For two nights recently, an interesting and confusing group of celebrities was brought together at Town Square’s Shear Madness theater to create an interesting and confusing entertainment experiment. The celebrities included magician Teller, prop comic Carrot Top and author Neil Gaiman. The plan was to have a comedian, Matt Donnelly, read a celebrity’s tarot and predict his future by choosing just one card. He would then interview each celebrity about his life and its possible relationship to the card. Then, the result of this interview would provide fodder for an improv comedy troupe (stacked with Second City veterans) to perform for about 20 minutes.
Donnelly had already applied this idea in New York to great success: “My improv group was looking for a hook, and we used tarot in New York on live audiences.” For Vegas, the change was to use celebrities in place of audience volunteers.
On Monday night, the first show, the room was packed with fans of Penn & Teller ready to hear the magician speak to an audience from the stage, gimmick-free, for the first time. The next night a more goth-looking crowd showed up to hear Gaiman.
Yet the celebrities were treated no differently than volunteers at a regular improvisational show. As a result, the audience was already familiar with their lives—little that was brought out from the tarot “readings” was new. In short, there were two gimmicks that cancelled each other out, celebrities and tarot cards. Imagining a future for Carrot Top from his present life, which is already familiar to the viewers, has limited comedic potential.
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- Matt Donnelly interview (07/20/09)
The best moments both nights involved the celebrities rather than the tarot or improv. Teller’s look, for example—pity, contempt, overwhelmed by where to begin—when the host asked why he did not believe in tarot. Indeed, the danger of using stage performers like Teller and Carrot Top is that they are so comfortable and experienced with live Vegas audiences that everything dims a little when they leave the stage. Which is what happened. After the headliners left, an improv group performed like an extended Second City (a show that tried desperately to make it on the Strip but could not get an audience to the Flamingo).
During an added pre-tarot interview on the second night, Gaiman talked about a previous, serious reading he’d experienced. Not knowing who Gaiman was, the reader predicted one day he would do something he loves for a career; he said he already did. Then the tarot reader suggested he would find success and money; Gaiman said he was set there as well. Finally, the exasperated reader announced, “You will die on an island.” The improv performers worked with that, instead of anything from the tarot reading, and consequently the second night’s comedy improved.
In its best moments, Celebrity Tarot Lounge showed its potential (the creators hope to fine-tune this show for a permanent Vegas run), suggesting that the idea of improvising comedy out of celebrity lives has an audience. I predict this can best be done without the aid of tarot cards.