Ominously coined by some showbiz types as “the bullet-taking spot,” the job of opening a show for a headliner—of warming up a “cold room” so the star can enter to a sizzling-hot crowd—is a rite of onstage passage for performers. Frequently an unenviable assignment, it sometimes falls to singers or specialty acts, but is often handed to comedians, especially ahead of bigger-name comedians. In a field where success is defined as having “killed” and failure is “dying” onstage, the bullet analogy seems entirely apropos.
Eight bullet-takers agreed to remove their Kevlar vests as Vegas Seven interviewed them about the ins and outs of winning over audiences whose initial attitude toward them can amount to a knock-knock joke: Knock, knock. … Who’s there? … Who the hell cares?
Meet the Openers
Comedian George Wallace, a headliner at the Flamingo who has opened for Diana Ross, Tom Jones, Natalie Cole and Donna Summer.
Comedian Alonzo Bodden, who has opened for Wallace and has also been the warm-up act for the Temptations, Tommy Davidson and Damon Wayans.
Comedian Cornell Bellows Jr., who opens for Eddie Griffin at the Rio.
DJ/dancer Ben Harris, who opens for ventriloquist Terry Fator at The Mirage and has preceded Justin Timberlake and Snoop Dogg.
Comedian Max Alexander, who has opened for Wallace and also preceded Sheena Easton and Julio Iglesias onstage.
Comedian Brandon Johnson, who opens for Eddie Griffin at the Rio.
Comedian David Gee, a longtime host at The Improv at Harrah’s, where he emcees shows with several comics on the bill, and who has also opened for Louis C.K., Chris Rock and the Beach Boys.
Comedian Richie Minervini, who opens for Kevin James and Ray Romano at The Mirage (and owned the New York comedy club where James made his debut).
Keep a good attitude and a sense of humor…
Alonzo Bodden: A funny thing about being an opening act. The applause you get for your biggest laugh, that’s what the headliner gets when they’re introduced.
Brandon Johnson: People are there to see the headliner; they have no idea who the opening act is. Sometimes people don’t even know that there is an opening act. It’s like cracking the eggs to scramble them before you get your cook on.
David Gee: A good opener is, strangely, hard to come by. A lot of performers will complain if the opener doesn’t grab the crowd immediately and establish himself or herself as the bookmark.
Ben Harris: To me it’s an exciting challenge. I don’t have my name up anywhere. There isn’t a picture or anything. They’re a little confused. You have to keep engaging.
Richie Minervini: The advantage is they have no expectations.
Johnson: If they’re not there to see the opening act, it can actually be easier—if your material is fresh.
George Wallace: I don’t have an opening act now, so I do open. I’m the first thing they see. But if you have the right attitude, you don’t think of yourself as an opener. You consider yourself a headliner while you’re on. When I started working with Tom Jones back in the day—when all the ladies were throwing their bloomers on the stage—they warned me at Caesars Palace, “There will be 200 or 300 seats open because these ladies only come to see Tom.” Guess what? For two weeks, we did two shows a night, those ladies were there every night. They gave me as much respect as they gave Tom Jones.
Bodden: What [being an opener] taught me was, I don’t want to stay here as the opening I act, I want to be George Wallace. It was an incentive. But some people get into a situation where opening for a big star becomes their job. It’s kind of cool because it’s a steady job and I’m sure the star takes care of you financially. But you have to have the kind of ego that can accept being second, always.
Get the crowd on your side …
Max Alexander: I’ve had the announcement of “Here is Julio Iglesias’ or Tom Jones’ favorite comedian,” so that takes some of the sting out of it. But I can also get them by saying, “I know what you’re thinking: ‘I don’t know who the hell this guy is.’ But that’s OK. You go to a restaurant and order a sandwich and you get a pickle. You never ordered the pickle but you like the pickle.” I love being an opener. When I would open for heartthrobs, after the show the men would come up to me going, “I didn’t care for [the heartthrob], but I really liked you.”
Cornell Bellows Jr.: These people are sitting around each other, and they don’t know each other. They’re all uncomfortable. You have to make them like a kind of family. Once you make them comfortable, they can start laughing.
Alexander: With telling jokes, [the audience] has to get into your rhythm to know where the punch line is. And sometimes people are afraid to laugh, which is why it’s always better to have a dark room. People laugh better if they don’t see other people.
Listen to the tick-tock of the clock …
Gee: If I have criticism of certain [comedy-show] hosts, it’s that they might have a tendency to think it’s about them when they open the show. They might be auditioning for someone in the audience, so they might go over their time, which you can’t do, particularly in a casino. They want these people out and gambling.
Bodden: If they tell you to do 15 minutes, do 15 minutes. That 20 or 25 minutes, you think you’re killing, but you’re just screwing up the show. I remember when Steve Schirripa used to run the Riviera Comedy Club. Time was his thing, like, “Look, you’re doing 20 minutes. At 19 minutes, I want to be hearing, ‘Thank you, good night.’ At 21 minutes, I don’t wanna hear your voice.’”
Wallace: I was opening longer than most people. I opened for Tom Jones for 45 minutes. I started at 20 but it wound up at 45. That’s what you want to hear—“we wanted to hear more of you, we enjoyed you better than the [main] act.”
Remember for whom you’re opening …
Harris: At most shows, the opener does the same thing the headliner does, like the comedians at The Mirage. For me, it’s cool, no one is expecting dancing. I just like the shock value. What’s he doing? By the time they’re really into it, I’m walking off the stage and Terry [Fator] is walking on. [Fator is a ventriloquist.]
Bodden: If you’re opening for a singer or for a concert, then it’s two completely different things. You’re not going to steal the crowd. If I’m opening for Jeffrey Osborne, no matter how funny I am, those women want to hear “Woo, woo, woo.” Until they hear that, they haven’t been to the show.
