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Behind the Comedy

Four Serious Lessons About the Funny Business in Las Vegas

Richard Abowitz



Lesson 1 (For Headliners)

You've Gotta Watch Out for Number 1 or You'll Step in Number 2!



"What's going on?" asks the guy who sells billboards. The speakerphone does not disguise the slickness of his salesman's voice; it's as if he was verbally high-fiving his best friend.


Of course, George Wallace isn't this guy's best friend; he is the comedy headliner at the Flamingo. More importantly, Wallace is also the businessman who oversees his show. Back in the heyday of Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles, the casinos hired the comics. Wallace, however, essentially rents the theater from the Flamingo and promotes his own show. This makes him a small-business owner.


"I am the boss," he says. "It isn't just the marketing. Everyone works for me. My manager works for me. You got the sound guy working for you, the light guy working for you, the stage guys work for you, you got three assistants down there and wardrobe."


Wallace has been working since 7 a.m. in the suite that serves as both his home and office when the comedian is in Las Vegas, ignoring the beautiful view it has of the Flamingo's pool. Files thick with invoices, stacks of promotional material and press clippings surround him. He hasn't even had time to finish the three newspapers he reads each day for material: the local paper, The New York Times and USA Today. In addition to the speakerphone, there is a cell phone and a room phone, and they all keep ringing. If Wallace had a moment to look up, he'd see a headline news service on the large-screen TV.


Unlike the manic stream of verbiage that issues from him on stage, Wallace is abrupt when he finally answers the billboard salesman's question. But he isn't at all distracted; he is angry.


"I don't know," Wallace says.


The salesman immediately acts incredulous. "You don't know?" Each of these words is delivered louder than the one before it. Brother, brother, how could George Wallace not know "what's going on?" Going from hail-fellow-well-met to patronizing, the salesman puts the issue on the table. "I was told you are unsatisfied with the location of the board that you bought. So, what's going on?"


"It's not the board that we talked about," Wallace says.


Though comics dominated the Strip in the '60s and '70s, these days, in addition to Wallace there are only a few permanent showroom stand-ups left in Vegas: Rita Rudner at New York-New York and David Brenner at the Westin among them. Wallace is the first to admit that, as well as being unbelievably funny, he is on this list in part because he is a very experienced marketer. Wallace majored in advertising and marketing and worked full-time in sales before quitting to take a job writing for The Redd Foxx Show.


"Redd Foxx was telling my jokes, and he was getting great laughs. But it seemed like he wasn't doing them right." Within a year, Wallace moved into stand-up. From the start, Wallace found sales and comedy similar. "In advertising I had to sell space, whereas in comedy I have to sell myself. It's all the same business: making things happen."


Back in the day, the Riviera's comic headliner, Shecky Greene, got attention for his show through drunken antics, including driving his car into a fountain at Caesars Palace in 1966. Wallace uses a more strategic approach. "Exposure is what it's all about, because people come here from everywhere. The talk shows I do, and the movies, everything brings people in here. I try to do radio interviews each week in different cities around the country. Marketing in this town is very different. You got to go everywhere. There have to be billboards, magazines and taxis. The trick to buying advertising is that only 50 percent of it works. No matter how many dollars you spend, we know only 50 percent of those dollars are good. We just don't know which 50 percent it is."


Still, Wallace is pretty sure that at least one billboard isn't helping, and he quickly rips through the billboard salesman's flummery.


Billboard salesman: "I told you it was the board right across the street from the Hard Rock."


Wallace: "No. My first question to you guys was that I needed something [that would be seen coming] from the airport. We talked about above a gay bar."


BS: "The problem is, George, there are two gay bars ..."


Wallace: "Sir, it is not the board you see coming from the airport. I want something coming from the airport, and not going to the airport."


BS: "I got you. Then there was a miscommunication, because—"


Wallace: "Not at all. Not at all. Because the conversation was that I want a board for people when they get off airplanes and are going to the Strip from the airport."


BS: "I don't remember the conversation about the airport."


Wallace: "But why would we discuss the location at all if we didn't discuss the airport?"


BS: "OK, then, I misunderstood you. I apologize for that."


