Once upon a time Las Vegas was considered the entertainment capital of the world. Full of glitz and sparkle, there were thousands of nightly shows visitors could choose from. From concerts featuring the biggest entertainers in the world, to massive show stopping extravaganza, there was something for everyone. But for a year now Las Vegas’ theatres and ball rooms have been quiet. The COVID-19 virus has quitted the crowds and prevented performers from taking the stage.
That is except for one man. Today legendary comedian Rich Little is the only headliner in town.
Starting last November, Rich Little and his team have been entertaining at Vega’s famous Tropicana four nights a week. In a new autobiographical show, called Rich Little Live, the man of 1000 voices talks about his career and his encounters with the cultural figures that he has become famous for impersonating.
A Canadian cultural icon, Rich Little began doing voices as a teenager when he was working at the legendary Elgin Theater in Ottawa. Traveling through Ontario, and eventually transitioning to radio, by the beginning of the 1960’s Rich had gained a following in Canada, especially due to his 1963 best-selling comedy album My Fellow Canadians and a year later he made his American television debut when he appeared as a guest on The Judy Garland Show. An instant hit with audiences, for the next three decades Rich Little was a television mainstay, appearing on every variety show, talk show and game show imaginable.
Famous for his political humor, Rich’s impersonation of Richard Nixon soared him to success during the Watergate era, and his close friendship with Ronald Regan put him on the political map during the 1980’s. Furthermore, via his popularity via his numerous appearances on shows such as The Ed Sullivan Shoe, Hollywood Squares, Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast, The Tonight Show (where he was a regular fill in host when Johnny Carson was off) and countless others, Rich rubbed shoulders and became personal friends with the people he imitated. He’s not only a favorite of audience, but also of the Hollywood elite as well.
I was lucky enough to speak via phone to Rich about his new show, his long career and about reopening his show during the midst of a pandemic where he is still the only headliner in town.
Sam Tweedle: So, we are here to talk about you reopening your act at the Tropicana.
Rich Little: That’s right. I’m the only headliner in town.
Sam: How does that feel?
Rich: Well, it feels great because its good to be back at work. The only thing is you can’t perform to many people. So, I don’t have a huge room, but I can still half fill it and make money. Anybody playing a big room in Vegas would have a tough time because the overhead would be too much. So, I’m very lucky to be performing. The audience has to be twenty-five feet from me, so there is nobody down front.
Sam: I thought it’d be more intimate.
Rich: Well, the rule in Nevada is that unless you are serving food, you’ve got to be twenty-five feet from people. I don’t know what food has to do with it but that’s the ruling.
Sam: Iff you picked up some shrimp cocktail on the way to the show and passed it out, theoretically, the audience could get closer.
Rich: Yes. Yes, they could. If you served French fries and pizza and they could be six feet. But it’s a stupid thing when you think of it. Eating French Fries isn’t going to protect people from COVID.
Sam: Has it been tough not working for the past year during this pandemic?
Rich: it’s been very tough on me, but I think it’s a lot tougher on the people who can’t even go back to work now. The ones who are really suffering that I feel bad for are the people on Broadway. All those actors on Broadway who are out of work and will be for some time. I don’t know how they are surviving. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
Sam: How long have you been working at the Tropicana?
Rich: Four years.
Sam: But you’ve been a staple in Vegas for most of your career.
Rich: Yeah. Since the 1960’s.
Sam: You must have seen it go through different changes.
Rich: Oh, definitely I’ve seen it go through changes. Back in the 60’s and 70’s you’d work with a twenty-piece orchestra and would be really spoiled. Now I’m walking in with one man on a synthesizer. The thing about it is there is not as many headliners as there used to be. Its now a lot of production shows. The big spectaculars. So, there aren’t as many single performers as there used to be.
Sam: Now I’m calling you tonight from Peterborough. I’m sure since you’re from Ontario you know of us.
Rich: Sure. I’ve been to Peterborough. I played there in my early days.
Sam: You know that in Canada you are considered one of our performing national treasures.
Rich. Well, I guess if you remember me. I’m sure young people don’t remember me but maybe their parents or grandparents do.
Sam: Its one thing to be funny, and its one thing to have a successful career as a comedian, but to be able to do the voices, and to be a master of impersonation, is a whole other talent altogether. What is the secret to becoming a master impersonator?
