Laughing matters

Python, 'Cheers' reunions top Aspen comedy fest

ASPEN, Colo. — From the Comedy Central animated hit “South Park’s” celebration of the sophomoric to newcomer Dael Orlandersmith’s lacerating one woman performance of poetry and self examination, the four day U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen covered all of the comedic bases before wrapping up Saturday night with the famed Brit comedy troupe Monty Python’s first appearance on stage together in 18 years.

Attendance for the HBO sponsored event topped out at 15,000, said exec director Stu Smiley, “including over 100 executives from every major studio and network.”

The fest’s success in its fourth year has led to widespread talk that this may be the last time the laughs roll out in Colorado. According to Chris Albrecht, HBO’s president of original programming, “the festival has clearly outgrown Aspen. To accommodate the crowds we’re drawing, we have to have larger venues.”

‘Cheers’ reunion

With the fest’s reputation for launching new talent growing each year, the attention on up-and-coming performers led to interest beyond the award winners, which were announced on Saturday at the beginning of a “Cheers” reunion tribute that drew cast members Woody Harrelson, Ted Danson, George Wendt, Rhea Perlman, Kelsey Grammer and John Ratzenberger.

Awards went to Steve Martin in the theater category for writing “Sketches for the Festival”; Brit comic Eddie Izzard for best one person show; the Upright Citizens Brigade for best sketch/alternative work and Todd Barry for best standup.

Managers Dave Becky and David Minor of 3 Arts Entertainment, representation for both Barry and the Brigade, reported that the Upright Citizens Brigade pilot for Comedy Central “was in serious discussions for a confirmed pickup.”

Indicative of the heavy industry attention focused on the fest, Becky said that another 3 Arts comic, Jeff Garland, “drew new heat here,” for his untitled project at CBS, the result, said Becky, “of CBS’ (Les) Moonves being on hand to see both Garland’s act and the pilot of director Alan Zweibel’s show, ‘Happy.’ ”

Other acts that seemed to draw industry interest even before the curtain fell on their performances included U.K. performer Ed Byrne, who confabbed with execs from CBS and Disney, and Detroit radio personality John Heffron, whom both Fox and DreamWorks chatted up.

“Great things happen here,” said Becky, “even if it’s not an immediate deal. Sometimes, it’s a matter of getting interest back up on someone that’s already been seen, but in this context, there’s a different vibe. Where else do you have all of the network executives sitting side by side, watching their competitors react when a comic really scores with the crowd?”

New Yorker wows

New York performance artist Orlandersmith’s moving, emotional Friday afternoon show drew a standing ovation. The buzz started on Orlandersmith after her Thursday night performance, which led to Friday morning huddling with NBC execs. NBC wasn’t alone in its attention to the U.K.’s Izzard, who emerged from the festival as a major new comic voice on this side of the Atlantic. Izzard, whose first video, “Glorious,” is due out from Polygram on March 31, wasn’t too daunted by the award and the buzz.

“I didn’t come here to get a TV show,” said Izzard. “My only plan is to play every major city in America. What happened here is that the TV execs saw the audience go for me, but then they said to themselves, ‘He’s British and he’s weird and the last time anyone went for British and weird was the Pythons. But they went for the Pythons. He’s a transvestite, so maybe gays will like him.’ I’ve completely confused people. It’s a good place to be.”

Saturday’s lively lineup of events started early with a surprisingly funny and pungent round table panel discussion, “Network Television in the Year 2005,” moderated by CNN’s Jeff Greenfield and sporting a blue chip crew of panelists that included Stuart Bloomberg, chairman of ABC Entertainment; WB Network CEO Jamie Kellner; CBS Television president Leslie Moonves; NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield; Brad Siegel, president of TNT and TCM; and Dean Valentine, president and CEO of UPN. Also on hand were Larry Gelbart, who was honored with a USCAF writer’s award on Friday, director Jim Burrows, network consultant John Agoglia, associate director of the MIT Media Laboratory Andrew Lippman and New York Times TV correspondent Bill Carter.

‘South Park’ Q&A

Following the round table was an event called “South Park Comes Home,” a series of clips from the hit show accompanied by a Q&A session with “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Judging by the frenzied throngs fighting to get in to see two guys talking about their startling newfound success, and the light attendance on Friday for Robert B. Weide’s TV doc, “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth,” a harrowing examination of the tragic career and death of groundbreaking comic Lenny Bruce, there’s a bounty of appreciation for those uttering offensive epithets today, but little reverence (or awareness) for those who paved the way. But in the end sponsor HBO did pick up the Weide film.

Despite the limitations of the Aspen infrastructure for growing USCAF into a profitable operation, which, Albrecht insists, it is not, he says that HBO remains bullish on ponying up the funds for the event. “It doesn’t make money, but for us this festival is the perfect personification of what makes us different. We believe we’re a leader in comedy and this is how you lead.”

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