Wallace: "Why would I want a billboard going back to the airport?"


BS: "Well, it's not only right by the airport. It's right across the street from the Hard Rock, which is the major casino and hotel in this town."


Wallace: "Really."


BS: "Listen, George, I think it was a miscommunication ..."


Wallace: "There was no miscommunication. I know what I buy."


The call ends with the disappointed billboard salesman agreeing to tear up the contract.


Wallace moves onto the next problem. "I need to call someone, because I am pissed off about taxi advertising and things like that. I don't see as many taxis as I'd like to see, that I paid for. I have to put my business on the street, so when they get off the planes, they know that I am in town. That's what I have to do."


But before Wallace gets the chance to call the taxi ad salesman, his cell phone rings, and he finds himself giving driving directions to the comic he has hired as his opening act for next week.




Lesson 2 (For Club Comics)

Push Your Envelope Somewhere Else, Funny Guy



The word that springs to mind when you are seated at the Riviera Comedy Club: traditional. Hanging all over the walls surrounding the club are framed black-and-white publicity shots of the hundreds of aspiring comics who have passed through over the years. On the Spartan stage there is an upholstered stool, a little round table with a bottle of water, and of course, a microphone stand. The banner behind the stage also brings the point home: "Las Vegas Original Comedy Showcase."


Mostly the audience that is filling in for the first of two shows on a recent Friday night has no idea who is performing. They are not comedy aficionados. In fact, none of the comics performing tonight are well-known outside of comedy circles: John Wessling, Tess Drake and Johnny Dark. It doesn't matter; the room is full for both shows. It is an audience that wants to be entertained and laugh.


Steve Schirripa has been with this particular room since it opened as The Improv in 1986 (The Improv has since moved to Harrah's).


"I ran the room. I was the manager. I didn't start booking it until 1995," says Schirripa, better-known these days for his role on The Sopranos.


"Comedy wasn't that big back then. But the entertainment directors and the corporations realized it doesn't cost much to hire comics: that it was just a microphone and an opening act. For the price of a free lounge act you have a show that can make money."


In other words, a comedy club could generate revenue, whereas a lounge band was an expenditure. The appeal of comedy clubs has only increased as the casinos moved from the concept of entertainment as a loss-leader, meant to bring people in to gamble, to the idea that shows should turn a profit, too. In addition to the Riviera, there is the The Improv at Harrah's, The Comedy Stop at the Tropicana, Sandy Hackett's Comedy Club at the Greek Isles and Laugh Trax at Palace Station. Though more expensive than a lounge, clubs are still a much cheaper ticket than going to a showroom. Admission to the Riviera Comedy Club—at $17.95—is about half the cost of the cheapest seat for George Wallace. So even as the showrooms turned away from stand-up and toward production shows like Cirque du Soleil, which use spectacle to justify their high ticket prices, the clubs have continued to thrive. Even after the stand-up boom of the '80s went bust in the rest of the country about a decade ago, Vegas clubs thrived and became an increasingly important place for comics trying to make a living.


"Comedy in Vegas is better than in the rest of the country," Schirripa says. "This is really the only place left where a comic can make a decent living for a week's work. In the early- and mid-'80s, comics were making $3,000-$4,000 a week. Across the country, they are no longer making that kind of money. But in Vegas, I know the Trop, the Improv, Palace Station and us still pay pretty well. Comics can make much more money in Vegas than other places."


Still, even getting work here does not mean living large. These days, the threadbare rewards of stand-up is one of the most common themes running through routines. John Wessling, the opening comic at the Riviera, tells this story:


"My dad will call me up and help me write a new joke. He called me up last week, and he was like, 'Yeah, boy, why don't you tell a joke about a kid who owes his dad 30,000 goddamn dollars for college he don't do shit with? All he does is sleep until noon, smoke dope and beat off like a Howler monkey all day. Why don't you use that in your act, you funny little bastard?' Did my dad call me a bastard? He can't even spell irony."


