The slender young comic on the stage was telling his Los Angeles audience about his time performing in Las Vegas. It was the early 1960s, when the Nevada town was getting a lot of attention for its mob connections.
Mort Sahl told them about a headline he saw in the Las Vegas Sun: “Owners of the hotels pledge to drive the hoods from the strip.” He paused for an exquisitely timed couple of heartbeats and added his own comment: “In one car.”
The audience roared with laughter. With a three-word dart, Sahl had skewered the city where he had appeared, the hotel in which he performed, the boosterism of local newspapers and the pledge the casino owners had no intention of keeping.
A quarter of a century later, in a movie co-written by comedian Steve Martin, a pretty bartender skewered Reno.
“I went to Tahoe with a girlfriend of mine. We’re moving there in three days. See, they like young cocktail waitresses there … Then when I’m older, I’ll probably move to Reno, where they like older cocktail waitresses.”
Audiences in Reno loved it.
A year ago, as part of our continuing coverage of local culture, we asked whether there is such a thing as a “Reno sound” (“The Reno sound,” May 5, 2005). We extend that inquiry now to whether there is such as thing as Nevada humor. One thing that is very clear is that humor—in movies, on television, on stage—has given the nation much of its impression of Nevada.
Today, as reflected by Martin’s line in Roxanne, Reno is not the state’s dominant community. But it was once—the very name conjured up the image of quickie divorce. There were plays (The Women by Clare Booth Luce) and novels (Reno by Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.) and innumerable magazine articles that described the divorce industry in Reno. “Now I ask you, wasn’t that a beautiful, beautiful divorce?” the divorce lawyer asked his client, Judy Holliday, as they exited the Washoe County courtroom in Columbia’s Phfft! Reno then, like Las Vegas now, was an icon.
New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling, who came for a divorce and wrote about the place, used humor to describe the industry: “Six weeks residence is mandatory for a divorce there, but you have to stay six months for a license to shoot sage hen.”
Had Reno been able to hang onto that role longer, it could have been great fodder for stand-up comedy. As it was, starting in the 1950s, comedians became for Las Vegas what movies and magazines had been for Reno, and while Reno has declined as a recognizable icon, Las Vegas shows no sign of doing so. It has never stopped being a source of material for nightclub routines. Reno appears in that role only when some news event breaks into the public consciousness enough for the public to have a frame of reference. Otherwise, Reno is not recognizable enough for comedy.
A good example of these episodic appearances by Reno came in February 1998. Seventy-eight year old Jesse Rosson was using a walker when he entered Reno’s Cal Neva casino. Jealous because he believed his girlfriend was fooling around with another man, he fired several shots and hit five people (none of them the girlfriend or her new beau). Then Rosson tried to make a getaway with his walker.
The next weekend on Saturday Night Live, Weekend Update anchor Colin Quinn reported the incident and then added, “Two bystanders who were injured were treated in the casino and went back to the tables to gamble. You know, if an old man with a walker shoots at you, maybe it’s not your lucky night.”
If comedy intended for national audiences can’t normally use Reno for material, comedians appearing in Reno itself can, and sometimes they get material in Reno they use in other cities. It frequently disses Reno, often portraying the town as a fading resort that attracts senior citizens.
Howie Nave, while working at the Reno Hilton, used lines like these: “If you really want to gamble here, try the buffet. … They’re gonna have blue hair half-off night here.”
Comedian Joe Klocek said, “Try working the crowd in Reno. I dare you.” Then he described chatting with Reno denizens:
“What do you do?
“How about you?
“I’m retired too.
“What about you?
He went on, “There were lots of Canadians at the show. They come here to let their hair down. We go there to buy prescription medication. How’s that for international relations? They come here to be a little unhealthy, and we go there to get a bit healthier. Everybody in that town has a limp or an eye twitch or an injured hand. They all walk around the downtown with that ambling gait of people who have nowhere to go. Casinos blast this constant bland background music of the ‘80s out into the streets. On the horizon are these snow-covered mountains. It looks like a scene with the Orcs from the Lord of the Rings.”
Comic Karen Rontowski tells audiences elsewhere, “When I was in Reno I saw they have five religious channels on cable. When they talked about sins, I thought they were reading a list of things to do in town.”
Of course, the first joke that people who grow up in Reno learn about the city popped up at a Web site called www.Everything2.com: “One of the big jokes hip with the punk crowd describes Reno as the town so close to hell, you can see Sparks.”
This hoary old gag, hip?
