Backstage With “Comic’s Comic” Dom Irrera

He’s the rare stand-up who loves the stage more than the screen
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Dom Irrera is doing a bit on Dom Irrera.

Dom Irrera is a very annoying name to live with. People argue with me, like I don’t know my own name. I say, “Dom.”

They go, “Tom?”

“Dom.”

“Dan?”

“Dom.”

“Donna?”

It is a Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio, actually Sunday morning already, and the headliner at the Funny Bone Comedy Club & Café is well into his third one-hour set of the evening, a marathon of stand-up that almost any comedian would consider cruel and unusual. The club is in a suburban mall that feels more like a cruise ship, a colossal retail-hotel-entertainment complex that Irrera will not exit for nearly five days. Outside, the temperature is 19 degrees. He is here alone, 2,000 miles from his Hollywood condo and the French-Canadian biker chick he shares it with, having made the trip without handlers or flacks or groupies or goombahs—just a vial of Xanax and a reporter who is fast undoing its effects. “I’ve never had anybody watch me three times in a night,” he tells me before the final act. “I think you should leave. Go lie down.”

If a long weekend in Columbus in late winter is not exactly one of stand-up’s glamour dates, neither is it a comedic Siberia. Six of Irrera’s seven shows will be sold out—300 seats, at $15 to $17 apiece—more than half of which goes to him, a $15,000 to $20,000 take. There may not be any agents or producers trolling for sitcom talent, but there is a generous and loyal audience, a fan base that Irrera has been cultivating with annual pilgrimages to the Funny Bone for the better part of a decade. After he steps offstage, he will be the toast of the Easton Town Center until last call, a male fantasy of backslaps and free drinks and girls half his age who giggle when he tries guessing their breast size. “If I were a plumber,” says Irrera, who is 56 and wearing white athletic socks with $360 European sneakers, “those girls wouldn’t be talking to me.”

On the phone it’s very difficult: “Can you tell him Dom Irrera is calling””

“Dar Ferrer?”

“Dom Irrera.”

“Dan and Mary? Mahatma Gandhi? Mariah Carey? Moishe Dyan Keaton? Diarrhea Riviera? Aurora Borealis?”

In an era that equates comedic success with film and TV, Irrera is an oddity: an enormously successful comedian who spends most of his time doing stand-up. He may, in fact, be the most successful stand-up in the country without his own show, a 25-year veteran of the road who, because he is rarely onscreen, remains almost an unknown. Back in L.A., I saw him perform at the Improv; his name was misspelled—Irerra—on the marquee. (“By the way, my name is not really Dom Irrera,” he says, pronouncing it EYE-rrera, like the Americanized, Philadelphia-born grandchild of Italian immigrants that he is. “It’s a stage name. My real name, my God-given name, my Muslim name, is Mr. Slappy Kinkaid!”) Irrera has had parts, memorable if brief, as the limo driver in The Big Lebowski, as the prop comic in a classic Seinfeld episode, and as himself in the animated series Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. Any of these roles could have made him a household name, and yet, until this story, I had never heard of Irrera. He was included last year in Comedy Central’s “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time,” an honor if you consider that Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce topped the list; Irrera, though, was number 79, in the neighborhood of Sinbad and Howie Mandel. “I shot for the middle,” he says, “and clung there.”

Partly because of his success, partly because of his lack of it, Irrera is what other stand-ups call a “comic’s comic.” It can be an ambiguous designation, code for brilliant mind but commercial failure, or for material so dark and inaccessible that only other comedians seem to be in on the joke. (Told once that he was the ultimate comic’s comic during his standup days, Seinfeld cocreator Larry David replied, “You’re saying I sucked.”) In Irrera’s case, the term refers more to the purity-the stand-up for stand-up’s sake—of his act. He writes his own material. He does not rely on pseudonyms or costumes or other gimmicks of the trade. To the extent that he has demons, and no comedian is without them, he does not seem to be at their mercy. He treats comedy as a job, not an indulgence, and works at it as if nothing is promised. “Dom is like the Cal Ripken of comedy,” says friend and fellow stand-up Tom Ryan, who has been at it himself for 16 years. “A lot of comics burn out. They start coasting. They get tired. Or they have meteoric rises, the smoke clears, and you see there wasn’t that much craft behind it.”

