At one point, the following interview was interrupted by a man who recognized its subject. Jeff Ross spoke to the Light on his cellphone while waiting on the street outside his L.A. dentist’s office.
“I know you,” the man on the street told Ross. “Jeff something — Goldblum?”
Since Comedy Central began airing the formerly private New York Friar’s Club roasts of its members in 1998 — later producing its own version — Ross has made a name for himself as their undisputed king, brilliantly savaging victims including Donald Trump, William Shatner and Hugh Hefner. This led to his own Comedy Central specials including “Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals,” “Jeff Ross Roasts Cops” and “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border.” Last year, he headlined the main stage of the San Diego County Fair on its closing night.
By now, every fan of modern comedy in America knows both Ross’ name and nickname (Roastmaster General). The only possible reason he’s not Jeff Goldbum-famous yet is because not everyone in America is a fan of modern comedy.
Ross was born Jeffrey Ross Lifschultz 53 years ago in Newark, New Jersey. As a tyke, his mean uncle Murray picked on him relentlessly — but with love. It became a survival technique that helped him through some tragic darkness, including the loss of both his parents while he was only a teenager. Ultimately, it helped him forge an unlikely career path.
Ross brings his mean uncle Murray’s brand of loving insult comedy to the La Jolla Comedy Store on May 9 and 10. And, by the way, he let that man on the street walk away thinking that he just met Jeff Goldblum.
Which historical figure, living or dead, would you most like to roast?
“That is such a great opening question, because that’s what my new Netflix special is about. It’s called ‘Historical Roasts’ and it comes out soon. My answer is Abe Lincoln because America loves him so much, we put him on the only coin we throw in the garbage.”
Do you think Abe would be a good sport?
“Everything I ever read about him said that he was a jokester himself. He once insulted a rival politician so much, the man cried, so he had to apologize to him.”
Who makes you laugh?
“I don’t watch that much standup comedy. But what really cracks me up is when comics try out jokes for the first time and it doesn’t go well. There’s nothing funnier to me than watching them tread water and try to land back on their feet.”
Do you think that becoming an orphan at such an early age gave you comedy superpower?
“I don’t know if it gave me a superpower. Maybe it did. It definitely gave me thick-enough skin to develop that superpower. I think people go through pain and they don’t know what it’s going to become and it’s up to them to decide. Sometimes, it’s pain, depression and mental anguish, and sometimes, we work through it and overcome it and it helps get you through life. That’s the theme of my podcast, ‘Thick Skin with Jeff Ross.’ Having good friends and good therapy really helps, because I’m a miserable bastard inside.”
Was the roasting baton passed to you by someone, or did you wake up one day and find it in bed with you like the horse’s head in ‘The Godfather’?
“Nobody passed me anything. I had to take it. In 1995, the Friar’s Club was roasting Steve Seagal. This was before the roasts were televised. They wanted to take a couple of shots with a younger big-mouth and I stepped up and it began to build for me from there.”
What’s the most misunderstood thing about roasting?
“You know what drives me crazy? When people say that the jokes write themselves. Because they don’t write themselves. Ever. The roasters write the jokes, and it’s a lot of work. People think I just show up and roast. Yes, I speed-roast people from my audiences off-the-cuff, but for a proper roasting of a celebrity, it takes weeks and weeks of research and writing.”
How do you feel watching so many comedians having their careers harmed by things they said or wrote in the past?
“Well, I don’t think Twitter is a safe space anymore. I stopped tweeting anything provocative, or particularly sharp. It’s now become a place just to promote your shows. I save my venom for the stage. People are just waiting to get offended, and I’m offended by people who are always offended. I sell a T-shirt at my shows saying that. Because no one is genuinely offended. They’re not even following those comics they’re offended by on Twitter. They’re finding out about them later on. And I find that lame.”
Do you think more now about the consequences of a joke because of the added scrutiny?
“Yeah, I think I second-guess. But I have a natural filter. It’s like a computer algorithm that goes through my head, like a governor on a race car. It keeps me from going off the rails. But, you know, sometimes I slip, and that should be OK. We need to let comedians take big swings and try stuff and not hold them accountable for every little word that comes out of their mouths. I’m sure Picasso’s rough drafts weren’t as nice as his finished paintings. And I am the Picasso of roasting.”
What’s a joke you had to take out because it was too controversial?
“Usually, I don’t take them out. I rework them to make them more palatable. I want everyone to have fun at my shows. I don’t want to p*** people off. I want it to be a party.”
If you were ever chosen to host the Oscars, would you make it through the vetting process?
“Honestly, I’ve been so vetted. I’ve been upfront about how I’m an equal-opportunity offender. But there are certain words I just don’t use and never have. So yeah, I’d make it through.”
If you were roasting La Jolla right now, what’s a joke you would use?
“Let’s see. We did a one-night roast battle in La Jolla a couple of years ago that worked out really well. So I would just say that, hopefully, some of your beach bums can put on a shirt long enough to come to my shows at the Comedy Store.”
IF YOU GO: Jeff Ross appears at the Comedy Store La Jolla, 916 Pearl St., at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. on Friday, May 10 and Saturday, May 11. Tickets are $25 plus a two-drink minimum. 21 and over only. thecomedystore.com/la-jolla