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Friday, June 24, 2011

Vegas capsule reviews

If you listened to last week's radio show (which will drop as a podcast on Sunday), you'll know I was in Las Vegas last week, courtesy of the Nevada Commission on Tourism and Caesar's Entertainment. It was my first time, but certainly not my last. What a blast. And the 40°C and up weather (over 100° F) was awesome, too. If you're from a wetter climate like Vancouver, that sounds daunting, but the old cliché about it being a dry heat is spot-on. It's just hot. I didn't need to change a soaking shirt a few times a day.

I was there to OD on comedy. And that I did. I also managed to get in two poker tournaments. I lasted one hour and two hours, respectively. Didn't take home any money, but at a $30 buy-in and free drinks, I was already winning!

Here are my capsule reviews of the shows I saw:

Tuesday, June 14
4 p.m.: Nathan Burton Comedy Magic Show, Flamingo Showroom

I've got a real soft spot for magic. Burton didn't disappoint. I wouldn't necessarily describe it as a "comedy magic" show, though. Maybe light-hearted, but not exactly funny. Still, damn impressive. I sat there shaking my head at bodies coming and going, seemingly through thin air. Yes, magic is all variations on a theme, but when done well (as this was), it's still amazing to me. He made three sexy showgirls appear in a plexiglass box, brought a ten-pin bowling ball from a notebook, spun his head round and round, and reproduced a famous Vegas statue on stage, among other tricks. Burton also generously shares the stage with other Vegas performers. On this day, Russ Merlin, who's been on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, did his patented 4-masks routine, which was pretty damn funny. When I interviewed Burton in his dressing room after the show, Merlin slept beside me on the couch. Ah, show business! One other guest (whose name I lost) did comedy juggling and such. So rather than "comedy magic", how about the Nathan Burton Magic Variety Show? (My personal highlight: when leaving Burton's dressing room backstage, Marie Osmond sauntered past me on her cell phone and entered her own dressing room. She's a little bit country; I'm a little bit star-struck.)

9 p.m.: Anthony Cools, Paris Las Vegas
If I have a soft spot for magic, I've got to admit I've never been a fan of stage hypnosis. Or any hypnosis, I guess, but I only ever come across it in the entertainment world. Anthony Cools is a Canadian performer from Calgary who's dubbed "The King of Sociability". He's filthy and funny but I just couldn't get into it. It's just me, but I don't buy that anyone was actually in a trance and humping furniture, giving blow jobs to beer bottles or reaching orgasm at the touch of his hand. Still, though, he's got a great comedic presence and delivery. I'd watch him perform without the faux mesmerizing, that's how funny he is. But if you're into that kind of thing, his is a show you should definitely check out. Hell, if you've always dreamed of a Vegas stage for your own uninhibited theatrics, go for it.

Wednesday, June 15
9 p.m.: Penn & Teller, Rio

I've been a huge fan of these guys since they first started showing up on TV in whatever decade that was. Funny and smart and a bit subversive. I saw them last year at the River Rock Show Theatre and this show in Vegas was largely, and not surprisingly, the same. I still can't figure out Teller's entrance to the stage. It defies logic. Penn can be annoying with his hit-you-over-the-head-with-his-strong-opinions, but whatever. Their trick about the rights and freedoms taken away from us due to metal detectors in the airport was more a chance for him to spout off on their libertarian views as the pay-off wasn't all that grand. (His argument was basically that if we take away the weapons from the good guys, the bad guys would still figure out ways to get them on the plane. Kinda simplistic in a couple of ways that I could see: First, the whole notion of good guys/bad guys is something I don't care for as we're all shades in between. Secondly, it assumes that only bad guys create problems on flights. If you look at gun crime statistics, most crimes are committed in the heat of the moment by otherwise good people who just happen to have weapons at hand. But, sure, if anyone who commits a crime magically transforms into a "bad guy", then this argument holds up.) They finished with an impressive flag trick that would have been better without the rah-rah America nonsense. Not that they shouldn't be proud of their country, but it was a bit of a straw man argument. Penn built up the greatness of America by comparing it to places like China and Afghanistan (if I'm not mistaken). More black and white logic from someone I expect better from. What about all those shades of gray countries like Canada and most of Europe with similar freedoms and democratic governments? America isn't great because it compares favourably to the worst governments in the world; it's great for its own reasons. Still, for the magic and comedy alone, this show is well worth seeing. Penn's a strong vocal presence and Teller is just as strong in silence, and can even be beautifully poetic. (And if you're a jazz fan, as I am, you'll want to get there early to hear Mike Jones amaze on the piano. There probably wasn't a note this guy didn't play. A few years back, at some Just For Laughs social in Montreal, Penn told me about this guy who was, he said, more technical than Oscar Peterson. I don't know about that – Oscar's my hero – but on the way out I asked him if Peterson was an influence. "I studied with him," he told me. Then once he figured out I was a jazz fan, we had a great conversation. I've since downloaded his album. You can, too. For free, yet! Follow the link on his name.)

