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October 22, 2014

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COMEDY :

Second show, tougher crowd

‘Caveman’ star moonlights at Fitzgeralds, works hard as stand-up to win over audience

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Leila Navidi

Kevin Burke, star of “Defending the Caveman” at the Golden Nugget, performs his own stand-up show at Fitzgeralds after “Caveman.” In it, he relies on props, music, magic, card tricks and mind-reading as well as jokes. One recent night the Fitzergalds crowd was tough, but Burke won them over.

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Burke rides the elevator in the Golden Nugget, an early part of his 5 1/2 minute dash to Fitzgeralds, where he will perform his second show of the night, as he does seven nights a week.

If You Go

  • Who: Kevin Burke
  • “Defending the Caveman”: 8 nightly, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; Golden Nugget; $39.95; 386-8100
  • “Fitz of Laughter”: 9:15 nightly; Fitzgeralds; $29 and $39; 388-2400

Comedian Kevin Burke lumbers like an over-the-hill fullback, dodging taxi cabs and construction barriers on his one-block dash from the Golden Nugget to Fitzgeralds.

Minutes earlier he finished his nightly performance of “Defending the Caveman.” Now he’s headed for his new stand-up comedy gig, “Fitz of Laughter.”

It takes him 5 1/2 minutes, showroom to showroom.

Burke has been starring in “Caveman,” a hilarious one-man show about the differences between the sexes, at the Nugget for almost two years. The premise: men are hunters and women are gatherers.

Now Burke’s hunting for an audience, elated at the chance to perform his stand-up routine at Fitzgeralds following “Caveman” seven nights a week.

Burke has a comfortable groove with “Caveman.”

On this night, he captures the 400 fans from the outset. They applaud, laugh and nudge their mates as they recognize the reality that Burke highlights with humor. It’s a good crowd, mostly couples. These are husbands and wives who went to dinner and topped it off with the 8 p.m. show. (Burke also does afternoon shows Saturdays and Sundays).

When the show ends at 9:10 Burke stands in the theater’s lobby and greets fans as they stream past. Wearing jeans and a black sport shirt, he’s an everyman. Overweight, friendly and modest, he’s the antithesis of a celebrity. He’d look right at home at the bowling alley.

Though he is about to make a run to Fitzgeralds, he doesn’t rush. He waits patiently until he’s sure no one else wants to chat or shake his hand. Then he turns to the elevator, taking it three floors down to the Nugget’s lobby.

Pumped up by the enthusiastic audience, Burke walks briskly into the cool night air, past the valet on Casino Center Drive. He annoys some cab drivers as he makes his way across the street and heads east on Carson Street, past a construction site and down an empty sidewalk. The hordes are a block north on Fremont Street, patronizing street vendors and crowding around a rock band on the outdoor stage.

He uses his cell phone to return a call during the jaunt. When enters a side door of Fitzgeralds, he leaves behind the music of the night.

Through the casino, up the escalator, he enters at 9:25 Fitzgeralds’ second-floor 150-seat showroom, where a smaller, tougher crowd awaits.

These 60 fans aren’t as fervent as the “Caveman” group. Comedian Rolan Whitt tries to warm up the audience, cracking jokes with mixed results.

Burke’s producer, John Bentham, helps his star out of the black sport shirt into an orange one — which makes him look even more like a bowler. The audience is tepid, but Burke doesn’t show any nerves.

• • •

The former Chicagoan was just 16 when he took the stage as a drummer with local bands. He took classes with the Second City improv group and did stints as a street entertainer and as a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He combined elements of everything he learned and became a stand-up comedian in 1987. He quit stand-up five years ago to tour the country with “Caveman.” He landed in Vegas, where “Caveman” replaced impressionist Gordie Brown at the Nugget.

Brown, now on tour with Celine Dion, reclaims the showroom in January and “Caveman” will have to find a new home. Burke had hoped to bring his wife and three children out from Indianapolis to live here, but the uncertain future of the Vegas show put the plan on hold.

So Burke, 48, has plenty of time to juggle two gigs. He crams his work schedule into an intense 2 1/2 hours at night and spends his days reading and writing.

• • •

Whitt introduces Burke, who bounds onto the small stage.

He’s confident and quickly takes charge of the room. He refuses to let the fans be passive. He draws them into the routines and by the end of the evening they’re firmly in his corner, although he has to fight harder to win them over than he does at the Nugget.

Mostly it’s a clean act, but there are innuendos and an occasional four-letter word. He does a little prop comedy, pulling things from a small box on a stand. He does some jokes. Some music (playing the “Gilligan’s Island” theme on kazoo). Card tricks. Mind-reading bits. The act lasts about 35 minutes. He closes by eating fire.

“ ‘Caveman’ is a play,” Burke says. “It looks like stand-up, but like any play, each line has to follow each line. I can’t cut a bit. But my stand-up comedy is my show. I have two hours of material to pull from. If an audience wants to go in one direction, I can go that way.”

He relishes his back-to-back engagements, but when the evening ends he’s ready to go home, collapse and recuperate for another day treading the boards.

“I won’t have any trouble making it,” Burke says. “Unless I get hit by a cab, or stop to listen to the band on Fremont Street.”

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