A juicer, a palm tree and a microphone: A D.C. comedian heads to Vegas


Comedian Matt Kazam, left, who is headed to the Riviera in Las Vegas, with wife, Galina Kazem and their 3-week-old daughter Kayla Kazem in their hotel room in Sterling, Va. (Kazem is the Reston, Va., comedian’s legal name, which his family uses.) (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
August 11, 2014

Archie is stuffed in the hotel room closet.

He is waiting for Saturday, when the comedian would stick him in a car and ship him to Las Vegas. Archie has been there through it all — when the comedian was 120 pounds heavier, when he met his Moldovan bride in North Carolina, when he fine-tuned his performance to bring in seven laughs per minute.

Archie is a plastic palm tree. The comedian purchased him from a Michael’s to decorate his apartment when everything seemed to be going wrong. And now, 11 years later, everything is going right, because in a few weeks, the person announcing the comedian’s name — “Matt Kazam!” — is going to be an announcer at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

So the plastic palm tree would go with Kazam to the land of real palm trees, tourist-packed audiences and a kind of pressure he has never known.

The Riviera was where Matt Kazam saw his first comedy show, Joan Rivers and Shecky Greene. At age 10, he was going by his legal name, Matt Kazem. (“No, my real name is Alla Kazam,” he likes to say. “I had to change it because every time they announced me, things would appear!”)

Editor's note: This video contains graphic content. Matt Kazam is taking his act (and his family) from D.C. to Las Vegas. (Matt Kazam)

Kazam and his wife, Galina, have shipped their furniture to Vegas and moved out of their apartment. They forgot to pack Archie in the moving van, so he’ll be shipped with their car.

The couple and their 3-week-old daughter are living in a hotel room before their big move from Reston, Va., (“The cost of living of Hawaii with the weather of Wisconsin!”) to Vegas (“Where you don’t notice the heat, until it kills you”).

Galina is sitting on the bed, the baby nuzzled on her chest so the newborn smell overrides the sterile scent of the Marriott. Kazam is on his laptop, checking the page views on his Web site. The promo poster for his Vegas act is in his e-mail. He loves it: the cutout of his shaved head, goatee and all, surrounded by a Rubik’s Cube, the Jetsons’ robot and an analog TV.

“40 Is Not the New 20, a One-Man Comedy Show Starring Matt Kazam,” it says.

He’s been performing different versions of the act for seven years, since the day he fell in the shower at age 38.

It was then, he says, that he realized that being 40 was nothing like being 20 — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Making fun of the way the world has changed (“We didn’t have Google, we had ‘go ask your father!’ ”) became his shtick. It elevated him to a comfortable lifestyle as a comedian based in the Washington area, bringing in $200,000 a year performing at golf courses and country clubs, where the audience is primed for jokes about “kids today” or the two-finger checkup at the doctor.

His comedy comes from his observations of life, meaning he’s often rolling around new material and weaving his successful jokes into conversation. In the cramped hotel room, at the grocery store, when he’s driving, he is always doing bits, like when he curses (“I’m from New York, I curse around old people and babies!”) or if someone mentions his appearance (“My mother was Jewish and my father was Iranian, so I came out Puerto Rican!”).

Before the golf circuit, Kazam’s 25-year comedy career consisted mostly of driving his red Honda CR-X around the country to find work. Despite coming from a family of lawyers and teachers, he had always wanted to make people laugh. After graduating from George Mason University with a degree in finance, it was the District where Kazam took the plunge into full-time stand-up. But by the early 2000s, the District’s comedy scene had shrunk rapidly with the Comedy Cafe, the Comedy Stop and Garvin’s Comedy Club closing their doors. Kazam, with an outsize personality to match his then-generous proportions, did well at shows at the D.C. Improv and a few smaller Virginia venues. But he couldn’t make a living off comedy by staying in Reston.

So he hit the road, performing for as little as $100 a night at comedy clubs, college campuses, corporate meetings — and even a few county jails.

He was in North Carolina when he met Galina, who had come from Moldova to work a summer job at the beach. (“People say, your wife is from Moldova, was she a mail-order bride? I say, no, I met her the old fashioned way: in a bar!”) She fell in love with him because he was funny, of course.

Galina lived in Reston while Kazam traveled to about 100 shows a year. When he began performing at country clubs, comedy became an all-day event. He’d do stand-up throughout a tournament — at a hole, after the golfing was over, then as part of a charity auction — meaning 10- or 12-hour days for a man who weighed 330 pounds.

(“They were watching me die, onstage.”)

Kazam also had sleep apnea and diabetes. Doctors told him that he and Galina, whom he married in 2006, were too unhealthy to have a baby.

So in January 2013, the couple made a drastic lifestyle change. Starting with a 30-day juice cleanse, they became vegans. Juicing and walking became daily rituals. Kazam gave up all cooked food and alcohol. They spent hours doing online research and watching documentaries on Netflix about the harmful effects of processed food.

They posted their progress on Facebook, with selfies of their shrinking size. Galina lost 90 pounds. Kazam lost 120. By November, Galina was pregnant.

They named the baby after the main ingredient in their juice, kale. Kayla Tulip Kazem.

“In 9 days, she will be my little Vegas baby,” Kazam’s Facebook says.

Kazam is getting this shot at Vegas and his name in lights for the same reason he has been able to make a career out of comedy for this long, says Alex Rangel, the Riviera’s vice president of marketing and entertainment.

“There’s a lot of funny people out there,” says Rangel, who has known Kazam for more than a decade. “But they don’t all have the drive to put in the work to go out there and sell the show yourself.”

In March, Kazam persuaded Rangel to bring the higher-ups of the casino to one of his shows. The Riviera has always had an 8:15 p.m. comedy show; Kazam pitched himself as a one-man show at 10 p.m. Rangel hoped the casino would be swayed by the wide appeal of Kazam’s material; it wouldn’t matter if the audience was from Manhattan or rural Iowa — everyone can laugh about getting older.

It worked.

“It’s huge, from his standpoint,” Rangel said. “When you’re a comedian, other than getting a TV show, this is hitting the big leagues. Your own show on the Las Vegas Strip.”

When Kazam arrives in Sin City, he will have two weeks until “40 Is Not the New 20” opens at the comedy club of the Riviera on Aug. 25. The room will have 250 seats, of which the casino is expecting 150 to be filled most nights. Tickets will be $40. Kazam’s floating-head advertisement will be pasted on taxi tops and in tourist brochures.

He has a two-year contract. On the road, one off night or one bomb might go unnoticed to everyone but the audience in that particular club. In Vegas, everyone who matters — reviewers, casino executives, tourists who can rate his show on Yelp — will be watching.

If ticket sales are too low, his contract is dissolved, the show ends, and Kazam returns to golf outings. If ticket sales are good, he’ll move to bigger and bigger venues until he is performing for thousands of people a night.

Meanwhile, among the mass of restaurants, buffet lines and bars (“Vegas, where you’re surrounded by evil on all 4 sides!”), he’ll try to keep his raw, vegan, sober diet.

From the hotel room where he sits, checking the analytics on his YouTube videos and watching Galina hold the baby on the bed, it all seems possible.

His Vegas townhouse is rented. His new furniture has been ordered. His outfit for opening night — black pants, black shirt — is picked out.

All that’s left is to ship his car. And his plastic palm tree.

Jessica Contrera is a staff writer at the Washington Post.
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