With prostitution, Area 51, and Elvis to work with, a surprising number of comics or comic writers go after—the weather.
The NBC situation comedy Mad About You: “You ever been to Nevada? You know what they have there—just sand and hot.”
The Salma Hayek film Fools Rush In: “Now you have a relationship built on heat. It’s like Vegas. I mean, why didn’t they just build this city on the fucking sun?”
Early on, the state’s willingness to accept virtually anything if it meant commerce showed up in stand-up. In the 1950s, state officials sent forth an image that Nevada was a big sandbox that the nation could use for whatever it wanted, such as atom bomb tests. That probably helped germinate one part of comic Bill Dana’s most famous routine, “The Astronaut.” (This bit was used before the nation had actually put a man in space, and the assumption at the time was that astronauts would be landing on land. Splashdowns had not yet entered the public consciousness.) In that routine, Dana’s character “Jose Jimenez” is interviewed by actor Don Hinkley:
Hinkley: After you’ve been into outer space, Mr. Jimenez, and you return to earth, where will you be landing?
Jimenez: I am going to be landing in Nevada …
Hinkley: Then you’re convinced that they will get you back to Earth?
Jimenez: I am convinced that they will get me back to Earth.
Jimenez: Just how far into it, that’s what I’m not convinced about.
Hinkley: Well, surely they’ve made some provision to break your fall?
Jimenez: To break my fall?
The way the state’s own officials create the state’s image is seen neatly in the way they encouraged the association between Nevada and the super-secret military base Area 51 by establishing the Extraterrestrial Highway, an association that, in turn, attracts conventions of Trekkies and alien abductees to the state. Celebrity groupie Pamela des Barres naturally thought of Nevada when she was doing an article on alien abductions: “I’m working on a story for New Woman about these people who were abducted by aliens. I just got back from a convention in Nevada—it was really, uh, expanding. You know, being around all these people who’d been abducted, impregnated, tampered with …”
On the NBC situation comedy NewsRadio, the conspiratorial character of station engineer “Joe Garelli” claimed that Area 51 was actually a decoy for the real super-secret site, Area 52.
Some writers simply skim the surface of the state’s image, trafficking in stereotypes, as in Gail Sheehy’s book on menopause: “Going to Hollywood to talk about menopause was a little bit like going to Las Vegas to sell savings accounts.”
But it’s not like the state hasn’t encouraged those stereotypes. The Tarkanian era in Las Vegas and Mike Tyson before the Nevada Boxing Commission are instances of the state inviting mockery.
The 1988-95 NBC situation comedy Empty Nest: “Without good grades, you can’t get into college. Except maybe in Nevada.”
The Simpsons: “A lifetime of working in a nuclear power plant has given me a healthy green glow and left me as impotent as a Nevada boxing commissioner.”
Some comics, of course, use the Sin City images in their routines. Steve Martin portrayed a preacher who was shocked by the skimpy clothes of Las Vegas showgirls—”and it was painful for me to watch, as they danced before me, stepping all over my tongue.”
In March 1959, shortly after evangelist Billy Graham attacked Sahl (Graham claimed inaccurately that Sahl was an atheist), Sahl said on stage, “Billy Graham is in Melbourne, Australia, ‘saving Melbourne.’ That’s his big thing, you know. He saves cities. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but if he really wanted a challenge, he’d go to Vegas.” (Graham later did Las Vegas without noticeable impact on the city’s virtue or lack of it.)
Some of the comments about Nevada are so minimalist that they are funny because they don’t hit readers or listeners over the head with the point of the joke, as when Newsweek described the growing lineup of megaresorts in Las Vegas: “Naturally, the new landmarks are monuments to understated good taste.”
Early on, atomic testing in Nevada helped create the state’s image as a maiden of easy virtue when it came to commerce, and the testing itself produced some pretty good lines. In the days when ground zero referred to an atomic test site in Nevada instead of a ruined landscape in New York, Weird Al Yankovic wrote lyrics:
It’s Christmas at ground zero
The button has been pressed
The radio just let us know
That this is not a test
Everywhere the atom bombs are dropping
It’s the end of all humanity
No more time for last-minute shopping
It’s time to face your final destiny.
In the Robert Redford movie Havana, set during the revolution as Fidel Castro is cleaning out the mob and shutting down Cuban casinos, Redford’s character proposes moving to Las Vegas, which is where many mobsters went from Cuba. Screenwriter Judith Rascoe has Richard Farnsworth’s character respond with a pithy capsule assessment of the Nevada town: “Atom bombs and sandy pussy.”
