[The Strip Sense]

How Danny got his groove back

Whatever happened, Gans’ show is now one of the best on the Strip

Danny Gans.

This column was supposed to be an examination of the three major impressionist acts opening here within a fortnight of one another. I expected to praise Wannabe Danny Gans Gordie Brown for his vigor and Replacement Danny Gans Terry Fator for his efforts to remain fresh and relevant, and that arc would lead me back to my long-standing complaint about the Real Danny Gans, which is that he had lost his vigor and his material had gone offensively stale.

And so, for my research, I ran out to catch Brown’s opening night at the Golden Nugget last Thursday, I got Fator, moving into Gans’ former space at the Mirage this month, on the phone for an interview on Friday, and then on Friday night I spent $95 a seat to sit in the balcony for Gans’ reemergence at Wynn Las Vegas.

Except something very odd happened at Wynn. Danny Gans, the brunt of my jokes and my ire for several years now, made me laugh. A lot. He also made a nearly two-hour show zip by without my ever checking my watch, which is a considerable accomplishment. And, much more importantly to me, he made the friend I brought along with me—a woman who has been crying on and off for two weeks because her 18-year-old just shipped off to Air Force boot camp—smile so much that she briefly forgot her grief and worry for a little while even after we walked out.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Danny Gans, shown at The Mirage in 2000.

Danny Gans, shown at The Mirage in 2000.

In fact, I left the showroom thoroughly disoriented. This was the Danny Gans who once dazzled me and my mother a decade ago in the intimate environs of the Rio, where he headlined then. But that Danny Gans disappeared earlier this decade, when I saw him twice at the Mirage and found him physically bloated, seeming completely bored and still doing the O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton jokes that hadn’t been funny since the 1990s. (Clinton jokes are current again thanks to Hillary, but they weren’t in 2005.)

This was a great Vegas success story gone awry. His ticket prices had gone through the roof, his billboard image had become gigantic, his audiences were being taken for granted, and his complacency seemed best summed up by the fact that he didn’t even bother to promote himself beyond the Strip.

With all that in mind, I was disgusted by the notion of his move from the Mirage to the Wynn. It bugged me that Gans was being rewarded for his laziness, and it saddened me that Steve Wynn was so down on his own ability to select entertainment that he decided to play it so safe after several daring risks.

Danny Gans.

Danny Gans.

As Encore opened in late December, there was evidence that Gans was going to roll out the same old act. A cartoon image of him appeared around the hotel to advertise the production that showed Gans surrounded by Garth Brooks, Stevie Wonder, Forrest Gump, George Burns, Kermit the Frog, Katharine Hepburn and Michael Jackson. To me, it was clear he was planning a Mirage rerun on Wynn’s dime.

Except that the show itself turned out not to be. Maybe it was the time off or the fact that it was the occasion of his charity-benefit premiere or pressure from critics like me to give the cash-strapped public something worth paying to see a second or third time. And definitely, it was the new environs—a proper theater with advanced lighting and LED screens on the stage for mood-setting graphics as opposed to the flat, low-tech converted ballroom he had toiled in across the street.

Bottom line: Gans seemed renewed, refreshed, relevant. He did lots of old material—all of the above plus Al Jarreau, Jeff Foxworthy, Neil Diamond and Anita Baker. Yet he also included up-to-the-minute quips about Bernie Madoff, Rod Blagojevich and Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler, as well as impressions of Jason Mraz, Five For Fighting, Robin Thicke and James Blunt. (I was waiting for some Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly or Steven Colbert, but maybe they’re not at the Carson-Leno level of public recognition yet?)

Certainly, I was inclined to try to like Gans for a few important reasons. First, I’d spent my own money, a rather unusual feat for an entertainment journalist in this town, but I wanted to be there incognito, and I felt the charity was worthy. Second, if Gans could perk up my downtrodden companion, he was golden regardless of my own views.

And third, I had been repulsed by the Wannabe Danny Gans the night before.

Gordie Brown has returned to the Golden Nugget after a brief, evidently unhappy stint at the Venetian and then that major berth opening for Céline Dion on a worldwide tour. I’ve liked his show in the past, but I guess I didn’t remember just how mean his humor can be.

In particular, I had just last week written about Vegas homophobia only to sit through Brown grabbing cheap laughs with anal and oral-sex jokes about every gay celebrity he referenced. It’s one thing to mock Michael Jackson for his proclivities with young boys, because that is part of Jackson’s public persona, and it’s fine to make gay jokes when either you’re a gay comic or you’re not being nasty about stereotypes. But Brown even worked explicit sexual quips into his Elton John impression and served up a gratuitous Brokeback Mountain sequence that wasn’t even an impression. It was just straight-up gay-bashing to appeal to the audience’s worst instincts.

Danny Gans.

Danny Gans.

Finally, I went into Gans’ show with as open a mind as I could because I had lunched earlier in the week with Gans’ manager, Chip Lightman. We had a get-to-know-you visit in which he asked me to explain my problems with Gans’ show. I did so without apology. And Lightman kept starting sentences with, “I know you’ll never like the show, but …”

I couldn’t contradict him at the time, because I didn’t know. But it seemed to me that if I had once loved Gans’ Rio show, then “never” seemed too severe a conclusion. Hell, I’m the guy who still mourns Mamma Mia!, who came around against all resistance to Céline’s show, who when asked last week who I thought was the funniest comedian in Vegas said Rita Rudner.

So I’m a proud square. And what’s more, I love a good redemption story. Gans’ new show fits that narrative. It’s bright, it’s funny, it’s current and nostalgic all at once. But if he’s still doing that Madoff quip a year from now, I may be the one offering another impression.


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