When I was 12, my parents took me to Las Vegas for a family wedding. I was unaware that being so young and impressionable in such a wild city would make for some lasting memories. To this day, whenever someone tells me they’re from Las Vegas, I have trouble actually picturing that anyone could have roots in such a place. If you call Las Vegas home, I don’t mean to offend. But, pretty much nobody lived there year-round, apart from entertainment workers, until indoor cooling became more practical in the ’60s, but I digress.
Aside from not being able to partake in literally any casino games or go out on the town without parental supervision, I mostly sulked around the hotel pool with my family for five straight summer days. I remember we drove around aimlessly, eating at fast-food restaurants we didn’t have on the east coast. While I enjoyed Del Taco and In-N-Out, my experiences were spoiled by the harsh Nevada sun. As in, my face began to look like a dry sponge due to virgin exposure to the desert heat. Neither Burt’s Bees nor the sight of an overweight Elvis impersonator could fix the growing cracks in my cheeks.
Surprisingly, the most memorable day of our trip was when my family took our rental car out to the Arizona border to see the Hoover Dam. If you’ve never been, it’s a pretty historic feat of civil engineering. Just seeing it once will crush your hopes and dreams of ever being impressed by a dam again. And for the record — I’m totally aware of beavers.
The most unforgettable moment of my four hours at the Hoover Dam was spent during the interior tour of the 726-foot barrier. Honestly, I can’t remember a lick of what I actually saw on the tour besides some turbines and a lot of concrete. No, the best part of the tour happened before it even began.
Around five nuclear families, all draped in traditional tourist garb, hopped onto a large, steel elevator in order to reach the ground level. The metal doors closed shut as the dozen-or-so of us stared blankly at the elderly elevator attendant. He was wearing a vest (obviously) and looked to be just early enough into his retirement that getting a job as an elevator attendant for the National Park Service still seemed like a decent way to stave off boredom.
“Are y’all aware of our photo policy?” he asked politely as the elevator made its initial descent. His audience, dumbfounded, responded with a confused murmur and mixed shaking of heads. “No, we don’t,” someone else’s mother answered.
“Well there is none!” he gleamed. “Take as many DAM photos as you want!”
An earthquake of laughter echoed throughout the conveyor. I mean, what a dad joke. I laughed too, thinking nothing of it besides the unmistakably clever wordplay. Moments later, we exited the elevator, making our way into the murky bedrock corridors of the dam. After we all got off, a second zinger escaped from the elevator operator:
“ENJOY YOUR DAM TOUR!” Another huge rumble of laughter followed. And from then on, my memory blacks out.
That elevator ride was ten years ago. For the longest time, I couldn’t remember why that moment stuck with me after a whole decade. This past week, while reflecting on my youth, it finally clicked. I realized that this old man, this … elevator dude with nothing better to do just might be the single most successful comedian in America. Maybe even the most successful in the world.
There’s an old assumption amongst comedy nerds that all humor must be inherently “offensive” in some way or another. I think my story is a prime example of why that belief isn’t true. Rain or shine, this guy wakes up, puts on his vest and goes into work knowing he’s going to absolutely KILL. When he finishes with one group of tourists, he just goes back up the elevator shaft and does it all over again.
The same two jokes. The same amount of laughter. ALL. DAY. LONG. No stand-up comic alive could compete.
A decade later, I write a humor column for The Daily. It’s my job to subjectively determine what defines good, bad or even mediocre comedy. I’m also president of an improv group on campus where I am regularly called on to coach my peers on how to be funnier. No matter how long I keep up the charade of pretending to know what being funny entails, my knowledge of the elevator attendant at the Hoover Dam will still haunt me. But my fears also leave me questioning: What defines success in comedy in the first place?
Growing up, like most college-age improv dorks, I wanted to be under the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. In high school, I wanted to perform for sold-out crowds just like Bo Burnham or John Mulaney in my adulthood.
Today, I’m not so sure if I still want that limelight. I want to be happy, first and foremost. It seems like many comedians who reach the peak still have trouble getting that satisfaction.
I’d like to imagine that that older man is still at the Hoover Dam unsuspectingly making people smile. What a life that must be. It sounds rewarding in the weirdest of ways. I guess the only caveat to that level of happiness is that you have to live in Las Vegas.
Maxwell Barnes is an LSA senior studying Communication and Media who prefers to take the stairs every now and then. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.