Doc Ajay Johnson
Tuesday, March 1, 2016 | 2 a.m.
His sarcasm is stunning. His magic mystifies. Put the two together with a healthy helping of irreverence, toss in sassy and rude humor, and you have Mike Hammer, the Don Rickles of charismatic conjuring. Or the George Carlin of the unexplained.
The audiences at his comedy club in Four Queens downtown lap it up and return time and again for more of the silk-gloved insults of his comedy magic show “Get Hammered.” “It’s all in great fun,” said Mike the night I went to see him where one elderly gentleman who’d partied too much for his age fell asleep. It was as if a gift had dropped from heaven for the abrasive comic who wields a magic wand.
Mike leapt off the stage in fake offense and stood over the guest berating his sin of sleep. I haven’t laughed that much in a year of seeing shows here in Las Vegas. The off-kilter, hilarious humor is endless, and everybody was in stitches gasping for air.
Who gets away introducing one audience member as an axe murderer? Who gets away with deflating the tires of a Canadian tractor repairman on his first girlfriend date to Las Vegas?
The interactive humor comes fast and furious, but Mike’s no slouch when it comes to magic. It’s just as fast-paced. Try and get a woman from the audience to pour water into a folded newspaper and see the mess she makes while he pulls off the raucous routine perfectly.
Be amazed as Mike is blindfolded with tape and gets a volunteer to color in a charcoal sketch of a schoolgirl using six colors, only for Mike to produce a life-sized blowup doll in the same color choices from a sealed shopping bag.
Audiences love him for the 70-minute-plus show, with ticket prices at $23-$35. “It’s a better value than the Strip,” said the Montana visitor sitting at my table. “Real solid entertainment with plenty of money left over in my pocket to eat and drink well afterward.”
Mike was just 10 years old when he had his first taste for magic.
“It’s funny because we all get those little magic tricks when you’re kids. You know the ball and a vase, and you try to make the thing vanish. Somehow I just stuck with it. I got hooked with it.
“I always got a kick out of doing magic, but it wasn’t until I was about 14 years old when I got a book on magic on card tricks, and it helped me make a lot of friends because everyone wanted to see these card tricks. That’s really when it kicked off for me. It helped with getting girls, too.”
How did you mix in the comedy? When did that add to the magic?
It just became me because ever since I was younger, I would perform magic, but I was very sarcastic. My father was really fun, has a dry sense of humor and real sarcastic. I think I picked it up from him. It always seemed to take over. It just happened by default.
When I was really young, I always used to picture myself on TV, but every time I would picture it. … It’s not like I ever pictured me doing magic, I just pictured me being funny, doing funny things. I think the magic was the vehicle to get to the comedy.
You grew up in Chicago, and you obviously heard about the famous magic salons of the Windy City?
Yes, I went to Schulien’s. At one point, my mom would drive me down there, and we’d go eat there downtown. They had all sorts of magicians performing there all the time. That’s what kicked it off for me. They did what’s called close-up magic, which was basically tableside magic with card tricks, smaller objects, things with money, coins, balls vanishing under cups, things of that nature.
I’m like, “This is kind of cool because it’s right in front of your face.” I had been doing it, but I hadn’t realized it was such a big thing in restaurants. Later on, I ended up doing restaurant magic for three years. At one point, I was working four restaurants at the same time doing tableside magic.
So what drove you to Las Vegas?
I went to L.A. first. I was out there for about five years trying to hit it big. As soon as I moved there, I wound up doing more work on the road, traveling, doing colleges. I eventually formed a team show called Spike and Hammer, a two-man comedy magic team show, and we did a lot of touring around the country.
At one point, we decided, “There’s got to be a market in Las Vegas for what we do.” It was really because of the conventions out here, so we were doing a lot of corporate work. We ended up moving here about 15 to 16 years ago. It was kind of sort of by accident.
Did you start immediately at the Four Queens when you moved out here?
