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Comedy

Lots of laughs: A look inside the Las Vegas comedy boom

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The funniest names in the biz are regular visitors in Vegas.

Vinnie Favorito is lurching around the stage at a darkened, 200-seat entertainment enclave on the Las Vegas Strip. He’s in predatory mode, cutting through these comedic waters like a shark sniffing a thin trail of blood. A woman seated a half-dozen rows back shouts something unintelligible at Favorito. Whatever she said, it was a mistake. The battle-tested comic turns to her and glowers through the spotlight.

“Wow, she’s a little bitchy!” he says, glaring at the woman but talking to everyone. “Where does she work? The DMV?”

Then he turns to the man seated next to her and says, “How long you been married?” There is no right answer.

“Ten years!” the guy calls back.

“Ever hit her?” Favorito asks. “Not that I condone that, but I’m not saying she doesn’t bring it on.”

The woman shouts back that she’d like to meet Favorito after the show and continue the argument. “What, you’re gonna take a swing at me?” he says with a mock laugh.

Then the comic shakes his head. “I am not the guy you want to piss off!”

The audience tonight is “tight,” restrained and not particularly responsive, but there is a gasp, followed by a wave of laughter rooted in disbelief at Favorito’s willingness to dig for guffaws.

“It was a weird night, but I like it that way,” Favorito says later. “I kind of like it when you have to work for it.”

Two hours later, George Wallace is conducting something of a comedy revival in his 700-seat comedy venue, where a presidential seal hangs from a wooden podium at center stage. Wallace is at once commander in chief and self-ordained minister of this performance, in which he returns continually to the refrain, “I be thinkin’!”

“You think Joe Paterno should have said something about Jerry Sandusky?” Wallace asks the crowd in a showroom half-filled.

When the crowd shouts, “Yes!” he says, “No! Because, you see, I be thinkin’!”

Vinnie Favorito

A photo of Paterno appears on the big screens on either side of the stage. “Look at those glasses!” Wallace continues, referring to lenses so thick that they comically magnify the late coach’s eyes. “You think Joe Paterno could see anything wearing those glasses? Joe Paterno didn’t see sh*t!”

Nobody would have expected the Sandusky scandal to elicit laughter, but it does. Favorito and Wallace are masters at drawing humor from anywhere at anytime. That they are both on the Strip on the same night is a testament to the high volume of great comedy staged regularly in Las Vegas. But what’s striking here is that Favorito and Wallace aren’t just sharing the Strip but the very same hotel. They toil nightly at the Flamingo just across the casino floor from each other, Favorito at Bugsy’s Cabaret and Wallace at the Flamingo Showroom. And now, making that competition even trickier are a whole new set of comedic conditions across Las Vegas, from resident headliners and big touring names to a host of new clubs. In short, comedy is having a moment here.

“I finally just slept with my high school crush. But I swear, now he expects me to go to his graduation—like I know where I’m going to be in three years.” – Amy Schumer

There is more comedy being performed in Las Vegas today—at any and every level—than in any other time during the city’s history.

The most famous comedians in the country regularly touch down in Las Vegas: Jerry Seinfeld is a recurring headliner at the 4,000-seat Colosseum at Caesars Palace, and Bill Cosby headlines periodically at T.I., which also rotates Wanda Sykes and Carlos Mencia. The Mirage’s Aces of Comedy series is probably the strongest lineup of top-tier comedians anywhere on the planet—Jay Leno, Wayne Brady, Lewis Black, Seth Meyers, Ray Romano, Kevin James, Gabriel Iglesias, Kathy Griffin, Ron White, Daniel Tosh, Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari among them. In February, the Mirage also hosted a two-day Comedy Central Vegas Weekend lineup featuring Dave Attell, Jim Norton, Amy Schumer and more. And that icon of the left, Bill Maher, is now a recurring headliner at the Pearl, which will also host Sarah Silverman next month.

