from The New York Post
LAUGHING THROUGH BAGHDAD
By Adam Buckman
COMIC'S HOME MOVIES OF WAR
Published: May 26, 2006
THE best documentary to emerge so far from the Iraq War comes from an unexpected source.
It is comedian Jeffrey Ross, a sad sack with a high-pitched voice and a face like Walter Matthau's.
He's been around for years and is perhaps best known for his participation in Friars' roasts.
And now, he deserves to be best known for something else - his personal, videotaped account of a trip he made to Iraq to entertain American troops.
The film he made - titled "Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie" and running just an hour and a quarter - reveals that Ross is as observant a journalist as he is a comedian, something he might not even realize.
What is clear is this: When he was invited by his friend, Drew Carey, to join him on a one-week USO tour of Iraq in fall 2003, along with a handful of other comedians, Ross saw an opportunity to produce something worthwhile from the experience.
So he ran a camcorder throughout the entire trip and later created this documentary, which is as touching as it is hilarious.
Its hilarity stems from Ross' running commentary throughout the film, and the performances of the comedians before appreciative crowds of servicemen and -women at bases and camps all over Iraq, some of them on the frontier and within range of enemy mortars.
Although it's Ross' movie, he gives ample screen time to all of the comedians on the tour, who besides Carey and himself included Blake Clark, Kyle Dunnigan, Andres Fernandez and Rocky Laporte.
Actress Kathy Kinney, who played Mimi on "The Drew Carey Show" was also on hand.
And writer Larry Gelbart, who wrote 40 episodes of "M*A*S*H," appears in the movie (but is not part of the tour) to give Ross some sage advice about USO shows. Gelbart should know - he wrote for and traveled with Bob Hope.
The touching part is what Ross learned. "I am starting to get why Bob Hope did this for so long, because these were the best crowds I ever performed for," Ross says at the film's conclusion. "Every single GI that I met thanked me for coming, but I should have been thanking them because if anyone got a morale boost, it was me."
from The New York Times
With 'Patriot Act,' Jeffrey Ross Follows in Bob Hope's Shoes
By Dave Itzkoff
Published: May 26, 2006
Jeffrey Ross is not one to shy away from life-threatening situations. When this acid-tongued, perpetually disheveled comedian took the dais at last year's "Comedy Central Roast of Pamela Anderson," he delivered a tribute so scathing it offended not only the guest of honor but also Courtney Love, Anna Nicole Smith and Bea Arthur, all of whom were seated within slapping distance.
So in the summer of 2003, when Mr. Ross was invited to take part in a U.S.O. tour of Iraq, he hardly stopped to consider the implications of the request before he agreed to go.
"I've performed at every conceivable type of show," he said in a telephone interview. "I've done high schools, colleges, the Friars Club, the Apollo. I do Chocolate Sundaes at the Laugh Factory, then do the Latino night the next night. The idea of going to a war zone was enticing."
But what Mr. Ross saw during his four-day journey through Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit, and captured in his documentary "Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie" (which has its debut on Showtime on Sunday night), was not a stirring tale of adventure. And what he came back with was not a blistering indictment of the war in Iraq. He just found American soldiers performing a strenuous job in some of the most dangerous locations in the world.
"Everybody was just starting to take sides about Iraq at the time," Mr. Ross said, "and it really bugged me. Nobody was going to find common ground. This is not about either side. This is right down the middle."
In the comedy world Mr. Ross is known less as a political satirist than as a hurler of insults, a must-have presence at Friars Club roasts and an heir apparent to such old-school masters as Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield.
Despite his reverence for legendary comedians of previous generations, Mr. Ross was nonetheless surprised by the admiring tributes that followed the death in July 2003 of Bob Hope, whose career as a U.S.O. performer Mr. Ross had never really contemplated.
"I just didn't know about him," he said, "and he's being given the kind of treatment that a president would get when he dies. It made me want to find out why people cared about him so much."
Several days later Mr. Ross would get the opportunity to follow in Mr. Hope's golf cleats when he was approached by his fellow comedian Drew Carey to appear in a series of U.S.O. shows at American military bases in Iraq.
Mr. Carey said that though he rarely has difficulty persuading celebrities to participate in U.S.O. events, he still warns entertainers not to expect scenes out of "Apocalypse Now." "It's a great story that you can tell the rest of your life, that you went into Iraq in the middle of a war," Mr. Carey, who served as a reservist in the Marines in the 1980's, said in a telephone interview. "But I also tell people there's no way they'll put you near any kind of danger. Honestly, you feel more danger in certain parts of L.A."