No, no. I’ve been at the Four Queens for almost six years. I had been working out here probably nine years or so before I even got to the Four Queens. Mostly doing corporate work and touring. Then an opportunity opened up at the Four Queens.
There was a comedy club there, and they had seen us working at another venue performing, and the owners said, “Hey, we’ve got an afternoon spot if you want to try to make something happen. The room is open.”
You know most shows in this town fail, and the room just wasn’t working. We couldn’t get anyone in there. Downtown wasn’t what it was now. It was empty back then, especially in the afternoon. I think the show was at 3 in the afternoon, and nobody was down there in midafternoon.
I had to let the team thing go and continued solo because I saw the potential in building up a room. I think even then I knew how difficult it was to land a room. Then I worked at it for about another year. I’d be outside basically giving tickets away as I was doing card tricks to try to talk people into coming into the showroom.
It was hard, and sometimes I would have a room of 10 people. Slowly it started building up. The word was getting out there, but I was there for about two years before I started seeing good-size crowds.
Did you ever think about packing it in and going back to Chicago?
No, never. If anything, I probably would have gone back on the road and touring colleges. Once I moved out here, I said, “This is it.” The weather helps in not wanting to leave. In fact, the only reason I was able to do a show for that long without money was because I had the corporate work under my belt.
Was it just determination to make it work? What kept you going?
Honestly, I just didn’t leave myself any outs. I just said, “I want to have my own show. I want to get my name out there.” I did whatever I had to do. I didn’t stop. When the economy changed, I lost a bunch of houses, so I ended up doing some website programming on the side just to make money to get by to try to make the show work.
I just kept driving forward. I just never have had any fear. It’s the entertainment business. I mean you can make money one day, and the next day you’re broke. Here I am doing a show, people are coming in and enjoying themselves, and I’m not making a dime. I was working for free basically because it costs money to have a show and do a show.
But you reached the point where it almost turned the corner?
It’s a good question because it’s a tough one to answer. To this day, I always have that fear that it can be gone tomorrow. You know this town. Anything can happen. I mean look at all the shows that go under. I just always drive myself, I work constantly, I still never consider myself having made it. I’m doing very well now financially. I’m able to do what I want to do there.
I think it was at the point where I was like, “OK, I’m starting to get consistent amounts of people coming to the show, and I’m not sure where they’re coming from at this point.” That was only about 2 1/2 to 3 years ago when that started happening. I started getting a nice buzz going around the Internet and people talking around me.
I think when you’re in it, you don’t realize it at the moment. You don’t think that way. I’m always working, so I don’t really stop to think about those things. I could say for about three years now it’s been pretty solid. I run a small operation just so I can keep my hands in everything.
When did you take over the business of the club, running it by yourself as your own?
The other producers left the casino and moved their comedy club elsewhere, so I took it over on my own. I’ve been doing it on my own probably about 3 1/2 years. I just went to hotel management and said, “Here’s my plan, here’s what I want to do.” At that point, I was starting to pull numbers, so they were really happy with me.
Then another spot ended up opening up about a year and a half ago, the nighttime spot in the club at 9. I ended up putting the Elvis show in there. That’s actually been doing really well because I’ve been able to do cross-promotion with my show.
So two shows at night, but no afternoon show?
I don’t know how well the afternoon shows work downtown. We’ve had 15 shows fail in that room. I know the process by now, and I know what works and what doesn’t work.
So many guys have come in and tried to do things, and I’ve tried to tell them what to do, but they don’t listen. Their ticket prices were just too much money for what they were offering. People come downtown for a bargain. Let them leave happy.
What was your reaction the first time you heard someone call you the Don Rickles of magic?
I’d been saying that about myself pretty early on, but when I started hearing other people say it, I took it as a compliment because I think he’s great. I love him. I’ve met him a couple of times, and I love that guy.
