Q&A: Harry Basil
Harry Basil has divided his career between on the scene as a comic, and behind the scenes as a filmmaker and comedy club general manager. He books the Laugh Factory Las Vegas at the Tropicana, where he is scheduled to perform his movie-themed act this week through June 3. Basil spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about life and laughs after a meeting at Laugh Factory’s legendary green room.
You’re six years in with the Laugh Factory Las Vegas as partner and GM now. How did you get involved in the first place?
I just found out that the space was available, and I had performed there. I had performed there for 25 years at the Comedy Stop, and I also knew it as Rodney’s Club back in the ’80s.
Rodney as in Rodney Dangerfield?
Yeah, it was Rodney’s club. He actually shot a special there called Opening Night at Rodney’s Place. So I called my partner Joseph Merhi, who is a movie producer. We did a couple of Rodney movies together, and I said there’s a great place for a Laugh Factory. “Gotta call Jamie,” because we both knew Jamie (Masada, founder of the Laugh Factory). … So we all took a trip to Vegas and we loved the room, and we all made the deal on a handshake right there.
The Vegas room is beautiful. What was it like to perform there 20 years ago? Contrast yesterday and today.
(laughs) Exactly the same. No, the room is a lot prettier now. When Brad Garrett took it over they fixed it up, put up the really cool drapes, and Brad’s the one who made the green room. That used to be the liquor room in the old club, and it was Brad’s idea to turn it into the green room. I just put all of my touches on it, and a lot of memorabilia. Comedy albums.
The green room is mentioned often when people talk about the Laugh Factory. What makes it different from green rooms at other venues?
Just because it’s all about the comics, about them having a great time and feeling like a superstar. When I used to open for Rodney, Rodney always went out of his way to make sure than I got a suite, an equal-sized dressing room over at Bally’s and the MGM. And it was great getting spoiled like that, and I remember when we had the Comedy Store at the Dunes, we were the main attraction and the green room was all ours. I just felt like I wanted to make it someplace special. We take care of them with snacks, sometimes we bring food in, drinks. We have these epic karaoke nights once a month.
How did that get started?
My wife Lauren and I always had fun with karaoke. We owned our own karaoke machine and had a bunch of discs, and we used to have parties at our house with a lot of entertainers. Once we started having these get-togethers, we would all bullshit and tell BS stories, then I thought, “Ah, this is going to be fun, to have almost like a talent night, and see who can sing. Some weeks we have headliners, you can’t stop them. They want to do another song and another song and another song. We’ve been in there until five in the morning.
So you also want to do a podcast from there in the near future?
Yeah, Jamie Masada, the CEO of Laugh Factory wants me to start doing a podcast in the green room. We might call it After the Show. It’ll be interviewing the comics that are booked that week, and then other celebs that are in town.
You’re also involved with the Reno Laugh Factory, and there are four others including the original Hollywood club. How much work does it take to run two of the six Laugh Factories?
Well, it’s a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of media buying and advertising, and always trying something new. Finding a new comic that’s on the rise and trying to book them. We just booked Maz Jobrani, who’s pretty hot and has a big following. We’re negotiating for another residency at 7 o’clock—have it with Rich Little now, a big star. We had Roseanne in there originally. It’s a lot of work. Every time I have a day I think I can focus on something else, I find out I have a ton of other things I have to do. It’s cool to be able to book far out, and then you go, “Hey, I’m booked all the way through July right now, so that’s pretty cool. I don’t have to start taking commissions again for a while. Obviously we have to book far out because it’s a headliner club, not a showcase club. A showcase club is like the Laugh Factory in Hollywood or the Comedy Store, or the Improv where comics call in the week before and say, “Hey, I’m in town. I’d like a spot next week.” So you put together this lineup. The other one is trying to coordinate with the agent or manager far out, negotiating a good price, (scheduling) a good week to perform.
When did you perform in Vegas for the first time?
My first time in Vegas was May 4, 1984. My birthday. I had only been a comedian for about four months. Mitzi (Shore, Comedy Store founder, who passed away April 11) moved me up to a headliner pretty quickly, and then the next thing I know she goes, “We’re opening in Vegas and you’re going to close.” So I was the headliner that first week.
You, Andrew Dice Clay, Louie Anderson, Paul Rodriguez and Jim Carrey were part of the opening lineup of the Comedy Store at the Dunes in 1984.
Yeah, it’s pretty wild.