One would expect that Nevada’s legal small-county prostitution would be a likely target for comics, but few of them do much with it. Jay Leno is one who does:
“And Geraldo Rivera in the news again. He’s going to Nevada to do a show on the public television network called This Old Cat House.”
“Four Orange County businessmen announced plans to open a new prostitution theme park in Nevada. I thought Nevada was a prostitution theme park.”
Noel Coward got off one of the first quotable comedic lines about Las Vegas. He appeared there in the ‘50s and concluded, “It was not Café society. It was Nescafe society.” That comment is immortalized in Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations.
That early line and others like it helped establish Las Vegas’s reputation as a town for squares. It was a reputation that would grow as it became the town where Elvis bombed in 1956 but was a hit after being neutered by Tom Parker and the army, the town where George Carlin got fired for saying shit, the town where the Broadway hit Avenue Q laid an egg, the town that plays an abridged version of The Producers, the town where Wayne Newton is king, the town where Linda Ronstadt got fired for expressing opinions.
George Carlin: “I got fired last year in Las Vegas from the Frontier Hotel for saying shit in a town where the big game is called craps. It’s some kind of double standard, you know? I’m sure there was some Texan standing out in the casino yelling, ‘Oh, shit, I crapped!’ And they fly those guys in free, you know. Fired me. Shit. You can get in as much trouble saying shit as you can smoking it.”
Another good example was the 1960 film Ocean’s Eleven. The movie was a big hit, and Las Vegans love it, but much of that audience around the nation—particularly the young—attended because of the film’s unintentional humor. Theaters full of baby boomers hooted at the middle-aged Rat Pack members acting and talking hip (referring to sex as “hey hey”). Since the movie was so identified with Las Vegas, it deepened the city’s unhip reputation.
Sahl poked fun at Las Vegas’s preoccupation with the Rat Pack. “And I got in in time to see Frank open. And Frank was opening, and we caught Frank’s opening and Sammy’s closing. But Frank had a sore throat, so Dean did his opening. And then Sammy changed his opening and couldn’t be at his own opening because he was at Frank’s opening. And then Judy and Dean went over to do Sammy’s show …”
Sahl was even more direct about Las Vegas in another routine when he described being in the city while ill. The city itself, he said, did nothing to improve his mood.
“It’s like being on an island. And it’s the dullest. I’m really demoralized to begin with because I’ve never been up there before, and it was dragging me because nothing happens there. But I thought everything happened there. And I always heard, I always saw office girls here in Los Angeles—dull girls, you know. Three of them would say, ‘We’re driving to Vegas over the weekend!’ … And you figure, ‘Well, they may be dull here, but they’re probably the end up there.’ Well, they’re not the end up there, either, I’d like to point out. They’re those girls—only up there. … Nothing happens.”
Even when Las Vegas is not being described as square, it is seldom treated well in comic writing.
“Listen,” wrote Katherine Reback in her screenplay Fools Rush In, “Everything that’s famous about Las Vegas is about leaving it—that movie, the song, even the mob left Las Vegas.”
From the same film, a line that got laughs of recognition in Las Vegas theaters: “Well, nobody ever plans to end up in Vegas—they just do. Kind of sneaks up on you.”
On the NBC situation comedy Wings, one character said, “People laughed at Bugsy Siegel when he stood in the middle of the desert and said, ‘I’m going to build a hotel right here.’ And that worked out pretty well.” Another character replied, “He was shot seven times in the head.”
As in the case of the state’s image, the Las Vegas image was created by its own leaders, so there is little to complain about when the city takes a ribbing.
Fortunately for Reno and Las Vegas, there is a target of humor in Nevada that is an even easier mark than they are.
There’s almost nothing about Nevada gambling that does not lend itself to humor, from the carpets on the floors to the light atop a casino.
Kathleen Madigan on keno: “Keno is like bingo for the retarded. That’s why they give you a crayon. They don’t want you to poke yourself in the eye.”
Jay Leno on the incessant casino boasts: “Do you know the most powerful beam of light in the world shines from the tip of the Luxor Hotel—you know that goofy pyramid thing? … That beam of light on top of the hotel is 40 billion candlepower. Scientists say this is enough light to actually see the shrimp at the 99-cent buffet.”
Mort Sahl on casino showgirls: “And she’s a big wheel. She isn’t just one of the chorines, she’s a captain. She’s the one that makes the others read that fire escape notice in the hall.”
