Photo: Kane Reinholdtsen

At 'The Stool,' pro comics bomb in search of their next golden joke

“How much shit am I willing to eat?”

That’s the question. (Proverbially, of course. This isn’t an article about a niche part of the German film industry.)

No, that’s the question Saturdays at midnight inside the LA Comedy Club at the Stratosphere hotel and casino in Las Vegas. That’s where you’ll find The Stool, a weekly comedy show where the entire point is risking it and potentially eating some figurative excrement.

The club itself is small and very dark, not on the casino floor, but past it, up an escalator and beyond some retail stores. The sort of place you stumble upon even when you know it’s there.

“It’s a hole-in-the-wall kind of feeling,” says host and producer Steven Roberts. “Intimacy is a real match for The Stool.”

That personal workshop ambiance is necessary for the show because the audience is getting a glimpse into works-in-progress. The rule of The Stool is simple: Comedians are only supposed to do new material, to finesse unfinished premises and find what, if anything, is worth keeping. To abide by that rule you have to accept that the chance of “dying” in front of a crowd is a risk worth taking. But that’s easier said than done. A lot of comics—a lot of famous comics—will go with what brought them to the dance for as long as they can get away with it.

The Stool is as much about guts as anything else.

Roberts estimates that less than half the performers actually adhere to the format. When most start bombing they immediately retreat to their “A material,” coasting on easy, practiced laughs. And that’s a real quandary. From a performing standpoint, you have to be willing to fail in front of a crowd for seven to 10 excruciating minutes to potentially mine one new piece of gold. The easy way out is to let insecurity win, to go back to the tried-and-true and tell yourself, “I’ll work on those new jokes another night.”

For Roberts, when a comic takes this route, it presents another problem. If one comedian does his or her normal set and kills, it could have a domino effect. “My biggest concern is that the next comedian going up is not going to want to risk everything with their new stuff,” explains the drama teacher turned comedy presenter. “That’s really important because that’s what the show is for. You don’t want the audience to change their expectation.”

What the audience does expect is comedians who are performing at just about every club on the Strip to pop in and work out. This type of show exists everywhere, from Los Angeles to London, but The Stool is Las Vegas’ first iteration.

The Stratosphere version features a mix of visiting comics and hometown performers. Marsha Warfield of Night Court fame is a regular. Paul Ogata, who has been touring internationally seemingly forever, drops in whenever he’s in town. Carrot Top has watched but never performed.

Ogata compares The Stool to an open mic for professional comics. They can do their go-to material at the clubs where they’re being paid during the week and then enhance their craft with some hard-fought failure afterwards. “Win-win, really,” he says. “The comics get to break new stuff and the supportive audience, which is explicitly there to witness comedy being birthed, enjoys a night appropriately comprised of fewer abortion jokes.”

For me, The Stool is as important as any show in Las Vegas. I started my comedy career here and moved back a couple of years ago, and I’m a single father, so open-mic hopping to fine-tune concepts isn’t realistic. I work the clubs and use this late night forum as my de facto sounding board for new material. It’s as much about discovering what doesn’t work as it is about seeing out what does. And I can proudly say that I am always trying new bits there. Because really, if you’re not willing to eat a little shit once in a while, then you’re in the wrong business.