[No risks, no laughs]

Brad Garrett is taking the ultimate Las Vegas gamble

The funnyman is pouring his own money into a comedy club at the Tropicana

If you build it, will they laugh? Brad Garrett thinks so, and has staked a lot of money to find out.
Photo: Beverly Poppe

You notice first the lowness of the ceiling, which seems to be creeping down, ever so slightly, on the man leaning heavily on the mic stand. Or is it that the man onstage, who is already a towering 6 feet 8 1/2 inches tall, is actually growing in stature? Is that why this room appears to shrink? It’s neither, yet it’s both. It is something of an illusion, this hole-in-the-wall funhouse draped in a color that can be classified as either blood red or Old Vegas burgundy.

The illusion expands further, to the room’s vibe. The club is dark for its color, yet enlightening for the dripping-with-crystals chandeliers hanging from that low ceiling. It’s welcoming for its den-like design, with the walls adorned with vintage photos and paintings of such familiar funny people as Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Woody Allen. The seating configuration, too, is inviting, as 290 padded chairs and a trio of booths are set tightly at the front of the stage.

Yet the club at the Tropicana’s second-floor mezzanine level feels slightly exclusive, even tucked away, as if you need a special key or secret password to gain entrance.

But when does the intimacy become scarcity? At what point does the cool-hip ambience turn cold and sterile? When does a well-financed entertainer’s investment of time, reputation and resources turn from bold to reckless?

When does the funny turn folly?

Brad Garrett hopes not to find out.

“She was looking at the children’s menu and I was giving her crayons so she could color it.”

Brad Garrett

Self-deprecation is often a comic’s default mechanism. If you have an overly large head, the joke is, “I’d like a little head—wouldn’t we all?” Garrett tells a story of his icon and mentor Rodney Dangerfield’s relationship with Dangerfield’s far-younger wife, Joan Child, to whom Dangerfield was married from 1993 until his death in 2004.

Dangerfield’s friends in the comedy world wondered why he would marry a woman who seemed so clearly out of his reach, whose motives had to be questioned. His famous answer: “I finally found a woman who was interested in me for my money!”

Garrett has a lot of Dangerfield in him, and it’s no coincidence. Rodney was one of the first influential comic figures to show any interest in the gangly Garrett, booking the comic in his Dangerfield’s comedy club even after Garrett’s confusing audition, the centerpiece of which was his daffy impression of Herman Munster.

“Who the fuck is that?” was Dangerfield’s response. Dangerfield was also thrown by Garrett’s height, asking the comic, “Leave the rest of the team on the bus, will ya?”

But Garrett, who despite his imposing size was never a good athlete (he’s never been able to even dunk a basketball on a regulation hoop), landed the gig anyway. Soon after leaving UCLA after less than a semester, he was the quintessential club comic, honing his craft in such haunts as The Improv in Hollywood and The Ice House in Pasadena. Garrett was known solely as a club comic only briefly, though.

The entertainment industry’s heavyweights took notice of Garrett after he became “grand champion” on the 1980s contest show Star Search, the forerunner to American Idol that reached millions of viewers each week. He won $100,000 for that triumph, and soon after appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This was in 1984; Garrett was just 23.

Humble beginnings: Brad Garrett on The Tonight Show in 1984.

Garrett was soon operating on a higher plane. He began landing TV and film roles—he did a lot of voice work, including ’90s cartoon series Where’s Waldo? and 2 Stupid Dogs, as well as 1990’s Jetsons: The Movie and 1995’s Casper; His acting work included bit parts on Roseanne and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—and soon was opening for such giants as Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra—the latter at the Desert Inn.

In a story often told from the stage, Sinatra was known to introduce Garrett as “Greg Barrett,” forcing Garrett to make an impossible choice: Correct Frank Sinatra, or take a bow as “Greg Barrett.”

“Like a schmuck, I took a bow to someone else’s name,” Garrett says. “My mom told me, ‘Maybe you should sit down and have a talk with Mr. Sinatra.’ I said, ‘What? Ma, you don’t have ‘a talk’ with Mr. Sinatra.’”

