Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live At Brazos County Jail is an unconventional comedy special, riding the line between a typical hour-long set and a mini-documentary. Solid in the former arena and enlightening in the latter, it fails to deliver strongly enough in either to qualify as a resounding success.
At the top of the special, interspersed with Ross roasting some of the inmates at the Texas detention center, several facts flash across the screen: “1 out of every 100 Americans is behind bars. Seriously.” “We have more jails & prisons in America than colleges/universities.” “We have more black men locked up right now than were slaves. What!!??” Throughout the special, Ross interviews officials from the Brazos County Jail and several dozen inmates. He asks the officials about prison culture, discipline, and reward; the inmates field questions about what they’re in for, who’s waiting for them back home, and what being incarcerated is like. In one of the most interesting moments of the special, he visits the solitary housing unit, and bangs his head on the padded, clinically colored wall. He asks a guard somewhat emotively, “Do you think it’s torture?” The guard takes a few seconds, begins to say “probably,” then cuts herself off to say “possibly.” She then adds, “But we have to, you know, dot our I’s and cross our T’s.”
Which speaks to the heart of the issue Ross tries to illuminate in Roasts Criminals. At the top, Ross says he decided to create the special because he wanted to know what prisoners are really like, why there are so many of them, and if they have a sense of humor about their situation. But that premise is merely a pretext for providing an alternative angle into the growing problem of America’s broken prison system (as well as an unusual and alluring context for Ross’ unique brand of comedy), the largest such system in the world. Scores of inmates interviewed by Ross are repeat offenders, and, as the jail administrator informs Ross, America’s jails are the biggest mental health institutions in the country.
The special works admirably as a wakeup call, but it fails to pursue both its stand-up and public-service-announcement portions ardently enough. The stand-up bits are only a few minutes long and broken up by interviews, and therefore never build any momentum or dive deeply enough into any one subject. Moreover, the PSA-type segments don’t really break any new ground—though they do put a face to the problem and paint an engaging portrait for a possibly apathetic audience. As a result of planting a foot in each camp, the special doesn’t truly excel in either. Only half of the running time features Ross onstage, so it’s difficult to think of Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals as a comedy special. Many of Ross’ interviews with the inmates are funny, and their spontaneous nature mirrors that of a Ross roast, but the lack of consistent performer-audience dynamic changes the feel of what we’re watching, as well as the net result of what we’re laughing at. Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals becomes less of a comedy special and more of a comedic examination.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Roasting is a fleeting form of comedy. The jokes have no weight or substance to them; they’re not meaningful or rewarding in the same way that a more conventional, tightly constructed eight-minute bit might be. That said, roasting takes a unique skill: the ability to look at a person, analyze them in the briefest of moments and spin out a perfectly worded one-liner that cuts them to the core. Those jokes, however, only hit home when the audience is in the room (and therefore intimately connected) or when the roastee is famous (someone whom most of the audience knows intimately).
To that end, for Ross to find a new avenue to package a form in which he is essentially unrivaled is a victory in itself. But watching Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals—listening to the Roastmaster General and feeling the energy in the room as he verbally slays members of this strongly knitted kinship—it’s difficult not to want less insight and more comedy. Less conversation and more performance. Less talking and more roasting.