Dom Irrera: Comedy’s reinvention story

By | February 4, 2009 at 3:33 pm | One comment | Features | Tags: , , , ,

Dom Irrera

At 61, widely-respected stand-up veteran Dom Irrera hasn’t lost an ounce of his comedic relevancy. In fact, younger comedy fans are checking him out more than ever. So what’s Dom’s secret?

So he says ‘My wife’s a pain in the ass. She’s always busting my friggin’ agates. My daughter’s married to a real loser bastard. And I got a rash so bad on my ass, I can’t even sit down. But you know me. I can’t complain.’”

For an ever-expanding cult of movie fans, those are the most famous words Dom Irrera will ever speak, his mini-monologue as Tony the chauffeur in the Coen Brothers’ stoner classic The Big Lebowski.

But, Irrera has other worthwhile words, too (and not just those from his voice work in children’s cartoons like the film Barnyard and the Nickelodeon show Hey, Arnold!). Though he’s never been a prolific album comic, Irrera continues to maintain a steady audience by making the comedy club/late night talk show rounds, as he has for decades.

With help from his improv training and relentless roadwork, his own material has evolved along the way, transitioning from quirky characters and stories rooted in his childhood in an Italian family in South Philadelphia to more contemporary observations and spur-of-the-moment riffs. A DVD called Dom Irrera: Is This Thing On? mixes a pair of 2007 shows Irrera performed in a tiny comedy club and a more upscale casino theater in New Jersey; it was re-released in stores last month. Irrera recently spoke with Punchline Magazine about his many roles (including Lebowski), the way his material has changed and why he loves to perform with Dane Cook.

I wanted to start by asking you about The Big Lebowski. It’s really grown into something. I’ve been to three midnight screenings of it in the last year, and people come dressed as different characters and they can quote the movie from start to finish.
Isn’t that amazing? The first time I saw it, I didn’t think it was that good, but then as I saw it more and more, I liked it. I’ve only seen it twice all the way through, but it is funny. I like when he gets knocked out, and he’s floating through space, and they’re playing “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In).”

When you were making it, did you understand what the hell the movie was about?
I had no idea. I had been called to audition for it. They sent me the script and I said, ‘Oh man, it’s great, it’s hilarious.’ And, my agent said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I wrote it.’ She said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘They’re my lines, verbatim, from my act.’

I said I’m not auditioning for my own act. Suppose I don’t get it. So, anyways, they said, ‘No, no, we wrote it for him,’ so I guess if I didn’t do it, they would’ve changed the joke. They had seen me at Caroline’s in New York, years ago. It was so funny, because Ethan Coen was kind of nervous around me. You know how relative fame is? I’m thinking, ‘You’re one of the Coen Brothers! Relax.’ It’s funny to be part of that and Seinfeld. Such a little part in both of those things, and yet it’s kind of historic TV and film. It’s just lucky. My main focus generally has been stand-up, so anything else I got has been a bonus.

What about your involvement in The Aristocrats?
I didn’t even really know it was going to be a film. That was just a favor for a friend. I didn’t even do the joke right. They weren’t asking me about the joke. Bob Saget came up to me and said, ‘You know, you told me that joke.’ I didn’t remember telling that joke. I guess we were all really laughing about the setup. I remember a year later I’m in the Riviera, and I see Penn Jillette, and he says, ‘Dom, the movie got an award.’ I don’t remember if it was at Sundance or one of those places. And, I said, ‘You made a movie out of that?”’

I happened to catch your HBO One Night Stand special recently.
Yeah, that was my first one alone. I had done Rodney Dangerfield’s special before that.

How does the act change? Do you weave things in and out?
Yeah, I weave things in and out. At that time, I used to do more characters upfront. Just straight characters. I was doing more acting pieces. But, then, I gradually made the characters become part of the joke or part of whatever I was saying, as opposed to the whole thing. I do a character by talking about it and then doing it. But, then, I just immersed myself in the character, you know what I mean?

Yeah, you did an Italian accent for the first eight or 10 minutes.
It’s not 10 minutes. It may seem like it if it’s not funny to you. It’s like three or four minutes, and then the lounge comedian. ‘Ooo, aaah, ooo, is this thing on? Hello.’

Yeah, you’re making fun of a weird kind of comedian there.
Yeah. Everything changed in the ’70s, when people started talking about their lives and real stuff. Before, it was just like, ‘What do you call an Amish guy with his arm up a horse’s ass? A mechanic. Come on, give a little!’ That kind of shit. Some of the jokes are really funny, but they’re so corny. A guy called me the other night, a friend of mine, it was like the middle of the night. And, I love it when people don’t tell you that they’re going to tell you a joke. He just goes, ‘A pirate goes into a doctor’s office with a steering wheel on his cock. The doctor goes, ‘You’ve got a steering wheel on your cock!’ The pirate goes, ‘Arghh. It’s driving me nuts.’”