Some of the big names are plying their craft in relatively cozy confines. The Hard Rock Hotel has Andrew Dice Clay in Vinyl, a 325-seat room built primarily as a music venue. Also on the Vinyl calendar are Steve-O (famous for starring in and surviving the Jackass film and TV franchise) and Tom Green, whose adult showcase is titled The Original Pranksters. The Venetian counters with local favorite Rita Rudner, the legendary Joan Rivers and reliable showroom draws Tim Allen and David Spade. The South Point fills its showroom with the likes of Heather McDonald, Ralphie May, Jim Breuer, Jay Mohr and Christopher Titus. Eddie Griffin is at the Rio, where his show is unambiguously dubbed Comedy Without a Condom.

Familiar club brands or venues piloted by famous comics are prevalent on the Strip. Top-level clubs include the Improv at Harrah’s, Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at MGM Grand, the Laugh Factory at Tropicana, the revamped Riviera Comedy Club and Sin City Comedy at Planet Hollywood. Beyond those haunts are comedy showcases such as Bonkerz Comedy Club at the Plaza (late of Palace Station), LA Comedy Club at Bally’s, Big Al’s Comedy Club (at Orleans but moving to Gold Coast in July) and Comedy After Dark at LVH. And, lest we forget the original trailblazers: Former Elvis and Liberace opener Sammy Shore and frequent Tonight Show guest Pete Barbutti are teaming up at the Clarion Hotel. Their combined age: 165.

Audience members crack up laughing as comedians heckle front-row guests at Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club.

In Vegas, most clubs and comics operate under partial or full lease agreements with resorts (Wallace was one of the first to succeed under a “four wall” agreement when he opened at the Flamingo a decade ago). The city is considered an appealing destination and resume booster for rising comics, as weekly pay is a little higher here because many clubs run seven nights a week. The Vegas club scene rivals that of major comedy outposts such as New York, LA and San Francisco for its pure numbers, though one top-level comic says those cities are still the best places to be “found” and more receptive to experimental comedy.

Las Vegas remains a fertile working environment for experienced comics—Mitchell Walters, for one, has performed at maybe a half-dozen Vegas clubs over the years and still headlines at such clubs as the Riviera. Even so, veteran comics such as Cork Proctor, who worked Vegas for more than 50 years before leaving for semi-retirement in Ecuador, have long complained that veteran club comics are often ignored by entertainment directors and club operators looking to catch a star in ascent.

Improv Comedy Club co-founder Mark Lonow says there is “without question” an uptick in the business of comedy in Las Vegas and across the country. The industry of live comedy was dependably strong for decades but sagged in the early 1990s, when Improv closed six of its 17 clubs.

“Stand-up hit its first kind of, let’s call it, comedy recession around 1991,” says Lonow, who operates the Improv chain with comedy-club icon Budd Friedman. “Then the Evening at the Improv show became a hit on TV, and everybody opened their own club. We then had a bunch of mediocre comics working at places where the tickets were too cheap and there was a collapse because the quality was suffering.”

It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the industry stabilized. As Riviera Entertainment Director Mark Massimino says, “Things go in cycles. Comedy was big in the ’80s, really strong, but then we had magicians, then impressionists, then Cirque shows. But comedy is coming back because it’s simple and easy, both for the fans and for the performers.”

There is a purity about stand-up that fans will always appreciate.

“You sink or swim based on the audience’s response,” Massimino says. “There’s no smoke and mirrors, no walls between you and the audience. People need to laugh. If you can make them not feel depressed, you’ll be OK.”

“A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You look just like that comedian, Carrot Top—no offense!’” – Carrot Top

Scott Thompson, better known as Carrot Top, has been headlining in Las Vegas for nearly 20 years and has seen the bubble of comedy expand during his tenure.

“I’ve been playing here forever, it seems, and it is more competitive than ever,” he says. “I’m always up against these different people, like Jay Leno and Steve-O and Tom Green. All the clubs, the Mirage. I don’t know what the big thing was in the ’50s and ’60s, when you had maybe 10 hotels on the Strip. Were eight doing comedy? Proportionately, that’s what it feels like now—everyone has some sort of big comedian or a club with some really good comedians.”

Besides performing at the Luxor six nights a week, Thompson continues to make national TV and film appearances to keep his brand alive.