In fact, when I first met him, I said something sarcastic, and he looked at his manager and said, “This guy is doing me.” It was a huge compliment. I think the tough part with me is how much magic do I put in the show versus the comedy. I have to be really selective with what I do as far as the magic because it still has to work for my personality.
But it does mean because of the comedy, every show is different every night?
It is different every night, and that is one of the reasons why I do very well with the numbers in the room because people do bring their friends back. I play off the crowd. I improvise a really good amount of the show.
The night that I was there, was that the first time that somebody has fallen asleep on you?
Come on! This is downtown, man. That was actually funny. I saw him dozing, and I used it as a gag once I saw it happen. Normally, you wouldn’t think that’s a good thing. It’s funny. It was a first. Sometimes I joke around about it, but they’re not really sleeping. This guy was really sleeping. I thought he was dead. You never know.
You’re very much in control of your own destiny: You decided on downtown, you run your own show and theater, so no real desire to go up onto the Strip and bang heads with Criss Angel or David Copperfield?
No. The truth is I’m pretty realistic about who I am at this point in time. If I could be the king of downtown, that would be fine with me. I think it’s because I like to take charge of everything, and I do have a lot of control over what I do in that room, whereas if I go somewhere else, I might last a month and be gone.
At this point in time, I’m really happy with downtown. I think I’ve accomplished something that a lot of people haven’t done downtown. I would rather have a full house than see what’s going to happen on the Strip because I just don’t know. I’m in a good position right now.
I’m shooting a documentary, which really tells a lot of the stuff you’re asking. The producers have got a lot of video that goes back over 20 years of my performing. I’ve got some really good sponsors involved, and I’m excited to do more TV and get more exposure that way. The documentary is my life story.
To quote a Rickles line: Who would have thought Mike Hammer even had a life to do a story about?
I might not! We’ll see. It’s what we just talked about. It’s how I went from doing card tricks in restaurants to winding up in my own Las Vegas show in my own Las Vegas theater. I mean the odds are really against that happening for many people.
You really know the amount of people who live here trying to get a room versus the amount of people still coming to this town thinking they’re going to get a room. These days it’s not just getting the room. It’s keeping the room.
It’s that expression about being a big fish in a small pond rather than a small fish in a big pond.
People have actually told me that. I agree with that. I think that’s exactly what I’m doing. My act wouldn’t work in a very large Strip theater. It needs to be intimate. I need an intimate crowd because I play off the audience so much.
They love being roasted? Nobody walks out offended?
People do know that I’m joking. I hope so. I hope they sense it’s all fun because I do love the people. It’s so dry sometimes, you’ve got to wonder … because people come from all over the world, you’ve got to wonder if some of them think I’m not kidding.
But your magic also has won praise from other magicians in town.
It’s funny, I even have other magicians who send people to my show. When people come to my show from another show that has a lot of production and magic, it’s amazing that afterward they tell me they love my barebones show. I have a different level of intimacy with the audience. I think the most important thing is that they feel that what they’re seeing is special for them.”
Mike Hammer’s comedy magic “Get Hammered” is performed at Four Queens on Fremont Street downtown Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7 p.m., dark Sundays and Mondays.
Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.
The Four Queens, which opened in 1966, is named after former owner Ben Goffstein's wife and three daughters, Faith, Hope, Benita and Michelle. The casino is one of the most iconic Fremont Street casinos.
Today, the 32,000-square foot casino features more than 1,000 slots, 30 tables games and a race and sports book. The hotel offers about 695 guest rooms including 45 guest suites.
Hugo's Cellar, which is one level below the casino floor, provides a romantic atmosphere, an extensive selections of fine meats and seafood and ladies walk away with a complimentary rose. The wine list has won recognition from Wine Spectator and Zagat's. Other restaurants include Magnolia's Veranda, which is open 24 hours a day and has a wide menu, and the Chicago Brew Pub, which serves deep-dish pizza, salads and sandwiches as well as its own beer.
The Canyon Club also opened their outpost at the Four Queens, attracting musical and comedy acts from across the nation.