That is a pretty terrible joke.
So, those jokes, corny as they are, can be very funny. It’s terrible, but it makes you laugh, and then you’re embarrassed for laughing too hard. But, not to get too corny on you, one of the things I love about Boston is that I love that a lot of college kids come to see me. That really makes me feel good. I know I’m going to get the goombas and the 40 year olds and all that, but to get the college kids, it really means something to me. Are you in Boston now?

I am.
How is it now? Is it brutal?

It’s raining ice from the sky.
Tomorrow, locusts!

I’m sure college kids know you from Lebowski and other things they’ve seen you on. Bu it seems like we’re all growing up in families that are less ethnic than the one you grew up in.
Yeah. America is becoming Americanized and that kind of thing.



So, what do you think they are relating to in the act?
I think I’ve done less of that stuff as I’ve gotten older. I really don’t do that much like Italian stuff versus this kind of thing. I got really good advice early on in my career when I first started doing television. This old time comedian calls me up and says, ‘You’ve obviously got a lot of talent, but don’t paint yourself in that goomba corner. Be a comedian who happens to be Italian. Don’t be an Italian comedian.’

Everything doesn’t have to be about being Italian. Right now, in my act, there are some times where, if I do an hour, there are three minutes about being Italian, whereas it used to be a majority of the act. Maybe I’ve changed with the times and subconsciously knew that about this next generation. I never sat down and thought, ‘Now, how can I make these kids laugh? I’ll take out the goomba shit and…

Do the memories of your childhood that shaped the early material get less vivid as you get older?
No, I don’t think they’re less vivid. I just think that they’re less funny. I think I’ve found stuff that’s funnier now. I think you have to evolve. I was talking to Richard Lewis, and we have this feud that’s kind of half-fake, half-real. He made references, like, to Perry Como. Now, do you know who Perry Como is?

Vaguely.
Okay. So, he’s making references to people that were dead 20 years ago. I said, ‘Richard, you’re making references to Perry Como. I go, ‘Boy, that Nero, he was an emperor!’ You have to know your audience. I’m not saying you have to force it, but bring something. You know what I did? I go to the Laugh Factory, which really helps me, because Dane Cook works there all the time, and he’s a friend of mine.

I always go and do Dane’s show, because it’s a good exercise for me to perform like in front of 18-year-old girls. Even 18-year-old boys – it’s less of a challenge. But girls, if I’m making them laugh, I know I’m doing something. I’ll ask him if I can close his show sometimes, just to see if I can sustain the level and the energy. It’s a good challenge. And, he’s cool with me. It’s not an ego thing. We do it every week if we’re in town.

Now, he’s a guy who has come under some fire. There are a lot of divided feelings about Dane. Are you aware of those?
Oh, of course. Look, whatever he did or whatever he does, he’s my friend, so I’m naturally biased towards him, but you have to give him credit, he’s done the Boston Garden and places like that, which just doesn’t happen. He’s doing something right. And, there’s no emotion more disturbing than jealousy. I think, if anything else, if anybody has any points about Dane, good for them, but the fact is I know there is a lot of jealousy. Some guy says to me, ‘Dane Cook, I don’t get him,’ and I said, ‘It doesn’t really matter what you get because you know who gets him? Millions of people.’ That’s what matters. Do you like him?

I think he’s a comedian for a certain age. I liked him more when I was 19 or 20, like you said. It’ll be interesting to see if he grows as his audience does.
I think he will, because he works hard. I guess that’s probably the question you were asking me. I never did it consciously. I never thought, ‘Now I’ll move away from the Italian stuff.’ I moved away from it because I got sick of it, and if I got sick of it maybe other people would too. And, the thing is, I’ll do it anytime people ask me to. It’s not like I think I’m some fucking genius and no, no, I don’t go back there. If somebody says, ‘Do that Little Petey, Big Petey bit’ or whatever it was. I used to do ‘Bada Boom Bada Bing’ as like a goof on Italian guys and then The Sopranos did it, and I thought, ‘Oh, fuck this.’

I don’t want to look like I’m stealing from The Sopranos and I’m tired of it anyway. People said to me could you believe they’re doing your thing and I said it’s not my thing. It’s from the streets. I just did it. It’s not like I made ‘Bada Boom Bada Bing’ t-shirts and culottes.

