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February 10, 2022

A comic takes on the toughest room in the toughest town for standup ... and kills it | World, meet Nevada, at the online Dam Short Film Fest | What the world needs now is empathy, sweet empathy

THE NEWS CYCLE may not give us much to laugh about at the moment, but Butch Bradley is currently killing it in the comedy business. His nearly four-year residency at L.A. Comedy Club in The Strat was recently upgraded to a bigger room. His standup special, Butch Bradley: From Las Vegas, was released last year to positive reviews. In Desert Companion’s Best of the City issue, we crowned him Best Comedian. And soon, he’ll appear in Reagan, an upcoming biopic starring Dennis Quaid as the former president. We caught up with the high-energy Atlantic City native to talk about tough rooms, the art of working the crowd, and why Vegas is a uniquely challenging place in the standup world.

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When you started the residency, did you think it would last this long? It’ll be four years in August.
When I first came in, I was the fourth 10 p.m. headliner they tried with a residency at L.A. Comedy Club. They all had difficulty, and I know why they didn’t survive. It’s a tough room and there was no 10 p.m. established audience. You go in and there’s like 13 people and the area wasn’t being redeveloped. Everyone told me I was crazy (for taking the spot). All my friends told me to go back to L.A. I took a roll of the dice. I was tired of the road. I’d been touring all over the road for years. That room beat me up like 100 times more than The Comedy Store ever did. It made me a better comic. I developed an audience and got better. I got magical things out of that dirty little room.

Like what?
One night, there was 18 people in the room, and the film director Sean McNamara was in the room because he was in town doing a documentary on Doyle Brunson. He doesn’t know I’m in the back, ready to throw up because there’s so few people in this brutally hard room. I shook it off. I went out and had a great set. I got a special out of it from him. That was a miracle that no one would have ever predicted was in that upstairs room. Four months later, he put me in the Reagan movie.

How long was your initial run slated for?
I thought I was going to get a 60-day rest from the road. I would catch my breath from touring and be paid from one location for two months. But the numbers started to grow. I’m an improvisational comic. That’s how I survive the room. I do a new show every night. I do 50 percent new stuff that I run through the room. If I was okay at it when I started, this room snapped me and made me crazy enough to be able to pull it off on a 90-percent basis. It made me better at it.

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All of a sudden, I was here a year, two years. The room got nice. The Strat got new owners and dumped $250 million into the rebrand. Comics visiting were like, “Whoa, Butch. How could you have predicted this?” Then COVID hits and we’re the first comedy club that’s open in the whole world for a short period of time. The numbers grew, and we were jamming, and now we’re rolling into a new room. And I just re-signed my contract for a long period of time for a much higher salary. It’s been incredible. Vegas has always been good to its entertainers, and I’m blessed.

Why is Vegas a good fit for you in particular?
Atlantic City and Vegas are like twin sisters, but Vegas is the hot tatted one. She’s like, “You got this. It’s early. It’s 3 a.m. Get in the game. Come on.” It’s good for me because there’s actually a community here, a small-town feel. I go to a park every day with my dogs. I watch people ride their horses by me. I see peacocks. I can’t explain it. These could be hallucinations at this point, since we have legalized marijuana. It’s got a community side to it which I discovered by living here and that balance refueled me going on stage every night. 

Vegas has a reputation as a harder town for comedians than other towns.
100 percent.

Because?
It’s literally the best talent in the whole world. People talk about Broadway. People talk about London. People talk about other parts of New York or Los Angeles. You are delusional. I’m a non-celebrity resident headliner, and I’m pretty damn good at my job, but when I look down The Strip, I’m humbled. There are murderers on every single corner with every artistic background you can imagine. … So if you don’t have the goods, Vegas will walk you to the airport within 10 minutes.

Now, add onto that, in the comedy community, L.A. Comedy Club is considered a harder room in Las Vegas than most of the other rooms.
It is. It might be one of the hardest rooms I’ve ever done next to The Comedy Store's Belly Room, and this is a little harder.

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Why?
It feels like a little downtown Manhattan room. Our audiences are culturally diverse. Like in Los Angeles and New York, they come in to see great comedy. And, because I have received a little bit of attention, people come in to watch me challengingly. They go, “Alright. Let’s see it. And we want to see something different.”

Locals have seen Chappelle. They’ve seen Bill Burr. But they’re like, “Let’s take a look at this Butch Bradley guy. Maybe we’ll be magically surprised.” And they come in and if you don’t have it, they’re not coming back. And they’re going to tell each other.

