Whether or not you recognize his name, chances are you know Dom Irrera.
If you are the type of Seinfeld fan who knows the whole series by heart (is there any other kind?), you know him as Ronnie the prop comic from the episode called “The Fire.” If you have seen The Big Lebowski the average number of times that most viewers have – i.e., at least a dozen – then you have Tony the chauffeur’s joke to The Dude committed to memory. Or, if you were too young for that stuff in the late 90s, then you may very well have heard him voice Ernie Potts on Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold!
As indelible as he was in all of these roles, Dom Irrera is every inch a stand-up comedian. Born in South Philadelphia into an Italian-American family, Irrera frequently mines his geographical and ethnic background for material and comes up with pure comedy gold.
I caught up with him last week before his three consecutive nights performing at LaughBoston this weekend to talk comedy and his musings on Boston, where he noted it’s “The only city I’ve ever been to where there’s not one college that I could get into.”
Where are you right now?
I’m at a Tropicana in Boston…not Boston, Vegas. This is the height of laziness. I’m in the most exciting city in the world – decadent, fun – and fell asleep watching golf. How sad is that? I mean, my next step is big mouth bass fishing-watching.
Looking forward to returning to Boston?
Boston, what a great city. Big part of my comedy life. I love [it].
Do you remember your first gig here?
No, but I remember I got a ticket for backing up on the expressway in the snow. I remember the cop said to me, “You’re sober! You’re crazier than I thought.” I said, “I’m lost, it’s snowing.” He said, “Well then you don’t back up on 93!” It was so funny, because I was there that night and like five cops offered to fix the ticket for me, and that’s when I thought, “I love this city.” That was in the old days, not the police force of today, of course. It’s all straightened out now.
How would you compare Boston to your hometown of Philly?
Boston is like going to Philly without having to deal with your family and the cops and everything. And they’re so lucky, they’ve got all these great sports teams now, and being from Philly…oy. But I never tell the people in Philly how much I love Boston … they would get insulted.
What do you think of Boston crowds?
They are great, very diverse. When I did a couple shows, I always knew who watched what show with just one look. The kind of intellectual nerdy, I knew they went to Harvard or M.I.T., they were the ones that watched Dr. Katz. And there were kids who looked like they, you know, with AC/DC T-shirts, no muscularity, very pale, they were the ones that watched Full Frontal Comedy. You can tell just by looking at them. People say you can’t judge a book by its cover … well, I got bad news for you, you kind of can judge a book by its cover.
Do you hit up the North End when you are in town?
Yeah. I’ve been going to Boston for so long that I don’t feel like I’m a tourist there anymore, so wherever my friends are going. Great restaurants, beautiful city.
Have you ever been to Fenway Park?
Yeah, [and] I was at the old Boston Garden, [and] the new one. I saw the great Celtics teams play. I’ve never been to Foxboro, but I gotta say the Patriots are the team for me as far as gambling goes. I’ve won more money on the Patriots than every other team combined. I like the Yankees and the Red Sox. I don’t care. I did that on Loren & Wally once, they go, “You can’t like both of them.” I said, “I can like whoever I want, I’m from Philly.”
Who are some of you favorite Boston-bred comedians?
Well, I guess my favorite is Bill Burr. Bill makes me laugh eve when he’s serious. He’s just one of those guys. We were in Kilkenny, Ireland, together, [and] we just hung out and I’m tellin’ ya, we were just crying laughing. He has such a strong point of view. I think that’s a part of the thing about how great he is. To me Bill is as good as it gets, quite frankly. You know, like as far as comedy goes. There’s so many good acts, you know like John Pinette, [Don] Gavin, and [Steve] Sweeney, and Kenny Rogerson, and DJ Hazard. Boston had the most really good comedians who, unlike New York or L.A., where people move from other places, were born there. It was an unusual amount of strong acts. They were great to me because they could’ve buried me when I first went there, but instead they treated me with class.
As much as I love talking Boston with you, I would be terrible remiss if I did not ask you about The Big Lebowski.
I had no idea what a big deal it was. I got a call from my agent, she sent me a script. I told her it was really funny. She said, “I’m glad you like it,” I said, “Well, the part they want me to read for, I wrote. It’s out of my act.” She called the Coen brothers and they said, “We wrote it for him.”
How many days were you on the set?
I think it was a two-day shoot. Jeff Bridges never got out of character. He was very cool to work with, very fun. Ethan and Joel Coen were great. Joel’s like the grown-up, Ethan’s like the kinda nerdy intellectual kid. He’s not as serious about it. Joel’s the one who ran the ship. Very amazing to work with them.
Did you have any idea that you were a part of a film that was going to become so timeless?
Not a fuckin’ clue. I had no idea. And the thing I thought that was really cool was that I’d be working with my old buddy John Goodman, and cause of the word “big,” that’s who I thought was the “Big Lebowski”. I get there and I go, “Where’s John?” and they say he’s not working today. And I say, “But I got scenes with him don’t I?” and they say, “No you don’t, you’ve got scenes with Jeff Bridges.” So much for me knowing the script. I didn’t know Seinfeld was a hit when I did it, either. I was always on the road, so when I did Seinfeld, I did it like I was doing them a favor, not knowing that they were doing me a favor.