Thursday, July 21, 2011

The State of Comedy in Las Vegas

On a recent episode of Louie (which is probably the best show on television right now) the slightly fictionalized version of Louis CK (who is basically just Louis a few year back in his career) accepts a job performing stand-up in a very sad lounge in an Atlantic City casino owned by Donald Trump. His first show is a disaster, with a crowd that evolves from indifferent to hostile. Louie ends up arguing with the audience, and he decides to quit the soul-crushing casino gig. The episode ends with an amazing scene where he visits Joan Rivers (who is headlining at the casino's large theater) in her hotel room, where she gives him some old-school, pragmatic showbiz advice about never quitting and being thankful that he gets to tell jokes for a living, calling comedy their "calling"  and convincing Louie to apologize and ask the casino manager for his job back.

It's a great episode featuring a true comedy icon (who has reemerged recently because of the terrific documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.) But the part that interested me and is relevant to this blog (other than the fact that it gives me the opportunity to make it clear that if you're not watching Louie, you're out of your mind) is the scene where our hero quits the casino gig. Standing in the back of a busy kitchen where workers are prepping giant platters of shrimp to be served at buffet frequented by the same type of dull-minded consumers that Louie offended and battled with at his sad performance, the comedian talks with the casino manager about the gig. The manager tries to get him to promise to not act hostile to the crowd or to criticize the casino, and asks him why he can't just keep his mouth shut. Louie shrugs, tells him "I don't know," but obviously feels like he can't back down, that he's standing for some principals he can't actually define. But the key part for me was when Louie asks the manager why he can't play in the big theater; he can draw thousands of fans to similar-sized theaters in cities like Boston or Chicago, so why not Atlantic City. The manager tells him it's because he's a "comic's comic type" and that type of comedian doesn't play with Atlantic City audiences; he was hired to give people something to do between stops at the gaming tables.

The manager was right, of course, and it reminded me of the comedy scene in Las Vegas. While Vegas is certainly not Atlantic City (from what I can gather, A.C. is a sad place frequented by desperate people gamble all their money away on the faint hopes of winning some of it back, while Vegas has the shiny themed buildings and nightclubs filled with young people and good restaurants that mask the fact that at its core its a sad place where desperate people gamble all their money away on the faint hopes of winning some of it back; so basically A.C. is a more honest version of Vegas in a lot of ways, but also a lot sadder on the surface and less fun in general), Sin City has similar issues with its comedy scene.

Las Vegas has growing food, music, and art scenes, but they've got a ways to go when it comes to comedy, especially in comparison to L.A., New York, Chicago, Austin, or basically any other urban sprawl in America. It's a town where old fashioned insult comedians like Bobby Slayton (the "Pit-Bull of comedy") or mom-approved favorites like Rita Rudner are signed for long-term residencies (no insult to either of these veterans who do what they do exceedingly well), and there is little to no room for edgy up-coming comedy.

Vegas is filled with tourists from all over the country looking for something to do for a couple hours while they take a break from gambling, and they want to spend their cash on something that's guaranteed to entertain them. This is not a town where people will spend money on something experimental or new, or one that could support the inventive comedy happening on the stages of the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theaters in LA and New York every night of the week (Second City had a show going in Vegas that closed down after only a couple years) Sure, Marc Maron (host of the truly great WTF Podcast) performed in Vegas recently, but it was at The Playboy Comedy Club in The Palms, not exactly the natural habitat of an alt-comedy pioneer like Maron. The Playboy Comedy Club is essentially everything you'd expect it to be, a place where a big part of the draw is that the current playmate of the month takes the stage between comics. We all know how funny Playboy models are and how much they belong in a comedian showcase, right? The Sin City Comedy Show in The V Theater at Planet Hollywood's Miracle Mile Shops is similar, mixing stand-up comedy acts with sexy burlesque dancers. Most towns don't use sexy girls or other gimmicks to tempt people into seeing a comedy show, but that's the state of the scene in Vegas.

Vegas is a good town to see super-pro iconic veteran comedians perform. Because the resorts can afford to pay for A-List headliners, Jerry Seinfeld shows off his chops every few months, while Chris Rock and Eddie Izzard have killed at Caesars Palace in recent years. But if you want to see an emerging voice working out new and potentially controversial material, than Sin City is not the place to look. It's another example of how the danger and edge Vegas claims in their marketing is just that; market-tested and advertised, but not truly dangerous or edgy.

There's a reason that a cook is fussing with a giant plate of shrimp behind Louie while he talks about what kind of comedy he wants to do vs. what kind of comedy works in a casino-lounge setting; people come to Vegas and Atlantic City looking for mass-produced shrimp in their comedy, not an expertly crafted meal of guffaws. That's why only extremely popular, proven talents draw crowds while other comedy showcases rely on gimmicks like showgirls or burlesque dancers to get an audience who will probably not know the headliner even if they're fairly well known in the comedy community.

But there's hope; Vegas was once known only for buffets and cheap steaks, yet it's evolved into a foodie haven with restaurants from some of the most famous chefs in the world. The same thing can happen to the comedy scene as the city continues to grow its identity from merely a cheesy tourist spot to a city with a thriving young arts community.

But in the meantime, Joan Rivers is pretty damned hilarious.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post.
    This gives idea how lively and talented these performers in most of the shows in Atlantic City.

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