Jason Alexander, the astute Seinfeld viewer may have noticed, is very bald. Jason Alexander’s new limited-run show at Harrah’s is called An Evening With Jason Alexander and His Hair.
This could be, in classic showbiz terms, “a filthy lie.”
But the hairpiece isn’t cosmetic. Well, not just. For practical purposes, the piece is a functional prop in Alexander’s foray into stand-up comedy—a move he’s making after years of stage, song, television (both in front of and behind the camera) and the hybrid one-man stage comedy of his previous Las Vegas stint, 2010’s Donny Clay Experience at Planet Hollywood.
“I was goofing around with the hairpiece for other professional reasons. It got such a strong reaction, and it’s such an odd, funny thing I do,” Alexander says. “Everyone knows I’m bald, but I throw on this thing and walk out, and people don’t know what the hell to do with me. It allowed me to say to people before they came into the room, ‘If you think this show should be called An Evening With George Costanza’—it definitively says, ‘He’s not doing George. So let’s put that expectation aside and see what he’s going to do.’ ”
Fine. But how hirsute was Art Vandelay?
Hair, launching April 11, is the polished final product that started out of a series of corporate gigs for Alexander when Clay became too expensive to keep producing. Despite early reluctance, Alexander eventually caved and agreed to give stand-up a shot. But he couldn’t exactly work his way up from the open-mic set.
“I guess because of my theater background, I’m a little more comfortable in a theater or a showroom than I am in a small [comedy] club where everybody is well past the two-drink minimum and I’m surrounded by desperation and contempt,” he says.
The move puts him in interesting company in the history of Vegas performers. Plenty have launched or ended careers here doing what they do, but far fewer have jumped feet-first into a new line of work by headlining on the Strip.
Holly Madison made her song-and-dance debut in Peepshow, and both 98 Degrees’ Jeff Timmons and Beverly Hills, 90210’s Ian Ziering took left turns into Oiledpecistan with their Chippendales runs. But Alexander’s stint could borrow a page from a onetime headliner who, admittedly, was as likely to fail as Free Lap Dance Night at Spearmint Rhino.
Johnny Carson had only been on The Tonight Show for five years before he started headlining at the Sahara’s Congo Room in 1967. He was doing two shows a night for up to 10 weeks a year for nine years before moving to Caesars Palace in 1976 for a pay bump that brought him from $40,000 a week to $250,000 a weekend for three shows. (He would go on to decline Steve Wynn’s offer of $500,000 a weekend to play the Golden Nugget, eventually ending his Vegas shows for good in 1980.) Though he’d done smaller nightclub gigs before—particularly during an era when bad contracts left him in need of fast cash—Carson found a home when The Tonight Show was on hiatus.
“He liked performing. He liked being onstage, being the center of attention and doing something he did with supreme excellence,” Carson lawyer Henry Bushkin wrote in the 2013 biography Johnny Carson. “Doing stand-up was a different experience than performing on TV: no cameras separating him and his audience, no commercials interrupting the pace. … In all my years with him, there was never an empty seat in any showroom where he performed. Johnny was the King of the Counts.”
The act worked in a few contemporary references to win over Tonight Show faithful looking for a 90-minute version of his monologue, but for the most part, Carson stuck with a set. He was able to leverage that easy charm into nightly sellouts.
The road for what Alexander is doing is bumpier. He has to lock down a new craft. Alexander did once work with three guys who turned in their fair share of stand-up stage time—Michael Richards, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld—but wisdom wasn’t exactly being offered up.
“I could be wrong about this, but I think Michael would agree. Michael did stand-up, but he never thought of himself as a stand-up. He was a sketch player, and he was doing sketch as a stand-up thing,” Alexander says. “Larry in many ways, and boy he’ll kill me when I say this, but Larry was not amazingly successful as a stand-up. I saw Larry do stand-up years before he did Seinfeld and I appreciated what he was doing, but he was a mess. And I think he would agree with that, so no, I wouldn’t have asked him.
“Jerry knows I’m doing this stuff, and he’s really lovely and encouraging about it, but I don’t think I could talk to Jerry about what I do and how I do it. That would be odd. What I did get from Jerry is what it takes as a comedic artist to create what you’re going to do. Even now, he has more material than he knows what to do with. But he sits down all the time almost every day and writes. He is relentless in his pursuit of comedy perfection.”
Las Vegas offers more opportunity for reinvention than just about anything else short of running from a shady past and going to work on an Alaskan pipeline. Madison was able to parlay her Girls Next Door fame into the kind of local celebrity that allows her to put her name on a burlesque bar at Mandalay Bay. Ziering kept himself out there long enough to snag Sharknado, as unlikely a hit as that was. Carson never needed Vegas the way Vegas needed Carson, but it afforded the chance for the notoriously distant comic to engage with an audience in an intimate environment, if only for 10 weeks a year.
Alexander can check off another type of performance from a list that already includes a little of everything else. If it all breaks right, maybe he’s looking at his own modern Carson story.
“What I would like to do is have Vegas be a little more of a home base for me as a stand-up,” he says. “In order to do that, you’ve got to make the case. I’m fully aware that most audiences don’t know me in this role. There’s an audience for what I do as a stand-up in Vegas. [I hope] it lays the groundwork for me to become a little more of an ongoing fixture. I’d love to come back and do 10 weekends, or eight weeks a year.”
An Evening With Jason Alexander and His Hair
9 p.m. Fri-Sun, April 11-May 4, The Showroom at Harrah’s, $40-$125, 777-2782.