Jeffrey Ross has heard that Canadian audiences tend to be a bit more restrained, polite and perish the thought -- sensitive than their American counterparts. He doesn't give a (expletive).
"Maybe that's the case; I don't know," Ross said this week in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, just days before departing for his first-ever cross-Canada comedy tour.
"This is new for me, to be playing the whole country. What I do know is that when people come to my show, they expect the hair on the back of their neck to be raised a little bit. They expect it to come at them really hard, and I feel empowered when my shows fill up like they do.
"I'm not worried about people being sensitive; if they're sensitive, they're probably at the wrong show."
Ross, a veteran insult comedian who's best known these days as the Friars Club's "Roastmaster General" for his emphatically blue-hued contributions to the made-for-TV skewerings of such celebrities as Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, Bob Saget, David Hasselhoff and Joan Rivers, will be bringing his no-prisoners style of comedy to the Burton Cummings Theatre this Friday at 7:30 p.m. (tickets $43.75 at Ticketmaster).
The 46-year-old New Jersey native says anyone who buys a ticket to one of his shows knows -- or ought to -- what he or she is in for. And it's not just the folks in the first few rows who are potential targets for Ross's pointedly frank commentary.
"I think people consider it an honour to be made fun of," Ross explained. "As a matter of fact, people line up early to get those (front-row) seats. And by the way, I don't particularly make fun of just the front rows. If you're sitting in the back, you might get roasted, too."
That Ross has emerged as his generation's most in-demand insult comic is as much of a surprise to the man himself as it is to his standup contemporaries. Back in the mid-'80s, when he was a film-school graduate who couldn't quite manage to hold down a job, he never had any inclination to become a comedian, and certainly never imagined that he would one day get paid huge sums of money for making rather profane fun of others.
"My college buddy, Mark Chapin, was the one who told me I should become a comedian, or at least try taking a comedy class or something," he recalled. "He had just done it, and thought I might work for me.
"I was just this chubby loser, living in New Jersey with my grandfather, and I didn't have much of a life plan. I was trying to figure it out, so comedy kind of found me at a really good time."
Once he found himself behind a microphone and in front of an audience, however, Ross instantly knew he'd found his place.
"I knew immediately that I loved it," he said. "I had no social life, so to be able to go onstage and get girls laughing, and have them come up to me after the show, saying 'You're so funny' was a pretty cool thing. I mean, I'm the same guy who was standing over by the bar, but you put me onstage and give me a microphone and a spotlight, and suddenly everyone's interested. I realized pretty quickly that this was something special."
It was while he was honing his skills as a comedian that Ross first encountered the Friars Club, the storied Big Apple meeting place for comics and assorted other showbiz types. But even when he started hanging out at the club, he had no knowledge of the organization's infamous celebrity roasts.
"I had heard of it, but it wasn't something I was familiar with. But I was at the Friars Club in New York -- I would play poker there occasionally as a young guy, because it was a nicer place to play than my buddy's dingy apartment -- and I took a liking to the environment, the camaraderie and this brotherhood of comedians.
"They encouraged me; they invited me to do my first roast. I actually had to go to the Museum of Broadcasting to look up what a roast was. And I was surprised by how hard they hit.... I would say it's been a joke-by-joke, roast-by-roast process. It's a very happy accident. I never thought I would become a roast comic or an insult comic; I just wanted to make people laugh."
These days, Ross proudly wears the club's mantle of Roastmaster General.
"It's so weird, but I love it," he said. "For a while, I ran away from it, but now I feel I'm drawn to this path. Dave Chappelle once told me that this is my lane, so I should follow it and learn to love it."
Ross admits that his experience performing in Canada is limited -- his northbound touring has only taken him to Montreal's Just For Laughs and to Toronto and Vancouver -- but he insists he'll be doing his level best to learn about our country and will incorporate that newfound local knowledge into each stop on his eight-day, six-city Canadian swing.
"A lot of it will be about whatever's happening in Canada," he said. "I always go right for the local papers; I always go right to the local restaurants and try to talk to the people who live there. I want these shows to be very Canada-centric, and to be very specific to the towns I'm in -- you know, Jeff Ross roasts 'blank' (insert city name).
"I feel like I'll be absorbing Canadian culture and customs and people and odours until they spew out of my head in the form of insults."
So let's not lapse into any unfounded notions that Ross will be cosying up to his Canadian-show customers. Audiences here, Canuckishly polite or not, will get the full insult treatment; in fact, starting with Friday's Winnipeg date, crowds here will experience a whole new level of Jeffrey Ross-ness.
"I'm going to be trying something new in these Canadian shows -- speed roasting," he said. "I'll be looking for volunteers from the audiences, so at a certain point in the show, anybody who reads this can come up onstage and get made fun of. We'll have 10 or 12 in a row, all at one time -- it'll be very punk rock. Speed roasting -- it's definitely something new."