For aspiring comedians, breaking in means open-mic nights, small audiences, and jokes that don’t work — but at least you’re not alone
It’s an old comedy club trick: Set the thermostat low. Make the room a little chilly, and it keeps the audience alert. But on this December night at ReBar in the Arts District, it’s the opposite. They’re lighting a heat lamp on the back patio. It’s 50 degrees outside, and Gus Langley, the host of Tuesday open-mic nights, is wearing a stocking cap and scarf.
James Johnson. Photography by Lucky Wenzel.
But screw the cold, Langley declares (in so many words) as he opens the show. “You gotta be tough,” adds James Johnson, the 20th of 22 comedians on the sign-up sheet. He’s from Michigan and built like a defensive tackle. “If you can get on a stage, you’re naked in a way,” he adds. “You’re showing people exactly who you are. Coming out here and being physically cold is nothing. It just shows that people have drive.” Otherwise, he says, “You wouldn’t be out on a Tuesday night, cold, knowing you have work in the morning, trying to just get five minutes.”
This was Johnson’s second five minutes in as many nights. On Monday, he was at Dive Bar on Maryland Parkway. Dive Bar wasn’t a whole lot warmer than the ReBar patio, not with the front door propped open to vent the cigarette smoke and expedite the constant in-and-out flow to whatever other distractions were available in the parking lot.
Vincent Blackshear. Photography by Lucky Wenzel.
“Big James” is way down on the list, but his looming size becomes a running reference for those on before him. “My hand went right to my wallet when I saw you,” host Vincent Blackshear tells the room. Michael Robertson keeps it going in his set: “Big James says it’s okay to laugh. You’re like the dude from The Blind Side. I’ll adopt your ass.”
The banter all reinforces a sense of community among the standups at this level of the profession. “I feel like we comics, we kind of need this,” Big James says. “It’s therapeutic in a way. Just get everything out.”
REBAR. Photography by Lucky Wenzel.
Therapeutic is probably a good thing, since “we comics” is about the extent of the audience at either place. The second ReBar comedian, Evan Fonfa, even takes a poll: “Clap if you’re not a comic.” Only a few isolated friends and girlfriends respond. When ReBar started its comedy night in late 2017, “we didn’t even put numbers on the (sign-up) list. I was afraid we wouldn’t get more than 10 people,” says co-organizer and host John Gilligan. “Within a couple of months, we started capping it at 25.” Now, as many as 40 can show up.
Blackshear figures Las Vegas has at least two dozen fledgling standups who show up at two or three open mics each week. At his Dive Bar show, the open mic’ers and invited “features” (more experienced standups who do longer sets) reveal different levels of polish and confidence. Some read from their phones. Others basically talk to their friends from the stage. (Tom Garland recaps his week hosting at Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club: “‘When can I come back?’ ‘Probably never. That was a fluke.’”) No one is dressed up, just hoodies and street clothes, except for one guy who goes up in costumes. At the Dive Bar, Chris Waldeck does his set as a Jimmy Buffett-styled tourist stereotype he calls Florida Man. At ReBar, his outfit, stage demeanor, and some of the jokes change when he opts for short-sleeved, Revenge of the Nerds polyester: “People look at me and say I’m the guy that girls should never accept drinks from.”
“The more stages, the better,” says Byron Austin of places like Dive Bar. Photography by Lucky Wenzel.
“You can’t really bomb at an open mic. You’re just working on stuff,” Blackshear says. Some have the swagger, but no jokes. Others have random one-liners they can’t string together. Byron Austin is one of the few with both solid material and a relaxed persona. Since moving from Texas, he’s been hitting four or five open mics a week. “The more stages, the better,” he says. “If you can make comedians laugh, you’re probably doing something right.”
Still, the Dive Bar standups have to volley their jokes across an expanse of empty floor, to what Sam Lundstead calls “those sick, damaged comics sitting way in back.” And the wrap-around, Cheers-style bar in the back seems to be an opt-out zone. Add that to the constant traffic in and out of the open door, and by the time Austin goes up at nearly 11 p.m., few people seem dialed in.
