Comedian George Wallace sits in a stiff armchair in the antechamber of his dressing room. His legs, clad in perfectly creased electric-blue pants, are stretched out in front of him. His trademark “I Be Thinking” cap rests back on his head. The wall behind him is covered in pictures of celebrities who have been to his show over the course of its 10-year run at the Flamingo: Wallace with William Shatner, with President Clinton, with Denzel Washington, with Dick Clark, with President Obama.
Wallace looks weary, but then, he’d been sick. A rigorous travel schedule and a lack of sleep over the previous three days has left the 61-year-old run down. Scared, he says, to be onstage “when your brain doesn’t work.”
It’s surprising to hear, because it sure as hell wasn’t noticeable from the crowd that night, March 8: NASCAR Weekend had sapped the audience. Tables up front were sold out, but the back rows of the lower level weren’t full. It didn’t seem to matter to Wallace, who worked the room with precision and ease. He was on a roll, too. His act stretched well past the planned hour, past the 90 minutes you’d expect out of a Strip show, to nearly two hours of material.
Like a genial uncle on Thanksgiving, Wallace runs his set somewhere between living-room chops-busting and church revival. That’s not a metaphor—there’s a long stretch of show where he brings up ministers in the crowd to salute them. That night, one of them sang gospel songs as Wallace drifted offstage. It felt like a priest could pop out from behind your seat and smack you if you weren’t paying attention.
After the extended performance and his nightly meet-and-greet, Wallace is in that backstage armchair, thinking of missed joke opportunities. There’s the one about the mayor of Sochi saying there were no gay people living there (“Did you see those decorations from the opening ceremonies? There’s no gays over there? There might be no gays, but they got a big-ass closet.”). And he’s annoyed Bern Nadette Stanis—Thelma from Good Times—was in the audience, and he didn’t realize it in time to introduce her.
Since 2004, Wallace has been a fixture at 10 p.m. on the stage of the Flamingo’s Donny & Marie Showroom. On March 21, he celebrates the decade anniversary with a flurry of local entertainers, including Gladys Knight, Donny & Marie, and Wallace’s longtime pal, Jerry Seinfeld. The day before, Wallace will appear in an episode of Seinfeld’s web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. (There’s also a Comedians in Cars Having Sex porn parody coming out. Wallace said he can’t do that one because “people will think I’m wearing a belt.”)
The night of the celebration, Seinfeld will play across the street at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. The two performances offer a kind of symmetry to Wallace’s 36-year career. He came up with Seinfeld in New York in the late ’70s, bouncing from club to club, sometimes six in a night.
“When me and Jerry first started, we just wanted to work Las Vegas. We were going to kill off Shecky Greene and Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and Anthony Newley. [When you’re a kid], you talk a lot of shit,” Wallace says. “Five years ago, I realized I reached my dream. Jerry’s across the street and I’m over here. Now I’ve got to get another goal. I like the careers Redd Foxx and Rodney Dangerfield had. They did it when they were older. [Don] Rickles, up the street kicking ass.”
When Wallace landed in Las Vegas in 2004, Rita Rudner was the only other comic doing a residency. He had to do something to push the show, so he parked four trucks back to back. When anyone asked him why he did it, he’d come back: “You’re asking me about it, aren’t you?” That was the old advertising exec in him—his gig in a pre-comedy life—coming out, and it’s a habit he hasn’t gotten away from.
To this day, Wallace shows his face at all the hotels, reminding concierges that he’s still at the Flamingo. It’s that kind of grinding that’s kept the show rolling. In the face of the Cirque marketing machine, big-ticket residencies and a metric ton of comedians now on the Strip, Wallace says he has to pound the pavement to stay in the game.
It doesn’t seem like it should still take that kind of work. Especially not with a few billboards around town and a boatload of respect in the industry.
Chris Rock, talking to Aisha Tyler on her Girl on Guy podcast, said last year, “George Wallace is like my idol. George Wallace sells out everywhere. George Wallace kills every night. Whenever a comedian, a friend goes, ‘Oh man, I had a bad set last night,’ I go, ‘Dude, only George Wallace kills every night. Is your name George Wallace? Because if your name’s not George Wallace, you really shouldn’t be complaining.’”
When The View was taping a comedy episode on March 5, each host got to bring on a comedian of their choosing. Whoopi Goldberg tapped Wallace. She wants to go on the road with him; he wants to open Whoopi’s Workshop on Broadway with her, where New York comics can go to work out new material.
Wallace still travels back to New York every week on his dark days, to go to his Central Park West condo on the 31st floor of the Majestic, the one Seinfeld talked him into buying. “He said, ‘You’ve got to buy that place.’ I said, ‘You know how much that costs? In the millions.’ He said, ‘We have the money.’ That’s when I knew I had a good friend.”
He only ever did one episode of Seinfeld, having seen too many longtime friendships fall apart from mixing business with personal lives. But he does want to stay active onscreen. He’s in Kevin Hart’s upcoming Think Like a Man Too, set in Las Vegas, where he has a role as a blackjack dealer. He also recently did an episode of the TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son, and is doing some work with the WWE Network.
Wallace talks about wanting to reach a younger audience, keep his name out there and reinvent the brand. To that end, he offers free show tickets to college students and military. He’s a beast on Twitter (@MrGeorgeWallace), where Rolling Stone put him on its list of the 25 funniest tweeters. His new book, Laff It Off—a collection of upbeat life advice that draws heavily on his act—has put him on the promotional circuit. (“Someone cuts you off on the freeway, laugh it off. They’re already in the hole. If you walk in and catch your parents making love, laugh it off—well, not that one. That’s disgusting.”) On top of that, Wallace’s USO gigs take him around the world.
That kind of restlessness could extend to the future of his show. Wallace’s deal is up in six months, he says, and he’s not sure what his next move is going to be. It might take him to another hotel. He’s considered Hawaii—he’s even thought about Macau, because it “makes Las Vegas look like Atlantic City.”
Either way, Wallace scoffs when he’s asked how long he wants to keep going, dealing with that cross-country gadfly routine.
“Well, I don’t do anything, so keep going from what? I’m trying to get the show down to an hour-fifteen so I can get my ass off the stage. That’s my sex. That’s my drugs. When I see happy people, it makes me happier.”
10 p.m. Tue-Sat, The Donny & Marie Showroom at The Flamingo, $54.95-$82.45, 777-2782. He appears on ABC’s The View at 10 a.m. March 25 and on ComediansInCarsGettingCoffee.com on March 20.