To say that Jeff Ross knows a thing or two about roasting people would be an understatement. Insult comedy is Ross's bread and butter. Besides being the Roastmaster General of the New York Friars' Club, he has been cutting celebrities down to size on Comedy Central Roasts for quite some time now. I'm guessing that's where a number of folks saw him for the first time (I know I did). From there, he parlayed his success into a Comedy Central show (The Burn with Jeff Ross) and now this release which covers 8 stops on his first major national tour.
As the special started, it was immediately apparent that nothing would be off limits as a clip showed Ross cracking wise on stage moments after learning about Whitney Houston's death. His audience howled with laughter, relishing the very awkwardness of it all. I chuckled too, thinking of the gag as a twisted palate cleanser. I braced myself for all the embarrassed laughs that Ross was going to drag out of me against my better judgment. Unfortunately, roughly 42 minutes later, the show came to a close and I found myself still waiting for laughs that never came. Sure, Ross had a few more clever one-liners up his sleeve and managed to consistently keep the tone irreverent but I simply never got caught up in the momentum of his act.
The blame for this largely falls on the fragmented presentation which keeps the home viewer at a safe distance from the building energy of Ross's material. By spending an average of only 5 or 6 minutes on each stop of his tour we never get to see Ross develop his act from start to finish. We watch a few snippets and just as Ross is about to get into his groove, we're on to the next city so we can restart the process. The effect is incredibly frustrating as the travelogue aspects of the special stomp all over the actual comedy. I would have gladly given up coverage of half the cities if it meant that the other half were presented at greater length. Of course, that would mean missing out on some of Ross's more colorful fans and we can't have that (more on them later).
While the choppy presentation doesn't do Ross any favors, I still find myself underwhelmed by the material that did make it into the special. Ross's utter commitment to insult comedy proves to be a double-edged sword. He is clearly one of the biggest names in the game but I have to wonder just how limiting that must be. Once you realize that he can say fairly awful things to folks while being charming enough to get away with it, there isn't a whole lot more to be seen. There isn't much depth or substance to build upon. As a result, the whole affair turns rather one-note and unmemorable. I see now why roasts rely on multiple presenters. They're all being funny and nasty but at least the nastiness is coming from a variety of viewpoints.
Here, Ross's limited range comes into focus as he falls back on the same insults in city after city. Sure, he tailors a portion of his material to fit the venue (Seattle gets Kurt Cobain gags, Toronto gets jokes about Celine Dion and Michael J. Fox) but as soon as he starts interacting with the audience in Speed Roasts, his jokes turn depressingly familiar. Surprisingly, what partially redeem these segments are his enthusiastic fans. He might be hurling the same tired putdowns at them but their wild unpredictability adds a touch of danger to the proceedings (well, as much danger as you're likely to find at a comedy show). Especially outspoken are his female fans who routinely steal the show with their fearlessness. In a roundabout way, I guess I've landed on my main problem with this special. When I'm watching a piece dedicated to a man who insults people for a living, I shouldn't have to rely on his audience to deliver the excitement.