Dive Bar’s isn’t the only open mic on a Monday. There are plenty of tables at the Backstop Sports Pub in Boulder City, where host Manfred Hein urges people to scoot up front to fill them. “You’re seeing, maybe, history in the making. I’m stoned, whatever,” says Hein, who exudes a Bill and Ted slacker vibe onstage. He makes the audience of maybe 35 engage him in a weekly “Town Hall,” yelling out whatever’s on their mind, giving him topics to riff on. Like Blackshear at the Dive Bar, Hein is a few steps higher on the comedy ladder than most of the performers and provides a necessary sense of control.
Backstop Monday isn’t technically an open-mic. There’s no sign-up sheet; Hein has to invite you. And the headliner at least gets paid nominal gas money for driving to Boulder City. Still, the lineup is not unlike an open-mic mixed bag. You might get the honed persona of John Campbell, offering a dark riff on his mom pausing a VHS of The Wizard of Oz to explain the Munchkin-hanging legend to his childhood self. Or you might get a squirm-inducing duo called Merrill and Marek, serving up wigs and Asian stereotypes that would surely have been offensive had both of them been close enough to the single microphone to be heard.
Nonetheless, the comics give the duo polite applause, and Hein puts a Band-aid on it: “We just need a microphone next time. That’d be good.” Offstage, he reflects, “I don’t think a five-minute weird set could completely take down a show. The features and the headliners, they’ll bring it all back.” He keeps the door open to newbies because “it just fascinates me to see someone go on for the first time.”
On this night, one young guy is up for his third attempt, reading half-formed observations about his family from scribbled notes. “If you follow the show each week, you’ll know we’re pretty much trying to build him,” Hein says. “We’re all trying to build a comedian together.”
You can find open mics and showcases all over the valley, from Noreen’s Cocktail Lounge on East Tropicana to Rick’s Rollin Smoke BBQ or the Eclipse movie theater Downtown. But it’s a big jump from any of them to the Strip. Casino-based comedy rooms, such as Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at the MGM Grand or the recently arrived Comedy Cellar at the Rio, tend to import road comics. Understandably, they don’t subject tourists to fledgling standups trying to find their comedic voice.
“We’ve got a lot of good talent in this town, and it’s time for the casinos to start paying attention to us,” says Bobby Wayne Stauts. He’s one of the few who have made the jump, at least to the two casino venues most often cited by the local comics: Hooter’s hotel-casino, and the L.A. Comedy Club at The Strat.
Stauts figures that he performed more than 500 sets in 2018, often by doing an early show at The Strat and then driving to Hooters. But, he says, “If these shows paid what they should? Oh, man, I’d be driving a car with air-conditioning. If I was an out-of-towner, they’d pay me three or four times as much money to come to town.”
Traci Skene is one of the few local faces you’ll see at the Comedy Cellar, though she was already a longtime club pro when she moved to Las Vegas seven years ago. “The ‘A clubs’ in town, a lot of time the three comics on the bill could headline anywhere,” she says. Still, it only took the Comedy Cellar a few months to book some of the Las Vegas-based veterans. “If for no other reason, you need them for emergencies,” Skene says. And local vets such as Dennis Blair and Kathleen Dunbar bring years of showroom polish to older audiences.
Hooters and The Strat offer cheaper tickets, skew to younger customers, and are “closer to say, a comedy club in a strip mall in Phoenix,” Skene notes. The one-mile distance from ReBar’s patio to The Strat is more easily bridged than it used to be, thanks to locals-stacked programming such as fast-rising Jozalyn Sharp’s The Filth Factory at the L.A. Comedy Club on select Saturdays. Those who run The Strat and Hooters operations “live locally and think locally,” Gilligan says. And if the three miles from the Dive Bar to the Brad Garrett club at the MGM still feels like a long way, “it’s all a good thing,” ReBar comedy host Blackshear says. “You don’t want everything all on the same level” in the casino-based clubs. “I don’t think you have a full comedy scene without (venues) that are accessible quickly, others that are accessible on an intermediate level, and others on an expert level.”
But none of the casino-based venues are actually a “club,” where people linger at the bar. Crowds are seated not long before the show and clear out when it’s over. No hanging out. “In some ways these (local) guys are at kind of a disadvantage, because they can’t just come hang out the way a new comic can in another city,” Skene says.
When open-mic’ers are segregated into the suburbs, “they play to the back of the room where the other comedians are, and go out of their way to amuse the comedians,” Skene says. “And that’s a totally different audience than amusing civilians. It’s one of the reasons why a lot of these comics don’t get any better.”
