In this modern day political climate, it seems that society has its work cut out for them, with everybody seemingly pinned against one another. At times, it can get utterly hostile, with the dial turning from 0 to 100 at the drop of a hat. So it’s a good thing to know that there is one person that we can all look to as having our backs and our best interest in all things roasting. I’m talking, of course, about the Roast Master General.
Jeff Ross (as the Roast Master General) is a part of one of the most prestigious operations that comedy has to offer, which is the roast. But his job as the RMG goes far beyond just roasting. He sets precedence. When you look at a celebrity roaster onstage, of which there is typically one or two at every roast if not more, you’re mainly paying more attention to their presence than their jokes. But when you look to Jeff Ross, you look to see just how he’s going to handle the roast, on the edge of your seat. And while a roast is 100% undoubtedly a team effort and no one man is responsible for its success, it is safe to say he is one of the first modern-day people you think of associated with the roasts.
The roast itself has a long and storied history behind it. The first noted roasts began at the legendary New York Friar’s Club in the early 1920’s. Over time, it became a household name thanks to The Dean Martin Roast series in the 70s and the Comedy Central roasts. The idea behind the roast at the Friar’s Club had always been about comradery. It is not about making anyone feel bad. It is about taking equal-jabs at your friends and peers and just having fun.
The word ‘fun’ is key to its success, and is something Jeff Ross and Dave Attell apply to their new Netflix series, Bumping Mics. This is a show that has the two of them onstage, trading loving barbs with each other and interacting with the audience. The feelings of it all being built on a foundation of mutual admiration, just like the early roasts, is clearly evident. It is all equal parts a comedy partnership in this series, with nobody stealing anyone else’s thunder. (Except for maybe the drop-in of Gilbert Gottfried, who has the crowd chanting his name at the end of the second episode as if he were Mussolini. “If it was anybody else besides Gilbert,” Jeff tells us, “I would be jealous!”)
We recently spoke to Jeff over the phone about topics ranging from all things roasting, the new show and his friendship with Dave, the upcoming Historical Roasts, roasting in a P.C. era, hecklers, and whether or not anyone can truly be unroastable.
One of the things I appreciate most about this series Bumping Mics is that you captured something that most folks who aren’t in New York or L.A. don’t get to see, which is how comedian’s interact with one another onstage and the whole drop-in nature of it all. Was that something you purposely set out to capture?
Yeah, by shooting it in New York, we were able to invite our friends without it being a big issue. It was casual. And our show is sort of casual and loose. As comics, we all love each other. We’re like a cult. A comedian cult. And the idea is that they all just come by to watch when the mood hits them, we just bring them onstage. It’s almost like the whole room is a stage. It’s like spotting Paul Rudd in the audience, and the next thing you know, they’re going to be up there messing with us. It’s like a really fun environment. It’s a party every night.
It’s absolute fun. And when most people think of a roast, they think of the negative connotation that you’re going after someone. But what you both bring is a much more inviting atmosphere to it.
Yeah. I grew up in a catering hall. I grew up in parties. My great grandmother, Rosie, started a catering hall, and my grandfather, my uncles, my cousins, my dad all worked there and I worked there. So I wanted to create a party environment for the show.
And that comes across. How was it received when you were touring the country with Dave doing it? I imagine the dynamic must have changed a bit without the drop-ins.
In a weird way, those shows are special in their own way because instead of having a couple hundred local friends and family at the Comedy Cellar in New York, we go out to Seattle and you’ll have 2 thousand people. So the laughs are much bigger but we get to tell a lot less jokes because there are so many people laughing. And we don’t get as many friends and family in the audience. There’s some. But we thought by keeping it in New York, it’ll be a great way to showcase the improvisational nature of our show and the friendly nature of the comics. I think if we do it again, we’ll do one on the road because those shows are really funny, too. And Dave and I are fish out of water in Europe or Seattle or Alabama.
Right, and I’m sure when you’re on the road with just you and Dave, there’s a bit more crowd engagement in those shows.
Yeah, our whole show is interactive like that. I don’t think we even think of it as crowd engagement. We just think of it as jokes per minute. Whatever we feel like talking about in the moment. And if Dave’s working on a new bit, I’ll try to set him up for it, and the same for me. In a way, we’re both straight men and we’re both the silly ones at the same time.
You’re someone that has had a great working relationship with Comedy Central over the years, having done the Comedy Central Roasts, as well as Roast Battle and your own documentary-type specials. How was the transition from Comedy Central to Netflix?
You know, Comedy Central is very daring and they let me do a lot of really amazing projects. And they also understand that roasting is a world wide movement. And I’ve got to keep working. So I’ve got to shout out both networks for having the balls to put this type of humor out. I’m very lucky that my networks that I work with trust me. And as far as the transition, it’s not even something that I think about anymore than I would when I work one club or another. In New York, on a Friday you might be at the Comedy Cellar and next week you might be at Carolines. I don’t really think too much about the transition. You’ve got to kind of go where the next show is.
Is there anybody that you consider to be unroastable?
