Last evening at the Improv
Comedy club welcomes 2001 and says goodbye to the Reno Hilton
In some ways, it’s just like any other night at the Reno Hilton’s Improv comedy club. Howie Nave, the club’s host comic, tells jokes about Sun Valley, brothels and Utah’s intolerance for cracks about Mormonism. He also tells jokes about the Reno Hilton, his home—literally—since 1998.
“If you really want to gamble here, try the buffet,” Nave tells the large, good-spirited, gaily-dressed crowd.
While the buffet gag is a staple of Nave’s comedy act, there are other jokes flying about the Hilton, many of them having to do with the unlikely topic of bingo.
Bingo? Yeah, bingo.
Kathleen Madigan, the headlining act this night, gets in on the bingo-joke fray later on, also dragging keno into the mud.
“Keno is like bingo for the retarded,” she says, wondering out loud how smart it is to play a game in which the player picks some numbers, gives them to the casino to look at, and then lets the casino pick the winning numbers. “That’s why they give you a crayon. They don’t want you to poke yourself in the eye.”
The reason that the Hilton and the great game of bingo are such hot topics is that this night, which also happens to be New Year’s Eve, is the last night of existence for the Improv at the Hilton. It will soon be replaced with—you guessed it—a bingo parlor.
“They’re gonna have blue hair half-off night here,” Nave tells the near-sellout crowd of over 250 people, all of whom paid $24.95 to get into the club for its final show at 10:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
The closing of the Improv is just the latest in a series of moves that seem to be driving many in the younger age set away from the Reno Hilton. First, the Keystone II Cinema closed, a fact which can’t be blamed entirely on the Hilton, although the casino was reportedly coveting the space that the theater occupied. Then, The Garage nightclub saw its status as a haven for up-and-coming musicians take a hit when Nave, who was also serving as The Garage’s manager, was unceremoniously replaced by the casino’s food and beverage manager.
However, cool is not what drives the casino industry; rather, it is gambling that pays the bills of the casino executives. And the Hilton apparently decided that a tamer nightclub and a bingo parlor were a better way to use the outskirts of its main casino floor.
As for the Keystone II space, Nave says the Hilton wanted to move the Improv, which has drawn consistently good crowds, into part of the former theater’s space. However, Improv owner Bud Friedman wanted no part of that and decided to move the Northern Nevada club to Harrah’s Lake Tahoe instead. The Improv will be re-born in the South Shore Room six nights per week starting on Jan. 15, Nave says.
Nave will stay with the Improv as it moves, although he says the Hilton made a bid to keep the Bay Area native. Nave started with the Hilton when Just For Laughs, now at the Sands Hotel-Casino, called the Hilton home before the Improv came in. Apparently, the Hilton wants to keep a comedy club in-house, and executives from the casino asked Nave if he would head up the club.
“They offered to put my name in the club’s name,” Nave says just before the final show. “One of the names they were kicking around was ‘Howie’s Caravan of Comedy.’ I started to laugh. [I wanted to ask them,] ‘Are you serious?'”
Before the final show, Nave—dressed in a black suit coat, a San Jose Sharks jersey, black pants and black Converse tennis shoes—isn’t his usual jovial self.
“I am so melancholy,” he says. “I had to clear everything out of [my office]. It’s like living in your own scrapbook.”
Nave also points out that he is wearing the black Converse shoes in mourning. He says the black shoes are for club closings; the red ones are for club openings. And the irony that Converse recently went out of business isn’t lost on him, either.
“This is new for me,” Nave says. “Usually, I don’t have to wait long to get fired from a job. This is the first time two different entities have said, ‘Will you work for us?'”
Nave, in his part of the final show, at one point declares, “This is so SAD!” Shortly afterward, he launches into some suggestions on how the Reno Hilton can improve itself. The joke that gets the biggest laugh: A suggestion that the hotel give customers larger bars of soap so they don’t accidentally slip into one’s nether regions.
But Nave didn’t use the phrase “nether regions.”
After he gives way to Scott Kennedy, the night’s second comic, Nave walks by and expresses joy.
“That felt soooo good!” he beams.
Kennedy, a gay Texan comic who looks and talks more like a member of the Oakland Raiders defensive line than anything else, tries to sweet-talk an attractive man in his 20s into dating him. The flummoxed audience member, who we learn is actually a youth football coach named Drew—ironically, also from Texas—politely declines Kennedy’s advances as Drew’s female companion laughs uncontrollably.
Madigan takes the stage and gets in a few more swipes at the Hilton. During a joke in which she suggests that the 2000 presidential election should have been decided by Judge Judy instead of the U.S. Supreme Court, she demands a recount on her SAT scores.
“I was probably two hanging chads away from being a brain surgeon,” she tells the crowd, as Nave and Hilton employees start passing around champagne for the approaching New Year. “Now, I’m here at the Reno Hilton.”
About five minutes before midnight, Madigan finishes her act and is joined on stage by Nave and Kennedy. The three tell “joke jokes"—in other words, jokes like the kind told in offices every day—as 2001 approaches. Madigan then tries to console Nave.
“You know, Howie, my nuclear engineer brothers can never say their office was turned into a fucking bingo parlor,” she says.
A friend of Nave’s then joins the trio on stage, as Nave coaxes Kennedy’s prospective sweetie, Drew, to join them as well. Drew counts down from 15, and 15 seconds later, the place erupts in cheers and kisses.
Soon afterward, the place clears out, with only the three comics and a few friends hanging around the soon-to-be bingo parlor.
Despite the absence of the crowd, the jokes continue. Kennedy, at one point, shouts out, “I-95. BINGO!” Madigan responds by calling him a dummy and saying that bingo numbers don’t go that high. Kennedy laughs and shrugs before launching into a story about the $5,700 video poker royal flush that he hit earlier in the day.
Nave listens and talks about how cool the near-sellout final show was for him.
“There are lots of emotions," Nave says. "It’s a rush. Exhilar-ation. But I don’t want it to end."