On a Wednesday afternoon in April, a day before Irrera heads to Tampa for a three-night stand, I drop by his house. He shows me a handwritten sheet of paper. It looks to be a school assignment, the work of a boy maybe 7 or 8.

A friend’s son, Irrera explains, had chosen him for a topic. The title: “Dominic Rirara, Super Comedian.”

I think the greatest job has to be a waiter at a buffet. That’s my kind of job. Talk about a lazy, slovenly existence. “Hey, how ya doin’, folks? Welcome to the buffet. Help yourself.”

The first time I meet Irrera, it is early March and he is on his way to the Disney lot for a TV audition. We drive to Burbank in his black Mercedes E320, a French instructional CD playing in the stereo. Irrera’s face is more familiar than his name, a boxer’s heavy-lidded mug, at once sculpted and doughy He has a movie-star cleft, a droopy nose, and the melancholy jowls of a shar-pei. A few years ago he adopted a backward Kangol cap to hide his thinning hair, which is now being rescued by a regimen of Propecia. (No side effects of a “certain” nature, either, he is quick to advertise: “Not when you’re Italian, my friend.”)

Folded into his backpack are four pages of a script called Neighbors, the pilot he has been invited to read for. His character is Hal, an Archie Bunker-ish figure, whose lines include “What have I done in a past life to deserve these people?” Irrera has no idea why he is being considered for the part, or who is doing the consideration. With a schedule that usually keeps him on the road from Thursday to Monday every week, he is not in a position to be doing much auditioning anyway. “People go to me all the time, ‘It’s a shame you don’t have a series…. I’d love to see you make it,’” he says. “It’s weird. I’m supposed to want it more than I really do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not stupid. Somebody tells me, ‘Here’s $800,000 a week for a sitcom,’ great. But I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with being happy and being a comedian. I like doing stand-up. I like that feeling of getting on the plane, having a Bloody Mary looking at the sports page, and checking out the weather across the country in USA Today.”

The casting director’s office is on the third floor of the Animation Building, off a narrow corridor lined with chairs. Irrera signs his name on a clipboard, which is a bit like checking in for a medical exam, and takes a seat alongside three other actors vying for the same part. He is nervous about remembering his lines and, as he would later be in Columbus, uncomfortable about performing before someone with nothing invested in his act. When it becomes clear that the room is less than soundproof—we keep hearing the voices of his competition bleeding through the wall—Irrera looks ill. “It’s like you’re in somebody’s confession,” he moans.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, before the reality boom, comedy was the meat and potatoes of network TV. The sitcom became a vehicle for the stand-up: Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Ray Romano, Drew Carey. They were anointed, not necessarily because they were the funniest stand-ups but because they had the proper attitude or the right look or the best writers or the greatest appeal to the most coveted demographics. Hollywood “can’t quite figure out what to do with Domenick,” says Irrera’s former wife, actress Lisa Mende. “People write for him constantly, but they want to write for him like he’s this tough little ginzo. What makes him funny is that it’s coming from him—you’re really able to sense who he is through his material.” Even when there is a project of interest, Irrera is often resentful of the Industry’s protocols, of “being made to dance,” as he calls it, for opportunities he believes he has already earned. “Dom’s not very good at schmoozing,” says his manager, Jaime Masada, the owner of the Laugh Factory. “He’s always on the road. I tell him he needs to take some time out, stay in town, be available, sit down, go to meetings—you know how the system works. But he’s not one of those guys who’s going to kiss Hollywood’s ass.” Irrera has done his act on The Tonight Show several times, the last as a favor, he says, after a guest canceled and Jay Leno’s producers needed a same-day, emergency fill-in. A year later, when Irrera inquired about doing the show again, the same producers asked to see his material first. “I am disappointed and pissed at them,” says Irrera, who is still sociable with Leno but calls him a “politician par non.” Irrera’s booking consultant, Colleen McGarr, puts it this way: “Dom’s down-to-earth—maybe too down-to-earth.”

When the time comes for Irrera to read, I start to follow. He stops me at the door. “How big are your fucking balls?” he says, sending me back to my seat. From the hallway I hear nervous laughter, then silence, then Irrera’s wise-guy cadence, then another round of laughter, more relaxed than the first. Two minutes later, he is done. “It’s so random,” says Irrera, heading to the commissary for a cheeseburger. “I could be too old, too young, too fat, not fat enough. You could have walked in there with me and they could have said, ‘Hey, who’s this?’ and the next thing I know, you’re reading for the part.”