When Wessling's jokes move into more graphic sexual descriptions, it is clear looking around the room that for comics there is another price to pay for working here: Vegas audiences have little interest in envelope-pushing comedy. The audience is diverse, many—though not all—older. A few wear ID badges from the National Organization for Women (NOW) convention that just happens to be going on at the Riviera. Others look more like the Hawaiian-shirt good-time crew. When Wessling leaves the stage after a particularly filthy joke and comedienne Tess Drake comes out, she looks at an older lady whose jaw is still hanging: "John has got issues, don't he? That was too much information, huh, Ma?"


But Drake, a black woman who refers to herself as "juicy," has her own problems with the audience when she turns to the usually safe comic subject of differences between the genders.


"But I am not really a worker per se. I ain't never really cared about work. I blame that on the feminists. They the reason why we working. Oh, hell, yes! I don't know who put their asses in charge. But ladies, I hope you realize we could be at home resting right now if it weren't for their asses. I could be down there with you all, just chillin'. But oh, no! I got to work. Bullshit. They got to go around burning bras, 'equal rights, equal rights. We want to work as hard as men do.' No the hell we don't. I want to stay home and rest up for my next shopping expedition."


This has the Hawaiian-shirt crowd rolling in the aisles, but the NOW conventioneers seem significantly less taken with it. Buddy Hackett used to say, "funny is funny," but that isn't always the case.


Particularly, perhaps, in a time of divisive war. The comics don't mention Iraq and terrorism at all. The only politician mentioned the entire night at the Riviera Comedy Club is Bill Clinton, and that's in a nonpartisan sex joke. This isn't an accident.


"A political comic making a statement will work great in LA, New York or Chicago," Schirripa says. "But in Vegas, you got to keep it light. For the most part these people are on vacation, and they want to have a good time, and they are coming to laugh. I don't need comics that are too hip for the room. You get a lot of stand-ups that are so hip—they are out of New York or whatever, and they have obscure references—and that doesn't work in Las Vegas. The other comics might laugh, but the audience that comes to the Riviera is the one that watches TV. That's a sitcom audience. They don't want to go too deep. They don't want to get so enthralled on every word of a comic. They want to talk to their boyfriend, girlfriend or husband, and then go right back to the act and not miss a beat."


Schirripa also points out that another drawback of Las Vegas is that, unlike at traditional comedy clubs, there is no room to nurture local or untested talent:


"One thing about Vegas: These aren't open-mike nights. You got to be ready. I am not using amateurs. If you make it to the Riviera Comedy Club or to the Tropicana, you got to be a pro, and you got to prepared to handle yourself. You got to be on top of your game here. You got to be prepared."




Lesson 3 (For Aspiring Comics)

Except for the Occasional Bar Gig, Locals Need Not Apply




Prepared. A pro. Top of your game. These concepts don't come to mind much while sitting at Davyo's Open Mic Comedy Showcase, which takes place every Saturday night at Norma Jean's on Decatur (soon to be renamed A.J's Bar). Though scheduled to start at 10 p.m., on a recent Saturday Davyo got things going closer to 11:


"We have a plethora of comics going tonight. Some of them are going to suck, and some of them are going to suck not so bad. So if you are sitting there watching, and there's some comic up on stage that's just sucking out your will to live and you just can't f--king stand the guy ... stick around because five minutes later another comic will get up and do the same thing to you all over again. By the way, we are taping tonight. So if anyone wants a tape of their act, talk to Colleen on the camera. She has a really nice digital camera. So you can get a really bitchin' tape of yourself to show to all the big promoters and stuff and get your HBO special on its way."


The first comic up is a tall and heavyset man in his 30s, introduced as Ken. Ken has a beer in one hand and a notepad in the other. He makes frequent use of both. He opens: "I am a victim of a cloning experiment. They used the DNA of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Segal and Hank Hill."


Among these comics, though, the war is hardly taboo; it is topic one, even if that doesn't make the jokes any better. Here is one Ken offered after consulting his pad: "I recently inherited an oil well. So now I am going to be a card-carrying member of OPEC. That entails some serious responsibilities. So, ah, one of my responsibilities is to, um, recruit suicide bombers."


