Bass. That was one of the jokes ABC would never let me do. I don’t blame them.
NUVO: What was the reaction from friends and family when you decided to do “Dancing With the Stars” as a contestant?
Ross: My family’s reaction was different than my friends’ reaction. My family was very excited. They took a break from their normally hectic lives to visit me in my cheering section. My sister, when I got hurt, bought a bunch of eye patches. [Ross suffered a scratched cornea during the competition.] So when I got hurt, they wore eye patches in solidarity at the premiere and gave them out to the other dancers. My family was very supportive. Not surprising, since I won a dance contest in summer camp. They knew that me, being a caterer’s son, that I love the ballroom. They were not surprised.
Of my comedy friends, Drew Carey, I think, said it best. When I told him, he said, “Does that mean they have to change the name of the show?”
NUVO: Did you expect to be the first person eliminated?
Ross: I expected to win the whole thing, quite honestly. I had myself convinced that I was that good a dancer. Then the Vegas odds came down and said I was 50-to-1. At that point, it started to sink in that I had a better chance of winning the Preakness than “Dancing With the Stars.”
NUVO: On your new DVD, you perform in New Jersey, your home state, for the first time as a headliner. What was that experience like?
Ross: That was intimidating because I’d never had the balls to confront my ghosts, if you will. So in the audience are people I went to high school with, my prom dates, my family — aunts, uncles, cousins, all the people I talk about in my act. It took me this long to get the confidence to roast New Jersey. I was very nervous going in, but it turned out to be one of the greatest nights of my life.
NUVO: My favorite joke was the There Will Be Blood joke. [“I heard it’s about when Hannah Montana loses her virginity.”] What's your favorite?
Ross: The irony there is, here we are just a short time later and it’s me and Miley Cyrus on the finale of “Dancing With the Stars.” Clearly, I’ve gone mainstream. I had to pinch myself: Is this really my life? I’m becoming the thing that I mock.
I really like the Hannah Montana joke, but I think my favorite is probably the real stuff about my 104-year-old aunt dying, or my nephews — taking them to Disneyland. It’s fun to tell because it’s my real life and the audience gets to know me that way.
NUVO: The first time I saw you on TV, you were doing poems. Was that your initial hook in comedy?
Ross: That was another happy accident. There have been three Woodstocks. I was at the second one (in 1994). They had me for $50 and free admission with a bunch of comedy buddies. We would emcee on the side stages. They stuck me in the poetry tent with a bunch of stoned, hippie, depressing poets. I started doing parodies of what they were doing. In about five minutes, I wrote three of my first poems and that became my hook. Now it’s my finale. I bring up a piano player to back me up and I break out the love poems. It gives a little heart to the end of the show.
NUVO: What's happened since “Patriot Act”? Have you thought about a sequel or just making another movie?
Ross: “Patriot Act” — talk about happy accidents — was something I didn’t plan at all. I was going there to do a job — to entertain the troops — almost on a dare from Drew Carey. I didn’t expect to get that much out of it, let alone shoot a film. I was shooting like a tourist. I had a video camera and was shooting whatever looked interesting. If I were doing another movie, I would probably have to plan it and raise money and write a script. And that sounds like an awful lot of work for a guy who loves doing standup as much as I do. I love what I do so much that I wouldn’t want to fuck it up with a real chore.