When you tell your non-comedian friends that you’re going to Las Vegas to do stand-up at the Riviera Hotel and Casino for a whole week, they go: “Wow! That’s great! Congratulations!” When you tell your comedian friends that you’re going to Las Vegas to do stand-up at the Riviera Hotel and Casino for a whole week, they go: “Wow! That’s awful! I’m sorry!”
And because 97 percent of the stand-up you do is in Los Angeles, any chance to do it in another location—any other location, even Yucaipa, Calif., even if it means emceeing—you grab it like a starving orphan, shooting across the map, arms outstretched like a spastic zombie (a modern zombie; remember, the undead of today are sprinters). Because if the only people who think you’re funny are arms-crossing, skinny jeans-wearing, Avatar-hating smarty pantses, you might not be that funny. You might be bright and discerning and hip and tasteful as all get out, but you might not be that funny. And the only way to find out is to get the hell out of this blowjob of a town.
So you go. And you think you’re ready. You bring suits. Suits. Because it’s Vegas. And you wear a suit on the first night. And never again for the rest of the week. (That’s right: week. Seven days American. Emceeing, too. Two shows a night. Are you crying yet?)
The first thing I heard when I rolled my suitcase through the door—into that echoing, deserted building, over that pizza-colored carpet at 25 minutes past 5 in the afternoon—was “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt. That’s the first thing I heard. That’s what the Riv was telling me upon my arrival: “Can’t make ya love me, baby.” One show later, I was like: “Yeah, you got that right. You can’t make me love you. You can’t suggest, inspire, coerce, bribe or in other ways inveigle me into loving any portion of you. You, the Riviera, are love-proof.”
The Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nev., is one of the most depressing places I have ever been. And I’ve been to Dachau. I’ve been to Detroit. I’ve been to El Paso, Texas. The best time to go see a show at the Riviera is—without a doubt—1961. Shows at the Riviera Comedy Club are a lot like my sexual encounters: Nobody comes. In a showroom seating 200, we never got an audience above 38. Yeah. Thirty-eight. For a week. Try warming that shit up. They fuckin’ hated me. I hated me. I was hoping me hating me was gonna be funny. Nope. They hated me even when I tried to help them hate me. They didn’t need any help. I’d rather do a week at the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. At least there I’d have a chance to actually get killed and not feel anything anymore.
There are ghosts at the Riviera, but when they tell you to get out they’re doing it for your own good. “GEEEET OUUUUUTTT! NO SERIOUSLY, MAN, GEEEET OUUUUUUTTT! WE HAVE TO BE HERE, BUT YOU?” There are commercials for the Riv playing in endless loops on the TV in your room. “Thank you for choosing the Riviera. No seriously, THANK you!” There are all kinds of games you can play at the Riv, like craps, blackjack, slots. There’s one game they don’t advertise too much, though. It’s called Count the Cum Stains in Your Room. I think I found one of Dean Martin’s from 1967.
I don’t play craps, but I did eat in the employee cafeteria several times. That was the biggest gamble I made. All those greasy, jaundiced, heat-lamped choices. It was like The Deer Hunter down there: Which one’s gonna kill me? There were more people in the employee cafeteria than in the casino. I was given a meal card worth 50 bucks for food. How many times you think I used it? Never. Ever. I never used it. That was another little game I played for the week: How many meals can I eat down here without anyone asking to see my meal card? Answer: All of ’em! Every one of ’em! I just went down there, grabbed a tray, a plate, got whatever would make me the least sick and ate. For free. Never gave my card to anyone. You should try it if you’re broke and hungry: Go to the Riv, walk to the elevators across from the good-luck charm kiosk (which is, yes, closed and abandoned), take it up to the “employees only” cafeteria and just eat. Have at it! Just eat. Nobody is there to police shit! Nobody will care. See, that’s the thing: Nobody at the Riv gives a shit. The door people at the comedy club could not have cared less that nobody was coming to the shows. The bartenders had a sign that very clearly said: “TIPS NOT INCLUDED.” Yeah. You know what else wasn’t included? Fun. Sunshine. Smiles.
Urging me to accentuate the positive, a friend asked me: “There must’ve been something fun that happened.” Yeah, there was. I was walking down the Strip one day and a guy, from the backseat of a car, stuck his whole upper body out the window and yelled, “Hey!” I ignored him at first and then he said it again: “Hey!” So I looked at him and he yelled: “Suck! My! Balls!” I looked right at him and laughed—looked right in his dry, bug-eyed, tooth-missing face and laughed for the first time in days. I almost said thank you. It was the first time all week someone actually looked me in the eye, really took some time out to tell me something. And I love how he said “Hey!” twice, like he really wanted me to hear him. I also love that he was in the backseat of a car, that someone was actually driving him around, facilitating this mission of yelling shit at people. And then after telling me to suck his balls, he said what sounded like “With mayo!” as the car started to pull away. I’m pretty sure he didn’t say, “With mayo!” but I want that to be what he said. Because an invitation to suck one’s balls? Not that appealing. But you bring mayo into it, now I’m listening.
I have always considered myself a loner. I’m not known for playing well with others. I live by myself. I have been living by myself for a long time now. So the concept of loneliness is one that I’ve always said (or thought or hoped) didn’t apply to me. That week in Vegas—that 14-show (12 actually because two got mercifully canceled), seven-day, dusty, dead, hash-brown-eating, Cuervo-tossing week in Vegas—showed me something that I am creeped out as well as relieved to discover. And it is this: I am not a loner. I desperately needed people that week. And not just to text. I needed to see them. I could feel the loneliness. I could hear it whispering in my ear. I got hugged by loneliness. It sucked. I could’ve played so much more poker than I did. You know what’s hard to find in Vegas? Books.
My second-to-last day there, I’m walking back to the Riv from Bellagio where I’ve just lost at poker, and a late-50s-ish woman calls to me: “Mr. Champagne!” And she says it like a teacher: that sing-songy lilt of schoolmarmish clout, that astigmatized half-turn of the head with narrowed eyes and hands on hips. I stop and smile for the second time that week and walk toward her.
“I saw you at the Riviera Monday night and thought you were quite good.” “Monday night? Oh, you were the one who showed up!”
She laughed and I almost asked her if she had been high, but this was clearly a woman who didn’t get high. “I’m a teacher,” she said (I knew it), “and you did this great thing with words that I thought was very eloquent and smart and I really appreciated it. Very funny.” I told her schoolteachers seem to like my comedy. And some British people, too.
We chatted for a few minutes and when I said thanks for the compliment, I meant it. “Thank you,” I said. “No, seriously, thank you.”