George Wallace isn’t the first stand-up comedian to land a regular gig on the Las Vegas Strip. He is, however, the first to arrive with a 30-day contract and stay for nearly eight years (with at least another two to come) … without a traditional act (his material changes nightly) … while riding an economic roller coaster … during an era when the competition in the epicenter for entertainment is as stiff as ever.
Then again, Wallace’s success at the Flamingo—where he performs five nights a week (10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday)—is hardly surprising when you consider the impressive roster of entertainers he’s aligned himself with throughout his career. Shortly after getting his big break as most comics did in the 1970s—with an appearance on the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson—Wallace served as the opening act for Natalie Cole, and later he toured with Diana Ross and Tom Jones.
That trio of legends gave Wallace’s career a solid head start, but ask the 59-year-old for the one person whom he’s leaned on most for guidance and support, and he’ll point to his best friend of 35 years, someone he talks to as frequently as five times a day, a fellow comedian named Jerry Seinfeld.
How did you and Jerry become friends?
We were in a comedy club in New York City called Catch a Rising Star, and he was this little Jew at one end of the bar and I was this little black kid at the other end of the bar, and we just hooked up. We were both new [to the comedy circuit]. And then one day he got sick, and I had a car—and that was the most important thing in New York City, because nobody had a car, but I did because I was working in advertising; I was making big money. So he’s sick, and I took him to the only all-night drugstore that was open in New York. So that’s when we really became friends. Then he asked me to come to his home for Thanksgiving dinner in 1976, and that was really scary for me because … I knew about the gefilte fish and some of the Jewish dishes, and I’m thinking, “I don’t know; I’m not going to go.” My friend said, “Just go!” So I went and met his whole family and his friends, and guess what they had to eat? Turkey, mashed potatoes, string beans—the same thing everybody else has! And we’ve been just like family ever since.
When did you know you wanted to make people laugh for a living?
Since I was 6 years old. I watched Johnny Carson and Red Skelton and Red Buttons and Redd Foxx and Milton Berle. I’d watch them all on TV and take their jokes to school and make the kids and teachers laugh. Making people laugh has been my life. In fact, I didn’t come out of my mother’s womb until the doctor said [knocks on a table three times], “Five minutes, Mr. Wallace!”
I just love what I do. And I teach people, especially young kids, make sure you enjoy your life and you do what you want to do. Because when you do what you want to do, you don’t have a job. … See it’s not how much money you make, it’s how you enjoy your life while you’re living. I know a lot of guys who make 15 times more money than I do, and they’re broke. Or they have money, and they’re not happy.
You’re not talking about Seinfeld, are you? He isn’t broke yet, is he?
He better not be broke! We were roommates for 13 years, and when we first started we made a deal: Whoever makes the first million dollars, the other one gets half. That’s how close we were. And I have this check, it’s 20 or 30 years old [pulls a check out of his wallet made out to Wallace signed by Seinfeld], and I presented it to Anderson Cooper last week when Jerry was on his show: It says “Half of everything I have.”
What’s your first memory of Las Vegas?
My first memory is when Diana Ross brought me in here. … That first week I worked with her, I remember those big fountains out in front of Caesars Palace, and one night I went out and stood in front of those fountains and thought to myself, “I could quit and go back to advertising in New York City right now,” because I had reached my goal of getting to Las Vegas. This is all I ever wanted to do.
So what’s pissing off George Wallace right now?
People who pass you on the freeway and then go slower than you were going. They need their ass kicked. And they say stupid shit when you go to a fast-food place and order a hamburger. They ask me, “Do you want cheese on that?” That pisses me off. “Did I order a fucking cheeseburger? I ordered a hamburger—and I want ham on it!”
Have you gotten a lot of material out of the economic downturn?
Well, I was talking to President Obama the other day, and he told me about all the jobs he was going to bring back, especially in the construction industry. They’re going to build a lot more unemployment offices.
What’s the last joke you heard that made you laugh?
A kid who turned 16 went to his dad and said, “Dad, I turned 16 today, got my driver’s license. I’d like to use the family car.” And his dad was a minister, and he said, “Son, I know you want to use the family car, but I think we have other priorities. First of all, you need to improve your grades. Second of all, me being a minister, it would be nice if you’d start reading the Bible more. And No. 3, son, you need to get a haircut.” So six months went by, and the boy came back to his dad and said, “Dad, I love you, I try to obey you, do everything you ask me to do. You asked me to improve my grades; here, I’m happy to give you my report card. You asked me to read the Bible, and you know what? I want to thank you for making me. But Daddy, do you know I read that Moses had long hair? That Samson had long hair? Daddy, I read the whole Bible, and even Jesus had long hair!” And his dad said, “And if you noticed, everywhere they went, they walked!”