How to insult your audience without burning bridges

Jeffrey Ross knows how to insult audience without burning bridges.

Jeffrey Ross 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jeffrey Ross 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Audiences had better laugh when stand-up comedian Jeffrey Ross is on the stage. Otherwise, he may direct his sharp-tongued humor at them. Ross, aka the Roastmaster General, is the "dean" of insult comics, having been named "the meanest man in comedy" for having led the renowned Friar Club roasts of luminaries like William Shatner, Hugh Hefner, Donald Trump and Pamela Anderson. But the 34-year-old Californian says the primary attribute needed to be a successful insult comic isn't venom, but love. "I think the real key is to be a nice guy. Otherwise you're just a jerk. It has to come from affection," Ross said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. "Of course, having a black belt in karate is helpful as well, in case someone takes exception." Ross probably won't have to try any defensive moves when he performs here in June as part of the Comedy for Koby tour organized by Stand Up for Israel. A rousing success since it was first launched by fellow American Jewish comic Avi Liberman during the second intifada, Stand Up For Israel was designed to raise the morale of English-speaking Israelis via some old-country comedic entertainment. In recent years, proceeds from the tour were donated to Crossroads, a Jerusalem-based organization that works with homeless and drug-addicted teens. But since last year's shows, the main benefactor has been the Koby Mandell Foundation - the terror victims outreach organization founded by Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell, whose son Koby was stoned to death by terrorists in May 2001. "I've known Avi for a long time, and two of my good buddies had done the tour previously - Harland Williams and Craig Robinson. They said they were some of the best audiences they had ever had," said Ross, who added he wasn't planning on adapting his show for an Israeli audience. "That's the thing - the jokes don't need to change, the audiences change. It's like Bob Hope used to say: 'have jokes, will travel.' I guess if the audience doesn't understand some of the references, I'll have to roast the audience," he laughed. In addition to Liberman, Ross will be joined on this year's tour by stand-up comics David Crowe and AJ ("Almost Jewish") Jamal. The tour features shows in six locations: June 3 - Ra'anana at Yad Labanim; June 4 - Beit Shemesh at Eshkol Hapayis; June 7 - Jerusalem at The Lab; June 9 - Modi'in at the Azrielli Theater; June 10 - Tel Aviv at the ZOA House; and June 11 - Efrat, at Mishkan Zippora. FOR ROSS, the path that led him to insult comedy is based on a long comedic - and familial - tradition. "To me, the funniest old-school comic was Buddy Hackett. He was a real pal and a mentor to me. But I learned a lot from my Uncle Murray and other family members who would insult each other at family events," said Ross. After attending Boston University, the New Jersey native made the rounds of improv clubs and one-night engagements, which led to spots on the big late night shows like David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno. But he came into his own when he joined the New York Friars Club in 1995 and was handed the task of leading the roast of action hero Steven Segal. "Milton Berle introduced me. It was his final roast and my first. I didn't know anybody and I walked out in my one suit and looked out at the 100 or so comedians there and said: 'A lot of you don't know me, but I'm uniquely qualified to host this roast for Steven Segal. I'm also a shitty actor.' That broke the ice," he recalled. "One of my most memorable roasts was for Hugh Hefner. It took place in New York just a few weeks after 9/11. It was a tough time to make jokes, or even to think about being a comedian. But with a roast must go an attitude; we put on our tuxedos and raised $650,000 for the Twin Towers relief fund." Not just another comedic face, Ross has also branched out into other forms of entertainment, including film and dance. He was a contestant on this season's American reality show Dancing with the Stars, and despite being eliminated in the first week - after his partner poked him in the eye and scratched his cornea - he was glad he made the effort. "I don't know if I'm a good dancer, but I went on Dancing with the Stars to pay homage to the great comedians that could sing and dance - that, for me, is an all-around entertainer," he said. "My God, it was so much fun, even though I was voted off. They just had me back last week to roast the finalists." A true Renaissance man, Ross also directed a film based on his 2005 trip to Iraq to perform for US troops, called Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie. "I was the son of a kosher caterer and my uniform has been a tuxedo. This was a completely new world for me; I didn't know very much about the military," said Ross. "I learned how diverse and sophisticated our military is. And they're great laughers. I've been over a few times since then. It's like being a Catskill tumler - you walk around without a stage and just talk to the audience. Making the film was really cool. I was a film student in college, and having the chance to make my first film about something I care so much about that also supported the troops was a meeting of two loves." Ross's first book is going to be published in the US in the fall, and it's also on a topic close to his heart: You Only Roast the Ones You Love - How to Bust Balls without Burning Bridges. "It's my attempt to bring the roast away from the celebrity and the tux and out to the common man," he laughed. When asked if there's something in the Jewish gene that spawns so many comedians, Ross, naturally, laughed. "We've been trying to figure that out for a long time - it's something no scientist can understand. I think maybe it's that Jewish people are born with a brutal honesty that nurtures and breeds comedians. Maybe it's something to do with being circumcised."