Wallace: With comedians, you know the crowd has come to laugh in the first place. Sometimes opening for a singer, you can be a surprise. “Ladies and gentlemen, an Evening with Diana Ross. Please welcome to the stage … George Wallace.” Well, who the hell is George Wallace? This was back in the day. Then when you walk off, they go, “Who the hell is that guy?”
Minervini: When I opened for Jay [Black] and the Americans, I went to get some of their records, got a feel for what they did and I even used some of his lyrics in the punch lines. I’d never met the guy. But the audience comes in, they hear those lines, they figure, oh, this must be Jay’s friend. When I got backstage, Jay comes up to me and says, “Do we know each other? I thought I forgot who you were!”
Keep your style the same as the headliner. Or not …
Bodden: It depends on the comics. I like doing topical news stuff, so when I work with George, it’s great because George does some topical, but not much. Dennis Blair worked forever with George Carlin, and Dennis had a guitar and did funny stuff with songs, and then George Carlin would do all social issues. That was a great mix. If I open for Chris Rock, that’s not a great show because we’re going to be doing similar comedy.
Bellows: [Eddie Griffin’s] comedy is raw, so I know I can’t come up there and be Mr. Nice Guy. I can’t be Bill Cosby or Sinbad. This crowd is looking for that raw comedy. I have what you’d call a misdirection style of comedy. It’s different from Eddie, but still has an edge.
Wallace: Your job is to be a comedian, make people happy, warm them up. Just make everybody comfortable. You’ve got to be who you are, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. You can’t worry about what somebody else does.
Bodden: But you don’t want to range too far apart. You don’t want somebody who is completely blue and about sex—you don’t want Lisa Lampanelli and George Wallace on the same show—unless you can adapt. Recently, me and Andrew Dice Clay, we had two shows at the same casino in Connecticut and we got snowed in and they combined our shows, so I wound up opening for Dice. We’re completely different. But because I’ve done a lot of military shows and I know that raucous crowd, I was able to instantly adapt to do Dice’s crowd.
Don’t fret about the star. Just blow ’em away …
Gee: It doesn’t happen a lot, but people will come up to me after the show in Las Vegas and say, “You were the best part of the show.” I’m not pleased by that, because I immediately think the show must have not been very good because I was only up there for 15 minutes. Then there’s the luck of the draw. On a particular night, I could be on and the headliner could be off.
Minervini: Any headliner worth their salt, the last thing they are worried about is you being terrific.
Wallace: You don’t want your opening act to do better than you, but if you’re the headliner, that is your job. I tell all young comedians, “Blow the hell off that stage, make the headliner follow you.” And as an opener, you better be good, because you know when I come out, I’m kicking ass.
Alexander: With George, if you kill, he would bring you back and say how great you were. We used to do 10 minutes just talking to each other.
Johnson: I still get nervous, but with Eddie [Griffin], he’s like, “Do you to the full. Don’t hold nothing back.” At the same time, I know my lane. They are there to hear Mr. Griffin. I throw my punches, wake up the crowd, then I get out.
Sometimes the headliner is kind of a (fill in the blank) …
Bellows: It doesn’t happen with Eddie, but it does happen where a headliner is like, “You won’t be upstaging me, I’m the star.” And I’ve heard a lot about headliners stealing material [from openers].
Gee: I get upset when I hear the comedy industry depicted as a bunch of back-stabbers. I’ve never seen that.
Bodden: There are times when you are funnier than the headliner, and that can be a little frustrating. That happens when you’re opening for somebody who is like, a TV star but not really a comedian. Sometimes comedy clubs put really strong people in front of the big TV star. The venue doesn’t want you to come to see Chucky TV star and leave saying, “That wasn’t funny,” so they want you to laugh at a couple of acts before him—and no, I won’t name them.
Gee: I’ve heard headliners many times backstage tell someone not to do certain jokes.
Bodden: It is totally unfair. If you can’t follow them, you shouldn’t be the headliner. It’s one thing to do topics, but it’s another to do specific jokes, like, “That joke’s too funny, don’t do that.”
Wallace: Some comedians will tell an opening act, “Hey, I’ve got a bid on that.’” If you’re the headliner, you should be able to cover that subject with or without that joke. You take a different approach to the joke. But some comedians think something is their territory, but no territory belongs to anybody.
Minervini: Most singers, they throw a couple of jokes into their act. With Paul Anka, it was constantly, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” I was like, “You’re Paul Freakin’ Anka, what are you worried about?” Jerry Vale comes up to me and says, “You don’t have to do the joke about the guy shot eight times with his hands tied behind his back, the worst case of suicide I’ve ever seen.” I said, “No, I don’t do any jokes.” He said, “What kind of comedian are you?” I said, “I just talk about my family.” Later his son comes in and says, “Listen, Jerry doesn’t want you going on.” I said, “What?” He was used to the Borscht Belt, two-guys-walk-into-a-bar comedy. At that point it’s just a money gig, and you just say, “I’d rather not work in that environment.”
on the flip side …
Alexander: But I’ve worked with headliners who were really great. I remember I did not do well in Ottawa with Julio because they wanted a French-Canadian comedian. They were stomping their feet. They really hated me. I said, “You can stomp all you want, but Julio is not even in the building yet. You’ve got 20 minutes to stomp, or you can watch me.” They booed and hissed and I just went on. I got offstage and I said to Julio, “I know it wasn’t a good show. If you want, I’ll meet you in Pittsburgh,” which was our next American stop. And he goes, “You are not the opener, I am not the closer—we are just, ‘The Show.’”