By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit July 30, 2009)
The last time that Pat Cooper came to Red Bank, we had the pleasure of interviewing the now 80 year old comedy icon, a conversation in which the godfather of all angry-guy standup comics had some kind things to say about the Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank mayor Pasquale “Pat” Menna, and Jersey in general — in between the rants on casinos, politicians, airlines and political correctness, of course.
All in a day’s work for the man born Pasquale Caputo — but when we revisited the piece recently, we were taken aback to discover this quote from Pat:
It’s all gonna come down. People don’t wanna be bothered. Our national product is money! See, in Italy, it was tomatas; here it’s money. We could have a depression tomorra; whadda we gonna do, eat money?
Well, there you have it, all the way back in April of 2008 — Pat Cooper foreseeing the coming crash; doing what Alan Greenspan, the bond rating agencies and the entire cast of CNBC couldn’t or wouldn’t do.
The wise one returns to the Basie boards on Saturday night — this time as one of three co-headliners in a package show entitled The Italian Laugh Pack. Described as “a night of comedy, linguini and cannoli (linguini and cannoli not included) that you won’t fuhgedda-bout for a long time,” the program teams the venerablevisconti of vitriol with Tammy Pescatelli, a fast-rising comic about half his age — one with her very own catchphrase (”What the hell is wrong with you?”) and a reputation for competitive edginess earned via her high-profile stint on Last Comic Standing.
Positioned somewhere in between — both generationally and by virtue of his occupying what he calls the middle “idiot spot” in the program — is none other than Dom Irrera, the Philly native whose observational musings (delivered with hangdog expression and deceptively easygoing, guy-on-the-next-barstool style) have earned him a coveted spot as one of the top club comics in the whole northeastern US. Come Saturday, it’s a territory that takes in the Basie for the first time in a nearly 25 year career.
Dom, who’s done scores of talk shows (from Leno and Letterman to Oprah and The View) and TV episodes (Seinfeld, Raymond, Drew Carey), has become quite the sought-after voice artist as well, lending his dulcet tones to dozens of animated projects, including Nickelodeon’s Back at the Barnyard. Recently returned from a comedy tour of Ireland, Irrera spoke to Red Bank oRBit from his home in the City of Brotherly Love — Los Angeles. Continue Reading for the answer to the burning question, does simply living in New Jersey make you Italian?
RED BANK ORBIT: Thanks for taking a little time out for us, Dom — we’re working up a little advance story on your Italian Laugh Pack show in Red Bank, where Pat Cooper stops by at least once a year, so I’m thinking you’ll do really well just building on top of the momentum he’s already got in the local area. I got a chance to talk with Pat last time he played there, and a conversation with him is always a trip.
DOM IRRERA: Pat Cooper is living proof that stress does not necessarily kill! You know I love Pat, it’s great to work with him. Me and Tammy worked with him about a year ago in Schenectady, and we have a show coming up in Morristown, and another in Staten Island.
I’m having fun with the shows. It’s nice not having the pressure of the show on your shoulders. Tammy gets it going and Pat closes it, and I’m happy with that. I enjoy going on in the middle ‘idiot spot.’
So unless I’m mistaken, this will be the first time you’ve ever appeared at the Count Basie Theatre?
This’ll be the first time, and I’m really looking forward to it because I don’t always get to do the theatres. It’s a different audience; more reserved because they’re not all drunk. But you’ve got their attention, which means you have to do your act and it has to be good — there’s no excuse, no distractions.
I’ve been hearing some good things about the Count Basie, they have some great people coming in there. I was in Park City, Utah the other day and someone asked me where I was appearing in the next week — I mentioned Red Bank and they said, oh, the Count Basie? So I’m excited about the gig. I’m hoping the Count is there with us in spirit.
They’ve got Jason Alexander coming in a couple of nights before you, doing his motivational-speaker character show.
I did a thing with Jason last year in Canada — we were at the same place, and he called me up to do an improv with him onstage, which was a lot of fun.
Do you take the Laugh Pack shows into Canada? How far afield do you travel with this act — ever experiment with bringing it somewhere out to the heartland?
We did Italian shows at Just For Laughs in Canada — Toronto’s got a big Italian community, and they’ve got one in Montreal too. It’s funny to hear French Canadians speaking with Italian accents. But we wouldn’t bring the show everywhere — we wouldn’t do it in, say, Omaha.
Settle a philosophical question if you can. I know you’re a Philly guy, but I’ve lived in Jersey my whole life, and would you agree that spending any amount of time in Jersey will make you at least a little bit Italian?
Absolutely! The food you eat, your surroundings — how could it not? That reminds me of a saying we have among us comedians. No matter who you are, what ethnic background you’re from, if you’re in comedy then eventually all of us become old Jews.
I try to be an equal opportunity ballbuster though. I have a lot of college kids coming to my shows, and they appreciate that I’m politically incorrect. I do a thing about black comics, and those guys love it when I bust their chops. If you just made fun of Chinese people, then that’s racist. You’ve gotta spread it around. I’ve actually had people come up to me after the show and ask me how come I didn’t cut up on Puerto Ricans that night — it’s like their feelings were hurt, they felt left out of the fun.
Now, Park City, where I mentioned I was the other day — what a melting pot that is! Everybody there is either white, or some combination of tan and white.
What was going on there? A corporate event?
It was a country club golf outing. But I try and concentrate on playing comedy clubs instead of a lot of corporate gigs. I want a career that’s alive right now, instead of trading off something I’ve done in the past.
Well, I’m finding you home today. What does a busy comedian do on a Tuesday morning?
Well, after doing the interview with you, I’m taking my best friend’s daughter to lunch — gonna show her how cool Uncle Dom lives here in Hollywood. We’ll drive past all the big homes, and I’ll make up stories about which star lives in them. Then tonight at 10:30, I have a set at the Laugh Factory.
So you work pretty much any night of the week?
I generally don’t work Sundays and Mondays — definitely no Mondays during football season!
You’ve shown some genuine staying power on the scene, and you kind of came up around the time of the so-called Comedy Explosion, when comedy clubs started popping up outside the big cities, in suburban strip malls and such. What’s your take on how that all went down?
It all changed when the acts started to draw, rather than the club — you know, for a while there everyone was more or less at the same level, and there was a time when a club could draw people in just by opening their doors. But when certain acts started to break out, the club itself wasn’t so special anymore. And all the money started going to the handful of top acts.
Another turning point is when Comedy Central started really exposing people to all the comics who were out there — well, you got to see who was good and who sucked! You’d watch the guy on TV and say, I ain’t payin’ 20 bucks to see this mook!
The whole thing with those shows, they were 22 minutes long, and 22 minutes doesn’t begin to separate the men from the boys when it comes to performing a headline set. You’ve gotta have an act that can sustain itself for at least twice as long as that, otherwise you’re winding down when you should be building things up. Me, I like to perform sets that are between 45 and 60 minutes. No longer than that; I’d rather have a big laugh and walk off than have an extra 15 minutes.
You’re a constant presence around the New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia area. It’s easy to forget sometimes that you’re based out of LA…do you ever get to missing anything in particular about Philly, or back east in general?
I’ve lived on the West Coast since ‘87, and I do love it — what’s not to like? As a comedian, I work at night, so I don’t have to deal with traffic. I’m not supposed to be happy, but I have a very easy life. My friends say, how can you be happy out there? Don’t you like us anymore?
I miss the sports teams, my family and friends — but I can catch up with my teams on satellite, and one of the good things about being a comic is that I can see everyone whenever I come in to Atlantic City, Philadelphia, New Brunswick — and I guess I’ll add Red Bank to that mix!