Funny Business

Hard times hit Vegas comedy, too, but we’ve apparently made it through with our humor intact. Now if we can just do something about those Vegas audiences!

Backstage at Paris, Anthony Cools is preparing for his nightly comic-hypnotist show with a chilled adult beverage, while his pretty assistant, Nicki, pours a Red Bull. He is giving us the lay of the land from the vantage point of his big raised stage, and he is getting pretty worked up. “Twenty shows shut down last year,” he shouts, “five or six of them comedy. There was one week in January where six shows shut down. The entertainers were all going OH, MY GOD. Everyone was peeing their pants!”

The 2009 fright actually started in 2008, when Las Vegas lost The Second City (whose organizers were wonderfully active off the Strip, too). Then the Comedy Stop and the L.A. Comedy Club both left the Strip (later reopening downtown), followed by Hypnosis Unleashed, “The Funniest Adult Show in Vegas!” And the big deflator was when the TBS Comedy Festival, which seemed to have been happily coming back to Caesars each year, canceled the ’09 show.

But everything isn’t doom and thunder in Cools’ world. “There’s still all kinds of stuff out there,” he swears, and he launches into a list that includes a healthy roster of established acts. “I’ve seen Carrot Top probably 50 times, and I still laugh my ass off. George Wallace, he’s another great entertainer. There’s some great shows here that don’t end in ‘Soleil.’”

True, and Vegas’ variety of comedy is definitely unique. On a three-mile stretch of road, there’s a comedic hypnotist (his truly), a puppeteer (Terry Fator), a nationally known impersonator (Frank Caliendo), a gaggle of comedy magic acts, and road dogs traveling through, including Mr. Conan O’Brien, who will perform May 1-2 in Las Vegas during his 30-city tour.

Those willing to drive to the Strip have their choice of entertainers flown in fresh each week, like some lovely, exotic, self-involved orchid. And from a consumer standpoint, there are far more options than local comic celebrities. If you’re not willing to make Las Vegas Boulevard, you’ve got your Bonkerz at Palace Station and a dozen other off-Strip venues (see page 35). So the comedy scene here isn’t what it was, but it’s still not nothing!

But don’t take my word for it. What does Mr. Las Vegas think? George Wallace assured us: “Vegas is fun, Vegas is alive, Vegas is coming back!” When, George Wallace? “It’s already started!”

And isn’t it saying something about the state of comedy here that, after 60-some years of Strip headliners, a comedian has declared himself ambassador for the “Entertainment Capital of the World”?

Maybe. It may just be.

Do you remember 2004? All those people flowing in, all that magical home equity money those people pulled out of their houses? Cools had been here a year when George Wallace came in from New York City and, like a good former marketing major (just like Carrot Top!), started slapping ads on any flat surface he could find. Then Paul Hughes and Cort McCown came from L.A. to start the Playboy Comedy show at the Palms, and David Saxe built the V Theater. This was back when Cirque du Soleil had only had four shows. Boom times, happy times, the fastest-growing city in this big dumb nation, work for everyone who wanted it, a chicken in every pot. Jesus, even Fremont Street was going to be the next hip thing. MGM was on a tear that would culminate in 2007 with share prices of $96; Celine Dion was smack in the middle of her five-year residency; and a single room at Caesars could be had for something like $750—midweek.

Nowhere else in the country (except in the offices of Goldman Sachs) was that kind of gelt flowing, and comedians noticed. Nowhere else in the country could they make rent (outside the odd corporate gig for the Iowa Seed Growers Association, or the welcome novelty of an Indian casino)—and despite the constricting economy, that’s as true today as it was six years ago. In New York, with the exception of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the comedians are bitter and hostile. In Los Angeles, there’s the Comedy Store, the Laugh Factory, the Improv and a slew of open-mikes, but comedians work out their material in a cocoon of other comedians, and if they’re liked, there will be laughter. I don’t know Chicago, but with its Second City history as a breeding ground for the smartest, most incisive comedy, I imagine it’s pretty awesome. In the rest of the country, it’s a long, dark drive to the next Indian casino gig.