When you first starting out in stand-up, was it difficult to figure out what your voice and point-of-view was?
My whole goal was to get back to myself. And, it’s not that easy. What I really try to do is to be the same person when I’m sitting there talking to people as I am onstage. You really have to have practice to do that. I didn’t want to be the guy who is too quick or the guy who is too slow or he’s depressed or he’s excited. To find your own voice and to find your own rhythm is really, I think, a key to it. Because people know when you’re fucking bullshitting them and when you’re real. Someone said to me the other night, ‘Were you really in Ireland?’ And, I go, ‘You think I would make that up? Who makes up being in Ireland?’

I got a DUI in September, and I’ve been doing a lot of material on the DUI and AA and DUI school. They asked me about that. I said, ‘Do you think I made it up for jokes?’ That’s a whole different generation, where they say, ‘My wife comes home and she says to me this’ and it’s like a joke. I don’t have that. If any jokes came out, they came out because of the bit, not because the joke was untrue. Things can be exaggerated and all that bullshit, but I don’t say that I was at a place or did a thing unless I did it.

Maybe it’s because when something is that funny you sort of assume it’s fake. You would never think that a cab driver really took Rodney Dangerfield to his house when he asked him where he could get some action.
Of course, yeah. But, he was a comedian who transcended generations. He was so popular with everybody that they knew he was joking; but his jokes were so funny to his character. But, if he wasn’t that character, those jokes are just joke-jokes. He was the one who made them funny because his character was so defined. The “I get no respect” thing was so brilliant because it opens up so much comedy to you.

Is it pretty much automatic that you have to talk about a thing that happens to you?
Well, I was so fucking pissed off [about the DUI] that I talked about it because of the freedom of it. I went onstage, right when it first happened. I was talking about how hypocritical the cops were. I did a benefit for the LAPD right in the middle of it, I said, ‘Ten of them, they’re banging against the walls, they’re so drunk, telling me they’re going to help me. I never heard from one of those motherfuckers.’ I can only do it on certain stages and I have to make it funny and all that shit, but the thing is, it was such a catharsis to be able to express myself like that about these people. I was really pissed off about the DUI, because I wasn’t drunk. Anyway, I don’t know if I’m getting off on a tangent there.

Was there a catharsis to talking about your childhood in your act? Were you a happy kid?
Well, there were moments of happiness, but one of my first jokes was, ‘My father left home when I was in second grade. He never cheated on my mother. He used to cheat on me. He picked up other kids after school, take them to the zoo, take them to play ball.’ That was real. I mean, it was real pain, but I made it into a joke. He didn’t really pick up other kids after school, but he did have another family. So, there’s something to a lot of it.

There’s a widespread belief that most comedians have a lot of personal problems and are damaged in some way. Do you think that’s the case?
Yeah, but I also think most people have that. Most people in life are obviously damaged or clandestinely damaged, where they’re in this secret kind of world where you really have to get to know them and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that happened to you.’ I hardly ever meet anyone who would qualify as what they used to call in psychology class “self-actualized.” Because even the best therapists— you talk to them off the court, they’re fucked up.

The thing about comedians is that they have a different way of thinking and in general they’re a very bright group. They see through bullshit. One of the things about being a comedian is you’re observing the world and hopefully finding something funny in it. I love the idea of going through something during the day and being able to do it that night.

How old were you when you did your first open mic?
I don’t know. I did so much stuff in college, like I emceed parties in college, I was in plays, I was in improv groups. I didn’t go the regular route. I was already an actor. And as far as improv went, I already had a lot of experience. I never didn’t have stage presence, I just didn’t have a fucking act. It was very hard for me to repeat stuff. That’s the thing you learn as a stand-up: you can’t believe how much better this material can get in a year if you stick with it.

Some guys go from 0 to 100. They go from writing and never having performed to performing stuff they wrote. They’re starting out as a writer and starting out as a performer. That’s really tough. My nerves were already done by the time I started doing stand-up. I’m not saying I didn’t get nervous for an HBO special or if I was doing The Tonight Show, but I wasn’t generally nervous in a club. I had chops, as far as bailing myself out with improv stuff.

So improv help with staying loose on stage?
Absolutely, because you’re free. I don’t have a set. I don’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s just different parts of different material that I bring in and out. I might open with what I closed with the night before.

What keeps you going?
Pussy! No, I don’t know. I love doing it. I’m not one of those guys that’s bitter or thought I should’ve had a series or whatever. I’m grateful that I’ve got young kids coming to see me besides people my age and older than me. I haven’t had a real job in a long time, my friend. That’s what I wish for you.

Check out Dom Irrera’s tour dates at DomIrrera.com. He’ll be in Boston at the Comedy Connection at the Wilbur Theatre on Feb. 20 and then goes on to New York, Ohio and California in March.

About the Author

Rob Turbovsky