Disparaging fame, like being a comic’s comic, can be a convenient way of rationalizing disappointment. As careful as Irrera is about what he wishes for, he is, at some level, still wishing. Yet by not having his own show, Irrera, more than most entertainers of his stature, has his own life. His fate is not dictated by development season or ratings. His act is a reflection of him, not of censors or canned laughs. He has managed to drain out most of the annoyances of touring, picking only the dates he wants to do, traveling only where he likes the people. He does international comedy festivals every year—Edinburgh, Kilkenny, Paris, Melbourne, Montreal—and heavy doses of the Atlantic seaboard, where his welcome approaches that of a returning war hero. (While opening for Cher on her prolonged farewell tour, surely one of comedy’s strangest gigs, he had the crowd at Madison Square Garden chanting his name.) During the winter he never does Sunday shows, giving him a chance to make it back to L.A. for a day of football on the tube. Normally working for a cut of the door rather than a set fee, he earns an annual salary in the mid to high six figures—modest by showbiz standards but “a shitload of money,” says McGarr, in the stand-up world. He can go to Frankie’s on Melrose and be greeted like a rock star yet remain anonymous enough to eat his veal parmigiana in peace. “He’s kind of proof that you can do this, that comedy’s not a death sentence,” says Jason Dixon, a Kansas City stand-up who opened for Irrera on his final night in Columbus.

A few weeks after the Disney audition, Irrera gets a call to read for Fox. This time he refuses to even let me tag along. “It’s going to make me laugh, with you sitting there watching me, knowing what you know about me,” he says. “I’m not the consummate professional. I think I’m sort of a fuckup.”

My wife’s a pain in the ass. She’s always bustin’ my friggin’ agates. My daughter’s married to a jadrool loser bastard. I got a rash so bad on my ass, I can’t even sit down. But you know me, I can’t complain.

That’s Irrera’s line from The Big Lebowski, a movie in which he appeared for less than a minute, seven years ago, but for which he enjoys a cultish renown. Before the Coen brothers approached him, it was a fixture of his stand-up act, a lament attributed to his Uncle Joe, “a great Italian character.” There are at least four waves of laughter that cycle through the span of the joke, each a little more profound than the last. It begins with Irrera’s voice, a blue-collar, South Philly, old-neighborhood kind of yak; it grows with the coarse and intimate tone of the confession; it takes a turn at jadrool, a tasty dollop of Sicilian slang that literally means “cucumber” and that Irrera slips in without explanation; and it erupts at the punch line, which tries to neutralize the misery but instead exposes the narrator’s self-deception.

Irrera’s comedy is sometimes classified as insult humor, descended from the Don Rickles or Buddy Hackett tradition. That might be a fair take on his least effective material, which can be gross and demeaning enough to elicit groans. But like the Lebowski bit, which on the surface has the feel of a put-down, most of his jokes are not about the slam itself. They are about people’s lack of awareness, their inability to perceive how they look and how they sound. His signature line—“I don’t mean that in a bad way”—invariably comes at the end of a blizzard of invective, as in “You porkadelic, you centerfold for Meat Magazine, you heaving, humping hog of life—and I don’t mean that in a bad way.” He has other hooks, each playing on the same dynamic: “With all due respect,” “Is that so wrong?” and, coyly tapping the mike, “Is this thing on?” Everything hinges on the belated effort to mollify, phrases that Irrera calls “Italian erasers.”

When I ask Irrera about his sense of humor, he becomes as hyperconscious as his characters are oblivious. He worries about sounding ponderous—and unfunny. What comes out is a riot of self-parody. “And another thing about comedy …,” says Irrera, stroking his chin. “This is where I get to what I like to call ‘the funny’…. I don’t go for the big laugh, ha-ha. I go for the nervous twitter…. What I do is take ‘the funny, and then I broil it, medium well, and then I laugh at myself for about an hour…. And then I go back to bed….” Others get the same treatment, including his publicist, Glenn Schwartz, who calls to see how the piece is coming. “All it says is ‘Dom Irrera: Not Funny,’” Irrera tells him. Later the photographer working on this story, Ethan Hill, shows Irrera a proof from the shoot. “Just promise me this,” Irrera says. “You won’t take my head shot home and masturbate to it.” For me, Irrera has a different request: “I’d appreciate it if you could dedicate one paragraph to my cock. And make it sound like a musical instrument.”

