Las Vegas, July 23, 2013
Who expects to see a Headliner at McDonald’s? Nobody, right? That’s why it’s the perfect disguise.
My world and the world of Las Vegas overlap at about five in the morning, when I’m getting up and Sin City is stumbling off to a half-passed-out slumber – that thick, deep sleep that leaves you wondering, when you awake, why your pillowcase smells faintly of vomit. The town’s official motto is ‘What happens here stays here,’ but the second-choice slogan was more accurate, I think: ‘If you didn’t puke your guts out, it wasn’t Vegas.’
But The Headliner is at war with all of that, I think, despite his job. He’s a jogger, for goodness’ sake. He was wearing gym shorts and an old tee shirt and running shoes that surely cost more than my whole wardrobe. Even so, he looks just like the picture of him you see on The Strip. If the other bleary-eyed breakfast-eaters didn’t recognize him, it could be because, in real life, his head is not sixty feet tall.
Or it could just be because people can’t imagine that normal folks and so-called ‘celebrities’ can occupy the same spaces: If I can see you and talk to you just like a regular guy, you can’t be famous. I’m just the opposite: I can imagine anything. In consequence, I am delighted to take in whatever the world throws at me.
We were sitting at the opposite corners of our booths, across the little walkway from each other. Intimate enough to make eye-contact, distant enough to maintain distance: The Willie Dance is a delicate thing.
I said, “You rocked on Leno the other night.”
He smiled, and it was a Headliner’s smile, a thousand dollars a tooth would be my guess. “I get one dark day a week. It took three months to schedule three minutes.” He laughed and I laughed even though it was kind of a weak-tea joke. A comedian says funny things. A comic says things funny.
He looked at me for a beat and then he said, “You want a joke, don’t you?”
“I don’t mean to bother you.”
“C’mon, it’s Vegas and I’m a trained dolphin. It’s part of the deal.” That was humble-bragging. He was on, just like that, with the venue scaled down to just the two of us. “Here’s one I don’t do in the show, because it makes everyone squirm: ‘What a town this is, huh? Back home in your recliner, you gotta piss and moan for half-an-hour to get a fat broad to bring you a beer.’”
I tapped my hands on the table-top to mimic the rim-shot sound.
“Too easy, huh? I make a good living off of bad jokes. Wasn’t always that way…”
And all I have to do is listen. Everybody wants to talk.
“I don’t know if anyone moves here intentionally. I know I didn’t. I used to come for long weekends with my buddies. Get drunk. Gamble a little. Bag an ugly skank and hope she doesn’t give you anything you can’t get rid of. Go out to the clubs or the ultra-lounges and you can see guys just like I was a thousand times a night.”
“Except you were more interested in gambling than your friends.”
He smiled sheepishly. “You’ve heard this before.”
“There are really only two stories in Sin City: Gambled and lost everything or quit gambling and won something.”
His smile deepened. “That’s me, both halves. One weekend I started losing early, so I started chasing early. By Tuesday’s dawn, I had pissed away my condo-payment, my car payment and who knows what else. I could’ve recovered, I’m sure – but I didn’t want to. How do you know what it is you want to do? Take a look at what you’re doing – because that’s it. I didn’t want to gamble anymore, but I didn’t want to leave Las Vegas, either. To tell the truth, I think I wanted to kick its ass.”
I smiled at that. What drives driven people? Anger is a biggie.
“So. I got an apartment while I still had a credit rating and I got a suck-ass job at a locals joint and I dug in and thought about how to take this town and make it my bitch. I started driving taxi because it paid better – and there was a signing bonus. And then I started selling jokes for a living.”
I smiled wryly. “Straight to the top.”
“Not quite. What I did was, I switched to the house’s side of the bet – from my cab. I would pick up a party, and then I would bet them the fare that I could make them laugh. No laughs, no charge, but the first laugh pays the full fare and every one after that is a buck more in tips.”
“Ya think? Driving in Vegas, you spend half your time in hack lines: Wait, pull forward, wait, pull forward. I spent that time writing jokes on index cards and practicing my delivery. I drove for nine months, and in that whole time I ate two fares, total. I got to a place where I was making twenty bucks on a four-minute trip, and the tourists just loved it – taxitainment. People would sit in my cab with the meter running, just to keep me telling jokes.”I had nothing to say to this, I was just chuckling with an enduring delight at the sheer genius of the hustle. You can’t cheat an honest man, because he never wants anything he didn’t earn. But Vegas feeds on the other kind, and making people laugh at the price of their own greed is what separates a true Carney from a ham-handed thief.
“So one day I picked up the entertainment director for the Tropicana and the rest, as they say, is history. He set me up for an open-mic, I killed it, and I took over the third-slot on the late-night bill. A year later I’m second-banana and a year after that, I’m a FIVO.”
“Just FIVO – Famous In Vegas Only. I’m the big star you never heard of until you got here, the one you’ll never hear from again after you leave. I think it’s funny how the hotel trumpets my shit as if it matters. If you’re a FIVO and you’re not doing anything to break out of that coffin – you’re headed for Branson. And Famous In Branson Only is just another way of saying fuhpuckingthetic.”
“Hence L.A. I have a sitcom in development. Half the time I don’t sleep, because I fly over in the morning, then fly back in time to do the show. I don’t want to do Leno, I want to be Leno – famous everywhere and therefore always a star in Vegas. If you get bigger every time you get fired, that’s when you know you’re making the right moves.”
He shrugged. “So that’s my deal, and you’re the only guy in town who knows it. If you can go from being a cab-driver to being the FIVO on the billboard on top of the cab, you can go anywhere you want.”
And if that ain’t Vegas, nothing is.