Joe Sanfelippo is not just a fan of comedy; he is a student of the business of comedy. He’s always looking for an angle, an opportunity to present something different. If there is a need, he looks to fill it. And when he sets his mind on a market, he will do whatever is necessary to establish a presence. In this way, the Midwesterner-turned-Floridian has built his empire one laugh at a time. Today, Sanfelippo has more than 20 successful comedy clubs across the country.
His latest destination: Las Vegas.
Back in 2009, the short, pudgy Italian, who looks like he could be an accountant in a mob movie, was just opening his first Las Vegas Bonkerz club at Palace Station, a hotel that had been a comedy-club death trap since the 1970s. Sanfelippo spent more than a year tinkering with the format. He brought in his trusty comics, such as Billy Gardell, star of the CBS comedy Mike & Molly, who put in their time, playing to smaller crowds here than they normally would. This was not the Vegas presence Sanfelippo had in mind. It was time to up the ante.
Sanfelippo recently partnered with Louie Anderson to turn Bonkerz into the LOL Theater. The change has revitalized the old Palace Station comedy room as well as Sanfelippo’s Vegas presence. Bigger audiences, bigger buzz and bigger success.
But his next gamble would be his biggest: opening Big Al’s Comedy Club in The Orleans. Being off-Strip, the locals hotel has less a chance to access tourist dollars. Additionally, The Orleans already houses a showroom with big-time headliners such as Don Rickles and Bill Maher. So there’s built-in competition. But here’s the most outrageous aspect: He’s bringing in headlining acts that will be featured there for a month at a time, potentially allowing for locals to grow bored. This doesn’t sound like a formula that could possibly work, does it?
“Our approach is unique in that we are bringing in celebrity and specialized theme shows every week,” Sanfelippo says. “We bring in better-known names and keep them long enough for customers to know they are there and make plans to see them.”
The star through July 2 is Grandma Lee, the foul-mouthed, wisecracking senior citizen who was runner-up on America’s Got Talent. (Lee was the biggest-selling act at Bonkerz before it went over to Anderson.) The rest of July belongs to Kato Kaelin (yes, the dude from the O.J. Simpson trial) and friends—Jeff “Drunk Girl” Richards and The Greg Wilson, whom you might have seen on VH1. August is ladies month as the Queens of Tart (Anna Lang, Jody Ferdig and Lang Parker) take over the room. And the September headliner is former teen nerd star Dustin Diamond—Screech from Saved by the Bell.
Sanfelippo also uses homegrown talent. Vegas-based comedians appear as both emcees and featured acts. To further support the local scene, there is an open mic on Sundays for anyone who wants to try slinging jokes or for people who just want to watch some good (along with some really bad) free comedy.
It remains to be seen if something this outside the box of traditional comedy-club fare will be boom or bust. Sanfelippo, of course, is confident it will flourish. “A lot of forethought went into making Big Al’s a long-term success,” he says. “Time will tell, but I can guarantee you that I am banking on that success.”