Wayne Brady says the producers of his new show at The Venetian asked him a question no one ever had: “In a perfect world, what do you want to do?”
He didn’t have to think about an answer. In fact, he’d been thinking about it since at least 2004, when he started to build up his marquee value on the Strip by doing comic improvisation.
Brady announced plans for a bigger show even while he and sidekick Jonathan Mangum performed improv exercises in the vein of “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” the Drew Carey-helmed TV hit that served as Brady’s breakout vehicle.
Audiences got a format similar to what they saw on TV, and the situation was practical. Brady mostly worked the Danny Gans Theatre at The Mirage, which only double-books comedians who don’t have to move Gans’ stage equipment.
He says “life got in the way” of the work needed to mount a variety act in the vein of the Las Vegas casino legends he admires. But when the question finally came, he had the answer: “I want to do a real Vegas show. I want to do showbiz. I want to bring showbiz back.”
The first test in April fared well enough that Brady’s “Making It Up” is back, sharing the Venetian Showroom with Gordie Brown through July 1. He and Mangum now are supported by a band and dancers, allowing Brady to do musical impressions of everyone from Luther Vandross and James Brown to Las Vegas rockers the Killers.
Those who turned out for the first stint were, on the average, “slightly older than some of my other crowds, and to be honest I really dig it,” he says. “I think there’s something for everyone in the show.”
The entertainer has spanned the generations. “I’m a huge Rat Pack fan, most in particular Mr. Sammy Davis Jr.,” he says. “Sammy made Vegas what it is today. You could go see him, and no matter what troubles you have, you walk into that showroom and you see a man just killing himself: sweating all over the place, back flipping, spinning, singing, doing impersonations — the whole nine — to make that crowd happy.
“And in my mind, that is true show business and that is what I love and I admire. So in my own way, that is what I aspire to,” he says. “By the time I leave that stage, I need to have lost 5 pounds and the audience needs to have been laughing and applauding enthusiastically the entire time, or my job is not done.”
Brady saw the last of the breed when he came to Las Vegas in 1994 to work in a theme park revue at the bygone MGM Grand Adventures theme park.
Checking out the lounge scene, he caught Sam Butera and Keely Smith when they were paired, for the last time to date, at the Desert Inn. “I was immediately floored and humbled all at the same time,” he says. “I realized that was the kind of showbiz that I loved.” The notion was reinforced by seeing the likes of Earl Turner and Sonny Turner. “That was the part of Vegas I wanted to be an integral part of.”
He agrees that some of the presence he’s looking for — and acceptance of what he is trying to do — comes with age.
“I by no means consider myself a long-in-the-tooth vet,” he says of turning 35 on June 2. “But I realize at this age, I’m really finally starting to feel like an adult performer. I feel like I can walk out on a stage, not being cocky, but walk out and plant my two feet and sing a song, tell a joke or be a character, and be completely at ease in that.
“And that is something that you do need to learn.”
Brady’s 2001 attempt at an ABC variety series and his ongoing work for Disney had pushed his public perception into the realm of goody-two-shoes. After he became a target of “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central, he went on the show for a memorable sketch with Dave Chappelle that became the most talked about thing he ever has done.
“Whenever people think that they know you too well, you have to flip it,” he says. Mission accomplished. The “Training Day” parody has Brady abducting Chappelle to shake down hookers, kill a policeman and machine-gun a gang of rivals.
Brady’s Wikipedia entry claims that outtakes on the DVD version of “Chappelle’s Show” suggest the entertainer had a hard time with all of this. “Idiots and Wikipedia do not a good match make,” Brady responds. “I loved doing the piece. I helped write it.”
The problem, he says, was coming up with the funny word for what’s now the most quoted line: “Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a bitch?”
He explains that “slap” in the original script “didn’t have a funny sound to me.” He kept trying to improve the line until he came up with “choke.”
You see, there’s a rule in comedy that “K’s are funny,” Brady explains. “And it’s such an aggressive word, combined with the image of me saying it, that’s the one that made magic.”MIKE WEATHERFORDMORE COLUMNS
what: Wayne Brady “Making It Up”
when: 9:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays
where: The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South
tickets: $76-$98 (414-9000)