Here in 2010, you don’t have to be George Wallace—whose income is something of an urban legend among comics who do Vegas—to make it. You can be just some dude with a dream. Just ask Jason Harris. He’s booked shows at alternative venues such as Beauty Bar, the Bunkhouse and Firefly, and he’s been here on and off for 14 years. “All the local comedians who’ve gotten famous have had to leave the market to get their success,” he says. “There’s a group of us who’ve all taken some steps together: We were all working bars together, now we’re all getting into the casinos. There is a ceiling; we’re not getting on TV.” But, he says, in the summer there are shows every night, from Mulligans Landing to Boomerang’s, with about half the shows catering to the urban market. Comics working the small joints might make only $50 or $100 per show, but on the bright side: hecklers! Nothing else hones a comic’s craft quite like them.

And what about the road dogs who come here, for rates hovering in the $700 to $1,500 per week range? We asked Vince Morris, who was headlining the Improv a few weeks ago, to give us his thoughts. A black guy in hipster glasses who splits his time between Columbus, Ohio, and Studio City in California’s San Fernando Valley, he seemed disinclined to get into the question—although, in his act, he did say that people are “fuckin’ retarded” for living here, in “Hell’s Boot Camp,” and the tourists at the Improv roared and agreed.

The Playboy Comedy show at the Palms was calling, and my escort and I answered—as we should, since it had gone from the endangered species list to quadrupling its shows, from monthly to every Thursday-Saturday. We sat to the side of the intimate, well-appointed Lounge, where a sort of balcony allowed the cool kids (other comics) to gather, occasionally punctuating the air with a ringing cackle. It was the first showroom in which we’d been allowed to smoke, and it was the most comfortable and at-home we’d been in a two-day jaunt of double-booked shows of L.A. comics and locals, and we were smoking and drinking and liking the night.

We’d seen the opener, April Macie, a pretty little thing with a happy face talking about the cuteness of black men’s balls. They couldn’t be any cuter unless they were Easter peeps, she said, before giving an Oscar-worthy rendition of the Nosferatu-like way men hunch over while furiously jacking it. And then—and we were sad and we missed her already!—she was gone.

Next came a tall, disheveled man with a crusty, blackened heart, whose big closer turned out to be that he was mean to an old lady who had too much plastic surgery. That Guy, ladies and gentlemen—hate machine!

Finally, here is our headliner, Marc Maron. The crowd of about 90 for the Thursday night show is mostly attentive, but there are a few problems in the audience: a girl turning 24 who probably didn’t realize the comedy she was going to see was being headlined by a crusty Jewish former Air America host who does not in fact care to make the evening all about her; the young leftist fan who was so very drunk and fawning and so happy to see Maron in the flesh but missed half the show when he stumbled off to puke; a couple of people who dared to wander off to pee. We, too, were happy to see Marc Maron (and did not wander off to pee).

We would have bet $100 that we are the only people in the Palms (excepting the young puking man) to have actually listened to Air America, the now-defunct national radio network for commies and such. He mentions socialism, and we lustily cheer! But then he stops making fun of some mean old man from Orange County (which had been making us very happy), leaves the politics aside and starts down the sad, black rabbit hole of his divorce. Here is a joke: “She leaves for two hours, and when she comes home, I scream at her, ‘WHERE WERE YOU? WHO WERE YOU FUCKING?’” Eh, not every joke’s a killer … or maybe it is!

After the show ends, we sit down with Maron and assorted comedians and ne’er-do-wells. I ask him how he likes doing comedy in Vegas, about the perks, about the differences between rooms here and rooms in L.A., about doing political stuff in a room full of birthday-havers and stumbling drunks and mean old men from Orange County. I perhaps talk a little too much about me—OK, maybe more than a little—trying in vain to build a rapport, and after maybe 10 minutes, he says, “I’m just here to gamble,” and then, a moment later, “Are we done?” Not yet, Marc Maron. Not as long as birthday-havers and bachelors and mean old men from Orange County and people who think they’re goddamned writers would like a little entertainment before or after their run-ins with the house. Like it or not, Marc Maron, we are your Vegas audience.