There are more than a dozen comics and an improv troupe still to go. Actually, not all of them are bad. Some also aren't amateurs and a few have performed at comedy clubs around the country. The best of them, like Davyo himself, are every bit as funny as the ones at the Riviera. The biggest difference is the choice of material. Davyo, for example, frequently tells jokes about the war. "Over in Iraq when you date somebody, it is bound to be a one-night stand, because when you call them up the next day, like, they're dead."


And:


"I love watching these people in Iraq jumping up and down in the desert chanting, 'Allah loves us.' And they are standing in this burned-down, bombed-out country ... I am watching this thinking, Looks like you pissed him off a bit. I've got a Big Gulp Coke and cable TV with free porno. It looks like my God loves me more."


Davyo knows that jokes like this keep him out of clubs like the Riviera's.


"The comedy clubs in Las Vegas don't like talking about religion and politics. They don't want to hear that stuff. They want comics who aren't going to upset people. They want to appeal to that Midwestern mentality. I understand their point. I totally do."


But it was seeing a cable show with the late political comedian Bill Hicks that inspired Davyo to try stand-up. "I came home one night about six years ago and flipped on the TV, and there was Bill Hicks on HBO. I said, 'That's what I need to be doing.' It completely changed my life from then on. I started to write comedy. I started to pursue it."


Trying to learn the craft, approach and techniques of stand-up and improvisation, Davyo quickly became frustrated with the paucity of opportunities in Las Vegas. "I found nothing here in town. I had to go to LA to find a comedy workshop to sign up for. I drove to LA and back every Monday night for eight months straight to do this comedy workshop. When I graduated the class, I come back to Vegas and I am writing all these jokes and I want to do something, but there is no place to perform." And it wasn't just his political humor. "It is totally impossible for a local comic to get into the clubs here. "


Now, after six years in the business, Davyo can count on one hand the number of times he's done it. "I performed at the Comedy Stop at the Trop back when they had a once-a-year competition for locals. About 100 comics entered, and I won first, which was nice. I headlined once at Laugh Trax at Palace Station, but that was a special locals night with a radio station. I did a couple things at the Comedy Zone when it was at Casino Royale."


On this night, about 75 people have come to Norma Jean's to see the open-mike comedy. But Davyo says that this does not mean that other bars will follow.


"Video-poker machines totally destroy things for comedy in this town, because very few bar owners want to take the chance of having someone disrupt or upset their video-poker players. And they are winning from doing it, too. They can make more money from one person sitting there playing a video-poker machine than they can from selling 100 drinks. In other cities, they need to put entertainment like comedy in the bar to get people to come buy the drinks. Here they give away the drinks to get people to play video poker. So there are very few bar owners in town who are interested in taking a chance on entertainment. Comedy can offend people. It is a really difficult situation."


Naturally, Davyo hopes one day the casino comedy clubs will be more supportive of a local scene and imaginative in allowing more edgy comedians—like him—to perform. He has an idea about how to get that started.


"They could have special shows or a late-late-night show that they book as being controversial or provocative or politically challenging. Then they can offer something besides this got-to-please-everybody humor. I think it would go over great if they bill it as something that could be controversial and could piss you off. They'd probably attract business that way."


So far, he admits, there has been no interest from the comedy clubs.




Lesson 4 (For Sketch Comics)

The Future Can Be Improvised!




At the Flamingo, a few dozen slot machines away from George Wallace's showroom, next to the bathroom where Wallace's patrons are directed, sits the far-tinier Second City Theatre. Still, to have Second City on the Strip at all is a bit of a surprise. There are no rules for comedy in Las Vegas, of course, but if there were, Second City would break most of them. Hipsterisms galore proliferate in the skits and jokes, and the show doesn't shy away from politics.


"In the show we have a skit with a politically incorrect senator who keeps making racial slurs and bigoted remarks," says Brooke Schoening, supervising producer. "We have another sketch about President Bush going after a simple resident of Wisconsin, claiming he's hiding weapons of mass destruction. To do political humor is something that has always been a part of Second City."


