Comedian Jeffrey Ross keeps 'Vacancy' sign out for his stand-up pals

Special to the Tribune

That eye patch was no costume gimmick when comedian Jeffrey Ross appeared on the most recent version of "Dancing with the Stars." Apparently ballroom dancing is dangerous. "I got a scratched cornea," he told me recently by phone from New York City, where he lives in a Greenwich Village co-op. "I'm OK. My lovely partner, she accidentally poked me with her long daggerish fingernail."

The irony: "I've been to Iraq and back without a scratch," where he performed stand-up for the troops.

It was shortly after 9/11 that Ross purchased his three-bedroom, two-bathroom home. "I just sort of wanted to dig into Manhattan a little more and put my roots down." He used the words "comedy commune" to describe the place. "Whenever there's an out-of-work actor or comedian in New York, they often are crashing with me. Not even out-of-work—if somebody has a gig here, I'm usually the first call they make after their agent to make sure they have a place to stay." Ross' cousin Kenny currently stays with him, as well.

Any pets? "I consider Kenny a pet—have to feed him twice a day and take him out for a walk in the afternoons."

We asked about his decorating choices. "I made a lot of mistakes with the decor—it's red, black, white and gold. It looks like a Chinese restaurant in 1975. Any minute I'm waiting for Serpico to bust in and shoot somebody. It looks sort of like an old-time brothel meets a Chinese restaurant."

Ross comes to Zanies Chicago on Thursday, and then plays the club's St. Charles location on Frirday and Vernon Hills on Saturday. "Anyone who knows me knows I love to make fun of people, and for whatever reason, the people in Chicago have a certain swagger that not every city has—they can take it, in other words. There's a lot of good sports in Chicago. Thick skin, if you will."

Most luxurious feature in your home: Now I have a nice big place and I can brag to you. But back when I was really struggling, I lived in a studio and my couch was my bed, my office and my dining room. I kept that couch and put in my office, so I am always humbled about how tough it is to start out in this business. So out of respect for that, I bought a very luxurious black leather sectional sofa for the living room that is an exact contrast to the old couch in the office.

One thing on a wall in your bedroom: My grandfather was a saxophone player, his name was Herb Larson—the Herb Larson Orchestra. He passed away about 10 years ago, but I managed to track down through various uncles and cousins his saxophone, and I had it mounted on a huge piece of black velvet. He's the only other person to be in show business in my family. It's really special to me. I think his ashes were in it for a while, but somebody emptied it out—I have a crazy family.

One thing you have in your house from your childhood: Oh my god, I never throw anything out so I have, oh, conservatively, about 2,000 record albums, 8-tracks going back to the "Grease" soundtrack and "Man of La Mancha." I got my old Fender Telecaster guitar hanging on the wall back from my rockabilly days in college. I got a houseful of stuff like that. It's definitely a Jeff Ross museum.

What item in your home most reflects your personality? Probably the coffeemaker, because without caffeine I have no personality. I'm addicted.

Three things we would find under your bed: My fake I.D. from 11th grade, probably a couple of comedians who were recently evicted from their apartments, and my grandfather's false teeth. I don't throw anything out.

Is "green living" important to you? It is. I'm slowly starting to understand it better. Yeah, I recycle and I try to turn the lights off and I try not to waste paper. I'm getting better, but I'm by no means an example.

Three food items you must have in the house at all times: My grandfather always said to me, take a banana for the ride. So there are always bananas in my house, and everybody who comes or leaves is offered a banana. Older comedians told me back in the day that if you eat a banana, it slows down your heart rate and makes you less nervous before you go on stage. Gotta have coffee, like I said. And turkey, Swiss cheese and mustard for the Jeff Ross toasted pita.

If we opened up your oven, what would we find? A black hole. You know what? I grew up in a kosher catering hall in New Jersey, and I had to cook my whole life. All through high school I made salads and prime rib for hundreds and hundreds of people every weekend. So for whatever reason, I stopped cooking as an adult. It's not that I don't love cooking, it's the cleaning up that kills me. I eat out four meals a day.

What kind of exercise equipment would we find in your house? I have an elliptical trainer in my bathroom, believe it or not. I have a huge bathroom. I hate going to the gym and talking to people and the music's too loud. So I can listen to music, I can work out naked, I can put on jungle music and feel like Tarzan.

What is the biggest surprise we would find in your closet? I have an Hermes cravat that was given to me by Buddy Hackett. I wear it a lot—it's red and gold and yellow, very sophisticated. I have my high school football jersey. I have a black silk suit that I wore for my new Comedy Central stand-up special. The thing about being a comedian is that if you wear something on TV, you kind of can't wear it again—so the closet fills up.

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