A comic’s big mouth is his most significant attribute. No comedian makes much of a splash in the culture without seeing things in a different, hopefully funnier, light than the rest of us. Sometimes that means being outrageous or offensive, which audiences understand. Every so often, though, that willingness to call it as they see it, that reflexive instinct toward truth, can become treacherously self-defeating.
Exhibit A: Paul Rodriguez.
It is hard to imagine how the funnyman can have much of a future as a Vegas resident headliner after what he said last weekend on my podcast. You might think I’m overstating it, but I’ve spent the days since that interview chatting with entertainment directors and publicists up and down the Boulevard. The guy could be in serious trouble.
I had no idea what I was stepping in the middle of when our discussion began Friday. I’d seen his show Thursday and found it vaguely amusing; the opening comic and the emcee were grating and unnecessary, Rodriguez himself was mildly funny and the middle act, comedienne Shayla Rivera, was a scream. But the thing I wanted to ask Rodriguez about most when I got him on the line was a weird moment about 15 minutes before the end of his 45-minute set, when some dude enters from stage left, disrobes and gets into a bed that was sitting several feet behind Rodriguez. The comic never breaks stride from his routine, never acknowledges the guy. It’s a head-scratcher.
It’s also, evidently, the manifestation of a dysfunctional relationship between Rodriguez and the Tropicana. Rodriguez, who opened in mid-May and is expected to play six nights a week in the Tiffany Theater until June 19, said he had wanted to include a few other elements in the production, including an audience plant who heckled him and some dancing girls in the Folies Bergere costumes gathering dust backstage. But the resort’s brass, including entertainment director Lee Ann Groff-Daudet, just wanted a show featuring standup comics that fit the property’s new effort to become the Latino destination on the Strip.
The sleeping dude? Well, that was the aborted audience-plant heckler. And since he was hired for the run, Rodriguez said, he found something else for him to do as “my little protest because I’m paying the guy anyway.”
In the years I’ve covered Vegas, I’ve never heard a star complain about his resort while beginning a trial run for a long-term gig. I also was confused as to how the Tropicana could have this much to say about the content of the show when Rodriguez was saying he was “four-walling,” which means he’s renting the showroom and footing the bill for the show’s expenses.
“I don’t understand that myself,” Rodriguez said. “When we had the dancing girls, I thought it moved good. The entertainment director said, ‘No, we don’t like them.’ But I thought of saying, ‘You’re not paying for them, I’m paying for them.’ This is my show. I’ve already got bad reviews. But I didn’t want to be a difficult person so I said all right, I’ll get rid of those things. They wanted to get rid of everybody but Shayla and myself.”
My next question was redundant, but I needed to ask it directly: Was he unhappy with the Tropicana?
“I’m not thrilled, it isn’t the show I want to do,” he said. “This is my nickel, I was going to try to do something different. … But the good thing about it is, we’re getting interest from a couple other casinos now who came to the press party, word got back to them. You know, if we get an opportunity to go to another house, I guess if I left, I’m not thrilled to leave there. Originally, I think it’s a great place.”
You get that? He’s openly flirting with other properties! And he’s saying, basically, that he doesn’t like his own show! That makes it really difficult to persuade customers to spend $45 to see it.
This was an unprecedented rant. The late George Carlin used to bash Vegas and his host resort, but that’s Carlin and he wasn’t gunning for a permanent gig. Harvey Fierstein found Vegas audiences uncouth and beneath him, but he faked it well until he was safely back in Manhattan following his unsuccessful run in Hairspray at the Luxor. And Vincent Paterson, the original creator of Viva Elvis, told me at the show’s media opening in February how dissatisfied he was with the show, but he’s not the star and had long since been shoved aside by Cirque du Soleil anyhow.
“You have creative differences all the time, but to come out and talk about it in an interview is unheard of,” said a veteran Las Vegas publicist who asked not to be named. “Hotel theaters are incredibly rare to come by, they’re like beachfront property in Malibu. To have an opportunity to play the Strip in any theater is a pretty rare thing. For someone to criticize like that in a very tight-knit community, well, it’s hard enough to sell tickets in this day and age.”
Rodriguez declined to say which resorts were beckoning him, but an entertainment director at a competing resort said these remarks are distressing for any prospects with his company. Rodriguez’s saving grace would be if he was packing them in at the Trop (then difficult personalities are the cost of doing business), but he’s not.
“We pay attention to the behavior of performers as well as the financial elements of the deal,” said the entertainment director, who also requested anonymity. “We have walked away from shows because they appear to be a handful. … Those remarks would seem to be at worst unwise and best inexpedient.”
If Rodriguez couldn’t hold back, the Trop sure could. Groff-Daudet didn’t return my call, although I know she got it because Rodriguez’s publicist called me in a panic trying to find out why the resort was so sore. Apparently, the press can only count on the Trop to answer reporters when they have something happy to say.
Anyhow, I let the matter drop for a while during the interview, giving Rodriguez space to tell great stories of being blackballed by Johnny Carson in the 1980s and of having been backstage at LA’s Laugh Factory, which he part-owns, the night of actor Michael Richards’ infamous racist tirade. He also reconfirmed my recent, still officially unconfirmed scoop that the Trop is soon to be the home of a Gloria Estefan-scored show.
Near the end of our chat, we returned to the Trop dispute. How long does he expect to stay?
“Let me just say this so I’m clear: This that I’m talking about, I’ve already voiced my opinions to them and if we can straighten this out and I can do a better show … then I would be perfectly glad to be at the Tropicana,” he said. “If things don’t go that way, we part as friends. Nothing negative to say.”
So let me say this so I’m clear: I don’t begrudge Strip performers their right to unload publicly on their hosts. I’m always open to listen. I’m just not sure how smart it is. Outspoken comics are one thing, but in order to get away with it, there has to be a punch line in there somewhere. If there was one here, everyone on the Strip missed it.