Says in the papers that today is the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings, not that comedian Warren Durso actually believes the papers, or in the Sandy Hook shootings themselves, or, for that matter, in 9/11 or pretty much anything the media or government tells us, and more about that later. For the moment, here amid the loose drift of shoppers in the outlet mall in Primm, of all nutso places, he’s found something he can believe: the ghost of Billy Mays.
A video of the dead pitchman plays at a sales table as Durso hands over $10 for a pen that Mays assures us will erase scratches in your car’s paint. Just so happens that Durso recently bought a used car, and he seems to think this miracle product offers precisely the touch-up it needs. So, the government faked Sandy Hook, but this he’s willing to believe? Okay, he’s really just killing time because killing it is the second best use of your time in fucking Primm.
The first? Pancakes, of course. But those are gone now. It’s 11:30 on a Saturday morning, and the arguably funniest man in Primm right now has just put away a short stack in the Original Pancake House, where he flirted shamelessly with the waitress (“The last time I ordered pigs in a blanket at Denny’s, they brought me three waitresses and a sleeping bag”) and talked to most of the eaters within vocal range, his voice sandpapered by lack of sleep. “You comin’ to the show tonight?” he asks a group of black travelers who wear, perhaps improbably, Santa hats. “I’m the comedian here.” No, they’re heading out for a few days in Laughlin.
Durso got to bed at 5 a.m., long after his Friday night set in the Bonkerz comedy club in Primm Valley Resort — packed house, he says — but he’s game to amble the mall, a ridiculous cluster of high-end discount shops surrounded by miles and miles of the ass end of nowhere. This weekend in Primm is a one-off for Durso. His regular gig is Mondays through Wednesdays at the Bonkerz in the Plaza downtown, where he bills himself as “the ugliest comic in America!,” a claim that demands some empirical backup in a world that also contains Larry the Cable Guy. (Who still probably gets laid more than Warren Durso.) That “ugliest comic” business is Durso’s attempt to eke PR mileage out of “Ugly,” a 2012 Esquire story in which writer Mike Sager set out to profile an unattractive person and eventually wound up with Durso. Who, it must be said, is not grotesquely unpleasing to the eye, notwithstanding the naked picture of him that ran in Esquire. (Feast your eyes: esquire.com/features/warren-durso-comedian-0512)
Watch this, he murmurs. “Random high five!” he says to a woman he passes in the mall, raising his palm. It waves there, suspended, waiting for a number of uncomfortable seconds, completely un-fived. She pretends not to hear the crazy guy with unruly hair and an apparent willingness to violate personal-space customs. Durso isn’t fazed. “Random high five!” he beams to another guy, who ignores him even harder.
He’s been working Bonkerz in the Plaza since mid-August, called in off the road, from a club in Atlanta, on three days’ notice. (He normally lives in LA.) Bonkerz is a smallish room just off a bar, narrow, a curtain-backed stage at one end, not so easy to find in the desultory bustle of the Plaza. Imagine the audience you’re gonna draw there — drunks, tapped-out tourists, gamblers taking a breather, a few comedy fans. This is not the new downtown of East Fremont and craft bars and tech dreamers going bonkerz on Tony Hsieh’s money. It represents a more paleolithic strata of downtown. “I had no idea the fucking jail was right there,” Durso says. He thinks the Fremont Street Experience is cool enough, but is disheartened by what he sees as the pageant of post-recession desperation drawn to the place. “The people who are there are on their last dollar. It’s really sad,” he says. “They go there because it’s what they can afford to do. It just seems that the people who want to get really wasted go downtown.” Old people everywhere. “You don’t even want to hit on anyone down there,” he jokes. “What do you say to your grandmother?”
In a sense, these are Durso’s people, the murky pool from which most of the audience for a somewhat unknown comedian will come from. Despite a long career in the biz, it’s not like he’s Louie fucking Anderson. Sometimes he gets decent crowds, he says, but he’s also played to audiences that barely broke double digits, so small that you can’t laugh anonymously and therefore are stingy with your laughter. As in the mall, Durso appears unfazed by the lack of response. He just keeps working it, grinding out the relationship jokes, the edgy sex and gender jokes — the whole thing largely unscripted, he says — like the 20-year-veteran he is. One, 10 or 100 people, doesn’t matter; it’s a livin’. “Better than slinging eggs in some friggin’ waffle house,” he says. Onstage he is loose and easygoing, riffing off of the crowd and , it must be said, pretty damn funny.
In the mall, a girl pulls her friend out of a pricey store by her hair. “What’d ya get me?” Durso asks, catching them by surprise.
“A skirt!” one says.
“How’d ya know?!” he asks. “What color?”
“My favorite!” The girls giggle nervously and veer into another store.
“One of Warren’s strengths is his ability to connect with a wide array of audiences,” says Lou Magelowitz, Durso’s opening act. “Old people, young people, white and black, they all laugh together,” and they leave “thanking him for his honesty and insights.”
“With my comedy, I’m trying to get you to think,” Durso says. “I don’t want you to think like me, I just want you to think. That’s my biggest thing. Don’t believe every damn thing you see on CNN or read in the newspaper. It’s all bullshit!”
He recognizes in himself a definite soapbox tendency and says he tries to shun too much politics and the news in his act — however much he wants you to think, he wants you to laugh first, and few things kill humor like preachiness. Tonight he might work in a throwaway joke about the incoherent deaf interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, something about how deaf people can now be as confused by Obama as those of us who can hear him, but he thinks that’s about it. You never know what’ll kill the vibe. He mentions a disastrous gig over Thanksgiving — won’t say where, only that it wasn’t in Vegas. “They were prudish,” he says of the crowd. “Didn’t want to hear the truth. It wasn’t dirty or anything, just honest. But a lot of people don’t like the honesty.” What kind of honesty? “Like, 13-year-old girls having babies. They were booing me: ‘Booo!’ Really? That doesn’t happen?”
But since today isn’t a comedy show, just breakfast and a mall walk, he finally doesn’t deny himself the soapbox: “The world is run by 50 people in the G20, and they’re the ones making all the rules” leads to “The whole world, the economy, that was orchestrated. … They want the one-world monetary system.” And before long he’s deep into a truther reverie about Sandy Hook as a pretext for gun control and 9/11 as a ruse to keep us in line, and when you suspect that this stuff is itself a ruse, that he’s funnin’ ya in some way you can’t quite figure, that these recherche views — generally screened from public view behind an act reliant on a more mainstream style of edge — are part of a performance, and you ask him if he’s serious, well, he is. “I don’t buy it,” he says of the narratives the media feeds us. “America does.”
That’s pretty cynical, you tell him. He doesn’t disagree.
In the mall, Durso bumps into two guys he remembers seeing in the audience last night. They tell him about their wild night after his show, and it’s clear he’s actually listening to these guys, laughing and lightly bonding, not just humoring them. However cynical he might be about our society and institutions, he’s not at all cynical about individual people. There’s always the chance someone will return your random high five.
“You never know who you’re supposed to meet,” he says. “God puts people in front of you for a minute or a lifetime; you never know.” CL