Rich: I took an interest in actors, and also in people in general. I used to sit on the street cars as a kid and watch people and listen to the way they talk. So, I’ve always been interested in people…and actors. I always had great admiration for the actor that’s good. So, I grew up a movie buff. I used to watch a lot of movies in the buff.
Sam: You used to work in a movie theatre when you were growing up in Ottawa, right?
Rich: That’s right. I was an usher in a movie theatre when I was a teenager, and I was a terrible usher because I kept looking at the movie while people were stumbling over the seats. When I met Ernest Borgnine for the first time, I told him that I saw Marty thirty-three times and he said, “You went to see my film thirty-three times?” I said, “No, I was an usher.”
Sam: Who were some of your earliest impersonations?
Rich: I did the obvious ones – Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Larger than life people who were the top stars at the time. Its harder to impersonate actors today because they’re not as distinctive and their voices aren’t as good, and they play different parts. Clark Gable was always Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart was always Humphrey Bogart. Today actors play different parts so its hard to pin them down to one voice.
Sam: In your current show is it all the classics, or are you able to bring in any current cultural icons at all?
Rich: Well, I’m doing Joe Biden. It gets a big reaction. It gets a big laugh.
Sam: How do you make Joe Biden funny?
Rich: Just by the way he walks and talks. He’s a good subject. He’s a little out to lunch. That’s great too. Ronald Reagan, I loved him, but I did him being kind of vague and not to focused, and that’s how Joe Biden is. I’m not sure if he even knows he’s president really. Nobody’s told him. He thinks he ran for the senate and won. You can get humor out of it. It doesn’t mean you’re a liberal or a conservative. You just see what’s going on and make it into humor. There is humor in anything, except tragedy. I used to do Kennedy, but once he was assassinated you didn’t do him anymore.
Sam: I know that you have done your impersonation in front of the subjects themselves on many occasions. Were you ever nervous doing that?
Rich: Oh yeah. Sometimes the person you’re doing doesn’t hear themselves. You do them and the person says, “That doesn’t sound like me” and the wife and the kids behind them are going “Yes it does. Yes, it does.”
Sam: Who were some of the people who didn’t hear themselves?
Rich: I used to do Tony Randall and he said it didn’t sound like him at all. Tony was a bit conceited. He said “Personally, you don’t have me down because I have perfect pitch.” I said, “Tony, did you call yourself a bitch?” He said “No, perfect pitch you idiot.” Do you know Paul Lynde? He hated my impression of him. Every time I did him on Hollywood Squares Paul would make a face and look into the camera and go “Who’s he doing? Bah! That’s disgusting!”
Sam: But you sound exactly like him.
Rich: Well yeah, but he didn’t like it at all. Everybody would be laughing and then they’d cut to a shot of him and he’s making a face and saying, “Get a day job.”
Sam: You’re famous for your political humor. Your Nixon is one of your most famous voices, you do Regan perfectly…
Rich: Well, I knew Ronald Regan very well. He once said to me ‘Rich, you do me better than I do. I put in my will that when I pass away, they should bury you.’
Sam: Do you think when people become president that they ever wonder what you’re going to do with them?
Rich: Yeah. Maybe. I never could do Barack Obama. I found him very tough to do. Joe Biden’s going to be great. The thing about Donald Trump was that there was so many different sounds that he made. When he was speaking at a rally, he made an entirely different sound than when he was talking one on one. Alec Baldwin does him, but to me it doesn’t sound like him. He does something strange with his mouth and I don’t think it sounds like him at all.
Sam: Lots of late-night talk show hosts did Trump and impersonations of him were commonplace over the past four years. What do you think makes a good Trump impersonation?
Rich: Well, in the case of Alec Baldwin, if you make them up with an orange face and that candy floss hair right away, you’re going to get a reaction. So, the voice doesn’t’ need to be that good. It’s a very visual impression. So, if you hear Alec Baldwin doing the voice on the radio you can tell it isn’t very good. But when you see him do Trump it’s a lot better.
Sam: One thing I have noticed with your political humor is that you have been able to straddle a line. Whether you are Democrat or Republican, you could make it funny for all. However, with the current state of America politics today being so divided and explosive, do you find it harder to walk that line?
Rich: Yeah. You need to downplay your personal political views in your act because nowadays, if you are too complimentary or dismissive to the president, you are going to lose a portion of your audience. That’s why I think actors like Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep, who are politically outspoken, make a big mistake because they lose a lot of people. Its better that the audience doesn’t know. Like you never knew if Johnny Carson was a Republican or a Democrat because he poked fun at everybody.
