Fear and Laughing in Las Vegas
"I'm covering this for The Nation," I told Jerry Seinfeld.
Chris Rock interjected, "The Nation of Islam?"
We were in Las Vegas--where Mayor Oscar Goodman had recently suggested that those who deface freeways with graffiti should have their thumbs cut off on TV--at the first annual Comedy Festival, a recent three-day laugh-quest featuring some thirty-five shows, presented by HBO and AEG Live, sponsored by TBS. There was a panel about comedy with Seinfeld, Rock, Robert Klein and Garry Shandling, moderated by CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper. Shandling asked Cooper, "What do you do one night when you're just not feeling funny?" Seinfeld later received the first annual The Comedian award, given to a performer "who has most influenced and furthered the art of comedy." He said, "I'm honored, but awards are stupid. Every insurance company, hotel, car dealer--they get these jack-off trophies." Seinfeld is best known for his observational humor, so after the presentation I asked if he'd ever done a political joke. He recalled one: "Anybody who wants to be President shows evidence of a brain that's not working too well."
The festival kickoff was a two-hour taping of a TV special, Earth to America, a comedic approach to raising consciousness about the environmental crisis. Executive producer Laurie David called it "a little bit of prime-time history." The show began with a film clip of her husband, Larry, star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, dressed as a modern Paul Revere, riding into Vegas on a horse and shouting, "Global warming is coming!" "Coming to you from Las Vegas, the conscience of America," said emcee Tom Hanks. Ray Romano: "I think it's very appropriate, we're trying to conserve energy in a town that uses more energy than any other town in the world." Bill Maher: "[We] have a President who thinks Kyoto is that guy his father threw up on in Japan." Wanda Sykes: "I don't wanna go home and see my aunt out on the corner, trickin' for her medicine--'Tickle your balls for an anti-inflammatory?'"
At the after-party two bodyguards were assigned to Laurie David; none to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He had thanked the performers at Earth to America for volunteering their time; actually, they got union scale. For the other shows, performers were highly paid. A ticket for all events cost $1,500.
The spirit of Lenny Bruce hovered over the festival. Robert Klein said Bruce was "good, funny, socially important--the best and highest a comedian could do." Perhaps Bruce's most audacious onstage moment was in 1962 when he became the voice of Holocaust orchestrator Adolf Eichmann: "My defense--I was a soldier. I saw the end of a conscientious day's effort. I watched through the portholes. I saw every Jew burned and turned into soap. Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them? Hiroshima auf Wiedersehen..." Bruce was arrested for obscenity that night. His controversial portrayal had particularly inspired Bill Maher, who lost his ABC show, Politically Incorrect, because six days after 9/11 he said, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away--that's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
After the terrorist attacks, Larry King asked Maher how soon it would be all right to be funny again. "So like two months, that's a good time? One month is a good time?" (He also asked Dr. Andrew Weil, "Are bulimics throwing up more often?") Less than three weeks after 9/11, at a roast for Hugh Hefner, Gilbert Gottfried began, "Tonight I'm going to perform under my Muslim name, Hasn't bin Laid." He got a big laugh, but when he closed with, "I have to catch a flight to Los Angeles. I can't get a direct flight. They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first," the audience booed. Which brings us to Homeland Security. I had gone through a metal detector at the airport, and now again, along with 4,145 others, at The Colosseum in Caesars Palace. I had to take my shoes off before I could fly, and now I got wanded to preserve the safety of comedians. My weapon, a tape recorder, was temporarily confiscated. There was even a sign warning HECKLING WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. Would-be hecklers were informed that they'd be removed from the concert hall if they heckled a performer, and would not be given refunds.