Leaving the Emperors Ballroom at Caesars Palace with my media credential flapping, Im greeted by an eccentric-looking dude wearing a sticker that says Hello, My Name Is Hunter S. Thompson. Fuck the establishment, man. Fuck PR people. Journalists are outlaws! Be an outlaw! he tellsme. Then he walks over to the lobby piano, starts playing and is soon joined by R&B legend Gladys Knight, who begins an impromptu rendition of Midnight Train to Georgia. Welcome to Las Vegas. And this isnt even the show. Im here for the First Annual Comedy Festival, Sin Citys inaugural venture into major-event comedy for a new generation. After the highs of Martin and Lewis, and the sustaining years of Phyllis Diller, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Rich Little and even Shecky Greene, comedy in the What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas era generally falls on most peoples to-do list somewhere after gambling, binge drinking, indoor smoking, and sex with bored blonds who may or may not be prostitutes. Now Vegas wants to restake its claim in the laugh business, and kings of comedy Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart, Dane Cook, George Lopez and others are answering the call. Thursday night, at the festivals kickoff Earth to America! comedy benefit (to raise awareness of global warming), Jason Alexander, Cedric the Entertainer, Larry David (his wife, Laurie, produced the show), Al Franken, Tom Hanks, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Bill Maher, Ray Romano and Ben Stiller are all chatting each other up backstage at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace (a.k.a. Celines Palace). What are you doing to stop global warming? media members ask the celebs.Hybrid cars is the stock reply.Homegirl Wanda Sykes, though, has the best answer. Toyota Prius? Please. I walked here from L.A.The after-party is at the hot Caesars nightclub Pure, where even Tim McGraw and wife Faith Hill are in the house. After ingesting considerable amounts of tiger shrimp and Amstel Light, I spot L.A. talk-radio personality Tom Leykis and decide to seek some Vegas 101 advice.Hey, Tom, I try to be a nice guy . . . Treat them like shit, and if she doesnt like it, dump the bitch! he quickly responds.Wow. What an epiphany.On my way up to the clubs beautiful open-area patio, I try out this new approach in my head, but the first woman I encounter is Arianna Huffington. I think Ill pass. Making the rounds, I spot Ray Romano, Ben Stiller and Albert Brooks with sneaker-wearing Larry David, who is drinking some red stuff. I overhear Bill Maher calling the president a cowboy with a learning disability. In the bathroom I run into George Wallace, the Flamingos headliner. Whats crackin, George? I ask. Your ass! he fires back.Friday nights top draw is Dane Cook, whose recent comedy CD Retaliation debuted at No. 4 on Billboard, practically unheard of for a comedian. After an hour before a young Vegas crowd, delivering observational comedy about an atheist, douche-bag woman named Karen and young boys getting ice cream cones smashed on their face, Cook makes his way backstage at the Palace Ballroom. I stop gorging on pizza and Becks long enough to ask if he knows any Mexican jokes. Why, are you Mexican? he asks.Yeah, I say.Cool, Im Irish. Lets go drink!He was just joking; otherwise, I would have.But I do end up at George Lopezs Friday-night show. There are now 39 million Latinos in the U.S., and it seems like most of them are here, partying with their buckets of Budweiser. Lopez and Carlos Mencia seem to fill the festivals Latino quota. For some reason, O.G. Mexican comedian Paul Rodriguez isnt at the festival. Saturday night, Jon Stewart brings his Daily Show act to the stage sample line: Bush doesnt know shit about shit! but the hottest ticket of the weekend is Dave Chappelles Saturday-night performance. Even with seats going for an average of $125, he easily sells out the 4,000-plus-capacity Colosseum. This show has a great buzz, like an old-school Mike Tyson fight. Even Mick Jagger is in the house. Back from Africa and his insanity (or at least back from Africa), Chappelle takes the stage. Vegas is a far cry from Africa, he says as he smokes American Spirit cigarettes. The devil doesnt stand a chance in Vegas. Not in this muthafucker.
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