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September 20, 2014

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Laugh Factory’s Harry Basil recalls stint with unprecedented comic lineup at Dunes

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It's a bird! It's a plane! It's prop comic Harry Basil!

One night 30 years ago, Harry Basil opened in Las Vegas as part of a comedy show at the Dunes. It was no ordinary lineup. Basil was sharing the hotel’s 500-seat showroom with a handful of other rising young comics.

There is a shot favored by Basil of the seven comics who opened the Comedy Store’s unprecedented lineup that night in May 1984. Hacking it up on a sofa were Basil, Louie Anderson, Andrew “Dice” Clay, Paul Rodriguez, Blake Clark, Argus Hamilton and Jim Carrey.

Some rose to a higher level of fame than others, naturally. But in this golden moment of comedy on the Strip, they were equals.

“It was the first time any of us had played Vegas,” Basil remembers. “We were in a 500-seat showroom, young comics playing this room that for years had had a topless show, and the headliners were Robert Goulet and Lola Falana.”

The umbrella operator was comedy legend Mitzi Shore, with her Comedy Store moving into the Dunes showroom. The original contract was for five weeks. Shore survived two years.

“I’d only been a professional comedian for six months, and this was the first time any club put on more than two comics,” Basil says. “But even then, we were all headliners. We were rising stars. We were kind of a big deal.” Peppering the audience were such celebs-of-the-moment as George Carlin, Tom Jones, Mike Tyson, Goulet, Falana, Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield.

“It was Old Vegas, believe me,” Basil says.

Hamilton was the host during that first week. On opening night, Carrey and Rodriquez performed guest sets (Carrey was opening for Dangerfield at Caesars Palace). The order of comics to follow Hamilton for two shows were Anderson, Carrey, Clay, Clark, Rodriguez and Basil.

“I remember, afterward, walking the Strip with Jim Carrey and seeing Rodney’s name on the marquee,” Basil says. “That’s where you wanted to be.”

Today, Basil is a partner in the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana, joined by club founder Jamie Masada and film director and producer Joseph Mehri. Basil is a regular headliner at the club, too, performing this week with Dean Delray nightly in the club’s 8:30 and 10:30 slots.

Basil can be counted on to perform his trademark film spoofs, manically changing costumes onstage and spreading across the stool to fly like Superman or exhume a scene from his “favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie,” which is “Kindergarten Cop.”

Thus, Basil today is a mix of club operator and club comic, adept in both roles. The Laugh Factory is a traditional comedy club, seating 300 or so under a low ceiling with the stage backed by the recognizable Laugh Factory brand. The space was first tested as a comedy room by Bobby Slayton a few years ago, then later snapped up by Brad Garrett, who gave the venue a whole-scale makeover before pulling out after a year and moving to MGM Grand. The Laugh Factory, that famed Sunset Strip brand, moved into the space in March 2012 and Basil was in business.

“We are doing well, especially with ‘Mamma Mia!’ moving into the (Tropicana) theater,” Basil says. “We’re looking to get somebody to take over the 7 p.m. slot, a veteran but not a super old-school comic.”

Roseanne held that spot for several months, and Basil says she might come back in September with the idea that she’ll be a hotter name after her judging stint on “Last Comic Standing.” Roseanne hopes not to be hotter, in fact, as she can’t stand the summer heat in Las Vegas and would want to return in the fall — if at all.

But Basil knows what type of act won’t play the room: A variety act, juggler or magician. Murray Sawchuck has sewn up those options in his 4 p.m. show.

“We want a good, solid star who has TV credits,” Basil says. He adds that he was in talks with George Wallace, who recently ended his 10-year run at the Flamingo, but nothing ever came of that discussion.

It is certainly easier to scout comics today than it was in the mid-1980s.

“We were working in the pre-You Tube and pre-Internet era,” Basil says. “You had three networks and HBO. It was exciting to see a new comic performing in Hollywood at the Comedy Store or Laugh Factory. Today, you can pick up someone’s act long before you see them live. But comedy is as strong as ever, especially in Las Vegas, and I think people will always support it.”

As for the club’s long-term viability, I’d bet Basil is right. The feeling is that the Laugh Factory, and its seemingly limitless complement of pro comics, is going to be around for a long spell.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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