(Laughs). Myself. No, I think given some preparation and some thoughtfulness and some hard work, everything’s roastable. Everything. We can’t be so precious with what we hold sacred because it doesn’t work anymore. Everything is compromised. Everything has cracks in it. So I really thought it’s the comedian’s job to tell the truth. We hear so much about fake news. We don’t hear enough about strong comedy. Real comedy. Authentic comedy. And that’s what I like to do in my shows.
And that shines through certainly when you’re onstage. So, when you first noticed things becoming more P.C., did that worry you? Were you afraid that’d affect the roasts?
You know, originally I got that feeling after 9/11. I thought “Wow, is comedy over?” And then I realized “It’s not. It’s more needed than ever.” Comedy is medicine. The last thing you want is your comedy watered down. You want your comedy potent. And I think people are gravitating towards the comedy providers like Comedy Central and Netflix to sort of shine a light on the darkest things and the things that make us uncomfortable and the things that unite us. I think that’s why comedy’s doing so well right now.
Exactly. And it’s all at your fingertips now as an audience member. There’s so much out there and Netflix seemingly comes out with something new every week.
You know, I barely get through one special and the next one is coming on. And it’s kind of fun. It’s a great way to sort of clear your head from the rough news that’s out there every day. I’m in California where there’s shootings and there’s fires. Everything feels like sad news. And then when you’re done doing what you do as a citizen, as a person of the community, you kick back and turn on the comedy special. And sort of laugh through the pain.
When you walk down the street, how many people ask you to roast them? Is that a common thing for you to get?
(Laughs). Only after 2 A.M. When people have their liquor courage. Most people will come up, like any other comic, they’ll quote a joke or they’ll want a selfie. I don’t even consider myself famous. It’s more like when a fan mentions a joke or says “Roast me,” I just feel like it’s a friend. It’s an instant connection. All of the normal protocols are lifted with roasting. So it’s like an instant connection with people. Sometime people think they can roast me when they meet me. And that’s always a huge mistake. It’s like giving me a license to swipe back.
When they do ask you to roast them, do you usually oblige?
Like anything else, there’s no rules. It’s up to my mood. If he’s standing there and he’s got a funny shirt on, I might go after him. If he looks a little drunk or a little stupid and he might not get the joke, I’ll just go “Hey man thanks,” and shake his hand and walk away. It’s all in the moment. I don’t let the fans bring me down. I only let them lift me up.
Now that you’ve roasted cops, prisoners, immigrants, Trump supporters, and all else in between in your solo specials, what is something you are looking to possibly tackle next that you haven’t seen tackled before?
That’s a good question. I have a couple ideas. Having done these sort of documentaries, I do feel like there are some social issues here in the states that I want to go after. I don’t want to say what yet, because I want it to be a surprise when I come out. But I do think roasting can heal stuff and shine a light on stuff that people are not normally comfortable talking about or they’re not aware of. But it can also be very healing. So I want to keep that route. Comedy as therapy.
Obviously heckling is something that comes with a territory for a comedian. It’s bound to happen to everyone. Do you feel, though, that you get more hecklers because of the nature of what you do?
I think I get less. And I’ll tell you, one of the reasons I do is because I think the audience just more and more wants to become part of the show. Social media and all of that has made them feel part of the show. I like shows that are interactive. And when I do my live stand-up, I bring audience members onstage. And you’ll see some of that when you come see me live or you’ll see little bits of that in Bumping Mics. But I think by making it about the audience just a little bit, they’re less inclined to heckle from their seat if they know that maybe they’ll get onstage later on. And for some reason, maybe I put fear in them. They don’t want to say anything because they don’t want to get roasted. If you look vulnerable, you’ll get heckled a lot. I don’t really look vulnerable onstage.
Oh not at all. Do you enjoy that you put that fear in people?
Yeah, I think I like it. I’m a black belt in karate. I like the idea that I’m intimidating just slightly. It’s kind of fun.
What are the duties of being the roast master general?
The duties? Only go after the ones you love. Roast people that you’re a fan of, that you have affection for, that you respect. To me, that’s the key rule, the golden rule.
Can you roast someone that you’re not a fan of or don’t respect?
No. That might be a different type of riff, and that could come up in my act I guess, but I wouldn’t call that a roast. I would call that something else.
You could never do a comedy central roast for someone you’re not remotely interested in or like.
A – It wouldn’t be worth my time. B – It wouldn’t be funny because it would be mean spirited. Roasting really comes from affection. And I have to be a fan for it to really work. The reason that Dave and I are able to roast each other and bust each other’s chops on the show is because we care about each other. We love each other. We fight like a husband and wife but we love each other. And I think that’s why it works. It’s the chemistry, it’s the relationship, it’s the comradery but most of all it’s the love.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Wow. My legacy. Nobody’s ever asked me that before. I would probably go with the Don Rickles camp. I want people to know that even though I make fun of people, I’m a nice guy. That was Don Rickles big closing song. “I’m a nice guy. Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum. I’m a nice guy.”
Bumping Mics is available for streaming on Netflix now.