Las Vegas has every right to brag. It’s still the entertainment capital of the world, and now it’s a sports town and a music festival mecca. Plus, it remains a cornucopia of comedy.
That last one might have felt less prominent in the past, but Vegas has always had a sense of humor. Stand-up comedy has never been as loud, as funny or as diverse here as it is today.
“Comedy has arrived,” says Noam Dworman, owner of New York’s legendary Comedy Cellar, which opened a second location at the Rio in 2018. “The level of comedians is very high now, much higher than it’s ever been in my career. I was looking at some old shows at the Cellar from the ’90s and early 2000s, and the comedians are so much funnier now.”
Dworman would know. The original Comedy Cellar helped launch the careers of many of the top comics we follow, love and have laughed with for years. “Starting all the way back from Jon Stewart and Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and Ray Romano, up now through Mike Birbiglia and Amy Schumer, you name it—they’ve all been through the Cellar,” he says.
There’s also a surplus of stand-up content available right now thanks to streaming media companies like Netflix specializing in specials and showcases. Overall, comedy has become a bigger part of the entertainment landscape, and Las Vegas is perfectly positioned to take advantage thanks to its multitude of venues.
Traditional clubs like the Comedy Cellar, Laugh Factory at the Tropicana and L.A. Comedy Club at the Strat keep the laughs coming on a nightly basis, hosting rising stars and veterans of the tour circuit. Meanwhile, such headliners as Ali Wong, Chelsea Handler, Leslie Jones, Russell Peters, Bill Burr and Kevin Hart have steamrolled the Strip this season, entertaining at larger venues at Resorts World, Park MGM, Wynn and the Mirage.
Late-night TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who grew up in Las Vegas, sounds excited to witness his hometown re-entering the comedy spotlight.
“You think back to the olden days with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra and Sammy [Davis Jr.] and Joey Bishop … this was the place to be if you were a comic. Now it is again,” says Kimmel, who opened his own club at the Linq Promenade in 2019. “I think there was a stigma attached to performing in Las Vegas. I don’t know what the reason for that was, but it doesn’t exist anymore. Comics realize that it’s a way to be on the road when you’re not on the road. You could have an entirely different audience every single night.”
Las Vegan Lindsay Glazer, a stand-up comic and attorney whose 2023 comedy album, Thanks, Dad, reached No. 3 among comedy albums on iTunes, has headlined Kimmel’s club here among others across the nation.
“Some nights you’ve got 20 cowboys from Montana in the audience with 50 people from New York, a bachelorette party, a wedding party, and four Michael Jackson impersonators,” Glazer laughs.
Shiny theaters once reserved for live music have opened up to stand-up. The Chelsea at the Cosmopolitan now books a variety of comics (Anthony Jeselnik, Nurse Blake, Nicole Byer and Tom Segura) following a multiyear residency from Adam Sandler. And in 2002, onetime Las Vegan Jo Koy became the first comedian to headline the largest “room” in town—T-Mobile Arena—home to the Vegas Golden Knights of the National Hockey League.
The nearly 1,500-seat Encore Theater at Wynn has hosted stars like Wong, Chris Tucker, Jim Gaffigan, Sebastian Maniscalco and Jay Leno, along with rising comics like Matteo Lane and Taylor Tomlinson who have outgrown smaller clubs.
Mirage Theatre’s longtime Aces of Comedy series also brought lots of big-name talent to the Strip. Recently rebranded as Center Stage Comedy as the Mirage evolves into a new Hard Rock Hotel, the lineup features heavy hitters like Ray Romano, Kathy Griffin, Dana Carvey and Daniel Tosh, while other Aces alumni have moved on to other venues (including Bill Maher, who now performs at MGM Grand’s David Copperfield Theater).
“If you’re gonna see a comedian in Vegas, you’re not gonna see a hack,” says veteran comic and actress Luenell. “For me, you’re gonna see and hear not just great comedy; you’re gonna see glitz and glamor. You’re gonna see what I think you expect to see when you come to Las Vegas.”
Luenell, who performs at Jimmy Kimmel’s Comedy Club, is the only Black female comedian with a residency on the Las Vegas Strip and recently appeared in Hacks, the HBO series about a waning Las Vegas comic who joins forces with a 25-year-old comedy writer to revive her career. (Luenell assures that’s definitely not the case for her: “I’m relevant AF.”)
Comedy offerings in Las Vegas have also leveled up off the Strip. Weekly late-night stand-up show The Dirty at 12:30 at the South Point Showroom recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Don’t Tell Comedy delivers pop-up shows around town on a regular basis. And Dworman has noticed a significant uptick in homegrown talent.
“We’re using more and more local acts, and not to save money, but because they’re of equal quality with the acts we’re bringing in from New York,” he says. “Some very good acts have decided to stay in Vegas and are able to make a living there, which is great.”
