Aspen comedy fest draws comics, exex

Plethora of Monica-isms plague Rockies event

ASPEN, Colo. — As the contents of President Clinton’s Paula Jones deposition were published across America on Wednesday, the nation’s top comics and comedy’s top-echelon execs gathered in tony Aspen for the fourth annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Call it a fooling frenzy, since comedy is contagious and jokes about presidential sexual preferences are spreading through the fest like a comic hanta virus.

Wednesday night was the first of four live broadcasts of Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” talkshow. The subject matter, said panel participant Tom Arnold, “was supposed to be about coming from the ghetto and the obligation to give back to the community. We wound up debating the political impact of Clinton’s alleged admission that he kissed Monica Lewinsky. I figure his ratings go up with women and down with men.”

Lewinsky jokes aside, fest exec director Stu Smiley was feeling festive at the halfway mark, given the fest’s lineup, turnout and bounty of industry schmoozing. The fest may have been inspired by the famed Edinburgh Fringe live entertainment fest, but the proximity to Hollywood, the appeal of the ski slopes and the sponsorship of comedy business heavyweight outfit HBO make this a power laughfest.

Before the fest wraps on Sunday, audiences will be treated to a “Cheers” reunion, a Monty Python reunion, a Larry Gelbart tribute, the premiere of a new series of Steve Martin sketches, Steven Wright, Dennis Miller, Margaret Cho, the aforementioned Maher, David Cross, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Klein, Kevin Pollak, Julia Sweeney, ad infinitum.

Screenings of authorized and unofficial comedy features have increased this year, with Thursday’s unspooling of the comedy “Hacks” drawing co-stars Tom Arnold, Illeana Douglas and John Ritter to the screening and post-screening party at Planet Hollywood.

“The purpose of the screening was to snag theatrical distribution. I think we might have pulled it off,” Arnold said.

One of the hottest tickets is Saturday’s ” ‘South Park’ Comes Home” screening and Q&A with series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, both Colorado natives.

In addition, Jeff Greenfield will moderate a discussion on Saturday morning called “Network Television in the Year 2005,” with a panel including Les Moonves, Tom S. Rogers, Stuart Bloomberg and Dean Valentine. Word is that Peter Jennings is on his way to cover the fest. Not a comic in the bunch, but if any of them can make it through the day without a Monica-ism, it’ll be one of the biggest stories of the fest.

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