Of course, this means that the tourists who go to see Second City know what to expect, and are less likely to be offended by political humor than folks going to a generic comedy club expecting to laugh. There is only one concession Second City has made in terms of political humor, Schoening says. "It is typical of Second City to do political humor on the city and state. But because Las Vegas is so full of tourists, we don't do any local political satire. Just because most of our audience doesn't know who our city councilmen are."


Recently, the legendary Chicago troupe's Las Vegas franchise has been doing better than ever. So well, in fact, that it has expanded to introduce a new show: The Second City Presents Scriptless. Unlike the regular Second City show, Scriptless is entirely improvised. What makes this more remarkable is that Scriptless makes regular use of Second City's understudies, many of whom are locals hired by Second City from open auditions.


Just before the start of a recent Sunday night performance to a full house, Stage Manager Shatha Hicks gives final instructions to one of those understudies, Andrea Coli, the wife of a local minister, who recently had her first child. "On the Dating Game, Andrea, have you been able to look over that stuff?"


"No," Andrea says.


"After the skit, you are responsible to take the chairs to the right."


"OK."


Coli moved to Las Vegas in December without a thought that she soon would be performing in a show on the Strip.


"I moved here with my husband. I worked in youth ministries where we used to live, but the church here didn't have an opportunity for me. So when a friend mentioned Second City auditions, I thought, why not? In the churches I've been in, there has always been drama, like, five-minute sketches involving the topic we're dealing with, and I had always been involved in that. I was floored when they hired me to do this. I am still cracking up when I pull into the parking structure."


Coli says her religious views have not interfered with her ability to keep up with Second City's occasionally racy material.


"I am not a very blue person. I don't go there to try to be funny. But here they encourage me in that; a lot of the Second City teachers will tell you going for the f-word is the easy laugh."


Audience suggestions, however, are another matter. That night on stage, during a rap skit, Coli must make a rhyme, and she chooses the word "porn"; thanks to a crowd suggestion, she engages in an extended joke about a colonoscopy. She is hilarious. But the next day, at a rehearsal, she is still thinking about it.


"That crowd was in the gutter. You say the first thing that comes to mind, and I said 'porn.'" She blushes slightly. "It is a show, and not necessarily a reflection of my heart."


Harder for Coli than the occasional raunchy joke or obscenity is the staggering commitment that it takes even to be an alternate at Second City. It is, of course, the most important thing in the lives of all her fellow cast members.


"For me, it is hard to come to a rehearsal every Wednesday night. Everyone else in the group, of course, is like, let's have a three-hour rehearsal! Let's go until midnight! One time I left rehearsal early, and the next time everyone made comments like, 'You are not going to leave early again, are you?' For the other people this is THE priority."


Josh Zehner, 25, is typical of the other understudies. He also gets to perform in Scriptless. He arrives an hour early for rehearsal and in his free time has been reading about the history of Second City. By day Zehner works as a clown at Circus Circus. He has always wanted to make it in comedy, yet until now has been frustrated about how to break in. He tried stand-up but didn't take to it. "It was lonely. I missed performing with people. I like working in a group."


For now, in addition to being an understudy in Second City, Zehner still works at Circus Circus. But despite holding down two jobs, he feels a sense of career momentum. And he knows exactly what path he wants to follow.


"I would love to have a full-time position at Second City. Then Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, and character work in movies, sitcoms—whatever I can make happen. That's the goal."


Alumni from Second City in Vegas have already wound up on Saturday Night Live, a fact Zehner is very aware of. But to get there requires hard work. With his ambitions to fill his day, Zehner is single with little time to date. But unlike many young entertainers, he is earning a living in show business. He is clearly proud of this. "I bought my first condo. Comedy paid for it." But it also makes Zehner a bit nervous. "They call Las Vegas the golden handcuffs, where you make enough money that you do OK, but you kind of get stuck here."


Thinking about George Wallace's show just a few yards away, Zehner notes that Wallace was a success before coming to Las Vegas. "Nobody comes to Las Vegas to make it. You've made it, and then you come to Las Vegas. Second City is the one opportunity I can think of in Las Vegas where you can actually start training, and if you are good, go on to stardom. In comedy, it is the one route out of Las Vegas."

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