For five days in Aspen, Colo., each February, to paraphrase Shakespeare, all the world’s a stage. Comedians from across the country and beyond descend on this playground of the rich and famous, and ply their trade in front of network and cable execs, film producers, casting directors and agents and managers of all stripes. From the a.m. hours till well past midnight, there’s scarcely a stage, lounge or movie screen where some type of comedy isn’t being played out in one form or another.
The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which runs Feb. 28-March 4 and now in its seventh year, might be the youngest industry fest with the most prestige. Credit the star power that it attracted from the beginning, the promise of discovery and a general air of exclusivity.
“It’s a great place to scout talent and see colleagues,” says Dave Becky of New York-based 3 Arts Entertainment, a comedy management stronghold. “I think they do a really great job of putting on theatrical shows because they go and comb all these clubs to come up with people who aren’t necessarily on the radar.”
Although the honorees often get most of the ink — tributes to Billy Crystal, Bob Newhart and the casts of “In Living Color” and “American Graffiti” are among this year’s offerings — organizers have made great strides in getting away from traditional standup to alternative variations on the form.
“Years ago there was a higher percentage of straight comedy,” explains John Moffitt, the fest’s co-executive producer. “A lot of the stuff we do now is really to show the growth of the performer, who might have started out in standup but in terms of what they’re doing in Aspen — like Larry Miller’s show — will show the industry that there’s another side to Larry.”
To be sure, Hollywood power players are almost as plentiful as the comic talent on hand, and that’s what the organizers prefer. Since HBO, the event’s primary sponsor, no longer beams performances to its viewers from this Rocky Mountain enclave, the phrase “You had to be there” could serve as a kind of mantra.
For players only
“We did about 8-1/2 hours about three or four years ago,” says Moffitt about HBO’s coverage, “but this is more of an industry event rather than a consumer event, unlike (the Montreal Intl. Comedy Festival), where most of the tickets are sold to consumers.
“Aspen is kind of a closed space. The good news is that unlike Sundance, you don’t have to get in a bus or a van to get to the various venues. You can walk everywhere in town. And even though we sell tickets and some shows are very accessible (to the public), HBO’s thrust is in another direction at this point.”
Adds Peter Principato of Principato-Young Management: “It’s invigorating because it’s like taking Los Angeles and squeezing it into a four-mile radius and having it all localized. It’s a great way to get your clients seen and talked about and positioned in a way that’s not normally possible because it’s hard for people to make the time in their day-to-day responsibilities back home.”
For those who can afford the pricey accommodations, the package passes and the big-ticket tributes, the experience can border on the voyeuristic.
For example, four years ago at a “Saturday Night Live” reunion, the Wheeler Opera House was clearly not big enough to house the gargantuan egos involved, with Martin Short, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase seemingly battling it out for King of Comedy honors. Plus, the lifestyle that would kill Chris Farley a few months later was in clear evidence onstage, where the late TV-film star looked like he was about to implode.
Last year had its own Oprah-meets-Jerry Springer moments, with honoree Robin Williams opening up about his self-destructive years during the ’80s, and Jerry Lewis seemingly pleading forgiveness from the late Dean Martin for not giving his straightman enough credit when he was alive, while raising eyebrows with his comment about women comedians not being as funny as the men.
The unscripted moments will continue to flow this year, with fest regulars Catherine O’Hara returning with her Late-Night Lounge and Janeane Garofalo, who will host an All-Star Winter Comedy Pageant, waiting in the wings. Also on tap is a restaging of cult ’70s TV show “Fernwood 2 Night” on its 22nd anniversary.
“As usual, when it’s going well it takes on a life of its own,” says Stu Smiley, who, with Brian Murphy, co-founded USCAF and acts as executive director. “There is a critical mass of people who are in the same place at the same time, which always makes for some really interesting dynamics.
“This year, between the Internet summit to people like Norman Lear and Martin Mull and the cast of ‘In Living Color,’ Billy Crystal and Martin Short, you know some sparks will fly.”
Snow Summitt for techies
The summit to which Smiley refers continues an annual Aspen tradition in which a panel, usually taking place Saturday morning and loaded with showbiz heavyweights, addresses some aspect of the business. Last year’s symposium was titled “Networks and the Net,” while this year takes that concept one step further.
The WorldCom Comedy Technology Summit will encompass four panels over two days, March 1 and 2, and will explore how comedy translates to the Web. Michael Wolff, media columnist for New York Magazine, and Jonathan Weber, editor-in-chief of the Industry Standard, will act as co-producers and moderators.
Participants will include such disparate players as Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks; Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of ABC Entertainment; Walter Isaacson, editorial director, Time Inc.; Rob Burgess, CEO, Macromedia; Nora Ephron, writer-director; author-comedian Steve Martin; producer Norman Lear; Bernie Brillstein of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment; George Stephanopoulos, analyst with ABC News; and Michael Hirschorn, co-chairman and editor-in-chief of Inside.com.
“It starts with the premise that there have been a lot of promises made about the digital revolution,” explains Smiley about the summit, “as well as assumptions that what works on television can eventually work on the Internet. TV and film are mediums where storytelling, acting and directing are all essential to this, but those elements are not necessarily going to translate onto the Internet in the same way.”
Adding to the fest’s noveau Net-savvy flavor is the fact that the event will feature a Cyber Cafe and, according to Moffitt, Web awards handed out for the first time in five areas that will include categories best site and best quirky comedy (titled Just Odd).
“When the Internet settles down with broadband,” says Moffitt, “you’re going to be able to see such things as live events and full features around the world. Obviously animated films and live-action shorts are the call of the day, but it’s not the future.”
Another big change this year is the emergence of the Film Discovery Program, in its third year, as an equal player (see related story).
“It started out as a fun little addition to the festival but it’s become much more competitive” says Principato, who will be touting “Wet Hot American Summer,” which also played at the Sundance Film Festival.
“When we started out we gave the film program very little help,” admits Moffitt. “This year the thing we think is unique — which is different than Sundance or any other festival — is we’re mixing live performers, writers, directors and film actors and providing them with the opportunity to mix.”
Moffitt adds that nightly meet-and-greets, such as the Apres Screening Lounge and the Meet the Buyers series, as well as discounted tickets for live shows available to film attendees, will allow for a kind of symbiotic relationship.
“The key is the interaction where they can meet our talent and get in to see our shows,” says Moffitt. “And now, as a bonus, other than skiing, the talent can meet the filmmakers. That way nobody feels left out in the cold.”