Anyone who has seen Jeff Ross do stand-up knows he’s crazy. The man known as Roastmaster General says things so offensive to audience members that getting slapped in the face has become routine. He even welcomes it.
The comic, who appears at Miami’s Magic City Casino on Saturday, is notorious for roasting not only celebrities (such as Charlie Sheen, Joan Rivers, Hugh Hefner, Donald Trump and, most recently, Justin Bieber), but also innocent bystanders. He also subjected himself to the potential ignominy of competing on Dancing with the Stars in 2008 (the risk was not rewarded, as he was poked in the eye by partner Edyta Sliwinska during rehearsals; they were the first couple eliminated).
But Ross’ latest stunt raises the insanity meter to record heights: The “one-man verbal assault unit” spent three days behind the walls of the Brazos County Jail in Bryan, Texas, living among the inmates, spending time in solitary, shooting hoops in the yard and even roasting groups of male and female prisoners. It was an eye-opening, enlightening and at times terrifying experience for the comedian.
So does that mean we’ll see a kinder, gentler Ross Saturday? Hell, no!
What inspired you to venture into a prison?
I just wanted to take it up a notch. I’m competitive. It was intense, it was scary, at times it was depressing, and at times it was an education. I feel like I learned a lot along the way, and I saw things that normal people don’t get to see, so I wanted to show it on TV so other people can sort of experience what I experienced.
Did it change your notion of how most people view prisoners?
I think it did. ... It wasn’t something I cared about. I didn’t understand how serious an issue it was. One out of every 100 Americans is in jail right now, and 90 percent of those people are coming out back into our communities. So we have to give them some hope and a little bit of a show, and we have to think about them and think about incarceration in general. I think it’s important.
And a lot of people in there didn’t even do anything that bad.
Obviously, there are some total dirtbags in there, and to hell with them, but most of them are in there for nonviolent offenses. They can’t make bail they’re so poor, so they’re stuck in there, or it’s like rehab for them, so they go in there to get clean clothes and medications. And a lot of them are in there because they made one dumb mistake, and they deserve a second chance.
Were you ever afraid for your life?
The whole time. I mean, there’s no room for slacking off. I had really good jailers around, but there are only one or two guards at a time, and at any point, somebody could be a hero or a wise-guy and take a whack at me or my crew. But I’m really lucky it worked out well, because the jail took a big risk at just having us. I feel like I’m Neil Armstrong talking about the first space launch — we’ve been through a lot and we all came out better men.
Has this changed your outlook on being a comic?
No, I think it’s enriched my outlook. I think it’s made me realize once again that it’s bigger than me, that there’s a purpose to comedy. I mean, not only can you make people laugh, but you can also learn something along the way and pass it on to others.
So can we expect a kinder, gentler Jeff Ross?
No freaking way — I’m coming down there in full-roast mode. These prisoners have riled me up, and I have so much to talk about. I’m gonna bring people up onstage for a speed-roast at the end of the show, so if you’re reading this, please bring your ugliest, fattest friend to my show.
Out of all your roasts, which has been your favorite?
That’s a tough one. Sometimes I think it was the Flavor Flav roast. Sometimes I think it was the Bieber one. ... I think he became a man on that day. But the truth is, it’s probably whoever the next roast is, because getting ready for these roasts is the best part. You get to write jokes and buy new clothes, and it’s a party with insults.
Jeff Ross plays at 9 p.m. Saturday at Magic City Casino, Stage 305, 450 NW 37th Ave., Miami; 305-460-6579 or www.magiccitycasino.com; $30, VIP table for four $300 (includes bottle of champagne).