It is a cliche, and a bit of a slur, to tell a comedian that he is funnier offstage than on. Most anyone can get laughs, but to do it consistently, in front of an audience, takes a mastery of the form that even veteran stand-ups struggle with. “There’s something generally unnatural about comedy to begin with, about the fact that you take the fact that you’re funny and then try to package it,” says actor and stand-up Andy Kindler, a friend of Irrera’s who is known for skewering comedy’s sacred cows in his annual “State of the Industry Address.” There is also the pitfall of being too funny offstage, sort of the Robin Williams syndrome, in which the comedy spigot never shuts. “The strength of any comic,” says Kindler, “is probably his weakness, too.” With Irrera it is not so much that he is funnier offstage but that he is funnier—and Irrera agrees with this—doing extemporaneous material, regardless of the setting. Wherever he is, he latches on to vulnerabilities, his own or others’, and, at speeds that are sometimes hard to keep up with, takes them to preposterous and terrifically inappropriate extremes. At the end of March, when I see Irrera and Kindler perform at a $25-a-head charity event, Irrera nearly heckles Kindler off the stage.

“You’re a good comedian,” Irrera hollers from the audience.

“A couple more minutes,” Kindler pleads.

“You’re funny,” Irrera says.

The benefit is for the Baseball Reliquary, a tiny Monrovia-based nonprofit devoted to preserving obscure artifacts of the game. After doing his own prepared material, Irrera begins to riff, taking pokes at an organization he had never heard of and can hardly pronounce.

“Obviously, we’re here for an incredible, uh, an incredible cause”” Irrera says. “The uh, the uh … the Relic, the Baseball … if I say it one more time, I’m going to burst into tears. When I was asked to do this benefit, I thought, ‘Finally, thank God.’ Forget about battered women, and orphans, and blind people with cancer. This is what’s important.” Then Irrera pulls out a flyer for the event and waves it at the crowd. Kindler’s name is on it—along with those of George Wendt, Fred Willard, Greg Proops, “and others”—but not Irrera’s.

“And to be one of ‘others,’” Irrera says, savoring the word. “One of ‘others.’ It warms my heart to know that I’ve worked my way up to being an ‘other.’ I used to be nothing. Now I’m an ‘other.’”

Child molestation is obviously a horrible, hideous thing. But there’s a flip side to everything. What about the kids like me, huh? What about the kids like me who wanted to be molested and yet nobody would touch? You ever think about that kind of pain? The whole thing with the Catholic priests—how horrible is that, these Catholic priests, molesting these altar boys? I was an altar boy. There’s a part of me that’s so neurotic and insecure, I look back and I think, “What about me, Father? I wasn’t good enough for you?”

The other great cliche about comedy is that all jokes, no matter how offensive or perverse, are rooted in truth. Irrera’s childhood not only gave him a cast of colorful Italian American archetypes to draw on—Little Petey, Big Petey, Regular Petey, Joey Bag o’ Donuts, Jimmy the Woman—but also the sort of emotional charge that lends humor its cathartic edge. Irrera’s father, a career Marine and a Vietnam vet, left the family when Dom was in second grade. His mother, who worked in a supermarket, raised him and his younger sister, with the help of an extended clan of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. “The family was so close and big, he was never neglected,” says John Wagner, a Pennsylvania postal supervisor who, as “Cousin Johnny,” is credited with many of Irrera’s choicest lines. “He just always felt like he was missing out on something—and he was.”

By the time he was 13, Irrera was seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety. The doctor prescribed Librium. When that proved insufficient, Irrera medicated himself with cough syrup. The class clown in parochial school, he tormented the nuns for years; they finally had enough and, when he was a junior, kicked him out of West Catholic High. A sharpshooting, five-foot-nine basketball player—“I was very good for a comedian,” he says—Irrera moved to Miami and made the j.v. team at Biscayne College. He took speech and drama classes at nearby Barry University, playing the rabbi in the school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof and “singing the Sabbath prayer like nobody’s business,” he says. He returned to Philadelphia and taught fourth grade for a couple years, then headed to New York to try his luck as a comic. One of his earliest bits involved his dad’s leaving—not his mom but him: “I’ve met another kid. For the first time in my life, I feel like a real father.”

