Shocking Subjects, Sensationally: The Comedy of John Ross
Words by Joseph Atkins | Photos by Duy Ninh
John Ross is occasionally unshaven, his hair is regularly maintained, and he wears thin black glasses. He’s got a low-key demeanor emphasized by his polo shirts and Dickies pants. He’s got three kids, a stable marriage, and he just got a job selling plumbing supplies. He’s a regular, well, John. Oh, and as a hobby he writes and performs jokes.
Ross has a dry sense of humor that depends on awkwardness, absurdity, and tension. He’s not flamboyant, in your face or crazy on stage. Ross slowly threads out a joke, waits a few seconds to build the audience’s confusion, and then flatly drops the punchline. After awkward crickets, suddenly everyone is laughing.
To summarize his story is to sensationalize it: Ross was born addicted to methadone, his parents were junkies, and he was molested once by a 12-year-old. But in talking to Ross, you’d never know such an average dude would have such an Oprah-esque back-story. But with his comedy, the audience is invited to laugh at and laugh with Ross: while he uses his sensational history for subject matter, he’s likely smiling the entire time and repeatedly shattering the boundaries of personal-information discomfort.
In July, Ross recorded his live set at the Sacramento Comedy Spot and since then has been hard at work editing it into a DVD feature. Ross will celebrate the DVD release of I Really, Really Love Me Nov. 13, 2010 by sharing the stage with his favorite local comedians and friends. We sat down just next to the Comedy Spot and discussed comedy, family and sensationalism over slices of pizza. For most of the interview, a group of children ran around us, sword fighting.
So, what does being born addicted to methadone mean?
It means my mom was born addicted to heroin, and my mom went on methadone to make sure I wasn’t retarded or developmentally disabled. There’s a weaning process, detox, when I was an infant. As far as I know there were no long-term effects. I don’t walk with a limp or anything. I do have a hard time focusing; I wonder sometimes if it has something to do with that. Or I’m just normal.
Your comedy relies a lot on your personal history. Why is that?
This sounds really cheesy, but I think I have a very interesting upbringing. Everything from being raised by junkies, to being Pentecostal Christian for a while–I’ve been through a lot of weird things. This might sound really retarded, but it might be an interesting story, so why not tell it? Not to exploit it. I’m not saying I think it’s a story that needs to be told to the world, but it’s a good story. A lot of my stuff is character-based, kind of true, kind of real, just embellished a little bit. I just tell you a story…
How did you decide that stuff would be a good subject for jokes?
It was kind of my first instinct when I started. I could do tons of dick jokes, jokes about having sex. If I do my parents are heroin addicts jokes, I know I’m not accidentally copying anyone. I’ve been doing jokes about when I was molested when I was 4, by a 12-year-old. Yeah they’re pretty harsh subjects, but it’s fucking funny. I like to build tension, and then release it. And if you’re going to steal my joke, it’s going to be obvious. Everyone’s going to know it.
What is it about absurdity that is so funny?
It’s just that you can say something and not say anything at all. You can take a real issue, something that you’re passionate about, but unless you’re like George Carlin or something, no one wants to hear you. Absurdity can take something pretty far; you can say something you wouldn’t say in a regular conversation. I’ve got a joke that Elvis is a racist, and I’m like, “I’m already a fan!” The further you go, the more obvious you’re not a racist. You can take a sensitive issue and go as far as you want; the further you go the more people know you’re not serious. They start uncomfortable and by the time you’re finished, they’re like, Thank God, he’s joking.
I think comedy is about awkwardness. I like to make feel people feel awkward, corporately. And let them know I’m messing around. I like to be as honest and absurd as I can. I don’t choke up. Anything horrible I try to make a joke out of; maybe it’s a defense mechanism.
I think your act is pretty funny, but I could imagine that some people might not really get what you’re doing. How do crowds react differently to your joke aesthetic?
With smart crowds you can get away with a lot more, people who know comedy. More conservative crowds, they just want to hear dick jokes, they don’t get subtlety. Lately I just say what I’m going to say. I did a show in Woodland, and it was a great crowd. But I could tell that I was making them uncomfortable. I didn’t apologize, or I didn’t apologize too much. If I get a really conservative crowd that isn’t biting on anything, I will punish them. Sometimes it’s just fun to be on stage, tell the awkward story to your friends.
Part of your routine relies on a weird music-box device. What’s that called?
It’s called an Omnichord. With the Omnichord I have to be careful, anything more than 15 minutes, people start going, “What the fuck? This is annoying.” In a shorter set, with the Omnichord, I like to do a lot of non-sequiturs, one-liners. You can get away with a lot of darker stuff with the Omnichord.
There’s a lot of shocking subject matter in your jokes. Would you consider your jokes in the tradition of shock?
I’m not going to say fuck just to say fuck. I’m not going to talk about junkies just because. I don’t go out to shock for the sake of shock. I’m not as edgy as some comics are. I’m actually fairly clean compared to some comics.
When you’re writing material, do you have an agenda, or are you just trying to come up with funny things?
I’m only 32, but the older I get, the more agenda-ridden I get. If I want to talk about something, I just do. My daughter turned 1 the other day, and I was thinking about it, all the change she’s going to see in her lifetime, all the technology. And the one thing I hope she sees before she dies is her first white president. As long as she makes it to like 3, she’s pretty good. Like wow, she only knows a black president. How weird is that?
Race seems to be somewhat taboo in our culture. What’s up with that?
I do a lot of racial jokes. I try not to do racist jokes. Race is fascinating to me, and I don’t think you find a lot of white guys doing race jokes. I don’t make fun of the homeless, but I saw a homeless guy wearing a “World’s Greatest Dad” shirt. And I was like, that’s all I have to say. I saw him. That’s the end of that joke.
You’ve been performing comedy for six years; who have you performed with?
I got to open for Bobcat Goldthwait at Laughs Unlimited last year. I think he’s doing comedy just to pay for his divorce. He was really nice; he bought me dinner. I thought he was funny.
The biggest guy I ever opened for was Norm MacDonald. I was in Los Angeles, and my buddy runs the Hollywood Improv and he put me last on an early show. It was completely packed. Right before I went up the promoter told me to cut my set to five to six minutes, Norm MacDonald had just shown up. And I’m like what the fuck! Norm MacDonald is my favorite. I love this guy. I had one of the best sets ever. I got done and I was shaking hands, and I look up and it’s Norm MacDonald. He was like, “You’re really funny there. That was really funny.” I was like, “Thank you, Norm MacDonald.” Oh my God. I floated back to my seat. I watched him bomb, it was funny. He was drunk. He’s a throwaway comic anyway. He doesn’t care.
That same night I met Nick Swardson. I talked with Gallagher at the bar too. My buddy told me he’s gay. I heard he tries to fuck young comics. He’s self-hating, that’s why he crushes fruit. He was kind of bitter. My buddy was like, “Watch out, man.” I’m thinking, “Gallagher’s not gonna fuck me. Well maybe he could, if it would help my career.” We talked about my Omnichord. He gave me some good ideas on how to use it. It was pretty surreal.
That was the best night of comedy ever. One night in L.A. is like six months in Sacramento as far as networking. I just met a ton of people on an off night, a Sunday night.
What advice would you give to aspiring comedians?
If there’s something fucked up in your life, find it and make it funny. And don’t steal shit.
Thank you. If you can, don’t make me look like a dick.
John Ross will celebrate the release of his DVD, I Really, Really Love Me, at the Sacramento Comedy Spot on Nov. 13. Tickets are $10, and the show time is 7 p.m. DVDs will be on sale at the event for $7. For more information, go to www.saccomedyspot.com.