The Arts District’s Wiseguys comedy club has hosted some of the country’s top performers since opening 2021 and it recently announced that a second location will arrive at Town Square this summer. On the local level, off-Strip spots like Wiseguys have been a boon for comics looking to perfect their punchlines.
“In Vegas, because of the level of comedy here, you have to pretty much do your A material all the time at the clubs,” Glazer says. “Wiseguys is one of the only places that has open mics on Tuesday and Wednesday, where you can develop new material in front of real audiences.”
Glazer sees Vegas as a great place for comics to live and work, but talent saturation also means stiff competition. It’s good for comedy fans, but it keeps the pressure on up-and-coming entertainers.
“People are like, ‘Comics only have to work one hour a day.’ No we don’t,” Glazer says. “We actually write our bits, then we do our social media and then we send out 50 million booking emails. We do all that, and then we go onstage for an hour. Comics are really hard workers.”
The high volume of venues and performers in Las Vegas isn’t the only reason stand-up is surging here. “People have stopped going to the movies, but they’ve increased coming to comedy clubs,” Kimmel says.
Brad Garrett, the Everybody Loves Raymond actor and stand-up vet who, like Kimmel, runs his own Vegas club—Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club opened 11 years ago and recently moved to a more prominent location at MGM Grand—has a few theories.
“There seems to be a real need for people to escape and to laugh as the world kind of gets scarier and more divisive,” he says. “I think people are really coming around to the point of, ‘Don’t tell me what to laugh at, don’t tell me what’s funny.’ They’re almost getting more liberal, their humor is almost getting darker, as far as what their tastes are.
“We’re in a world where we’ve seen so much sh*t in the last five years, the seriousness of it all is permeating the entire world you’re living in,” Garrett continues, “and you have much bigger issues than someone making an off-color joke.”
To Luenell, the current climate of comedy simply feels like history repeating itself. “I remember when 9/11 happened. I thought we were gonna be done with comedy for a long time. It was just the opposite,” she says. “People were so down and shocked, they were looking for some relief and comedy seemed to be it.
“What I have learned is that in times of despair, people do reach out for comedic relief.”
Actor and comedian David Spade, who’s teaming up with Nikki Glaser for a series of comedy shows at the Venetian Theatre in September and November, says some comics also used the pandemic as an opportunity to build their followings through podcasts and other avenues, so when venues re-opened, new fans came in droves. But the SNL alum echoes Garrett’s theory that audiences “like it less PC now.”
“You don’t want comedy to be so watered down to the point where everyone is scared,” Spade says.
Perhaps that’s always been the appeal of stand-up comedy. It’s the one place where people will tell you the truth. And they will do so relentlessly.
“I’m not the Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” Luenell says. “I’m not somewhere where I don’t know what’s going on in the community, politically, racially and sexually. I speak on it; I don’t bite my tongue about it. People appreciate that, because everybody’s so worried about cancel culture. I want people to loosen up, have fun.”
Political unrest, social media beefs, TMI dating stories—it’s all material for professional comics. It’s “a seed of truth expanded into a mini-movie for the audience to watch and relate to but not have to worry that they’re that bad,” Glazer says.
Stand-up comedy seems simple—one person onstage with a microphone—especially juxtaposed against the grand entertainment options available in Las Vegas. But that’s also why it stands out, and why comedians’ different styles can connect with different kinds of audiences. That’s especially important in a city known for drawing in a mosaic of people.
“People don’t come to Vegas to have a bad time, they come to Vegas to escape and have a great time,” Luenell says. “If I can help make a memory of that for somebody, then the job don’t get no better.”
Brock Radke contributed to this article.
Upcoming comedy headliners
Anthony Jeselnik July 14 at the Chelsea
Chris Tucker July 14-15 at Encore Theater
Dana Carvey July 14-15 at Mirage Theatre
Anthony Rodia July 15 at Summit Showroom
Gary Owen July 22 at Pearl Concert Theater
Big Boy’s Funny Mutha Fruckas ft. DC Youngfly, Eric Blake, Chico Bean, Marlon Wayans & more, July 28 at the Theater at Virgin
Jerry Seinfeld July 28-29 at the Colosseum
Nurse Blake July 29 at the Chelsea
Matteo Lane July 29 at Encore Theater
Sebastian Maniscalco August 4-5 at Encore Theater
Deon Cole August 19 at the Theater at Virgin
Heather McMahan August 19 at Encore Theater
Jim Gaffigan August 25-26 at Encore Theater
Nicole Byer August 26 at the Chelsea
Tom Segura August 31-September 2 at the Chelsea
Bill Maher September 15-16 at David Copperfield Theater
Steve Martin & Martin Short September 22-23 at Encore Theater
Ali Wong September 29-30 at Encore Theater
David Spade & Nikki Glaser September 29-30 at Venetian Theatre
Tina Fey & Amy Poehler November 10-11 at Resorts World Theatre
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