“I’ll do Ellen and The Tonight Show, and I just finished a role in the Trailer Park Boys movie—me and Tom Green are actually in that together—just to keep my name out there,” he says. “I’ll be in a movie like Hangover and do all these things because I have to introduce myself to a younger audience.”

Carrot Top Tebows in his dressing room backstage before a show, March 1, 2012.

This is to ward off, and not respond to, comedy decline.

“I get a lot of repeat business, but I am also against all the shows now,” Carrot Top says. “People are deciding between Carrot Top and a Cirque show, or Carrot Top and Jersey Boys. And then you are looking at competition from other comics and clubs. … I am still doing very well, and I can’t be more grateful for that because I am still a punch line. When that stops, and I am not relevant enough to be a punch line, I know I’m in trouble (laughs).”

Rudner, another Vegas veteran, opened at New York-New York in 2001 and later headlined at Harrah’s before shifting to the Sands Showroom at the Venetian. Over the past three decades, she has experienced the comedy scene from the club level to headliner-on-the-Strip status.

“I started at the Riviera, doing 16 shows a week and staying in a room overlooking a dumpster,” she recalls. “That was how I was introduced to Vegas. Then I moved to the Sands, and at that point, they would not let me onstage unless I was a co-headliner with a man. So, I was billed with Jeff Altman. That’s how I started playing Vegas 26 years ago.”

Rudner says her conditions are “better and better,” but the climate isn’t easier for comics.

“Everything is more difficult for every single act,” she says. “When I started, there was just one Cirque show. There was no Colosseum and very few Broadway-style shows. I just perform, and that has worked.”

Clay has long been a fixture in Las Vegas and has seen the change in the local entertainment scene.

“The comedy scene in Vegas is almost like it was in LA during the 1980s: all of the clubs opening, and my friends Carrot Top and Harry Basil [who runs the Vegas Laugh Factory outpost], and we’ve got a move into Vinyl now," he says. "It’s just fantastic, and I can see it growing.”

Clay’s own Vegas history dates to the late 1980s, when he began a 13-year run at Bally’s Celebrity Room. He’s played venues of varying qualities and capacities, ranging from Madison Square Garden to 3,000-seat theaters to smaller, club-size rooms like Vinyl. Through his friendship with Hard Rock Hotel President Jody Lake, he forged his move from the Riviera to the intimate Vinyl, where he opened this spring.

He’s confident he will thrive there, but his producer, who also works with the Steve-O and Tom Green Pranksters show, is acutely aware of the climate for comedy in Las Vegas.

“Competition is the biggest problem. Can we sell out the venue?” asks producer Mike Tricarichi, who attempted an Icons of Comedy series at the Hilton featuring Clay, Gilbert Gottfried, Mark Curry and Hal Sparks and later tried to work Clay, Steve-O and Green into the Riviera. “Tom and Steve-O didn’t sell out regularly at the Riv, and it’s only because it is very competitive in Vegas. We’re up against 200 other shows and a lot of ‘name’ comics. But the Hard Rock is a good fit. A lot of the fans of Steve-O and Tom Green are naturally going to be at the Hard Rock anyway, and I do harder-edged comedy. I have some of the dirtiest comedy shows in Las Vegas.”

Green says Las Vegas is “ground zero” for live entertainment.

"I’ve been touring as a stand-up for four years, and having a regular show in Vegas is exciting," he said. "I love doing stand-up, and it’s a very cathartic, fun and funny process to get up onstage and be able to speak our minds.”

And if a fart or two are set aflame, consider it a bonus.

“Ma’am, I just got back from the Titanic exhibit. They have your luggage.” – Brad Garrett

Why the boom in comedy? Mirage Vice President of Hotel Operations Franz Kallao, who oversees the hotel’s entertainment lineup, says the reasons are twofold.

“You have a great cable outlet, Comedy Central, that has inspired comics in the way the Food Network has inspired chefs,” Kallao says. “And people are looking for something different than production shows. Comedy has been out there forever, and it is something they are familiar with.”

For the comedians coming in and out of Las Vegas, and even for those who live here, timing is paramount. They must stay busy, but they also need to stagger their appearances so they don’t risk hitting the same audience multiple times.