“In some ways his raison d’être was to succeed, to show his father what a mistake he had made,” says Mende, who met Irrera in a Manhattan improv group called the First Amendment. They married in 1984; the ceremony was at his mother’s house, the honeymoon at Disney World. They moved to L.A. in 1987, both securing small roles that year in Robert Townsend’s acclaimed satire, Hollywood Shuffle. With Mende tending to his career “like a typical Jewish wife,” she says, Irrera began getting his first taste of celebrity. He appeared in Rodney Dangerfield’s TV showcase Nothin’ Goes Right, then won a CableACE Award for the 1989 HBO comedy special One Night Stand. More than a decade before The Sopranos, Irrera was doing his own “badda-boom, badda-bing” routine—at roasts, at casinos, at corporate retreats. “He was becoming successful, and he had people who liked him just because he was famous,” says Mende, who went on to play the mother of the “ugly baby” in several episodes of Seinfeld.

Comedy may have been Irrera’s salve, the redemption of his fractured childhood, but his newfound acclaim did not prove conducive to his own plans for a family. Five years into his marriage he met a girl—and that may be the chronologically correct term—at the Comedy Store. When Mende discovered an unidentifiable pair of panties in their house, Irrera was forced to move out. “Domenick got waylaid by a 17-year-old comedy groupie and just couldn’t see past it,” Mende says. “I called her Kim-bo the Bimbo. She was from Orange County.”

“I beg your pardon,” says Irrera when I try to verify her age. “She was eighteen and a half, if she was a day.”

Enough mutual admiration survived their divorce for Irrera and Mende to become friends again. When she later had a daughter—the child Irrera missed out on—Mende asked him to be the godfather. Now 12, Jenna “worships him,” says Mende, who recently moved her family to Georgia. “We used to go out to dinner a lot, and he would always challenge her to arm wrestle. He’d tell her, ‘Jenna, if you can wrestle my arm to the table, I will give you $1 million. But if you lose, you have to do whatever I say.’” Jenna inevitably rose to the bait, finding herself under Irrera’s command. “Whenever he wanted her to, wherever we stopped, he would just say, ‘Jenna, now,’” says Mende, “and she would have to say, ‘Gee, Dom Irrera from television, you’re the best godfather a girl could have.’”

Irrera’s current partner is Sophie Perreault, a full-time student whom he met during one of his regular stints at Montreal’s “Just for Laughs” festival. A sociology major, she dresses in leather and rides a chrome-encrusted Honda to classes at Cal State Long Beach. In the acknowledgments on Irrera’s lone CD, Dom Irrera: Greatest Hits, Volume One, which was released in 2003, he calls her his wife. “He’s like a dirty old uncle,” says Perreault, who is in her early thirties and still waiting for a wedding date.

One day, while Perreault is stretched out in the sun, studying on their patio, Irrera pulls me aside. Comedy is all about tampering with taboos, speaking the unspoken. He had tried before to gauge my appetite for crudeness—to see if he could get me to laugh, turning me complicit, or make me squirm, exposing me for a prig. Even so, I am unprepared for what he says next. “How’d you like to finger her?” he asks. “Twenty-five dollars. Thirty-five for two fingers. Look at my little monkey …”

I always love when they tell you the altitude when you’re in a plane—like it matters. “We’re currently at 35,000 feet.” Oh, good, I’m glad we’re not going to 37,000. That would scare the shit out of me.

Wherever he goes, Irrera writes. He puts everything in the same journal, a black-and-white marbled Mead composition book, which is usually soiled and dog-eared by the time, every month or so, he is ready for another one. He writes on planes and in bars, before the show and after, his wobbly left-handed letters a jumble on each page. There are words and phrases, ideas and dialogue, most of which is unintelligible to anyone but him. Asking for a peek, I see the following: “SCREWBALL,” “BIRDS + BEES,” “NO THANKS, I DON’T WASH MY HANDS.” I have heard more than a couple of people refer to this tablet as his “comedy lab,” his daily scribblings the organic elements that he mixes and cooks and distills into surprising new compounds. Some of it is applied directly to his act; some stays in the beaker, to be rediscovered years later. “If you can make yourself laugh with a thought, you know that it’s got a shot,” he says. “I’ve had stuff, it doesn’t work, I drop it, bring it back, it works a little, drop it again and bring it back—and it’s like fuckin’ killer.”

