Saturday, August 8, 2015

Surviving Vegas the new-fashioned way

Not so long ago I stumbled upon a Facebook page for a web series called "Surviving Vegas a Buck at a Time." How it came to my attention I really don't remember.

The show calls itself a web-based reality series. It appears to be primarily the work of a duo, which appears to have spent a lot of time putting it all together. As best as I can tell the series was filmed in 2013 and released earlier this year. The 14 episodes are about 10 minutes each, and are all available on the Youtube channel for the series. In addition to the episodes there are several promo videos and bonus videos for each episode, it appears. (I'm still in the process of watching the bonus videos.) They're also in the process of translating the episodes into Spanish, evidently. That seems darn ambitious.

The series features four "buskers," or as I like to call them, "tipsters." The prodcucers profile a couple of older gents who portray Cupid and Gene Simmons, a woman who dons a Strawberry Shortcake outfit which is rather revealing and a guy they dub "Steeler Nation."

Tipsters aren't a new phenomena, but you didn't see them in Vegas five or seven years ago. There was a time when I'd encounter "porn slappers" on the strip and an occasional timeshare hawker. Downtown, I'd rarely encounter anybody soliciting anything. I never saw porn slappers, and don't remember seeing many homeless folk asking for a spare change. That changed several years ago with the emergence of tipsters, although the porn slappers don't seem too interested in marketing toward the penny pinchers associated with the downtown scene. Increasingly I'm seeing a growth in performance art downtown, such as dance crews and puppeteers, as well as people hawking balloon animals and flowers made out of palms, or something like that.

"Surviving Vegas" shows the tipsters at work, but also delves into their personal lives. Each tipster has a different story as to why he or she is working the streets, and they're not simply a group of out-of-work folks with limited skills. While I found Steeler Nation to be the most interesting character, I remember least what his reason is for working the streets.

Besides the main four characters, you will see other tipsters at work now and then, and one episode spends most of its time devoted to several other tipsters.

This web series is not a slick, cable channel production. But it has decent video quality, it's clearly not an amateur production done with a cell phone camera. And the episodes are nicely edited. You won't mistake it for an E! reality series, but the producers of the show would like it to be. They're trying to drum up interest in taking their Youtube videos to the next level. To that end they have a Facebook page dedicated to the show, although it numbers less than 100 likes at this point. Their Twitter account has drawn more interest.

I watched the first episode a while ago, and made time this past week to watch the rest of the series. I wouldn't call it a "must see" series, but there are things the Vegas fanatic will enjoy when watching it, and things that left me disappointed.

As I noted, it's not the most polished of productions, but you don't feel like you're watching amateur video on Youtube. I watched several episodes on my Kindle while spending a night in the hospital recently. I watched the rest on my 50-inch TV using the Youtube channel on my Roku. The video quality is good, and that's important. Watching crappy video is a tough sell to a casual viewer.

The characters are interesting enough to warrant profiling. None of them amazed me, but they're interesting to watch, at least in the small does provided. I'm not sure how well their lives would translate to a cable channel series, but there's some potential, and there are other tipsters out there waiting to be plucked from obscurity and most certainly compelling enough to keep viewers coming back. (There have been documentary movies about tipsters, such as "Buskers; For Love or Money," and "Confessions of a Superhero," both of which I've seen, and enjoyed.)

The tipsters talk about the ups and downs of their business. Some days they make great money, some days they don't. They don't talk a lot about how much they make, which makes some sense. If I were being profiled about working for tips, and presumably not reporting the income derived, I'd not want to talk a lot about how much I make. There is a bonus video that I have yet to see, in which they allegedly talk about their incomes. I'll be watching that one when I'm done with this.

There are several things that left me disappointed, or wanting more, depending upon how you look at it.

Steeler Nation is more of a performance artist than the other tipsters. Cupid works the crowd quite a bit, and it seems to benefit him. Steeler Nation's character is all about working the crowd. He wears a Pittsburgh Steeler uniform and pushes a mop on the pavement along the strip. He frequently takes the mop and uses it to wipe the pavement with a jersey representing another team. And he'll engage folks in banter about their favorite team. What is unclear to me is how he makes money. I don't recall seeing him receive a tip, as people don't seem to stop for a picture with him, they only seem to stop to gripe about his using a jersey representing their favorite team as his mop. His schtick gets people to stop, but I didn't see how insulting the fans of 31 other NFL teams makes him a lot of money.

There are episodes that show the challenges of being a tipster. During filming of the series they were being hassled about where they stood on Fremont Street in relation to the entrances of the casinos. And the debate about freedom of speech and their right to be on Fremont Street is touched upon. But many of the challenges of being a tipster, practical ones, are not addressed, at least not fully.

The tipsters will talk about working long days, sometimes in the summer heat, to make money. These people have to eat, have to drink and have to pee, just like the tourists. Do they stop for an hour to duck into a casino cafe for a bite to eat? Are the casinos chasing them off their properties if they want to come in and use the restroom? I got the impression that the casinos aren't too friendly to the tipsters, so what do the tipsters do when nature calls?

I imagine it's easy for Cupid to quickly duck into and out of a restroom. But some of those folks are wearing cumbersome costumes. What do you do if you're working as a Transformer in downtown Las Vegas and need to shed the costume to answer the call of nature?

It's gotta be awfully tough to work long hours on a summer evening in Vegas. What are the practical challenges to doing so?

I've seen cell phone videos on Youtube and walked past an argument or two between tipsters, as they get pissy about their territory being infringed upon by a competitor. This probably goes on regularly. There's got to be some territorial pissing that goes on amongst the tipsters, so what happens when a new Superman or Spider-Man arrives on the scene? How easy is it for a rookie to infringe upon the real estate that so many are already laying claim to?

More than a few times you'll see shots of Cupid working on Fremont Street, and standing near him is a guy holding a sign, asking for donations to help take care of his 13-month-old child. If you've walked Fremont the past few years you'll have encountered plenty of people who are asking for donations, claiming to be homeless and/or military veterans. Some of them are probably making false claims to gain sympathy, but I'm sure some of them are legitimately homeless and down on their luck. They wouldn't stand out there with the tipsters if they weren't benefactors of generosity from the tourists, but how do they feel about having to stand begging for a dollar or two while competing for those dollars against cartoon characters, celebrity impersonators and sexy showgirls? Are they bitter when they see a tipster raking in tips in exchange for photos while they're passed by, hoping for a few dollars of generosity?

Perhaps my questions weren't of interest to the producers, or perhaps they're questions that the producers skipped, hoping to answer another day, should they find the time and financial reward they're seeking. You can't burn through all your ideas in one batch of Youtube videos, no doubt. So perhaps the best is yet to come, should there be another chapter.

Despite the mediocre theme song that you're subjected to during just about every video they produce, there's plenty to entertain the Vegas enthusiast, and it doesn't require a major commitment. The final minute or so of each episode – except for the final episode – has closing credits and an "in the next episode" feature that's worth skipping. So you can burn through the 14 episodes much quicker than a season of "Orange is the New Black."

I may not be sold on the viability of this web series as a major cable channel reality show, but it's clear that there was a lot of time put into this project without the benefit of a corporate bankroll. I may not be its biggest fan, but I was entertained enough to want to see what the producers could do next. I hope I get the chance.


  1. Hey Mike, this was a good read! It was very insightful as well, I guess that's why they call you Vegas Insight. Thanks again

    1. Thanks, good to hear from you folks at VB. I actually thought about pitching the idea to VB for a story about the how,why and what's next for this online series. It's actually something I'd love to do, but time it a bit tight for me right now.