Jeff Ross is a really nice guy. Honest.
Yes, he is known as the “Roastmaster General” for pummeling celebrities on Comedy Central and elsewhere. As emcee of the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival in Mansfield last month, he eviscerated some unlucky souls sitting near the front. Give him 10 seconds to assess a subject, and he can “speed roast” anyone onstage. Audiences will see plenty of that Jeff Ross at the Wilbur Theatre Friday. But in conversation, the 1987 Boston University graduate is quiet, polite, and respectful.
We spoke with him by phone about the art and history of roasting.
Q. How much of this show is you roasting the crowd versus pre-planned material?
A. It’s probably just the one speed roast I’ll do. I usually have a staircase at the front of the stage, and during a certain point in my act — I never really know when — I just say, “Who wants to be speed-roasted? Volunteers only.” And inevitably I get about 10 or 12 people with very thick skin who want to be roasted. It’s very punk rock. Just anything goes. No rules. I could definitely get assassinated during that bit.
Q. How do you choose who you might pick on a bit?
A. If they’re in the front row at my show, they’re probably game for some sort of attention. And I’ve learned to do it very quickly with eye contact. I can see who’s shy and who’s not. I can just sort of sense it at this point. People look eager to be addressed. And I love it, because I feed off the energy of those front rows, visually. And then my hearing, I’m listening to the whole place. But I can only really see those front rows.
Q. Should there be something loving in a roast, do you think? A familiarity with who’s getting roasted?
A. I think it’s a requirement, because otherwise it’s bullying. Otherwise, it’s aggressive. Whereas I find that I can only successfully roast someone or something I’m a fan of. I do my research. If we’re talking about James Franco, I’ll watch his movies and read his interviews. And inevitably there’s something in there I can grab onto and go, “Gosh, I really like this work you did.” And the same goes for a show in Boston, for instance. I’ll write jokes specifically about the town. I went to school there, so I have a lot of fond memories. Part of me is a Bostonian, so I feel like there’s a lot of love there.
Q. Do you wind up coaching any of the other comics on the Comedy Central roasts?
A. [Laughs] I do. Luckily we’re surrounded by high-caliber professionals, so there’s not too much that has to be done. I’m a producer on those shows now, so I have a real interest in seeing everybody do well. It’s not competitive for me. It really is sort of a camaraderie that permeates the whole event.
Q. Do you think any of your friends from BU would have predicted you’d do something like take the stage in cornrows to lob insults at James Franco someday?
A. It’s really crazy. My college buddies will be at the show at the Wilbur. I know they get a kick out of seeing it all go down, but usually we have this moment hours after the show ends where we look at each other and go, ”How the hell did I get here?” It’s so absurd.
Q. Were you the kind of guy that would throw jocular insults at friends back then?
‘If they’re in the front row at my show, they’re probably game for some sort of attention. . . . I can just sort of sense it at this point.’
A. I think it goes back even further, earlier than college, where I was in New Jersey, where everybody sort of thinks they’re a comedian. In my father’s catering hall through high school, I was the boss’s son. They would bust my chops a lot. And I think it wasn’t until I left Jersey and went up to BU that I even realized I was funny.Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.