Vegas comedy: laughs in tough times

Special to The Times

“We’re going to have a black president come November! Raise the roof!”

The packed house erupts in cheers. People are clapping their hands and stomping their feet.

“We’re going to have a black president! And it’s going to be me!”

The cheers continue. But the man generating all the excitement isn’t Sen. Barack Obama. It’s George Wallace, a comedian now in his fifth year entertaining crowds on the Las Vegas Strip.

It’s a Saturday night in August, a traditionally slow month in Vegas. Gas is hovering around $4 a gallon.

Yet despite the sour economy and the fact that, on this particular night, Jerry Seinfeld is performing across the street at Caesars Palace and Jay Leno is at the Mirage, Wallace is playing to a crowd that’s just shy of a full house. Even in hard times -- perhaps especially in hard times -- Vegas is still a laughing matter.

“Movie stars go to Hollywood, actors go to Broadway, and comedians go to Vegas,” observes comic Louie Anderson, who has a regular gig at Excalibur. “Vegas is the Broadway for comedians.”

This weekend’s Labor Day lineup bears out Anderson’s belief. David Spade is at Planet Hollywood, Lewis Black at the Mirage, and Bill Cosby is performing at Star of the Desert Arena in Primm, Nev. This fall, the Vegas lineup includes Wayne Brady, Dana Carvey, Kevin James, Howie Mandel, Dennis Miller and Ray Romano.

There are also plenty of comics here nearly all the time. In addition to Anderson and Wallace, Rita Rudner, Carrot Top, and Penn & Teller all have nightly shows. Yet despite all the name acts, it’s not necessarily easy to make audiences laugh here in Sin City.

“There’s no gauge in Vegas,” says Rocky LaPorte, a comedian who performs several weeks a year at the Improv at Harrah’s, one of several comedy clubs on the Strip.

“When you go to Iowa or Texas, you kind of know the mind-set,” LaPorte continues. But in Vegas, he notes, “You have people from everywhere [and] some of them ain’t in the best mood because they just lost a lot of money.”

LaPorte tries to win over the gamblers in the audience with some jokes they can relate to.

“When they told me I was coming here to Vegas, I got excited, ‘cause I like to gamble,” he begins. “So, on the way out, on the plane, I got warmed up a bit. I started throwing my money in the toilet and pulling the handle.”

Indeed, Las Vegas provides plenty of fodder. Wallace asks audience members if anyone’s staying at the Venetian. When some people raise their hands, he jumps in.

“If you’re in the lobby of the Venetian, you’re actually closer to the airport than you are to your room! Am I right?” he asks amid nodding heads and roars of laughter.

For the plus-sized, self-deprecating Louie Anderson, McCarran International Airport is good for laughs.

“They should rename that the Las Vegas Airport and Fitness Center. I never walked farther to baggage claim in my life. People were betting on me, on whether I’d make it!”

Anderson -- who first performed at the Dunes 25 years ago -- gets his audiences to relate to him by sharing stories about his troubled childhood.

“My father never hit us,” Anderson says of his alcoholic father. “He just carried a gun.

“I grew up in a Midwestern family,” he continues. “We had the ‘fatal five’ food groups: butter, eggs, milk, cheese and butter.

“The first words out of my mother’s mouth at a restaurant were, ‘Could we get some extra butter, please?’ And the host says, ‘Well, why don’t you wait till you’re seated, ma’am?’

“There’s substance to my show. I’m not just doing jokes,” Anderson explains. “I awaken memories.”

Anderson does this without being vulgar. Despite Las Vegas’ reputation as an adult playground, most of the comedians keep their shows pretty clean.

“Adults can bring their adult parents to my show,” Anderson says. “And they can bring their teenagers.”

“The only way you’re going to do TV is if you’re clean. . . . That’s the only way out of the clubs,” LaPorte recalls being told early in his career.

LaPorte began doing comedy after being shot and stabbed while driving a truck in Chicago. He began in small clubs on the South Side, near where he grew up.

“Sometimes my folks would come to gigs,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to say anything embarrassing in front of my mom or my aunts. [Now] people come up to me after the show and say, ‘Hey, thanks for being clean. I really appreciate that.’ ”

Anderson and Wallace each attribute their career longevity to their hard work, both on and off the stage. Wallace, for example, regularly visits the various hotels around town, offering free tickets to the concierge staff. “If you don’t put your business out on the street,” he says, “nobody will know.”