10 p.m.: The Dirty Joke Show, Hooters Casino
I only made it to the last ten minutes or so of this one, but I'd go back in a second next time I'm there. It's like a little play conceived by Geechy Guy, a local legend, and on this night featured GG, Brian McKim, Rob Sherwood, and the British Matt Black. The conceit is that three or four comics are sitting on crates outside a club telling each other jokes. These are street jokes, which are frowned upon in regular stand-up, but everyone loves anyway. And this isn't regular stand-up. For one thing, the comics aren't, you know, standing up. For another, they're addressing each other rather than the crowd, making each other laugh, and in turn us. You'll hear some classics and some you've never heard before. And no doubt you'll remember at least one to pass along to your friends. (After the show, I sat in the bar at Hooter's with McKim and recorded an hour-long chat that we'll air soon.)

Thursday, June 16
3 p.m.: The Mac King Comedy Magic Show, Harrah's

I loved this show. Mac King is so damn likable, so gentle, and so in-the-moment. This isn't "big" magic with huge props. King works out of a small suitcase. Okay, there's a big tent, but that's about it. Otherwise, he's cutting up rope, spitting up live goldfish, doing card tricks and interacting with the volunteers. The guy is a solid pro and you can't help but be charmed by his show. It's also totally family friendly. I know where I'm going if I ever take my son to Vegas. I actually liked this show so much, I came back the next day. I also had the opportunity to interview him for half an hour and he couldn't have been nicer. That, along with the Burton interview, aired last Sunday and will be available in podcast form this Sunday.

7 p.m.: Defending the Caveman, featuring Kevin Burke, Harrah's
This was one I wasn't really looking forward to, despite hearing great things about it. I'm about all tapped out on the male/female dichotomy. There's only so much to say about the topic. I get it, men are pigs and women are crazy. But over time, this performance grew on me. As a guy who owns one power tool (a drill I won as a door prize more than ten years ago) that I've never been able to figure out how to use, I can't really relate to all the macho dude stuff. It's just not me. And my wife isn't the stereotypical female, either. Yet we each exhibit more than enough of the traits lampooned in this play. And beneath all the poking fun there's a real warmth. As he said, the one-man show is "selling true love and monogamy in Sin City."

8 p.m.: Brad Garrett's Comedy Club, Tropicana
No, I didn't make it in time for the whole show. The Strip is long! On the map I saw it was a couple blocks away so I thought I'd amble on over after Caveman. Turned into a walk-run of about 2 miles as I dodged pedestrians and random pirates and Michael Jackson impersonators. Brad Garrett and I have our history, but he wasn't in attendance this night. Maybe he heard I was coming? Anyway, it's a really nice room. I got there in time to see emcee (and new Vegas resident) Brian McKim deadpan a few jokes before bringing out headliner Monique Marvez. Maybe I'd have enjoyed her more if I hadn't just come from Defending the Caveman because her whole set was the men/women angle and I was full. She even said men are instinctively hunters, which is the whole premise of DtC.