You want to know what the greatest shows are in the city? Call a local. Just dial 702 and any other numbers that follow and say, “What’s a good show?” and someone will tell you.

Is there an adjustment going from the intimacy of the current L.A. Comedy Club to the broadness of the new one, where seating is almost doubled?
Did you ever see the scene in Rocky where Mick takes him in the parking lot and makes him chase the chicken? That old room had me chasing the chicken around the room and I got good at catching the chicken. That room prepared me for any room in the world. I have 20-plus years of experience in all sorts of environments — the Middle East, television, everywhere. I am just good enough to knock one over the wall.

What does it mean to you that whenever you perform, there seems to be a wall of comics in the back of the room watching you?
I notice every time. It makes my heart race a little. I try to not think about it too much because I watched other comedians like that. It’s an incredible compliment. I respect the stage. I respect Las Vegas. I respect those comedians who come watch me.

I get up every day and do stuff I don’t want to do. I go to the gym. I run my dogs. I talk to God. I refuse medication so I can hear the voices. And I get up on stage and try and murder every night. And maybe they see that. Occasionally, when I put something together from the voices in the back of my head, it comes out magical. And Vegas is probably the only place that would let me do that on a daily basis. It’s a big honor to have them there.

Why do some comics look down on crowd work?
What I do, I’m not saying, "Hello, where are you from?" I’m honestly running my own day, my own life, my own years of experience and stories, and running it through the audience like stream of consciousness, like we did when we were children. I go forward.

When we’re adults, we stop. I dialogue a little with you. You mention you took your daughter roller skating. I run into roller skating. I run into being an uncle. I run into this. I keep running until I put some improvisational diamonds together, building, right before us, a village of connected improv that we only did fluidly as children.

A lot of people look down on crowd work because they can’t comprehend it. Humbly, they can’t do it. There’s only a handful of guys I see do it well. A lot of other people think they’re doing it, but they should know by the lack of laughter that they’re not doing it. And they shouldn’t try.

What should we know about your part in Reagan?
I’m playing one of the Continentals. Ronald Reagan went to The Frontier Casino when he couldn’t get an acting gig. His wife said, “Let’s take this gig at The Frontier.” He said, “No way. People go to Vegas to die.” Back then, it wasn’t a cool thing.

He takes this deal at The Frontier and he’s with the Four Continentals. I’m the guy with the speaking role — four schticky guys. I get to the set in Guthrie, Oklahoma. It is the biggest Hollywood set I’ve ever been on in my life. It was mind-blowing. Dennis Quaid and Penelope Anne Miller are being followed by actors playing Secret Service, but it looks so real.

I get in there. There’s about 150 extras dressed up like they were in the 1950s in this theater. I’m on stage. They cut me to one line. But I am so thankful, so incredibly blessed, I don’t care. I’m just gonna deliver my line and get the hell out of there.

And then Sean McNamara goes, “We’re gonna have you and Dennis improv for a couple of hours.” I go, “Sean, I have one line.” He says, “Yeah, we’re throwing that out. I saw what you did in Vegas.” … I stopped and I paused, and I just felt a standup comedy moment. I thought, "If anybody could pull this off, it would be a standup comedian because every night is so difficult."

Dennis Quaid walks in, enters the room from the back of the theater and he yells, “Hey, Butch. Can you believe they didn’t let us rehearse for two weeks?” He gets closer to the stage and leans in and goes, “What do you think?” I go, “I’ll follow you wherever we go.” He goes, “We got this.” I go, “Okay.”

We literally improv’ed for three effin’ hours. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. Dennis Quaid was the kindest, coolest guy. Obviously, his skills of improv and acting — it was like I was following around Peter Pan. He was trying to teach me to fly, and I could get off the stage a little bit, but I was like, “How are you doing that?” It was incredible.

Do you see more acting in your future?
I’m up for another project with Sean. I want to have a show here in Vegas because it’s in my blood — Atlantic City, Vegas. I want to have a big show of my own, like I do now, like Carrot Top or more like Rodney Dangerfield had, continue to act, audition and grow and tour. And make more specials. That’s what I want to do .

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FOR NEVADA FILMMAKERS, the Dam Short Film Festival in Boulder City is an important milestone in making a mark on the local film scene. DSFF has been an essential supporter of Nevada filmmaking for nearly 20 years now, and members of the Nevada film community gather every year in Boulder City to appreciate each other’s work and find new collaborators. For the second year in a row, though, DSFF is being held virtually, and what was once a local event has now become global.