There are dozens of comics on the Vegas club circuit who rotate as headliners from Laugh Factory, Brad Garrett’s club, Sin City Comedy, the Improv and the Riviera—people such as Kathleen Dunbar, Mike Pace, Carla Rea, Derek Richards and Greg Vaccariello.

If you build it, will they laugh? Brad Garrett thinks so, and has staked a lot of money to find out.

Richards moved to Las Vegas last July after spending a dozen years in West Palm Beach, Fla. For lack of a better term, he was chasing the funny.

“There are so many more opportunities here, with all the clubs and the opportunity to be in production shows,” says Richards, who appeared twice at Riviera Comedy Club and again at Sin City during the reporting of this story. “I do a lot of corporate and private functions, and Las Vegas clubs have relaxed their policies about comics working at other clubs. There’s more of a gentlemen’s agreement with those on the Strip, in regards to working multiple clubs, which is unheard of in other cities. I can literally work the Laugh Factory and then work at Brad Garrett’s the next week.”

What comics make nightly, weekly or annually is something of a verboten topic for those outside the industry, but one busy comic says the nightly pay ranges from up to $75 for an emcee (who is sometimes lucky to get paid at all) to $100-$200 for a solid middle (or featured) comic and more than $200 for a headliner.

“I’m appreciative of great comedians, and I’ll pay for it,” Garrett says. “I want the best of the best. If I’m the funniest guy onstage on any given night, I’ve got a problem.”

Garrett has toiled at every level conceivable as a comic. He’s worked the crappy clubs for meager pay and co-starred in a hit TV series. He headlined at the Mirage for a time, before embarking on his own dream to run a club in the same vein as one of his comic idols, Rodney Dangerfield.

Garrett designed what remains one of the nicest clubs in the city at the Tropicana (it’s now the Laugh Factory); then he duplicated the process at his second Vegas club along the MGM Grand underground retail and entertainment promenade. Or, as he accurately jokes, “in the basement of MGM Grand, next to the pretzel stand.”

Battling the odds like a high roller with unlimited credit, Garrett has lost a bundle of money in Las Vegas, but he has not been fleeced of his drive to succeed on the Strip. He usually sells out his once-a-month appearances at the 250-seat MGM club, and the club hits between 150-200 people when he’s not in the room. He says he’s finally in the black after dropping more than $1 million in his attempt to establish the top comedy club in Las Vegas.

“This started as a ridiculous hobby. I sold a lot of my collectible cars to help pay for it,” Garrett says. “I was sucking air at the Trop. I lost a lot of money there, but I am in a position at the MGM Grand where they want the club to succeed as much as I do, and that’s very, very rare.”

Garrett is keenly aware of the competition among comedy clubs in Las Vegas. For years, he has been friends with Laugh Factory founder Jamie Masada and recalls dining with him when Garrett still had the club at the Trop.

“He says to me, ‘I’ll never open a club in Las Vegas if you are running a club there.’ True story. Then I move over to the MGM, and boom! Laugh Factory, right across the street, in my old room.”

Garrett also says he’s had comics tell him that rival clubs—specifically, the Improv—have issued warnings about performing at his club too close to scheduled dates on their stage.

“I will never keep a comic from working,” Garrett says, and not for the first time. “This is taking money out of a guy’s pocket.”

Improv Comedy Club’s Mark Lonow stops short of saying there’s a written policy forbidding comics from performing at a rival club too soon before or after an appearance at the Improv.

“We do keep an eye on who is around and where they work,” he says, adding that he simply prefers to book comics who have not performed at a competing club within eight weeks of appearing at the Improv. “For us, there is not a hard-and-fast rule, but we wouldn’t put you on if you’ve just worked another club. We frown upon that.”

“My doctor tells me I’m a kleptomaniac. … So I’ve been taking a lot for it.” – Geechy Guy

Not all attempts at staging comedy are successful—even in a town that can support so many clubs, headliners and comedians. Palace Station just swept headliner Louie Anderson and Bonkerz Comedy Club out of a room that, over the years, was used for everything except bingo (which might well be its future use). This happened just as Anderson was about to appear on celebrity diving show Splash, a boon to any small venue hoping for nationwide exposure.