Las Vegas pays pretty well if you’re a stand-up. Not all of them George Wallace well, we hear, but you can earn a living here. Still, despite getting paid what might be a grand or so for a week, there are comedians who come here and quickly forswear it. Vegas audiences, evidently, aren’t a fit for every comedian. Or is it the other way around? Elizabeth Beckwith grew up in Las Vegas and moved to L.A. for college and stayed. She found work and notice very quickly—the Montreal Comedy Festival, an article in Time, a pilot for ABC. Now, 14 years later, she makes a living, but she doesn’t do it on the road. In a giggly, squeaky and slightly mortified voice, she explains, “It was the couple gigs I had in Vegas, actually, that made me decide. … My material’s just not suited for working the clubs there.” She continued, pausing frequently in discomfort and once making a sound I could transcribe only as awaaaghl. “I don’t want to be a negative nelly,” and she pauses again, “but they’re drunk! You have to do really mainstream material. There are great comedians who can do well in those rooms, because they compartmentalize their acts. I don’t think I ever really experienced bombing until I played Vegas. ‘Oh, I see! Nobody laughs!’ So you’re either the type of person who does very mainstream material, or you compartmentalize, or”—and she finishes up perkily—“you don’t mind bombing!”

Matt Champagne, another L.A. comedian, chose his words less carefully in telling his horror stories of working the Riv (see page 34). “It was really depressing, really lonely. It’s got a huge showroom that seats maybe 200, and we got 38 people. Our second-to-last show, we got 37 people, and they were great! But the [overall] turnout was so shitty that they canceled two shows.

“Most of the time out of town it can get lonely, but it pays off at night. People are excited to go out, unlike L.A., where, when you finally get home, you sure as hell don’t want to drive, and if you do go out, you have to be all hip and sardonic. But not one person there, in a week, said, ‘Good job!’ No one, at any time: ‘That was funny!’”

So what was one good thing about playing Vegas and the Riv? Thirty-seven seconds went by, and he false-started an answer, and then changed it midstride. “I got paid before my last night there, a thousand bucks. I could have skipped the last two shows! I didn’t. But I really, really thought about it.”

It’s no longer $750 to stay a night at Caesars. In fact, you might just find a room at Bellagio for less than $100—and the “cooler crowd,” those who bring their Coors in coolers (along with one instant legend who was lugging a microwave)—that goes with it. Those people aren’t going to shell out for a two-drink minimum, let alone a headliner.

But even as the economic situation remains somewhat itchy, there are success stories. Joe Sanfelippo brought in a Bonkerz a year and a half ago, and since it’s off the Strip, locals actually go there. (It’s the first venue “in anyone’s memory,” Sanfelippo says, that caters to locals. Any given night, the 220-person room might be 30 percent locals.) It pays the bills right now, he says. With a metric ton of other locations, including the Orlando, Fla., spot where Carrot Top and Larry the Cable Guy got their starts, Sanfelippo doesn’t need to over-worry about cash flow and/or the lack thereof. Hughes and McCown, who run the Playboy Comedy shows at the Palms, said their formula of a well-appointed, intimate club, decently priced tickets ranging from $20 to $40 (which includes entry to the Playboy Club and Moon), and headliners from all over the world makes a profit.

And then there’s George Wallace. Everybody talks about him, about his marketing genius, about his four-walls deal with the Flamingo, where they give him the “four walls” of the room and he fills it and keeps the dough. Not in a jealous way, mind you—or at least, not necessarily.

Saxe is the owner of the V Theater and producer of 14 current shows including Sin City Comedy, a pet show and a comedy hypnosis show he described, constrainedly, as “It pushes the envelope, it’s hip and cool and fun and edgy, but it’s … [and it’s clear, he is not naming names or pointing fingers at that other guy] … not tacky.” He guffaws when he talks about Wallace. “You can make $10, $20, $30 grand a week for yourself, but you can also lose a lot. Now, if he had a horrible, horrible week, poor George is only pocketing $5 or $10 grand.”

Reached by phone in Los Angeles, where he spends his Sundays and Mondays off, Wallace responds, “Five grand? I haven’t made that in years!” He then cited a considerably higher number, and I explained, “No, we were talking about per week,” and he repeated the number, and my eyeballs fell out of my head and rolled across the floor and got stuck under a cabinet, and then he thought better about it and asked for it to be off-the-record, that ridiculous number, and even though Official Journalism Rules decree that in order for something to be actually off-the-record, the subject must ask for it to be off-the-record and the interviewer must agree before it ever is spoken, well, hell, what a nice guy. It’s cool, George Wallace, but when we meet, oh man, drinks are on you!

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