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The Nevada filmmakers participating in this year’s festival will have the chance for their movies to be seen by viewers anywhere in the world, although they’re still most excited about DSFF as a local event. “I always have gone to the festival, and just dreamed of one day being able to have a film show there,” says filmmaker and UNLV film professor Brett Levner, who has two projects in this year’s festival. “I'm so sad that this is the year that we’re doing it online, but at the same time just honored to be part of it. I think it’s the best festival in Nevada.”

This year’s schedule includes a dedicated Nevada block, as well as locally made films in other sections. Levner has films in both the Nevada block and the music video block, both made in collaboration with her UNLV students. Windsor Park: The Sinking Streets is a project Levner oversaw for her documentary production class, with students involved in every capacity. “I would be the one mentoring them and teaching them, and having the final say when things happen,” she explains. “As a class we would decide which direction to go in.”

Windsor Park: The Sinking Streets spotlights the Windsor Park neighborhood in North Las Vegas, where geological factors have caused streets to sink and crack, and many houses have been abandoned. Professors at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law brought the story to Levner’s attention, and students submitted proposals for the film. The finished product premiered at UNLV, has been admitted to four film festivals, and will be submitted to the Student Emmy Awards. “When we did show it to the law school, they were kind of stunned,” says Levner, who’s credited as executive producer. “I think they were pleasantly surprised about how strong it was.”

Levner also worked with UNLV students as editors on her music video for local singer-songwriter Cam Calloway’s song “China Blue” (right). Levner and Calloway first connected four years ago via the Las Vegas Film Festival’s Music Video Lab, which paired them up to make a video for Calloway’s song “Superstition,” and they were eager to work together again. “He had this concept that was sort of a sci-fi look,” Levner says. “It’s going to have a vibe, a feel, but it’s not going to have a traditional storyline.” Working with video installation artist Brett Bolton and cinematographer Robert Machado, Levner realized Calloway’s vision on a tiny budget.

Dealing with tiny budgets is a familiar challenge for local filmmakers working on shorts. “We did almost everything in a week, and then having to turn it around, shoot it, edit it,” says filmmaker Alberto Triana of his film Novenario (left). Triana, who’s had multiple projects in past festivals as a crew member, is making his DSFF debut as a director with Novenario, which is inspired by his own personal experience following the death of his grandmother. In the film, the protagonist (played by Amanda Guardado) feels disconnected from her immigrant family, and especially her late grandfather, because she grew up not speaking Spanish. “I just needed to get something off my chest, and kind of work through a lot of these emotions that I was going through with the loss and everything, and where I was in my life, and who I am as a person,” Triana says.

Anais Thomassian, who returns to DSFF after having a short in the 2019 festival, also drew on personal experience for her film Crackle (below). Thomassian’s film stars Edie Foster as a little girl who discovers an uncomfortable secret about her mother, which leads to an abstract representation of the loss of innocence. “There is a point when something happens to us, and it can be small things that kind of add up, or one huge thing that can change us and can make us grow up,” Thomassian says. “I was fascinated by that and wanted to make it so that it’s represented in my film as a character. I wanted to have her be really innocent in the beginning and have this sort of change in the end that represents that moment.”

The character who represents the young girl’s change in Crackle is a merman played by Voki Kalfayan (like Thomassian, a former star of Strip show Absinthe), adding a level of comedic absurdity to the story. “At this point in my life, I like stepping out of the camera,” Thomassian says of her shift from performing to filmmaking. “I love being able to just give to the performers and let them shine.”

Playing in the horror program, UNLV MFA graduate Kyle Ensrude’s film Papa Voodoo also deals with a rite of passage for a child, albeit in a much more gruesome fashion. Emmanuel Chukwurah (below) plays a young boy who feels mistreated by his older brother, and resorts to some dark magic

to get revenge. “I’ve always really been into old fairy tales and stuff like that, and that’s what this is modeled after,” Ensrude says. “Those folk stories are a lot darker than the versions that we tend to watch and read about today.”

Teaming with powerhouse local producer May May Luong, Ensrude recruited a family of actors — a mother and two sons — from community theater group Broadway in the Hood to play his film’s central family. He says they were “amazing to work with,” because rehearsals could go on at home. Like Thomassian, he found it rewarding to work with child actors, even if he occasionally had to bribe his star with pizza. “I’ve actually worked with kids before, and I find that it’s a very fantastic experience. I have no problems with it ever.”