Undeterred, Mr. Ross set off with Mr. Carey and a squad of five other comedians, toting an expired passport, a supply of Ambien and a newly purchased Sony video camera, not quite knowing why he was bringing it or what he intended to film with it.
The narrative of "Patriot Act" began to take shape as Mr. Ross arrived in Iraq, at a time when Saddam Hussein was still at large and a shadowy insurgency was starting to strike.
"Constantly, every night, mortar rounds were coming at in at us," said Specialist Robert M. Kutruff, who was stationed with the Army's Fourth Infantry Division in Tikrit when Mr. Ross appeared there. "We were at a stage where we really didn't know what was going on, or how long we were going to be there. People's stress levels were just through the roof."
Against this volatile background, Mr. Ross recorded his encounters with everyone from Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of American ground forces in Iraq, to a team of bellhops at a Baghdad hotel who confided that Colin Powell was a pretty lousy tipper.
But the most gripping subjects of "Patriot Act" are the military rank and file: a small cadre of Jewish officers celebrating Rosh Hashana; a steady procession of soldiers who recount their recent brushes with death in calm and eerily composed tones.
"After a week with them you have a lifetime full of stories," Mr. Carey said. "Then you realize that they're going to be there for two years or three years."
Though Mr. Ross's life was never imperiled during his tour, he managed to contract a particularly nasty strain of dysentery, which American soldiers call Saddam's Revenge. And while performing his routine for the Fourth Infantry, the unit charged with capturing Saddam Hussein, Mr. Ross sarcastically remarked that they would never find him, resulting in an awkward, laugh-free moment that he nonetheless preserves in the film.
"I decided to leave it in," Mr. Ross said, "because why should I get a free pass?"
Despite Mr. Ross's faux pas, comedians more accustomed to performing for military crowds say they are among the most receptive and enthusiastic audiences they have ever encountered. "Those are just us in uniforms," said Larry Gelbart, the longtime "M*A*S*H" producer, who encouraged Mr. Ross to visit Iraq. "You can be as rough as you want, because they're not afraid to laugh, and whatever they're afraid of, they're going to admit to anybody. What they're facing is a lot more harmful than 4- to 12-letter words."
After returning from his tour, Mr. Ross rapidly edited his raw film into a rough cut of "Patriot Act," which he screened for soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and military bases around the world.
When not on the road, he also sought advice from the filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, who has since become a mentor to Mr. Ross in his fledgling career as a documentarian. "People open up to him because of his honesty, his sincerity and his humor," said Mr. Jarecki, who directed the 2003 documentary "Capturing the Friedmans." "And perhaps out of fear that if they don't, they may end up as part of a Friars Club roast one day. That's a strong incentive to be nice to him."
The experience of making "Patriot Act" has inevitably left Mr. Ross a changed misanthrope. "A lot of the cynicism I used to have is gone," he said.
But not all of it: next month he will be appearing at a roast of Jerry Lewis. "I didn't even realize Jerry Lewis was still alive," Mr. Ross said. "I had to double-check the postmark on the invitation."
from The New York Times
The Iraq Tour: A Comic's Education
By Virginia Heffernan
Published: May 27, 2006
As a rule, one kind of American comic plays U.S.O. tours, and another kind stays home. The first kind are the Bob Hopes, wiseguys and golfers, sometimes jerky, prone to hard-luck stories of childhood and eventually insider jokes about presidents.
The second kind are the Woody Allens, the hypochondriacs, joke writers and complainers who hate to leave New York and Los Angeles.
So who's Jeffrey Ross? He looks like a second-grouper to me. A Claritin-dependent son of kosher caterers, Mr. Ross is a hangdog-faced insult comic who made his name slagging off Bea Arthur at the Friars Club. Mr. Ross has styled himself as an intern to the great surviving Catskills comics; he would seem to be too inside-comedy, too risk-averse and too — let's say — un-Gentile to ship out with Drew Carey, the conservative and onetime Marine Reservist, to buck up our military personnel in the Sunni Triangle.
But in 2003 that's just what he did. "Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie," Mr. Ross's homemade documentary about his Iraq adventure, appears tonight on Showtime.
