Comedian Jeffrey Ross shares secrets every roastmaster should know by dishing out stories from his humble beginnings, behind-the-scenes tales, secrets to writing jokes and more in “I Only Roast the Ones I Love: Busting Balls Without Burning Bridges.” The following is an excerpt.
A Roastmaster Must DanceBack in the day, comedians didn’t just tell jokes. They sang, juggled, did card tricks and impressions, and even danced. In fact, Don Rickles still breaks out a little soft shoe during his headlining performances. To be a great Roastmaster, one must also be a multifaceted showman.
So when I was invited to compete on “Dancing with the Stars,” it was no surprise to my family that I agreed wholeheartedly. However, my comedy pals seemed rather shocked when they found out I was going to be a contestant. Drew Carey said, “Does that mean they have to change the name of the show?” Drew was merely pointing out that winners of the coveted mirror ball trophy are usually Olympic athletes or Super Bowl champs — not shlubby comics with a broken hip and high blood pressure. But I have the heart of a champion, even if the arteries are clogged.
I had even won a dance contest once at summer camp, by shaking my chubby eleven-year-old ass to Wild Cherry’s classic, “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.” Then, as a teenager making salads and fruit cups at the catering hall, I would occasionally take a break and peek into the ballroom through the little windows in the swinging kitchen doors and watch the well-dressed party guests attempt everything from the hora to the hustle. In college, I even went through a slam-dancing phase until my elbows swelled like grapefruits.
Since then I’ve always been open to trying new styles. So now I figured, why not try ballroom dancing? I further reasoned that learning how to cha-cha-cha on national TV would be a fun way to pay homage to the multitalented Roastmasters who came before me. To regain the flexibility of my youth, I started taking classes at a local yoga studio.
I loved going there every day. It reminded me of when I went to karate classes a kid. Barefoot. Solemn. Weirdly Asian. Ever since I earned my black belt at the age of ten, I’ve understood how much hard work it takes to master a physical art form. I was determined to take that knowledge and winning spirit with me onto the dance floor.
However, I soon discovered that my competition included Olympic gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Maurice Green, Super Bowl champ Warren Sapp, Grammy-winning songstress Toni Braxton, soap opera diva Susan Lucci, Oscar-winning actress Cloris Leachman, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, sex taper turned reality TV star Kim Kardashian, model turned mother of four Brooke Burke, and former boy bander turned even more gay Lance Bass. (Lance is a classy guy. He sent everybody in the cast a bag of Blow Pops on our first day.)
In all, there were twelve other celebrities dancing with twelve professional ballroom dancers. That’s one more couple than they usually have, making it the biggest season ever. The head bookmaker at the Wynn Casino in Vegas predicted me to finish dead last at 50–1. I figured being the underdog could only work in my favor.
On the first day of training, I showed up at the rehearsal studio and met my new dance partner, the infamous Polish princess of the ballroom Edyta Sliwinska. A world-class competitor, Edyta has been on the show every season, yet she has never won the trophy. In fact, she came in second the previous season and was a fan favorite to go all the way this coming season. At least, she was until she got teamed up with me.
I presented her with a bouquet of flowers as an advance thank-you for all the patience she would need in order to teach me her skills. As she took the bouquet, I couldn’t help but notice her sharp blue eyes and even sharper fingernails. Her long legs, high spiky heels, and vampire-like accent made her seem almost menacing. I was definitely a little afraid of her.
Apparently she felt the same way because she mentioned my reputation as an insult comic and said she feared I would spend too much time making fun of her instead of learning my steps. I explained that even though I may think in punch lines, my dancing would be serious. In fact, if there were going to be any major distractions it would surely be her fault because she was impossible to look at without getting weak in my already shaky left hip. Very embarrassingly, I had broken my femur ice-skating with my nephews a few years earlier. Now it’s held together with three titanium pins.
Excuses aside, I decided to approach my rehearsals like a Method actor. When I looked at Edyta I would try not to see her as the perfect beauty she is, but as my high school football coach Mr. Senese, who looked like a by-product of a rhino mating with a meatball. Ballroom dancing is physically demanding and the routines are complicated. I needed to concentrate if I was going to win.
As the rigorous daily training began, my feet ached constantly from the two-inch Cuban heels I was required to wear. I also had a persistent headache from trying to remember my complicated routines, not to mention the fact that the three pins holding my hip together felt like they might snap each time I landed on my left side. However, I was quite thrilled when the producers informed us that the first song chosen for us to dance to was my summer camp anthem, “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.”
Still, my poor partner was faced with a near impossible job. She had to choreograph a cha-cha-cha routine that I could handle, then teach it to me, and then perform it with me on national television. And then do it all over again with the quickstep. That’s right, she had to teach me two separate styles of dance in time for the show’s big premiere. On top of that, she had to accomplish all this around my existing stand-up schedule. After a long Labor Day weekend of learning lock steps and spot turns in a midtown Manhattan dance studio, I remember telling Edyta that it was this level of commitment that would put us in the finals. She just smiled and continued filing her fingernails.
After rehearsal we would eat and have fun — falafel and borscht at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, knishes and cheesecake at the Carnegie Deli, hot dogs and beer at the New York Giants opening game. The running gag in the tabloids was that we would be the first couple ever to gain weight while training for a dance competition.
All of my East Coast friends were impressed with Edyta’s appetite as well as her charm. She spoke several languages and made everybody she met feel special, including me. Above all, Edyta was transforming me into a dancer. She even incorporated a few of my funky summer camp moves into our routine. Each rehearsal I felt a little less like Fred Flintstone and a bit more like Fred Astaire.