How does it feel to have relationships with some of your fellow comedians going back three decades?
Some of them, we’re still close. Some of them I haven’t seen in years. Jim Carrey, last time I saw him was at Rodney’s memorial. I might see him this weekend at Mitzi Shore’s. Louie, Paul Rodriguez, Dice and I, who’re really tight.
How did her passing affect you and your stand-up friends?
It was very sad. She affected me tremendously. I mean, I was a Comedy Store comedian. Like I said, I became a headliner. She brought me to Vegas. You know, back in those days there were a lot of industry people that used to frequent the clubs. I got an NBC deal through The Comedy Store. I met Rodney through The Comedy Store, and I guess in a sense met Jamie Masada and the Laugh Factory. So I owe a lot to her. I don’t think there’s any person in show business that has so many talented people saying, “I owe so much to this person.” If she liked you, you were in. You had a lot of opportunities.
Does the Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here get the ’70s SoCal comedy scene right? It was a little before your time but you were close.
Yeah, I started in ’82, and I enjoy watching the show because I just love that somebody made a show dedicated to that era, so it’s really cool to watch and I know some of the other actors on the show, you know, Eric Griffin and Dom Irrera, and some of the other young comics on the show. I enjoy watching it. It’s not comedy, it’s a drama, so I don’t know if some people are tuning in to watch comedy. Some of the guys are funny, obviously, because they are professional stand-ups that they cast, but it’s got an amazing cast.
What was the energy like that first night at the Dunes?
Oh, it was like we were all flying. A limo picked us up, there was press, and we just thought we were The Beatles coming to town. It was funny because the cover of that magazine (On Stage) says “Band of Unknown Zanies Invades the Dunes.”
You moved out west to be an actor. Was it a no-brainer for you to go with a movie angle for your comedy?
Yeah, I mean, that’s why I moved out to L.A., was to be an actor. Of course, I became a waiter, and once I found about the Comedy Store, I saw that you can do different kinds of performing rather than do straight jokes. It was kind like a showcase. You heard about guys getting series and movies because they had an act that a casting director or a producer saw, and said, “This guy would be good for this.” So you’re kind of focusing on that at the beginning when you create an act as well. “What’s going to get me to the next step?”
Your bio describes your act as a “prop-comedy mash-up of visual jokes referencing pop culture and movies.” Do you think about bits when you see movies or do you need to wait until a scene becomes iconic?
Yes, yes. Now, of course, I don’t perform as much as I used to so it’s not like I’m writing every single week, but, yeah, sometimes I see a movie and I’m like, “Yeah, I want to write a spoof from that.” Fifty Shades of Grey, I added that show. I added Gravity a couple of years ago. I thought of a visual bit. Now I want to add something from Get Out. I saw that movie last year. A lot of movies that I spoof are not comedies because comedies are already funny. How can I be funny about a comedy movie? So usually a horror film or a drama, or an action movie is where I wind up going.
You bring audience members onstage, too. How often has that ever gone horribly wrong?
That’s a major part of the show, is bringing up people, and everybody just loves that because I’ll take an innocent person sitting in the front row and next thing you know they’re the superstar onstage.
You were Rodney Dangerfield’s opening act for 17 years. Can you recount meeting him for the first time?
Yeah. The first time I met him was at the Comedy Store, and I just remember him getting out of a limo and buttoning up his pants. (laughs) He’s always unbuttoning his pants, you know? Let his belly hang out. If a woman stepped out of the car with him it would look a little weird. Rodney’s wife Joan always used to say Rodney’d step out of the car buttoning his pants and then she’d step out and they’d go “Hmmm, what was going on there?” But he was “Hey, how’re ya doin’? Whatever.” And then it came time to showcase for that (9th Annual) Young Comedians Special, and I showcased at the Comedy Store and I got cast. Once I got cast in the special, I got to meet him at Dangerfield’s in New York and sit down with him, and after the show he wound up asking me if I could open for him. Had a killer show, and he wound up asking me to open for him again and again, so it turned out I was his guy.
While some of your fellow Comedy Store ’84 alumni went onto have successful careers in front of the camera, you went behind the camera due in large part to Rodney Dangerfield. What was your favorite movie to work with him on?
Ladybugs was a lot of fun, just because it was fun seeing him with a lot of kids. Meet Wally Sparks because it was so funny and there were so many good bits in it. He was still really very spry. My most favorite is The Fourth Tenor, which a lot of people haven’t seen but was the first one I directed.