If you're going to the Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, you might want to stay out of the sights of Jeff Ross. He might be hard to avoid, though, as the "Roastmaster General" of the New York Friars' Club is serving as the emcee for the tour.
The comic from New Jersey, who hosts the Comedy Central show "The Burn With Jeff Ross," is one of the leading insult comics and has been on board for roasts of Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, Donald Trump and Joan Rivers, among others. The latest target is James Franco, whose roast will air on Comedy Central at 10 p.m. Monday.
One of his best digs at that event last Sunday night was directed toward fellow roaster Jonah Hill: "Jonah almost couldn't make it tonight because he had trouble finding a tuxedo that changes sizes every three hours. When Jonah's agent told him Quentin Tarantino wanted him to be in a spaghetti Western, Jonah said, 'you had me at spaghetti.' "
At the Drew Carey roast, he unloaded on a legend: "Great to see Alan King ... a man who's been doing comedy so long, he lost to Mark Twain on 'Star Search.' A man who burst on the scene at the same time as the Beatles. Not the band ... the life form."
On Friday, he'll take aim at the crowd and probably his fellow comedians at the First Niagara Pavilion. Prior to the interview on Tuesday, he had done one show on the tour, the opening night Friday in Austin, Texas.
How does comedy play to 15-, 20,000 people?
The closest I came to doing something like this was a USO show at an airplane hangar in Baghdad. I think they very carefully book the acts so that they can work in a large festival atmosphere. There's a lot of music on the show. Obviously, [Dave] Chappelle comes out like a rock star at the end. I think there's a really good vibe. I think all comedians want to be rock stars, and this helps them live that fantasy.
Who else besides Flight of the Conchords does music?
I do a song in my act, and Demetri Martin does a song. He plays guitar. And Kristen Schaal does music, Hannibal Buress does music. Comedy to me is music. It's all in the timing, it's all in the right beats.
How did the crowd react to you in Austin?
I got a really good reaction. I went out early and people were still kind of running to their seats. That gives you a lot of fodder. I got to tick them off and make jokes about them, and the camera guys put them up on the Jumbotron. I had a great time with them.
How do you become a "burn" or insult comedian? Is that something that goes back to your childhood, your family?
I'm from New Jersey. In north New Jersey, that area, everybody really has to have thick skin because everybody thinks they're a comedian. We've all seen "The Sopranos." We talk in insults in New Jersey, so it's a form of self-defense. Whether it's your family, your friends, your co-workers, your classmates, my Uncle Murray. They called him Mean Murray because he would always crack on his nieces and nephews and grandchildren. So, I had to learn how to insult people back. It came out of necessity.
So it's nothing new to the culture?
I think the roasting and insult comedy goes right to human nature. This goes beyond the Dean Martin roasts. This goes back to prehistoric times, with, like, public stoning, tar-and-feathering. People love to see big shots taken down a notch.
I saw on "The Burn" you go after, like, Rick Ross. Should you go after someone like Rick Ross?
[Laughs.] Uh, you know, probably not. But I haven't been shot yet. Hope he has a good sense of humor. Maybe I'll get to meet him one day and find out for sure.
Has anyone every gotten really angry at you?
I've been really lucky. The only time people get mad is when you make fun of them when they're not there. But if they're there, you're OK, because they're volunteering for it. Everyone kind of knows what a roast is like. I'm been pretty unscathed so far. I don't know if it's calculated or what, but so far I have not been shot, stabbed or beat up.
Who was the best person to roast?
Flavor Flav was the easiest to roast. It was a fun target because you could say anything to him. The jokes were pretty extreme. That's how you make fun of a crackhead who wears a Viking helmet. I always feel like whoever's next is my favorite. We roasted James Franco two nights ago. It had a real old-school Rat Pack vibe and I enjoyed that, too.
Adam Carolla made a school shooting joke on "The Burn." Do you have any lines you won't cross?
Well, I feel like ... I don't see it as lines. I see it all as very amorphous and gray. If you have a perfect joke, if you have a well-crafted insult, you can go anywhere. You really can. I don't see it as lines, I see it as circles. You don't want people to leave, going, "That was so mean!" You want them to go, "That was so funny." I also feel like it's part of my brand to take it right to the edge. With the right joke, anything's funny.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.