In voice-over, Mr. Ross gives the film just enough of a personal arc to justify it, using the road movie to tell the story of his conversion from a childlike neurotic to, if not a hero, then at least someone who did his small part. The drama turns on whether he can drop his occupational self-absorption and in any way rise to the challenge of wartime. At the same time, he doesn't overplay his moral ambitions, only once or twice getting grandiose. Instead, he allows himself to be awestruck by the country, the Iraqis, the war and the American soldiers. It's interesting to watch a comic whose chief mode is lordly cruelty cop so abjectly to his provincialism.
"This is about as far from New Jersey as I'd ever been," he says, speaking from Kuwait. His acid tongue has deserted him.
Politically, he's hard to read, and he keeps it that way. "I have mixed feelings about the war," Mr. Ross tells Larry Gelbart, the master comedy writer who supplied Hope with jokes in his U.S.O. days. "I support the war but I'm against the troops."
Appearing here as a maharishi figure, Mr. Gelbart instructs Mr. Ross to try that joke with the troops, and goes on to say: "I don't know if I can use a Jewish word, now that you're over there. But it's a mitzvah. It's a blessing."
And in that surprisingly irony-free spirit, Mr. Ross undertakes his mission.
At the same time, however, Mr. Ross appears to share Mr. Gelbart's ambivalence about being Jewish "over there." His religious heritage, which in his career has provided him a means of establishing continuity with older comics, has become a potential source of alienation, as he tours with a group of non-Jewish comics to entertain a largely Christian army in a Muslim country.
It's a credit to Mr. Ross not only that he goes for it, but that he goes for it without muting his Jewish identity. On Rosh Hashana, he seeks out Jews in the armed forces and spends time with them at dinner. With them, he gets to use some vintage Ross material ("I never understood Jews for Jesus; that's like dogs for cats"), and you get a reminder of what he's leaving out of his act for the general audience.
Still, audiences appreciate Mr. Ross's jokes, though the ones we hear are not quite top rank. ("Operation Enduring Diarrhea" figures big in his act.) Better are the jokes he comes up with offstage. In a funny scene, he improvises with some Iraqis who work at the Al Rashid Hotel. Inspecting the name tag of one of the men, he exclaims: "Jihad! That's my mother's name."
Mr. Ross's repartee with the rest of the comics on the tour, especially Blake Clark, a Vietnam veteran, is fun to watch. His days at the Friars Club have given him a knack for friendship. At one point, Mr. Ross trains his camera straight on Mr. Clark, who seems to speak for both of them as he marvels at the doors that comedy has opened to him. "I'm a redneck from Macon, Ga.," Mr. Clark says. "The places I've been! The things I've seen!"
"I hope that I'm worthy of my life," he concludes.
Mr. Ross, who has been back to Iraq since the 2003 trip, seems to have been transformed by his experiences. The film suggests that viewers donate to USO.org. And Mr. Ross says of performing for the troops: "If anybody got a morale boost, it was me."
from Ain't It Cool News
I'm a fan of Jeffery Ross' work I've seen on Comedy Central. He's always one of my favorites at the Friars roasts, and his man-with-a-mic behind the scenes interviews are usually the highlight for me.
PATRIOT ACT is Ross' personal account of his experiences traveling with Drew Carey's USO tour in Iraq. Shot over six days using a store bought DV cam, Ross captures an entirely unique yet brief look into the lives of troops stationed throughout Iraq.
Ironically, the access allowed by these comedians along the way surpasses the usual images fed to us by the mainstream media. No matter what your political views may be, watching Ross relax in one of Saddam's former thrones or seeing soldiers lounging by the former dictator's monster pool is strangely exhilarating. Footage from one of Uday's palaces reveals a throne that's more like a love seat, and in another scene we get to visit the inside of Saddam's birthday palace?
Initially Ross explains that he had no intention of shooting a documentary while on tour, he just felt the need to contribute his time and effort to something other than 'making people laugh for a two drink minimum'. He brought along a camera for his own personal record of his journey, but as soon as he boarded a gigantic military cargo plane to take him into Baghdad, he realized the unique opportunity he had to share the images around him with the world.
The footage of the comedians performing for the troops is fantastic. The enthusiasm of the audiences is a much needed reminder that despite your politics, its impossible not to support the men and women who are sacrificing so much to follow their orders. You really get a sense of the complete isolation of war and the fact that these men and women thrive on the little bit of home these comedians provide.
PATRIOT ACT will be airing on Showtime, so many of you will have the chance to check it out, and I doubt you'll be disappointed.