But Rodney was the catalyst, especially through the period that covered the 1980s through 1996, when Garrett landed the plum role as Robert Barone, Ray Romano’s brother in the long-running sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Dangerfield was, of course, a comic inspiration (and Garrett performs a devastating impression of Rodney), and Garrett today even has his own far-younger life partner in IsaBeall Quella.

The two met in July 2008, when Quella was working at an art gallery in Boston—she laughed as he pointed to a painting of John Adams and said, “So, you have Barbara Bush’s portrait here.” He also picked up a sculpture of a Chihuahua, held it high and said, “I’d like to thank the American Kennel Club for this award.” It was a line that hearkens to the Old Vegas that Garrett loves, when Dean Martin picked up Sammy Davis Jr. and said, “I’d like to thank the NAACP for this award!”

But they are so unalike, Garrett and IsaBeall. Garrett is 50; his girlfriend 26, and he looms more than a foot taller than her. When he blows into a room, be it his own club or a restaurant, she invariably blends into the background.

“We’re old souls,” Quella says. “I think that’s why we get along so well. We really click at every level.”

As for Garrett, when speaking of his romance he characteristically leans on shtick. He says that when he met Quella, “She was looking at the children’s menu and I was giving her crayons so she could color it.” Also, “Yesterday I took her shopping and bought her a pair of those shoes that light up. Now she’s so happy!” And, “The other night I’m out with IsaBeall, she’s in a high chair, pounding on it and throwing the SpaghettiO’s at the maître d’.”

You can almost hear the voice of Rodney Dangerfield creeping through.

“Why am I up here? My ex-wife took all my Raymond money!”

Garrett could have stayed in the “big rooms” if he so chose. He had a weekend booked at the Mirage at the time he began negotiating with the Tropicana to lease the space once occupied by Dangerfield himself, and more recently the Comedy Stop at the Trop and—even more recently—a similar “Old Vegas” effort by comic Bobby Slayton. That foray lasted less than six months.

Garrett never did perform his last weekend at the Mirage. Both sides avoided a confusing set of circumstances where Garrett was most recently scheduled to appear at the Terry Fator Theater on June 26; the Brad Garrett Comedy Club at the Trop opened on June 28 (Garrett pokes fun at the Mirage theater, pointing to his own club’s stage and saying, “Look at that stage! It’s a postcard! You see any puppets up there? No! It’s beautiful!”)

Contractually, Garrett was committed to just that June weekend and had no other dates locked in. “People over there (at the Mirage) knew that I was looking around for a club—absolutely—and I was going to do that last weekend and then, literally, open here two days later. I just felt that wasn’t the way to do it and put the ball in their court.”

And MGM Resorts officials pocketed the ball, lopping Garrett’s dates and clearing him to focus on the Trop project (the hotel’s statement was that the moment Garrett started talking publicly about the club, they decided to move him off their entertainment schedule).

An avid poker player, Garrett has metaphorically stacked the chips in his opening bid. He’s contracted to lease the space for two years, and when asked how many seats he needs to fill per show, pauses and says, “Seven.”

No, really.

“A lot,” he finally offers. The club was beyond its capacity, at more than 300 in the room, for Garrett’s first set of dates with Vegas vet Rob Sherwood. But when Garrett was away and Bob Zany took over the following week, the count was about a third of that.

The club will survive, or not, based on the dates filled by vets like Zany and Jay Malone, and, this week, Don Barnhart and Jeff Capri. Next week it’s Butch Bradley and Ken Carr.

They might not be familiar names to the casual comedy fan, but Garrett—assuming the Rodney-esque role of comic catalyst—says, “Every guy who plays here has had an HBO special or has been on Letterman two or three times. Bob Zany is a legend in this business, as far as clubs and theaters go ... Dom Irrera, a buddy of mine (who appears at the club in August), is one of the greats.

“I wanna be that room that, if you’ve got the chops, you can play here.”

Garrett is banking on it, even as he claims he is not a wealthy man—not now. He jokes from the stage, “Why am I up here? My ex-wife took all my Raymond money.” But he put up $250,000 of his own money just to open the club and spends $40,000 a month in advertising alone.

