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30-year veteran of Vegas comedy clubs now runs one

Vegas Voices is a weekly question-and-answer series featuring notable Las Vegans.

In 1984, Harry Basil and Andrew Dice Clay were part of the opening lineup of the Comedy Store at the Dunes. Now, 32 years have brought them back to a Las Vegas comedy club: Basil runs the Tropicana’s Laugh Factory and Clay performs as a billed headliner beyond the weekly club lineup.

In the years between, Basil’s career has been all over the place. The comedian — who divides his time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas — never abandoned his act, which isn’t so much stand-up as a prop-comedy mash-up of visual jokes referencing pop culture and movies.

But a friendship and business alliance with Rodney Dangerfield led to screen credits as co-writer of “Ladybugs” and “Meet Wally Sparks” and, later, the chance to direct features himself.

In late 2011, Basil heard Brad Garrett was moving his comedy club from the Tropicana to the MGM Grand. “I had played that room for like 20 years when it was the Comedy Stop and when it was Rodney’s Place back in the early ’80s. I thought, what a great spot for a Laugh Factory.”

He was right. Basil couldn’t have foreseen the closing of the Riviera and its tenured comedy club. But the Laugh Factory is now the Strip’s only club format offering two shows a night. And on May 28, the special engagements with Clay will expand to the main showroom downstairs.

Review-Journal: Nobody can say you don’t know the Las Vegas comedy scene, since you were here on the ground floor when Mitzi Shore first brought the Comedy Store to town.

Basil: When we opened at the Dunes, the first week included Dice, Louie Anderson, Paul Rodriguez and Jim Carrey. Nobody knew who we were. We were on the cover of a magazine (On Stage), and it said ‘Band of unknown zanies invades the Dunes.’

People were coming because they heard about the Comedy Store. It’s five comedians. That had never been done before. Most of the time a headlining comic would have a singer open, or a headlining singer would have a comic.

R-J: And yet there is so much comedy here all the time now, from the clubs to big-ticket names such as Daniel Tosh and Gabriel Iglesias every weekend. What made you want to jump into this?

Basil: I told my partner Joseph (Merhi) that it has to be a brand, and the Laugh Factory is one of the hottest comedy brands in the business. It would be a big deal for them to step into the Las Vegas market.

Right now the club is the draw that brings people in. They know the chain. It’s a diverse audience. You have older people midweek and hipper, younger people on the weekends.

But we have been jumping into the headliner pool. If (the Clay show in the downstairs theater May 28) is successful, I want to try to lure in some of the other Strip headliners. We’re on a hot corner with major marquees and we spend money and promote … we just bought our second rolling billboard truck.

R-J: Working so many clubs as a comic surely taught you a few things about how to run, or how not to run one. But are you comedian-friendly to a fault when it comes to the hard-nosed business side of it?

Basil: I try to be a nice guy. Even when I directed movies I wanted to be a nice guy, not a yeller or a screamer and a jerk. But it’s tough sometimes when you get calls from old friends or old acquaintances you worked with and maybe a comic doesn’t really have it anymore. It’s hard to turn people down.

But I’m really rooting for people, and sometimes you’ll see an audition and hire someone and then realize once they’re there, they may not be cutting it. It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a while you get a new person, a young person, and they may find out the Vegas crowd is a little bit different. (The audience) is older. They expect more; the bar is raised higher.

I get so disappointed when they blow an audition. When I’m looking for a host and they’re just being dirty, filthy or mean, and I’m like, ‘What would make you think I would want to start off my show like that?’ It’s because some of these guys are doing one-nighters in bars and there’s no rules.

But it doesn’t happen very often. We’ve been open four years now, and I think I’ve only had to fire two people.

R-J: Your backstage green room on Saturday nights has become one of the worst-kept secrets in town as far as a gathering place for comedians and entertainers. How did all that get started?

Basil: It’s something we’ve been doing since we opened. The walls are covered with vintage comedy albums. I’m gonna buy a record player. We also have a library, I would say 50 or 60 books on comedy. And then the memorabilia. I have a huge Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis collection. The bar is called the Dean and Jerry bar.

We have karaoke and a dartboard out in the hall. It’s just fun. A great hang for the comics, kind of old-school. Dice has had Pitbull come with his entire entourage of 14 people. Bruno Mars was there a few weeks before that. The “Rock Vault” guys come up a lot. When Dice is there, you never know what VIPs are going to come. He’ll hang in the room sometimes two hours after the show.

R-J: What’s your status as a performing comedian now? Do you just go on when someone gets sick?

Basil: I was just the headliner two weeks ago. I’ll book myself twice a year. A lot of new movies are getting added (to the act). I’m lucky they keep remaking movies. I’ve done Batman and Superman in my act, and now that’s fresh again.

 

R-J: So you still run at that manic full tilt?

Basil: This is what I have to say: A fat man in his underwear is funny. But I don’t do “Risky Business” anymore. I was in better shape when I was younger and doing this all the time.

But a couple of weeks ago I got a call from “X Comedy” that something had happened, they’re in a bind, they don’t have a headliner. I just happened to have my prop bag with me so I raced over to the Flamingo on a Saturday night and performed. And I think it was the night Dice was opening here. So I raced back and I was like, “I can’t believe I just did a show.”

R-J: For someone who is technically the competition.

Basil: But I’m good friends with their (house) comics John Bizarre and Nancy Ryan. We all help each other out.

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

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