Veteran comic Jeff Ross will spend the week in Brownsville learning about immigration while filming an upcoming comedy special, which culminates with a free show at Brownsville’s Hope Park, with the border wall in the background.
“I’m coming as a comedian. I’m not coming as a politician,” Ross told The Monitor in a phone interview. “I’m not trying to humiliate or embarrass anybody. I’m sympathetic to the situation.”
Ross has built his brand as “the Roastmaster General,” most well known for the Comedy Central Roasts of Justin Bieber, Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump and many more.
Traveling to Iraq to perform for the troops changed him, Ross revealed on a recent episode of the “WTF with Marc Maron Podcast.”
“I went to Iraq. They learned a little bit about me, but I learned a lot about them,” Ross said. “And I think it will be similar in Texas.”
While most comedians talk about themselves on stage, Ross said he strives to “enlighten others and learn from them, as well. It’s a two-way street.”
“I guess I got sick of just doing jokes about sex and partying,” he said. “Ultimately, I’m a single guy. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t have a family.
“Comedy is my family. Comedy is my religion.”
Roasting celebrities became predictable, Ross said on “WTF.” People like Sheen and Bieber were using the platform in an attempt to rehabilitate their careers. “What if I did that for an actual human being that deserved it — that would benefit from it?,” Ross told Maron.
He thought about ideas for roasts, like crime and law enforcement, but they need to be personified.
“To me, you have to humanize it. That’s criminals in orange jumpsuits,” he said of his special “Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live from Brazos County.” For “Jeff Ross Roasts Cops,” he developed a relationship with the Boston Police Department, setting out to explore the nuance between the community and police, who he said were “demonized.”
The original Facebook event title for Saturday’s show, “Jeff Ross Roasts Immigrants: Live from the border fence” disgusted Caroline Walker, who teaches improv comedy classes in McAllen.
The name changed, but Walker is still concerned about the spirit of the event because roasts are intended to offend.
“If he makes a mockery of our friends, family and our raza here in the RGV, that’s just going to just put us in a more negative light,” Walker said. “Yes, it’s exposure, but it could always be very negative for us. If he roasts on stereotypes … it’s going to be more regressive.”
Some people only see the opportunity for wide exposure, she said, but there’s no guarantee how the piece will be edited.
“I’m all for Jeff Ross coming down, if he’s going to do a stand-up show raising awareness on the issues,” said Walker. “But the name itself gave me the idea that it wasn’t going to be that way.”
Stevie Luna, a local activist who works with undocumented immigrants, is less optimistic. She feels his visit, and framing the border as a prop, is exploitative.
To Luna, Ross is “profiting off of brown people’s suffering.”
She accuses him of minimizing the experience of those on the border to a single, “hot-button issue” as a ratings grab.
“If Jeff Ross wanted to help immigrants … he would use his celebrity status … as a rich, white man to donate time, resources and money. (He’d) use his cameras to tell our stories the way we want to tell them, not the way he wants to tell them,” she said. “We’re not just one thing. We’re multifaceted people.
“ By doing this, he’s putting us into this one box.”
People are dying, facing assault and rape on the journey to cross the border, she said, and that isn’t something to laugh about.
Her fear is that trivializing the issue could empower more people to not take the issue seriously or fuel people’s hate.
“Jeff Ross isn’t one of us. He doesn’t share our struggles,” Luna said. “Therefore, he doesn’t get to make fun.”
Ross is no stranger to resistance during the projects he sees as part “social experiment.” He bombed the first time he performed for the Boston PD, a move he saw as a form of protest at least partly associated with his participation in a Black Lives Matter rally.
After embedding with the department, he was after to win them over.
“I kind of get it: white privilege,” he said of those who are critical of his visit. “(But) not a lot of gringos are ready to down to Brownsville and see what the situation is with their own eyes.
“I’m not trying to sit behind an anchor desk and I’m not trying to politicize this. I’m trying to humanize this issue.”
He admitted his one-week trip would only scratch the surface of immigration, and he said understands the seriousness of the topic.
Growing up Jewish in New Jersey, he said he remembers stories of the Holocaust — a ship seeking refuge in America only to be turned away.
“You hear about these Syrian refugees that have nowhere to go, and people say we don’t want them here,” he said. “This feels similar.”
Living in Southern California and New York City, he said he didn’t think about living among immigrants until it was brought up. He called himself “immigrant blind.”
“I take how hard it is to get into the country for granted,” he said. “I think a lot of people do.”
Ross said he’s a curious person, and he uses roasting because it’s what he’s good at. It’s the platform he has.
“I’m sure if I was a doctor, I would be using that. Or if I was a journalist, I would be using that,” Ross said. “Being a comedian allows me a backstage pass to the world.
“People open up to me (in a way) that they wouldn’t a journalist.”
He’s looking forward to speaking to people in South Texas, and encourages people to come up to him in Brownsville if they see him. If people have a story they’d like to tell Ross, he offered his email: email@example.com.
He invited those critical of his special to the performance. Like all his shows, the Saturday performance isn’t for kids.
“I’m going to bring my A-game. Even though this is a sensitive subject, my jokes are going to be very sharp,” Ross said. “I’m not backing away from the sensitivity of the issue.
“It’s going to be a provocative show.”