“That’s my signage. That’s my billboards. That’s the guy driving down the block with my picture on an Isuzu, which is great, because that’s gonna help me. Yeah, right,” Garrett says with a short, sarcastic laugh. “I mean, I am totally, totally on my own. If I wanna be on a key card, I pay for it. If I’m on a chip, I pay for it.”

Garrett’s attention to detail is remarkable for a man who professes to suffer from adult ADD. During a walk-through of his club, he asks, “Did we ever get that bulb replaced?” This was a bulb he noticed four weeks ago. He calls to a Tropicana staffer, “People who call for tickets are being told the box office is saying we’re not open until 1 o’clock—not true. Please fix that.”

The positioning of the framed, vintage photos of his career and all those paintings of famed comics—artwork by comic-artist Steve Altman—was Garrett’s decision. He picked the burgundy velvet draping from 51 bolts of fabric, all of which were similar but not exactly alike in color and material. He wanted a Vegas-style pianist onstage to open the club and found George Bugatti at Casa di Amore, and—bang!—Bugatti was onstage days later for opening night.

“You know what I’m doing today?” he asks, quickly supplying the answer. “I’m going to see the concierges in six hotels. I’m going to pass out tickets, yep. I’m going to Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, Wynn, MGM Grand (pause as a joke materializes), the Paddle Wheel, and the place where Debbie Reynolds took her teeth out. I’m hitting all of them!”

“I’m a Jew, but I’m not that Jew!”

As a comedian himself, Garrett says he is uniquely equipped to understand the dynamics of industry politics. In Las Vegas, club operators take a dim view of a comic performing too soon at a rival club after appearing in their own room. Policies vary—as one comic familiar with the Las Vegas comedy scene noted, some will refuse to book a comic if that comic appears within 30 days in a rival Vegas club.

In one instance, a club instituted a policy where a comic would not be allowed to take the stage if he or she had appeared at a rival club 180 days before and after the comic’s scheduled week of appearances. Closing out the comic’s entire year of opportunities in Vegas, in other words. Some clubs simply refuse to use a comic if he or she appears elsewhere in Vegas, ever.

Garrett has his own dim view of these practices.

“I had Dom Irrera booked to play the room and I got a call from another hotel,” Garrett relates. “They said, ‘You can’t advertise that you’re going to have Dom Irrera,’ and I go, ‘Why not?’ And they said, ‘Because he’s at our place.’ And I said, ‘When?’ And they go, ‘Four months before he’s at your place.” I said, ‘So what?’ I mean, hold on here. I’m going to put my lineup out there.”

Garrett says he’s asked by comics he’s already booked if they are allowed to play a club before or after their Trop appearances.

“Absolutely,” is Garrett’s answer. “It’s different for me, as a comic, because I know you’re trying to make a living working in clubs or theaters. If you’re hot in Vegas, and you can work Sin City (at Miracle Mile) or Bonkerz (at Palace Station), then Garrett’s room—why not? To tell a comic he has to wait 90 days or whatever before working any other room, well, look how much you’re cutting into this guy’s money.”

Once a comic asked how much of a cut Garrett would take from that comic’s merchandise sales during his week of appearances at the club.

“I said, ‘What?’ See, I’ve never sold merchandise in the room,” Garrett says, his voice rising with incredulity. “If you want to sell your merchandise, I’m not going to take a piece. I’m a Jew, but I’m not that Jew.”

And a pause as yet another joke materializes.

“I have such a gigantic overhead here, I’ve been asked never to show up at my synagogue again,” Garrett says. “That’s how bad my deal is. The Rabbi met me out at the car and said, ‘You’re the type of Jew who would make Schindler re-think his list!’”

But later, Garrett has shed the shtick to give an honest assessment of his viability at the Trop.

“I’ve got a lot more than the dough (invested) here,” he says. “It’s my name. It’s my ego, and it’s the craft that I love a lot more than the dough and the ego and the name. It will work. It has to work.”

What if it doesn’t work? What if the roof falls in, totally?

Garrett struggles to consider such an outcome.

“Look,” he says, finally. “If it doesn’t work, I’m sure the hotel will kick me out before I leave.”

The pace of that comment seems primed for a rim shot, but not now. There is just silence, as Brad Garrett gazes at his stage, pondering the postcard that is a testament to his new Vegas experiment—and his big gamble in a small room.

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