Other Nevada films in this year’s DSFF include, in the Nevada program, writer-director Hisonni Mustafa’s drama Blunt and the addiction documentary Road to Recovery, produced by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services; and, in the sci-fi program, filmmaker Joel Martinez’s Til Death Due Us Part. The filmmakers may not have the chance to gather in person this year, but DSFF remains a cornerstone of the local community, especially under difficult circumstances. As Thomassian says, “To have something to look forward to in these times really helps the mind.”

Feb. 10-14, $14 per program, $140 all-inclusive passes, damshortfilm.org

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ON A SATURDAY morning in February, more than 100 health care students shuffle single-file — in almost martial formation — into UNLV’s North Gym. They stand quietly in rows for their morning briefing. If you couldn’t tell by the yellow pamphlets and silicone infants, today’s topic won’t be cell-cycle regulation or biomolecular pathways. Rather, today’s lesson will be an exercise in privilege. Called the Spring 2022 Poverty Simulation, it will be the first time many of these students will experience an invisible, yet insurmountable, burden weighing on one out of seven Las Vegas residents. 

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I make my way to a nondescript corner of the nearly 50-year-old gym and watch as a platoon of faculty shepherd the bright-eyed twentysomethings into different stations. Each student is assigned a different role —an 80-year-old widower on social security, or a single mother on unemployment, for instance. Although I’m intrigued, I can’t help but speculate on the value of what I’m witnessing. How can the lived experience of someone in poverty be distilled into a two-and-a-half-hour exercise?

Yet nursing student Miranda Achabal says she feels it’s a good representation of what people experience. “Growing up, my family struggled a lot,” Achabal says. “We were unable to afford our prescriptions because we needed food, shelter, and our basic needs met first.”

The simulation works by having the budding DMDs, RNs, and MDs rotate through a litany of chairs and desks, each representing a different everyday situation. Like real life, each participant is dealt a hand with varying degrees of burden — some able to comfortably support themselves by working two shifts; others struggling to raise a family alone on a minimum-wage salary. Although I understand it’s nothing more than an empathy-building exercise, some things I witnessed did affect me. What hurt the most was watching a single mother go to jail for neglecting her daughter because she couldn’t make time to leave work and pick her up from daycare. How does something like this happen in the richest country in the world? I wonder. 

Student feedback following the workshop drives home that an exact portrait of hardship isn’t really the goal. Oftentimes, healthcare professionals come from privileged backgrounds, so they lack empathy for the struggles of the working poor. More than two-thirds of students who graduate from the nation’s 155 accredited medical schools come from households in the top 40 percent of yearly income, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. This can lead to misunderstandings in patient-provider interactions.

“I was talking to my students, and (they would tell me that) they'll give a patient instructions, and the patient won’t adhere to those instructions,” explains David Capelli, Associate Dean of the UNLV School of Dental Medicine. “But they never ask the next question: Why not? And a lot of times it's because (the patients) can't afford it. Imagine having to make decisions about purchasing a toothbrush or a loaf of bread for your family. Those are decisions (some) people have to make in life. We don't often realize that because we don't live in that environment.”

Still, given current income inequality, there’s an aspect to empathy education that feels like putting a band-aid on an infected wound. “If you're born in poverty, you're stuck, and it's really, really hard to get out of it,” dental student Spencer Coleman says. “(Today) I learned a little bit about just how hard it is for people to get out of that hole and survive … because the systems that (the poor) have to work through are all intertwined.”

As for those deeper problems, Capelli believes the solutions lie in legislation: “We have to look at systemic change, starting with putting a dental benefit in Medicare and assuring that individual adults on Medicaid have access to dental care. We have to start thinking about these things in different ways, and we have to prioritize what we're going to fund. We really have to say this is a priority for people.” 

If the simulator succeeds at anything, it’s showing me and the students I talked to that poverty doesn’t come from a lack of willpower, work ethic, or drive to succeed. Rather, it’s the result of circumstances that are often outside the control of those affected. Things might actually change if the ones who call the shots were, if only for a short while, forced to walk a mile in the shoes of the indigent

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Photos and art: Butch Bradley courtesy Butch Bradley; Dam Short Film Festival courtesy filmmaker; Alberto Triana from the film Novenario (behind the scenes); poverty simulation by Ganny Belloni

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