Pete Housley, who produces The Hilarious Seven (“7 Comics, 70 Minutes”) at Hooters, agrees the open-mic nights “teach them some bad habits.” But he and comedian partner John Hilder are finding better people on the local scene than they did two years ago, when they scouted for a different club. It’s a win-win, Housley says. Hilarious Seven doesn’t have the budget for the big names. But performing to around 100 paying civilians is “a different environment for those guys,” he says. “They can’t get any better if they’re sitting in horrible bars.”
When it comes to listing Las Vegas-raised comedians who became theater-sized draws, it’s hard to think beyond one name: Jo Koy. The comedian (who returns to Wynn Las Vegas May 31-June 2) was 17 when his family moved to Las Vegas in 1988. After playing the likes of Buzzy’s Cafe on Maryland Parkway, Koy began renting out the Huntridge Theater to promote his own shows, packing them with the city’s extended Filipino community. But he still had to go to Los Angeles to get to that next level. A few years later, Las Vegas Academy graduate Baron Vaughn (who also acts in the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie) moved on to Boston University and that city’s comedy training ground. As Las Vegas grows, so does the list of road comics with ties here. But the general consensus has long been that you come back to Las Vegas after honing your craft in one of those “comedy cities”: Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Denver.
Don’t tell that to recent arrivals such as Johnson, Austin, Waldeck, or Logan Quiroz, who followed a commercial real-estate job from California. Quiroz is 25 and has been doing comedy for five of the seven months he’s lived in Las Vegas. But he’s already landed a paid set in Burbank.
Quiroz is pop-star handsome and can sell a joke with a smile. But he also maximized his five-minute sets with a writing exercise, to see if he could base his whole set on a single topic: jean jackets. The first night, at Dive Bar, the other comedians erupted in a late-night, slap-happy roll at a shared in-joke: Quiroz forgot to wear the jean jacket. But the second night, going on earlier at ReBar — this time with the jacket — every joke landed: “I just learned how to wash a jean jacket. It’s different than any other article of clothing. Step One: Hang your jean jacket over a chair until the cigarette smell dies down. And that’s how you wash a jean jacket.”
Quiroz feels this pack of open-mic’ers is progressing together at an encouraging pace. Still, he recently saw Dave Attell at the Comedy Cellar, and “it’s like playing Pop Warner football and then going to an L.A. Rams game.”
“Growing up a comic in Vegas is like growing up the child of a celebrity. There’s a lot to live up to,” says Kris Thomas, a seasoned road comic who decided last year it would be more affordable to emerge from his two-year comedy hiatus in Las Vegas than Los Angeles.
Thomas, a Hilarious Seven regular, believes he moved to Las Vegas at the perfect time. “There’s a lot of rich opportunity here,” he says. “This is like the new L.A., I feel.” Clubs are shutting down elsewhere in the country, but Las Vegas will soon be adding another big-budget room at The Linq, bearing the name of late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. “You’re going to see a big fluctuation of comics coming here real soon,” Thomas predicts. “Vegas comics, they are getting stronger. There’s a new type of scene here a lot of people are getting hip to.”
“I come to these open mics to get better. I host these open mics to get better. But while I’m here, it helps to make friends,” Blackshear says. “Everyone enjoys the
camaraderie part of it. The Las Vegas comedy community is in many different aspects a family. When you’re at the same place with the same people, so many times, you tend to like them. Because they understand what you go through.”
For now, guys like Big James Johnson await their turn in the 50-degree cold. Johnson waited a year for Hertz to transfer him to Las Vegas as a utility mechanic, servicing rental cars at the airport. He got onstage for the first time two years ago, after his father died.
“Just seeing him be miserable, working a 9-to-5 and not doing anything he should have done in his life, it kind of made him abuse substances and shit. He died at 55 of heroin. The only one who showed up to his funeral was me. Just seeing it made me say, ‘I’m gonna try it.’” (Comedy, not heroin.)
No wonder Byron Austin calls the local comedy community “a life-support group.” “If this comedy thing don’t work out, I gotta have a backup plan,” he says from his stool at Dive Bar. But in the meantime, “If I’m any good, this is a good place to maybe find out.”