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“Sometimes I think I’m a comedian before I’m an American, before I’m a Jew,” Jeff Ross tells me of the “cult” he’s been a part of for the past 25 years.
The Roastmaster General, as he has come to be known, is looking pretty bleary-eyed as he sits down behind the mic for this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. He’s just returned to L.A. after a weekend of shows with his friend and fellow stand-up legend Dave Attell in Las Vegas. As Ross explains, Attell likes to perform at casinos because they pay more and let him smoke on stage.
When he’s not “bumping mics” with Attell, Ross is roasting everyone and everything in sight, on his popular Roast Battle series for Comedy Central and most recently in a series of Historical Roasts for Netflix, which feature comics like Bob Saget as Abraham Lincoln and Sasheer Zamata as Rosa Parks.
The episode that has garnered the most attention is the roast of Anne Frank, starring Gilbert Gottfried as Adolf Hitler. Ross understands that Holocaust jokes might not be for everyone, but still finds it disappointing that people are telling him it’s “too soon” to go there. “Most of these people that are complaining are very, very old,” he says with a shrug.
Of course, the main event for Ross will always be Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts. Later this summer, he will join the dais for his fourteenth roast in as many years with Alec Baldwin as the guest of honor. It was just seven years ago that he helped roast Donald Trump on that network, further raising Trump’s national profile ahead of his successful 2016 presidential run.
“I think people always have a hidden agenda with these roasts that we never find out about until later,” Ross says, joking that Baldwin—like Trump—might want to use the event to launch his own political career.
On his approach to roasting Alec Baldwin
“He’s one of my favorite actors and I’ve been like an extra in his life for decades. He lives in my neighborhood in New York City and I interviewed him years and years and years ago when I was a correspondent on The Daily Show. I remember him yelling at a publicist, so there’s always that, the mood swings. People go, oh, there’s so many messed-up things about somebody to make fun of, but to me it’s easier to make fun of someone when they have a million hits, and he has so many good films. It’s more fun to watch those than watch bad ones and make fun of those.”
Why he wanted to roast Anne Frank
“We roast Abe Lincoln, Freddie Mercury, Cleopatra, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Anne Frank. And the only ones complaining are the Jews. I was channelling something I once heard Mel Brooks say, which is essentially, you can’t take back the lives lost, but you can seek some revenge through ridicule. And by making Hitler and the Nazis a joke, I think that’s a victory. The Jews survive, and not only that, we flourish. And as Anne Frank, played eloquently by Rachel Feinstein on the show, she says to Hitler, you know the greatest revenge, Hitler, is the fact that you’re being portrayed by the loudest, most annoying Jew we could find.”
On casting Gilbert Gottfried as Adolf Hitler
“I called Gilbert up and I told him the idea, I offered him the role and I got to ‘Hit—’ and he said yeah. By the time I got to ‘ler’ he was already booking an airplane ticket. And then he came to rehearsal and lunch and I couldn’t get him to take the armband and the mustache off. He really did some deep, deep acting work there.”
On Amy Schumer naming her baby Gene Attell Fischer after his comedy partner Dave Attell
“I got a little teary-eyed when I saw that Amy did that. Because I do know how much she loves Dave and I certainly know how much he loves her. She appears in our Bumping Mics show, briefly, on Netflix. And they’ve been friends a long time. She’s sort of a sister to us. She’s a really good friend to me and yet they have this other really special thing. They’re both from the same part of Long Island and, listen, Dave might not ever have a kid of his own, so the fact that she’s keeping his last name, Attell, I cried. I was really, really moved by that. It takes a lot to make me sort of fountain-up like that, but man, that was really sweet.”
On roasting Donald Trump
“He was always a pretty decent sport. He would not laugh in front of everybody, but you knew that he understood that it was clever, that it was fun. He would always take me aside afterwards to tell me how great it was. He once hired me to go down to Mar-a-Lago and basically roast him in front of the members of Mar-a-Lago. So he had a sense of humor and he liked the attention. And now there’s something else happening.”