When Jim Norton came to Las Vegas in December, it shouldn’t have raised any eyebrows. Norton is a great comic possessed of a filthy way with words—the absolute end of the road that Lenny Bruce forged. But Norton wasn’t a stranger to Las Vegas; he’d done plenty of shows here. Yet the location of this one—the Hard Rock Hotel’s intimate club, Vinyl—could have signaled a subtle shift in the Vegas comedy game.
Vinyl was a surprise entry into the local comedy scene when it announced a residency for Andrew “Dice” Clay last March (recently renewed for 15 dates through the end of this March). From there, it hosted a one-nighter with Tom Green & Steve-O in June and a two-night engagement for Jenny McCarthy’s all-girl Dirty Sexy Funny show.
With Norton, though, it seemed like Vinyl was pursuing a specific class of comics not regularly seen in Las Vegas since Bryan Callen told his last joke at Paris’ Empire Comedy in August 2012: These are the comics who gain cultlike followings through podcasts, grainy YouTube footage from half-bootlegged sets and stand-up specials shown late Fridays on Comedy Central. Less than 10 years ago, Louis CK was that type of guy, before he became Louis CK, one-man comedy juggernaut.
Those types of comics used to be found at Empire and the Playboy Comedy Club before it. Both were operated by Cort McCown, himself a stand-up out of Los Angeles. It was the only show in town that was putting the likes of Patrice O’Neal and Marc Maron onstage regularly. Since Empire folded, there were the occasional one-offs at Sunset Station’s Club Madrid or a Pearl show with some of the more established names in the alt-comedy scene, such as Brian Posehn or Doug Stanhope. But nothing as regular as McCown’s showcase, and certainly no place for the next generation of breakout comics who aren’t yet household names.
Someone like Norton is a safe toe in the water for a venue like Vinyl. After six specials and two New York Times best-sellers, he has a dedicated fan base that allows him to fill the 500 seats at Club Madrid despite flying under Middle America’s radar.
He also has a metric ton of respect in the comedy community. Which means he’s exactly the type of comedian who has the toughest go of it in Las Vegas. The road dogs who are there to entertain weary tourists willing to go see any show for 90 minutes? They have homes up and down the Strip. Headliners like Jeff Dunham, wildly popular but little regarded by the artistic-minded? He’s filling up the Colosseum. But those veterans who the comedy nerds love, and the up-and-comers who dazzle the obsessives, are stranded between two worlds.
Comedy here goes through periods of ebb and flow. The last upswing started in 2012 when the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana and Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at MGM set up shop. Now Bonkerz is moving from Palace Station to the Foundation Room, Fiesta Henderson has announced the Cancun Comedy Jam and several Downtown locations have either hosted, or are rumored to be starting, comedy programs.
Hard Rock director of entertainment Max McAndrew helped bring comics to the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay in the pre-Live Nation days. Now he thinks he can replicate that success at Vinyl.
“When Vinyl was built, one of the intentions was to do comedy in here,” McAndrew says. “Being the Hard Rock, we have to go after A-level talent. Yes, the lion’s share of that falls to people who play instruments. But if you look at The Joint and some of the big comedians we’ve done there, we knew that could also work for us at Vinyl.”
But will he bring the next-gen comics who excite the cognoscenti? McAndrew booked Jim Jefferies for May 31 at The Joint, certainly a comedian who fits that quasi-underground, alt-comedy mold. But Jefferies’ spot in the big room is fueled by his FX series Legit. It’s the same model that drives The Mirage’s Aces of Comedy series, where the schedule has taken more chances over the last couple of years.
When Aces started in 2010, the lineup was safe and full of famous names: Jay Leno, Kevin James and Ray Romano. Ever since Daniel Tosh became a regular in 2012, though, it has seen an increasing number of younger and alt-leaning comics with strong TV followings: Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer), Seth Myers (Late Night), Nick Swardson (Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time) and Jeff Ross (whose The Burn wasn’t renewed for a third season, but who came to prominence through the Comedy Central roasts).
“With the popularity of Comedy Central and shifting demographics coming into Las Vegas, we needed to look at some other acts. Some of those are a little bit edgier,” says Franz Kallao, vice president of hotel operations for The Mirage.
But while this quest for edge might mean comics with more serrated material, it’s still a name game: Myers, after all, was on the cover of Time. He’s more a big thing than the next big thing. Last January’s Comedy Central weekend put MGM Resort’s imprimatur on big-ticket comedy in Las Vegas, with shows from Dave Attell, Norton, Schumer, Swardson and Anthony Jeselnik. (Kallao says another such weekend is on its way this year, though after the first quarter.)
So what about the lesser-knowns yearning to be known? It isn’t fair to the audience or performer, Kallao says, to put them in the 1,200-seat Terry Fator Theatre. It’s a gamble to everyone involved. (And, of course, no self-respecting host wants 800 unsold seats.)
Comedians on the rise find themselves stuck in the middle: They’ve priced themselves out of comedy’s minor leagues, but they’re not yet ready for the majors.
“What happens with a lot of these guys is they’re breaking out, doing some good road gigs, and if they get on the college tours, their expectations on the pay per week may be higher than what most of the comedy clubs can afford,” says Juaquin Trujillo, who with Matt Chavez has operated the L.A. Comedy Club everywhere from Planet Hollywood to the Four Queens to its current home at Bally’s for the last seven years. (They recently started booking talent for Las Vegas Live, the comedy showcase at the V Theater.)
“When you have a comedian who needs $6,000 for the week or two shows, when the average pay per week is $3,000 for six shows, it’s difficult for them to find their spot. I feel bad, because they’re at that level where they’re going to be making out big, but they’re exceeding some of the regular comedy clubs’ budgets, so they get caught in limbo.”
Can Vinyl close the comedy gap? Norton’s performance was a good sign—but there’s a lot of Vegas history to overcome.
“The one phase of comedy in Vegas [that’s been missing],” McAndrew says, “is when you get to that level where you’re not a total unknown but you’re not well enough to book a big room. It’s the one area Vegas doesn’t do a good job capitalizing on. That’s the black hole of the comedy circuit.”