When I saw him in Columbus, he had just written a note to himself about flying—a couple of cryptic lines about altitude and fear. During his first set, it comes out as a joke about the meaningless information shared by pilots. “We’re at 37,000 feet.” Oh, good. I was hoping we weren’t at 35,000. I feel so much safer 2,000 feet higher. Polite giggles trickle from the audience. Before the second set, we slip out to a Japanese restaurant. Irrera orders a three-sake sampler. “What do you think?” he asks. “Is there something funny there?” I tell him I am not in the habit of rewriting comedians—but since he asked: The joke seems backward. Being higher, rather than bringing comfort, usually raises anxiety. Irrera nods. “If it doesn’t go, I blame you,” he says. “If it does go, it’s my timing.” An hour later, he performs it again, swapping the altitudes and recasting the punch line. The laughs are genuine. Irrera makes a bull’s-eye noise—“Bee-yoiiiing!”—and from the stage gives me a thumbs-up. “There are some comedians, they’ll do the same show over and over, word for word—they found something that works and they don’t want to screw it up,” says Larry the Cable Guy, star of Blue Collar TV, who was still Dan Whitney; struggling stand-up, when he met Irrera in the late ’80s. “Dom is one of those guys that never got lazy.”

Irrera’s comedy is about more than rearranging words, of course; it is about a whole arsenal of techniques—accent, intonation, tempo, volume, meter, facial expression, body language—designed to convert those words into theater. During a single show he might channel a black urban teenager and a white country yokel, an Irish prostitute, an Italian grandmother, an Australian outdoorsman, a gay lumberjack, and a Jewish vaudevillian. He can turn his voice sentimental and ironic, or gruff and homoerotic. One of his most popular bits involves rattling off a dozen or more sexual idioms—“to bury the bone, to stuff the doughnut, to moisten the wick, to shoot the sherbet, to slam the ham”—building to such a crescendo that the audience is laughing more at the nursery rhyme absurdity than at the actual terms.

“He’s a comedic instrument,” says Mike Post, the Emmy- and Grammy-winning TV composer whose wife has known Irrera since they were children. “You read half the stuff, you go, ‘I guess that’s funny.’ Then you see it executed and you’re peeing in your pants.”

In front of an audience, Irrera does everything he can to give the impression that stand-up is a frivolity. “Hey; how was Dom Irrera?” he says in Columbus, anticipating a conversation after the show. “I thought he was okay; but he thought he was funnier than I thought he was.” He calls himself a “big slob” and a “big retard,” incapable of a real job. “I swear to God,” he says, “I’m like a comedian savant.” But offstage, he obsesses as any professional would. He combs the news for incongruity (“I love that guy who shot three people in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago and they called him a suspect. What do you have to do to be called a murderer?”), he mines the sports page for metaphor (“I want to do a bit about steroids and Babe Ruth, and how, like, these guys—whatever they take, legal or illegal—they do everything they can to improve, and he did everything he could to destroy himself”), and he fills his bookshelves with the sort of titles that sound like the bibliography to his life: Gotti: Rise and Fall, Drink to Tour Health, Struggle for Intimacy, Comedy Writing Step by Step, The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra. “Let me ask you this,” he says one day in a phone call. “You know how we all look so innocent when we’re asleep? What about somebody heinously evil, like Hitler? Sleeping like a baby, his thumb in his mouth? The vulnerability of even the most crazy and mean and hostile people? I don’t know how to get to it, but I think there’s something.”

I mull it over, maybe a little too long.

“Sorry to ‘comedian’ you,” he says.

In comedy; the truth is, there are no savants. Unlike the piano or chess or singing or basketball, no teenager can simply step in and tower over everyone else. Humor takes living, perspective, resiliency, and probably a degree of pain. “Look at LeBron James—he’s only 20 and he’s already great,” says Irrera. “There’s no fucking 20-year-old comedian that’s even close to being great.” By the same token, he notes, Michael Jordan is 42—and no matter what he does, he will never be as great a basketball player as he once was. “Next year,” Irrera says, “I hope I’ll be a better comedian than I am now.”

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