Even four years ago, Rick Harrison was finding his way into the spotlight alongside Las Vegas headliners.
“Pawn Stars” had only been on the air a few months in March 2010, when Mirage ventriloquist Terry Fator pulled Harrison up from the audience for a bit that usually transforms an ordinary, average ticketbuyer into Cher.
But the History channel hit already had blown up to where you could flip a coin to decide whether it was Fator or Harrison who was the bigger star that day.
Now? Fator’s still doing fine, thank you. But even he wouldn’t argue that Harrison and the “Pawn Stars” are the city’s real celebrities. Who else draws 1.3 million or more viewers to every new episode and has their very own MAD magazine-style stage spoof?
Thanks to the cachet of the “Pawn Stars,” a modest send-up called “Pawn Shop Live!” moved from a planned run in a downtown studio theater to the tourist-oriented showroom at the Golden Nugget, where it opened this week with an official endorsement from the History channel crew.
The real “Pawn Stars” also plan personal appearances, schedules permitting. Harrison is always in the show via a video cameo and is credited for “story contributions” in this mock bio of how the Gold & Silver gang got to be the world’s most famous pawnbrokers.
But you only have to see “Old Fart” portrayed by a sculpted puppet, or Chumlee — er, “Chump” — fending off a pawnshop burglary with kung-fu showgirls to know “Pawn Stars” is more “Airplane!” than “Biography.”
The satiric net reaches as wide as Phyllis Diller and Hunter S. Thompson, and the finale is a big musical number. “We get to play with different theatrical styles. How else do you do a parody of ‘Pawn Stars’? There’s no one way,” says Troy Heard, who co-wrote and directed the spoof.
“I don’t think it would work any other way than to just take a machine-gun, rat-a-tat approach and hit every target possible.”
Heard and producer Derek Stonebarger kicked around the idea of a more TV-specific parody: the actors improvising with audience members who brought items up to the stage to fake-pawn. They quickly decided the idea wasn’t deep enough, or even practical; showgoers aren’t likely to cart that stuff around on vacation with them.
The better idea turned out to be the backstory of the gang.
After all, how many “Pawn Stars” viewers remember the show ever actually beginning? “It’s like a soap opera. You dive right in and catch up wherever you are,” Heard says. “So in an odd way, this show acts like a parody version of the pilot.”
But it was a much raunchier, more biting spoof that was first envisioned for Stonebarger’s cozy downtown Theatre7. That changed when the Gold & Silver’s general manager, Theo Spyer, sat in on a table reading, liked what he heard, and gave the project a sudden stamp of official credibility.
The shift meant “bringing the heart in,” Heard says. “There’s just certain tonal things I have to adjust” in redirecting the project “from an off-off-off-Broadway feel, made for a tiny storefront” to the Golden Nugget at 4 p.m.
Now “Slick” (Sean Critchfield) narrates the saga of how Harrison, gifted with a love of math and science, overcame an otherwise dubious past and put the Gold & Silver on the world map.
The spoof includes more-or-less true stories drawn from Harrison’s memoir, “License to Pawn.” We see the Old Fart (the puppet voiced by Enoch Scott) meet his bride (Anita Bean). And the Corey character, here known as Lil Boss (Gus Langley), first meeting Chump (Garret Grant) through their common love of “Butt-man” comics (the family’s pre-pawn enterprise has shifted from coin to comic-book shop in the retelling).
And while the “Pawn Stars” are cultural ambassadors and a deep well of tax revenue for Las Vegas, the Nugget show remembers the true battle the Harrisons fought for a pawnshop license in the ’80s, when city officials figured downtown was seedy enough already.
Some of the actors have met their real-life counterparts, though Grant cautions, “We’re not trying to impersonate them. It’s a parody. It comes from them, but we’ve been given the liberty to pursue it on our own.”
“This is a sketch comedy show, it’s not an impression show,” Critchfield agrees. “I can work on getting Rick well enough that someone sees me and knows I’m doing Rick, and I can escape from that as well.”
Still, an actor isn’t going to spend an afternoon with Harrison and not walk away with something he can use.
The real Harrison “leads with his forehead and he’s a big-gesture person,” Critchfield says. He is also “very competent, very confident. You get the idea he’s every bit as smart in real life as they portray him in the show.”
“Pawn Shop Live!” ends up tapping into the same dynamic that makes the TV hit more like a sitcom than a show about buying and selling things. When you think about it, Harrison really isn’t that much different than Andy Griffith or Bob Newhart.
“The central figure has to be the normal person, and each character further away from him gets more and more into the world of madness,” Critchfield notes. “Our show couldn’t veer from that model.”
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.