Before I knew it I had lost fifteen pounds and my ankles stopped hurting. My body was clearly going through some sort of ballroom puberty, and Edyta and I were becoming a good team — Eastern Europe meets North Jersey. I was more determined than ever to become the people’s cha-cha-champion.
I asked my sister, aunt, uncle, and cousins to come to L.A. and be my cheering section. My aunt Donna and my uncle Joe have been dancing together for thirty years and I knew they would give me lots of love and inspiration. The night before the show we all went out for Chinese food. (Surely I was the only contestant eating barbecued spareribs that night.)
I was very nervous and my sister, Robyn, tried to put it all in perspective, “I keep bragging to everybody that my brother is going to be on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ — as a star! So it doesn’t matter how you do. It’s really cool that they asked you to be on.”
Aunt Donna jumped in, “Nobody expects you to be good — just go out there and have fun.” Uncle Joe advised, “Look confident, and no matter what happens just keep going.” My cousin Enrique said, “Can you please introduce me to Lance Bass?”
The morning of the premiere I popped out of bed before my alarm went off, feeling like a kid on the opening day of Little League. I couldn’t wait to suit up. My once painful dance shoes now felt like comfy slippers. Comedian pals from all over called to offer their support, including Chris Rock, who said “Forget the dancing and start thinking of some jokes.”
He reminded me that comedians rarely get a chance to be funny on prime-time television and that I should make the most of the moment. He said, “I had to host the Oscars in order to get an opportunity like you’re getting.” Suddenly I felt obligated to dance well and get laughs on behalf of comics everywhere.
As I walked onto the set for the first time, I was greeted by all the same cameramen that I work with at the Comedy Central roasts every year. Everybody seemed to be rooting for me and our final rehearsal went almost perfectly. Every step of our cha-cha-cha felt crisp and the orchestra was playing that funky music to the max.
The only glitch happened halfway through when I got bopped hard on the nose with one of Edyta’s hair curlers. I instinctively took my uncle’s advice and just kept on dancing. As we sat down to change our shoes, the stage manager came over and asked us to do the routine one more time. Since the show would be live that night the director in the control room just wanted to make sure he had locked in all the best camera angles. After all, this was the top show on the number one network and everything had to be perfect. I took a swig of coffee and headed back to my mark.
The music started and I just felt it. Edyta and I were in a zone. I wasn’t just remembering my steps ... I was dancing. And it felt good. We were warmed up. We were ready. We were having fun out there.
Then as the orchestra approached the last bars, I dropped to my knee for my final move as I’d done a hundred times before. But as Edyta stepped past for her final kick around my back, she swung her hand toward my head and accidentally slashed me in my left eye with her long pointy fingernail. I felt a sting but ignored it as we made our final move, which involved Edyta kicking me in the back and pushing me to the floor in a mock fight.
Then I stayed like that. Facedown on the dance floor. Just squirming on the ground holding my eye and moaning. The crew applauded. They thought it was part of the act. But I was afraid to get up. I was afraid to let go of my eye. I thought I might be holding it in place. The pain was awful. But I got up, walked off the dance floor, and sat down on a bench outside.
I still couldn’t see. My eye hurt too much to even open it. Finally, an on-set emergency worker numbed it so I could relax. I pulled my eyelid open ever so slightly. My vision was extremely blurry, but I could make out Edyta’s worried face standing over me. I knew she felt bad. I tried to hold my eye open with my finger, but the sunlight quickly intensified the pain. After another ten minutes of denial, I finally agreed to go to an emergency room. Edyta went off to get a manicure.
Dr. Frankel at Cedars-Sinai told me I had a scratched cornea. I couldn’t believe it. The VERY last move of the VERY last rehearsal and I scratch my cornea? He gave me a tetanus shot and told me if I rested my eye I’d be fine in two or three days. He offered to prescribe some Vicodin and suggested I go home and crash.
My voice crackled. “But, Doc — I’m supposed to dance tonight. I’ve been practicing all summer. C’mon, Doc — what can you do?” He didn’t answer. I just stared at him with my one good eye. Finally I said, “Say it ain’t so, Doc.” He looked at me and said, “Let me go make a phone call,” and he disappeared for about forty-five minutes. Oy vey. This was torture. Who could he be calling? The cornea fairy? I was completely screwed and I knew it. I sat there boiling. Mad at the world. Mad at myself for even caring about this stupid show.
Eventually, Dr. Frankel gave me the name of an ophthalmologist in Beverly Hills who had agreed to see me right away. I jumped in the back of a production assistant’s dirty red Buick and sped off to Beverly Hills in search of a miracle. After an intense examination, Dr. Hopp explained that even if he numbed the eye enough for me to open it, my vision would still be blurry and my eye would be extremely sensitive to light. He said that not only shouldn’t I dance but that I probably couldn’t dance under those bright TV lights even if I tried.
I said, “Doc, with all due respect. I’m dancing tonight. Will you help me?” He took a deep breath, shook his head in bewilderment, and laid out a bunch of scary eye tools. He put my head in a harness with a microscope on it, and he carefully placed a medicated contact lens over my cornea, which he said would act as an invisible Band-Aid to protect it. Then he placed a quarter of a millimeter size synthetic cork in my tear socket, and pulled a tiny unmarked eyedrop dispenser out of his desk drawer and said, “Put just one drop of this stuff in your eye right before you dance. It’ll numb the pain for a few minutes. But don’t do it more than once because it slows down your healing.”
I said, “What’s in it?”
He whispered, “You don’t wanna know.” Then he looked into my good eye and said, “Break a leg.”
I said, “Thanks, Doc — I intend to.”
Republished from “I Only Roast the Ones I Love: Busting Balls Without Burning Bridges” by Jeffrey Ross, with permission. Copyright © 2009.