ASPEN, Colo. — A juggernaut descended on this tiny resort town in the form of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, with HBO, its primary sponsor, papering virtually every storefront and street corner with posters, flyers and banners. In case anybody didn’t know there was a comedy festival going on, celebrity sightings were quite common in this small haven of the rich and beautiful, a Hollywood getaway where visitors are granted reprieves for wearing full-length furs and ATM machines post a $10,000 limit. And with approximately 140 comic performers having invaded the premises, jockeying for position, onstage and off, was fierce.

At the apres ski eatery Ajax Tavern one late afternoon, the hostess was overheard telling the manager, “The gentleman in the booth next to Martin Short got upset because we allowed Mr. Short to order off the lunch menu.” And at Friday’s press conference attended by the likes of Short, George Carlin, Dennis Miller, Steve Martin, Laraine Newman, Jon Stewart and Sinbad, the verbal exchanges were flying so fast and fierce that poor Janeane Garofolo could hardly get a word in edgewise.

Not too big

In this, the third year of the fest, which began Wednesday and ended Saturday, Chris Albrecht, president of HBO Original Programming and avid skier, addressed the question of whether the festival has outgrown Aspen. “What we’ve concluded is that, if before tomorrow night we get about a foot and a half of fresh powder, then we indeed have not outgrown Aspen.” Albrecht conceded that HBO and company “couldn’t make the festival any bigger and still come to Aspen,” and added that he’d like to maintain the intimacy and convenience of Aspen’s tight-knit geography, local charm and physical beauty.

Albrecht should be quite pleased with the fest’s meteoric trajectory in just three short years, with almost twice as many attendees this year — at about 1,400 — over last year. However, profit has never been a priority for HBO or any of the fest’s sponsors, which include MCI, Apple Computer Inc. and Tanqueray. “We didn’t get into this to make money,” explained Albrecht, who said the fest itself cost about $2 million, while the TV production setups ran several more. “The reason we’re doing it is because it seemed to us the lack of a definitive U.S. comedy festival was keeping the business segmented into comedy clubs. This year we wanted to make the general public more aware of the form.”

In terms of organization, the cable giant proved quite dexterous in scheduling 160 events, including tributes, standup showcases, “alternative” performers, theater pieces and seminars with nary a glitch or mishap. All the major show tapings and tributes were SRO. Insiders who couldn’t get in watched the festivities at the Mother Lode, a watering hole adjacent the Wheeler Opera House, where tributes to Rodney Dangerfield, Carlin and “Saturday Night Live” drew turnaway crowds. Whenever there was a performance, an HBO camera crew was there to air it live, as happened with Friday night’s “Dennis Miller Live” show, or tape it for later airings, as with the various “Best of the Fest” revues hosted by Sinbad.

Business of comedy

Although schmoozing, partying and attending performances were the modus operandi, the business of comedy was addressed in a couple of lively roundtables. Friday’s “The Business of Content,” moderated by ABC political correspondent Jeff Greenfield, was attended by agents Marty Adelstein, Robert Broder and Gavin Polone, writers and show creators Greg Daniels (“SNL,” “The Simpsons”) and Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner (“Third Rock From the Sun”), Columbia TriStar Television president Jon Feltheimer, producers, Eric Gold and Robert Morton, ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses, Walt Disney Television president Dean Valentine, C3 chairman and CEO Rich Frank, and actor-director-writer-producer Keenan Ivory Wayans.

Conan O’Brien presided over Saturday morning’s writers’ roundtable, with the Turners, “Friends” scribes Marta Kauffman and David Crane, multi-hyphenate Steve Martin and screenwriters Nancy Myers and Charles Shyer (“Father of the Bride”) on the panel. Addressing the general quality of comedy on television, Kauffman decried the medium’s “gold-rush mentality.” “The problem is everybody thinks they can write comedy,” and Martin chimed in that his shrink, at the end of a particularly cathartic session, asked the actor-writer, “What screenwriting program do you use?” In talking about the erosion of the writer’s vision from page to screen, Myers complained that “directors are to blame. They don’t trust the script if they’re not there from the beginning.”

But for all of the contentiousness of the panels, albeit playful, for four brief days — with the breathtaking Rocky Mountains as a backdrop — terminally insecure comedians, persecuted writers, network chieftains and bottom-line agents sheathed their daggers and appeared to be genuinely happy to be in the same place at the same time.

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