10:30 p.m.: The Improv, Harrah's
This is located in the same theatre that houses Defending the Caveman. It's a portal into the past with its traditional brick wall backdrop but that's just window dressing. I could care less about decor. On this night I saw emcee Gary Brightwell, feature act Kevin Jordan, a former cop who used a flashlight to great effect, shining it in the faces of those he was addressing (one of his bits was reminiscent of the signature chunk of local comic Jamie Hutchinson. Talking about the biathlon in the winter Olympics, Jordan says, "If you're in 4th place with three bullets left? You're on a Wheaties box.") and headliner Joel Lindley. I enjoyed Lindley's one-liners, but with reservation. The line, "I could never be gay. I'm disgusted by my own penis" is a variation on a line I first heard around Vancouver in the early 1980s. And two other lines, which were funny, I heard the next night at Vinnie Favorito's show. I have no idea whose they are, but it's not a good sign. Regardless, he had a goofiness to him I really liked.

Friday, June 17
8 p.m.: Vinnie Favorito, Buggsy's Cabaret Theater, Flamingo

Maybe my favorito show of all of them. Boom! But seriously, ladies and germs, I had the best time at this show. I had no idea who this guy was prior to Vegas but I Googled him and found some hilarious roasts he participated in and wondered why he wasn't used on the Comedy Central roasts. He should be. He's like Dom Irrera meets Lisa Lampanelli meets Mike Bullard. He's got the attitude of Irrera, the racial insensitivity and roasting ability of Lampanelli and the recall and crowd work of Bullard. He's so much fun and the crowd loves him. He did 90 minutes of rapid-fire insults to seemingly half the crowd that culminated in a round-up of everyone he talked to, with more insults thrown in. As per any Vegas show, the performer will hock his goods outside the venue after the show and Favorito's is perfect. Among the merch, he sells a CD of that very night's performance. If you were one of the people he zinged, that's going to be something you definitely want. Hell, if it weren't 25 bucks (like a more reasonable 10 or 15) I'd have bought one myself and I wasn't even part of the show.

10 p.m.: George Wallace, Flamingo Showroom
This is billed as the best 10 o'clock show in Vegas, which makes me laugh because how many 10 o'clock shows are there? (I don't know the answer to that, by the way.) Wallace is practically a legend. I've been watching him on TV for years and years. On the night I saw him, "I Be Thinkin'" (the name of his show) ran two solid hours. Two hours! Surely that can't be the case every night, but I can't be sure about that. It's an oddball evening. Prior to the show, a video plays of YouTube clips of other people. Then he comes out and talks to the crowd, doing a lot of geographical jokes. Then he brought a woman out of the front row to see if she could sing along to some famous pop-gospel song. She could and then some. So much so that I wouldn't be surprised if she's a plant. But that's perhaps the cynic in me (see my thoughts on hypnotists above). This was followed with a segment on Yo Mama jokes: an audience member would yell one out then Wallace, who must have an encyclopedic memory for them, would reply in kind. If it's of the 'she's so ugly' variety, he'd respond that way; if it's 'she's so fat', that's what he'd throw back. I'll say this show was not my cuppa tea but the crowd ate it up. And he's a true professional so keep that in mind.

12 a.m.: The Fryer's Club, Big Al's Comedy Club at the Orleans
Not to be mistaken for the famous Friars Club, this is a collection of the city's comics (and anyone else who wants to hang) who gather every Friday night and socialize. With Wallace running long, I arrived late to a smattering of comics. But I had a good time talking to former Vancouverite (and current Vegas resident) Richard Kiss, Brian McKim and his wife and fellow-stand-up Traci Skene, Standup Scottsdale's Ricardo Rocha, and Joe Lowers, who runs the World Series of Comedy. And even chatted briefly with Jill, the sister of Jimmie Kimmel, who, I understand, does a bit of comedy herself.

And that's about that. As many shows as I saw, I feel I just barely skimmed the surface. I'll be back, you can bet on it.

Meanwhile, upcoming shows I recorded there will be aired in the coming weeks. We've got the Brian McKim episode cued up for July 3 and Dave Burleigh (with a side helping of Richard Kiss) ready for July 10.

ADDENDUM: Just came across this, which might interest you so you can see some of these shows for yourself:

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