Host Geechy Guy sets the stage for laughter before the comics perform for a packed house at Brad Garrett's Comedy Club in Las Vegas Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

Host Geechy Guy sets the stage for laughter before the comics perform for a packed house at Brad Garrett's Comedy Club in Las Vegas Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

“Palace made the decision strictly based on an overhaul of the building and turning that room into a gaming space,” Bonkerz founder Joe Sanfelippo says. “It’s all a question of timing, and with Louie and the club we opened at the end of April at the Plaza, it looks good for us. There is a lot of potential there.”

The attempt to make a club work at the Tropicana has been a rocky process since Bob Kephart pulled the Comedy Stop out in April 2009 (the hotel swiftly sued the longtime club operator for unpaid rent, and his next attempt at the Sahara obviously didn’t work out). Soon after the Comedy Stop bugged out, Bobby Slayton, the hot-running “Pitbull of Comedy,” tried to open a club at the Trop and flamed out fast, mostly due to high operating costs. Conversely, Sin City Comedy founder John Padon has given his club buoyancy by partnering with Celebrity Cruises. You can pick up the Vegas comedy-club vibe on many of the Celebrity cruise liners, which started hosting shows in March.

“I used to joke that I got off the road because I was staring down the barrel of a cruise-ship career,” says Padon, a veteran stand-up, club operator and comedy writer. “But now, it’s happening. These clubs take people’s minds off the cruise and put them in Las Vegas for a while.”

Beyond finances, club operation is challenging for myriad reasons. Building a three-comic lineup of emcee, featured comic and headliner takes considerable thought and research, and the notoriously quirky personalities of many comics factor into the equation. Tony Camacho, manager of Garrett’s club, remembers a night when he was watching the comic Fred Stoller (whose act is centered on his own neurosis) perform at a resort hotel. After five minutes, the comic noticed the audience was “tight” and not laughing at any of his material.

“So he left the stage, went up to his room and changed his shirt,” Camacho says, laughing. “He went from a white shirt to a yellow shirt. This was in the middle of the show.”

Was he right? Was it the shirt that had rendered that audience mute?

“No, he wasn’t right,” Camacho says.

“It’s not a stereotype if it’s always true.” – Daniel Tosh

Back at the Flamingo, the glut of comedians under the same roof is a serious matter for George Wallace, a pioneer in leasing, or “four-walling” his own performance venue on the Strip. He produces, directs and promotes the show. He handles all the marketing, ticketing, PR and advertising, too.

George Wallace, turning sour news into silly bits at the Flamingo Showroom.

Wallace had carved out quite a profitable niche at the Flamingo by the time Favorito moved in during summer 2008 after five years at O’Sheas. The inescapably Italian Favorito loved the idea of working at a historic venue named for legendary mafia overlord Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The room wasn’t difficult to fill, and the money was right.

But Wallace, speaking with great candor offstage, isn’t happy that Favorito is working so close.

“They’ve brought another comedian right across the hall from me, and when you want to go to a comedy show, you’ve split the audience,” Wallace says. “I’m so pissed off about this. Why would you do that? It’s like having Cher and Bette Midler working right across the hall from each other. But Caesars is only concerned about traffic; they want a quarter out of everybody who walks through the hotel, and comedy is so hot they thought they should just have more comedy.”

This isn’t simply a case of hurt feelings; for Wallace, Favorito’s residency at Bugsy’s means taking a financial hit. How much money? Wallace is glad to answer: “If that show takes 40 tickets away per night, that’s $400,000 to $500,000 a year from me.”

Favorito has heard that complaint for a decade now.

“I have heard of his resentments about this, but I also know it wasn’t a personal thing,” Favorito says. “But I have the opposite point. I don’t want him to leave. I don’t want a new show in there. We’re different enough—I’m at 8 o’clock, he’s at 10 o’clock. He’s black, I’m Italian. He’s nationally known, I’m the best-kept secret in town. He’s a ticket-sales guy, plastered all over the place. I’m a word-of-mouth guy.

“People want to see comedy. They do. I don’t want to see a Cirque show every night or a magic show every day. There are seven days a week to do different things in Vegas. I don’t know why people are bitching. There is room for all of us.”

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