Comedian Jeffrey Ross Invents a South Park With Grown-ups

Little Friar Gets Large

On a chilly December afternoon at the Friars Club, Jeffrey Ross was eating chicken and rice for breakfast. The 32-year-old comedian had just arisen, and the sight of Abe Hirschfeld holding court at a nearby table did not please him. The eccentric mogul, fresh from his arrest for trying to have a business partner whacked, had the table of Friars laughing heartily.

“See,” said Mr. Ross. “Now he’s a joke. They didn’t even have to tell one to laugh. I heard he’s doing stand-up. You hear about that. I say, Butt out … Among the millionaires, he’s the worst.”

Mr. Ross, who holds the distinction of being one of the very few young Friars who can crack the oldsters up, is making a quiet move toward the mainstream. He told The Transom that he is writing a cartoon pilot for Comedy Central. He’s also mulling an offer by Steven Chao, president of Barry Diller’s USA Networks, to host a variety show. “I’m asking for a lot,” Mr. Ross said. “Creative control, outs, options.”

But it is the cartoon, tentatively titled Snowbirds , that has his attention. What’s it about?

“An old Jewish couple–Seymour and Selma Snowbird–and an old black couple–Mo and Shirelle Houston–who live in a Boca Raton golf-cart retirement community,” said Mr. Ross. “Sex, drugs and bingo. They’re very hip old people. They’d rather watch MTV all day and try to decipher Madonna’s new look than watch Fiddler on the Roof .” To visualize Seymour and Selma, said Mr. Ross, “Imagine if you put a closed-circuit camera on your grandparents.”

Mr. Ross, a soft-spoken, curly-haired New Jersey native who broke into the New York stand-up scene nine years ago, said he modeled Seymour on one of his mentors, Buddy Hackett. “He’s a little fat guy who permanently has white stuff on his nose, like sun block or something. He talks to his white patent-leather shoes, he talks to his golf clubs. Selma’s the more violent mistress. His wife of a million years. Twice his size. She has a pocketbook permanently attached to her hand as a weapon. She doesn’t take No for an answer. If you say you’re not hungry, she’ll physically open your mouth, put the food in, close your jaw and force you to chew it.”

Mo and Shirelle? “He’s like a Sammy Davis Jr., in the music business, real bitter. Always a day late and a dollar short. You ask him how he’s doing, and he’s like, ‘Quincy Jones,’ and you’re like, ‘What?’ And he’s like, ‘Fuck Quincy Jones’ and stammers off. His wife is a back-up singer. Shirelle. Like a girl from the Motown days.”

Both couples fight a lot. “But they love each other very, very much.”

In the pilot, Seymour and Selma make a video of their new house. “They’ve only been living there for three weeks; they decide they want to make a video for their grandchildren.”

Mr. Ross said he came up with the idea for the cartoon with his friend Mark Chapin, whom he met while an undergrad at Boston University. “He’s actually the man who talked me into being a comedian,” said Mr. Ross. “He changed my life.”

When asked if he minds taking a break from doing stand-up comedy to write Snowbirds , he said, “One helps the other. Look at the South Park guys. They weren’t actors, they were writers, now they’re actors.”

Mr. Ross said he’s also working on expanding a one-man show about his late grandfather.

“We were really close. Inseparable. If I went to the gym, he went with me. We’d go on vacations together. We smoked pot under the sky. The hippest guy ever.”

–Julie Lipper

Something About Fernanda?

Have the 31 judges of the New York Film Critics Circle awards gone starry-eyed? Several critics are aghast that Cameron Diaz won the group’s Best Actress Award on Dec. 16 for her gooey performance in the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary , usurping Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro in Walter Salles Jr.’s Central Station . And some critics suspect that the leggy 26-year-old blonde won the prize over the 69-year-old Ms. Montenegro because the New York critics wanted some Hollywood glamour at the awards dinner at Windows on the World on Jan. 10.

“Voting for Cameron Diaz devalues the group in a pretty serious way,” said The New York Times ‘ Janet Maslin. “The L.A. critics, they look a lot hipper and a lot smarter than we do … much more attuned to good work and we look a little silly. More than a little silly. Although I liked her performance a lot, I don’t think she should have been voted best actress.”

Thelma Adams of the New York Post is one who thinks Ms. Diaz won on the strength of her off-camera abilities. “Fernanda Montenegro was still winning after the third ballot,” said Ms. Adams, “and when people were really faced with the idea of her coming to the dinner, her as the winner …” Time magazine critic Richard Schickel seconded this theory. “Not to be too cynical, but I think some people voted the party line. A middle-aged lady from Brazil …” He stopped there.

The chairman of the Film Critics Circle, the New York Press ‘ Godfrey Cheshire, said perhaps Ms. Diaz won because the “highbrows were using the lowbrows to block the middlebrows.” In other words, people knew their first choices wouldn’t win, so they cast their vote for a random other: Ms. Diaz.

“Cameron Diaz is the populist,” said Entertainment Weekly ‘s Owen Gleiberman. “This was a year when there was no obvious choice for best actress like Holly Hunter in The Piano .”

Ms. Adams agreed. “The best actress category this year was not as exciting as it was last year. Helena Bonham-Carter as a cripple? I mean, excuse me.”

Mr. Cheshire said he was perfectly comfortable with Ms. Diaz as the winner. “I don’t think it’s to the detriment of the public image of the group, because it’s good to show that the tastes of the group are broad enough to include comedy.” Concurred GQ ‘s Terrence Rafferty, “All this says more about the prejudice against comedy.”

–Julie Lipper

Frank DiGiacomo is on vacation. He will be back next week.