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Jeff Ross: If Comics Start Censoring Ourselves Then I Dont Want to Be a Comedian

SAN FRANCISCOJeff Ross arrives to our interview armed with nunchucks. If hes trying to intimidate me, its working.

The Roastmaster General, as he has come to be known in the comedy world, has just arrived in this city from Los Angeles. Hes wearing a bright blue kimono jacket and a red fedora and seems genuinely thrilled to be on the scene at Comedy Centrals second annual Clusterfest weekend.

There were so many comics on my plane, we had to go through an insecurity check point, he jokes before asking, Was that good? Despite the weapon now slung over his shoulders, hes just as emotionally needy as any other working comedian and is always hoping for a laugh. I oblige.

Ross is here to open for his favorite comedian, Jon Stewart, whos headlining the last night of the three-day festival. But instead of doing stand-up, Ross will be roasting brave members of the audience who, for some reason, want to be subjected to his brutal jokes about their race, age, body or general Bay Area hipster disposition.

Any time people are at a festival, theyre eager to get roasted and you can say things that are even more crazy than at a regular show, Ross tells me as we walk out onto a balcony overlooking the massive crowd below thats taking in an afternoon performance by comedian and musician Reggie Watts. You can cut a little deeper, because theyre warmed up.

This years festival is happening hot on the heels of a series of comedy-based scandals: Michelle Wolf coming under fire for her jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Roseanne Barr getting her show cancelled because of a blantantly racist tweet, Samantha Bee supposedly crossing the line on hers. Do incidents like those make Ross worry that he might inadvertently say the wrong thing and get in some trouble of his own?

When I see that Comedy Central is behind this, I know that Im protected, he says. They always stick up for comics. And I feel like its part of our responsibility not to hold back. If other people arent censoring us and we start censoring ourselves, then I dont think Id want to be a comedian. The only reason I love being a comic is that I get to say what I want.

Since he was a kid growing up in Springfield, New Jersey, Ross says he was always proud to live in a country where you could make fun of anything, including the president of the United States. And despite Donald Trumps seeming refusal to laugh at himself in public, Ross knows a different side of the president. When I tell a joke about Donald Trump, most of the jokes he would laugh at, he says from experience.

Ive roasted you twice for charity and youve always been a good sport and even called me afterwards to tell me how much fun you had, he wrote in a recent article for The Daily Beast, urging Trump to reconsider his decision to skip the annual White House Correspondents Dinner.

If Ross could speak directly to the president, he says he would tell him it would be beneficial for him to show his constituents that he can take a joke, because a roast is not a court of law, its not a debate. Its a party. And its a great exercise of free speech.

The night before, Ross was performing at a benefit for Chrysalis, an L.A.-based non-profit organization that helps people in poverty get jobs. He did a lot of jokes about Trump during his set and afterwards someone came up to him to tell him how brave he was to tell jokes that the president would hate.

I said, No he wouldnt, he would love them, he would be repeating them to his friends, he says. In public, he would pretend to be offended and not think theyre funny, but thats part of his schtick.

In Ross telling, it was a joke about Hillary Clinton that got the biggest laugh of the night from the liberal L.A. audience. You know, on Election Night I was in New York and I got invited to Hillary Clintons victory party. And I went, he told them, before asking, Have you ever gone to a wedding and the bride dies walking down the aisle?

Ross is no stranger to controversy himself, having dressed up as figures like Muammar Gaddafi and Joe Paterno for past Comedy Central roasts. In 2012, at the Roast of Roseanne Barr, he told a series of jokes about the recent mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

Congratulations. This is actually a great night for you, Ross told fellow roaster Seth Green, who, like the shooter in that incident, has red hair. You havent gotten this much attention since you shot all those people in Aurora. He then added, Im kidding. You are not like James Holmes. At least he did something in a movie theater that people remember!

Ross refused to apologize for that jokeWe should be more focused on guns that kill than jokes that sting, he said at the timeand hasnt offered any public apologies for any other jokes since.

Ive never apologized for a joke, he tells me. But I have apologized for hurting someones feelings. Ross says he feels sorry for the comics who get bullied into making sincere apologies for jokes. It doesnt sit well with me, he says. Bad taste is not a crime.

He also doesnt like the phrase push the envelope because he believes comics define the envelope, we make the rules. In his view, everythings OK to make fun of and nothings off limits.

I find it troubling, Ross says of this recent backlash to comedy. And I just hope that one of your readers can text me or email me a list of acceptable topics to make fun of, because the list keeps getting updated. It really drives me nuts.

A couple of days earlier, Ross tweeted a similar question that now sits pinned to the top of his Twitter profile.

Despite the bad rap that colleges and universities have gotten for being P.C. safe spaces that are not welcoming to comedians, Ross says he still loves performing forand roastingstudents.

My show hits pretty hard, he says, but my shows interactive and college students love that. He will bring students up on stage and make fun of them to their faces and they always take the jokes pretty well, he adds. So I never sign on to that belief that college kids are overly sensitive. I think generally the world is more sensitive and college kids are no more or less sensitive than anyone else.

At a panel discussion with a handful of comedians the day before our conversation, stand-up comic and SiriusXM radio host Nikki Glaser said she is anxious to see what the next Comedy Central roast will be like in this time of heightened sensitivity. If you compare what Michelle Wolf did to the things that are said on the roasts, its insane how mean the roasts get, she said.

This summer, Ross is set to lead the latest Comedy Central roast of Bruce Willis. When Ross was walking around the festival grounds earlier in the day, he got a call on his cell phone from Willis, who was checking in about the upcoming event. He told Ross, I just want you to know, and tell everyone else, not to hold back. I want you guys to throw rocks, because Im going to throw them right back.

I was so moved by that, Ross says. Because most people go into these roasts nervous. We live in such a touchy society right now and heres a guy going, Bring it.

Legend has it that comics at the roast of Donald Trumpan event that occurred just five years before he was elected presidentwere not allowed to joke about the real estate moguls net worth, something that Glaser suggested led Wolf to make her How broke is he? riff such a big part of her White House Correspondents Dinner speech.

Before Wolf did her bit about Trump being broke at the dinner in April, she reached out to Ross to ask if it was true that the president is sensitive about that topic. Absolutely, he told her.

However, Ross clarifies that is actually not true that comics were not allowed to joke about Trumps financial status. My understanding is that nothing was off-limits, he says, noting that he made a joke on that topic from the dais: I said his book The Art of the Deal has three chapter elevens.

It wasnt that jokes about Trumps fortuneor lack thereofwere not allowed, its just that Trump didnt find them funny, which makes them funnier, Ross says.

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