Sam: Comedy is a hard business, and we see people come and go, and some of the most brilliant comedians that burn out and die young. But there is a certain type of comedian that hit time after time again like Don Rickles or George Carlin. You are one of these comedians. What is the secret to longevity in the business?
Rich: I think part of it is that my audience knows that I have deep admiration of the people I impersonate, and I don’t get ‘blue.’ I don’t use any profanity, but instead I do double entendres. You can do that. One time I had George Burns on the Tonight Show when I was filling in for Johnny and he was quite ‘blue.’ He said some things that were quite sexual, and if anyone else had said them the sensors would have bleeped him. But because George was 95 years old, they didn’t bleep him at all. He could get away with it. Rickles could get away with it. I must say Rickles was never dirty. He went after everybody. He went for the throat. But he was never ‘blue.’ Robin Williams was very funny, but if you saw him live, he was very dirty. Sometimes people like Buddy Hackett was loveable on TV but if you saw him live, he was filthy. Red Foxx too. People would be horrified when they’d come and see them because it was so different from the image they had on TV. But I’m pretty clean. If you hint at it, then it goes in the audience’s mind. I do a Bill Clinton joke that’s a little risqué.
Sam: Can we hear it?
Rich: Bill Clinton says “Even though I’m an older person I’m still very sexually active. I still get aroused. That’s because I take Viagra. I can get it quite easily too. If I go to the drugstore, I can get it over the counter if I take two or three.” You see. I haven’t said anything, but I have implied. You’re saying something, but you mean something else.
Sam: I don’t know how old you are but….
Rich: I’m so old I remember when sex was dirty, and the air was clean.”
Sam: Do you ever think of retirement?
Rich: No. I feel about it the same way George Burns did. He said, “Retire to what?’ As long as you still have your health and your mind, and you can move around you should continue to perform. Even Don Rickles, at the end, kept performing but he’d be sitting in a chair because he couldn’t even walk. But he was still funny.
Sam: Do you find that humor has changed?
Rich: Yeah. Humor has changed. Very few comedians today tell jokes anymore. In the early days you had people like Henny Youngman and Milton Berle and Jack Benny, and they told jokes. Today it’s all observational humor. Very few people tell jokes. I do, but most don’t. It’s a lot more risqué now than it was before. My god. I remember when I would host The Tonight Show and I did that thirty-two times, and they got upset one night when I said ‘Damn’ But today you can use the ‘f-word.’
Sam: What did Johnny Carson think of your impersonation of him?
Rich: He seemed to like it, although I became a ‘no book’ on the show near the end of his run. I could never figure out why. He seemed to like my impression because h used to kid me about, but I never found out what happened there. I did the show hundreds of times and nobody told me why. I later found out there was a whole list of people Johnny told them not to book anymore. They didn’t know why either.
Sam: I find that surprising really.
Rich: Well, Johnny was funny that way. He’d be laughing on set, but later backstage he’d say, “Don’t book that guy anymore.” Once when I was hosting, I had Dick Shawn on the show. Well, he wrecked the set. Absolutely destroyed it. Spilled all the planets onto the floor and turned over the desk.
Sam: Was he on drugs?
Rich: No. He was just being totally wacky. The audience was in convulsions. They were laughing their heads off. But Dick Shawn would have never done that in front of Johnny. Johnny would have gotten mad. But because I was hosting the show, he got away with it. I show a clip of that in my show. It’s actually pretty funny.
Sam: Do you use a lot of old footage in your current show?
Rich: Oh yeah. If I have footage of me with the person, I imitate we show a clip of it. We use clips of me with John Wayne and Ronald Regan and George Burns.
Sam: Well, I think it’s wonderful that you are still performing, and I think its quite brave to start performing again during the pandemic. Is there any nervousness with your management or your crew about this?
Rich: No. The people who show up are wearing masks and are sitting far away from you, and I think that they appreciate the fact that you are performing, and they want to forget about their troubles, and they feel quite safe, so I get a good reaction. So, it works out just fine. People need to laugh. There’s been too much tragedy in this world.
One of the last of the classic comedians still working, not to mention the only one currently working the Vegas strip, if you’re n Vegas don’t miss the opportunity to see Rich Little live! Rich Little performs Thursday through Sunday at The Tropicana’s Laugh Factory Comedy Club. Call 1-800-829-9034 to order tickets, or visit https://www.troplv.com/entertainment/rich-little for more details.