Crapshoot Comedy wasn’t the comedy festival that Las Vegas asked for, but it was the one it deserved. The festival’s inaugural celebration took place last week with over 20 shows across downtown Vegas, bringing comedians from New York and Los Angeles to audiences that aren’t typical Vegas fare in the best way.
For a town used to Ralphie May, Jeff Dunham and something called the Brad Garrett Comedy Club (a place I shudder to consider what may be going on inside), favorites like Beth Stelling, Aparna Nancherla, Sam Jay, Kurt Braunohler and Jenny Zigrino might seem like unorthodox picks, with a few different names on the bill making their Vegas debut altogether. That’s exactly why Crapshoot co-promoters Paul and Kanky Chamberlain brought them.
“The music industry got dashed on the rocks (by the internet),” Crapshoot co-promoter Paul Chamberlain told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on the eve of the festival. “Comedy is learning from that. How to take control of their content and be the masters of their own destiny.”
The festival took a huge risk in taking the same destiny-fueled approach, and I’m glad as hell they did. Throwing a comedy festival in Vegas poses a number of uphill battles for the organizers and the comedians, all of whom are rising stars or established with cult followings, right off the bat. Performing at a casino isn’t many comics’ dream come true, nor is taking on a room where it’s a near certainty that at least one member of the audience will be too wasted to know better than to heckle, but that’s the nature of the city this festival took place in. As far as pulling a big audience in, it’s Vegas—while many would benefit and enjoy the shows on the bill, it’s tough to sell out rooms in the same city where there are virtually thousands of other acts vying for attention. The Chamberlains had to get creative in order to pull in audience members who had virtually everything else in the city vying for their attention, and get creative they did.
I lurked in the back of several of these shows a night, nursing absurdly affordable casino alcohol that is either half water or piss, to see how Chamberlain’s theory checked out. It’s a two-pronged concept—one is that bringing an extremely diverse lineup with a number of different, powerful voices both tests the idea that comedians building their following online will find them, the other that putting these voices in front of tourists who are conditioned to expect commercial comedy will be pleasantly surprised. There were plenty of shows to test the potency of this idea, with all three nights of the festival having a show beginning every hour, sometimes two at the same time, in a small constellation of venues in downtown Las Vagas within a ten minute walk from the El Cortez Hotel and Casino where Crapshoot was anchored.
With a few kinks expected in a first-year festival, the Crapshoot Comedy team has a lot to be proud of. Everyone at the fest, whether they were on a bill or in the audience or volunteering or were me lurking and sipping piss beer, had a killer time. While some Vegas people in the crowd were reticent to accept comedy about depression, queerness and nearly every other topic under the sun besides the expected refrain of shouted opinions on the sexual potency of a butterfaced white guy’s wife (great call-out to 85% of Vegas comedy, Jamie!), other audience members seemed initially surprised and ultimately swept up. Particular standouts were Dave Attell’s ninety-minute Thursday night kickoff, both “Nasty Women” shows helmed by Tig Notaro Saturday night, and the sheer resiliency of every comedian who performed multiple shows a night without losing momentum. Beauty Bar was my favorite hole-in-the-wall to catch sets from nearly every comic on the bill over the three nights.
Downtown Vegas matched the vibe that Crapshoot wanted to strike as closely as any corner of a tourist haven could. The Fremont Street area is busy but not as absurdly busy as the strip, it’s a little more lo-fi, and there’s a history around the area that seems to draw in an equal amount of tourists and locals, if the crowdwork I overheard throughout the weekend is to be believed. By the time the final show of the weekend wrapped up in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the fest had taken a step toward what seemed to be the impossible—there was a shred of, dare I say it, culture in the city where dreams go to die.
Thanks for the mems, Crapshoot—we hope to see you next year.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.