It’s show time for Bruce Springsteen. An audience of about 20,000 fans, already worked into a lather because they’re going to share the same air as The Boss, explodes in cheers as the lights come down. Screams of “Br-u-u-u-u-u-u-ce” bounce off the walls of the venue as the crowd listens closely hoping to identify the opening song with just one note.
Will it be “Badlands,” which he used to open shows on his tour earlier this year? Or “Radio Nowhere”?
Nope. To open his show, Springsteen has chosen ... comedian Dom Irrera.
“I met [Springsteen] one night when we were doing (Late Night with) Conan O’Brien and Bruce asked me if I ever open for rockers,” Irrera says. “I said, ‘Man, you of all people, I would never open for you. I can see it now: The lights would come up and they’d see me standing there with a microphone instead of you. No thanks.’”
It takes a performer fairly confident and content with his place in the comedy universe to turn down a potential gig with Springsteen, and that’s the Philadelphia-born Irrera.
He’s more than paid his dues as an unbilled opening act for rock stars. Years ago, he warmed an audience for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in Asbury Park.
“[The promoter] handed me $300 before I went on and told me to stay on as long as I could,” Irrera tells me with a laugh during a recent phone call from his Los Angeles home. “I came off after three minutes and [the promoter] told me I’d lasted longer than anybody.”
Closer to home, Irrera was a special guest distraction in the late 1980s when a capacity crowd at the old Sands Hotel & Casino was restless to see Cher make her Copa Room debut. They eventually saw the glitter gypsy, but not before Irrera — unbilled — walked on stage cold without so much as an introduction and did a 20-minute set.
“I don’t need that kind of a challenge any more,” Irrera says. “I paid my dues.”
Irrera, 62, has been dividing his time between stand-up comedy dates and TV appearances that includes his latest project, The Supreme Court of Comedy on DirecTV. Irrera presides as the judge over real-life disputes. The show, not unlike Irrera’s stand-up act, is completely unpredictable and mostly unscripted.
“Even with my act, I don’t care about a script,” he says. “If I think of something funny, I’m gonna say it, and then we’ll see where it goes. But I’m not going to not say something because it I might not be able to get back to a script. I hate working like that.”
Unlike many of Irrera’s comedy contemporaries, who craft a carefully written stand-up show and then stick to the script word for word, Irrera is constantly changing his material. He has a few bits he’s been doing for years, but there’s no guarantee he’ll perform them each night.
He likes to keep the structure of his act loose because it’s easier to improvise than having to veer away from a scripted act.
“The good thing about keeping it loose is that I ... can improvise and be spontaneous,” Irrera says.
But, like a singer with hits songs from the past, Irrera knows he has to perform some of the routines that helped him make the leap from opening act to headliner.
“Sometimes, [the audience] will ask for certain bits, and I’ll usually do them because they paid and I want them to have a good time,” he says. “And if I don’t do something, then some guy’s gonna come up to me after the show and tell me he brought his brother-in-law 40 miles from Vineland to see me do [the routine] ‘Big Petey, Little Petey’ and then I didn’t do it.”
Irrera headlines Aug. 28, along with comedian Jeffrey Ross, at Borgata’s Music Box.
"'That was huge for me. Everybody else bombed. I got the right manager and agent because of that. I can’t tell you how significant that was. '
'He called me the night before and said there was a 6am flight to Philly and I could make it to A.C.,' says Ross. 'And I said I need to know that I can say whatever I want. [Sheen said 'OK'] and that’s what I did. And I got on the plane from L.A. and I wrote jokes all night. It was pretty crazy; it was an adventure. '
The Atlantic City stop was full of surprises, including a guest spot by comedian and celebrity roaster Jeffrey Ross, who treated the crowd to an unscheduled, and pretty harsh live roast of Sheen.
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