Steve Martin on casino showroom tipping: “I feel sorry for the people in the back because they pay the same price as everybody else. Although those seats [in the front] are reserved for the big tippers. That’s where the maitre’d goes, ‘Ewww! I almost touched a one!‘ “
Barbara Streisand on the money spent building a casino: “What did they spend it on—the carpets?”
Bill Cosby on the hotel rooms: “They gave me a suite here. I have a big time suite. Oh, yeah. Weird, though. Weird suite. They got a mirror over my bed. No, I swear, there’s a big mirror over my bed! … And I was uneasy going to sleep. I had the feeling the pit boss was watching me.”
Cosby has produced more material on the casinos than any other comic, and some of it is priceless. In 1971 (the year will explain the price he quotes) in a casino showroom, he did probably the funniest routine of all Nevada stand-up comedy:
“Anybody staying here at the hotel? Have you looked at the breakfast menu? … Look at the breakfast menu. It’s one of the funniest things you’ll ever want to see. Says, one egg, any style, a dollar thirty-five.
“Do you hear what I’m saying? You don’t understand me, do you?
“E. G. G.
“O. N. E.
“Without the shell. A dollar thirty-five!
“Now can you believe that, that I’m losing in the casino, I’m going to lose in room service, too?
“One egg, a dollar thirty-five.
“Housewife, give me the price of a dozen eggs.”
An audience member called out, “Fifty-five cents.”
“Fifty-five cents for twelve of them—with the case. Now these people in room service going to send me one egg, just because they put behind it ‘any style,’ a dollar thirty-five. …
“All I know is, when that egg comes to me, it better have an act. …
“Then if you look underneath, it says two eggs, any style, a dollar sixty-five. Now what the hell’s wrong with the second egg?
“No act, I guess.
Concluding the routine, Cosby turned to a waiter.
“I’ll give you time to explain that to some of the people.”
Gambling produces less comedy than might be expected, though it is certainly there—and fortunately no one calls it gaming (comedians have little patience for flackery).
In one incredible performance, Cosby roused an audience with a riotous routine, then calmed them down again, playing the audience like a cellist plays the strings:
“I got it all figured out how we can win here. What we do—there’s about fourteen hundred of us here—they think we’re in here watching the show.”
The last part of that line made the audience start chuckling in anticipation.
“They wouldn’t be ready for us.”
The laughter is more anticipatory now, and Cosby’s voice starts to build.
“All we’d have to do, man, is just get up and march on that casino. I mean, march on it—taking chips as we go!”
He’s like a preacher, now, building rapidly to a climax.
“I mean, taking them. Not fooling around, walking right up in groups of 20 to 30, just taking chips. Ain’t but 12 security guards out there. We could do it. Are you ready?”
The crowd roars, “Yes!”
Cosby calls out, “Now, some of us are going to die.”
The crowd gives a huge laugh, and the escalating oration is brought back down.
“Oh, you’re backing off, now, huh?
“I’m in charge, and I’ll be behind you. That way, when we turn around to run, I’ll be in front. And there’s one other thing. When we divvy up the chips, here’s the way we’re going to do it. Whatever the color of the person, that’s the color of chips he’s going to get. No fair painting yourself.”
Every once in a while, humor about Nevada touches on something more interesting than the run-of-the-mill jokes about slot machines or showgirls.
Sahl once used an innovative approach to Las Vegas—a fable. He told a tale of a chorus girl who married a man and left Nevada for California. As they left the Las Vegas valley, she started growing older. Her new husband returned her to her Las Vegas workplace, and she regained her youth.
No one who ever saw the film Lost In America, written by Albert Brooks and Monica Mcgowan Johnson, is likely to forget the scene in which Brooks goes to a casino manager in Las Vegas and asks for the return of his life’s savings, which his wife lost in her first contact with gambling. The scene, besides being hilarious, also provokes thought about the danger of these palaces.
With any kind of luck, we’ll see more of that.
There is such a thing as Nevada humor, if by that term we mean humor generated by the state’s distinctive culture. The paradox is that little of it is written or produced by Nevadans.
There was a time when Nevadans would have had difficulty laughing at much of the material quoted here. But the passage of years, the emigration into the state of tens of thousands of newcomers with little memory of the state’s pariah past, and the adoption by other states of many of Nevada’s once-criticized vices have made it easier for Nevadans to laugh at ourselves. That is surely all to the good.