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Aspen event living large

Mountain town film fest outgrows its origins

ASPEN, Colo. — Call it the Sundance Syndrome.

Eleven years after a small comedy festival was established in a remote locale traditionally known for its ski conditions — Aspen — said festival has outgrown its humble origins.

In the case of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which wrapped here, Sunday, this problem will be somewhat alleviated next year as a bigger, more commercial comedy fest bows in Las Vegas this November as a spinoff of Aspen.

Described by one festival exec as “Aspen on steroids,” Vegas fest also will be sponsored by HBO, as well as by the Anschutz Entertainment Group.

This year, the Aspen fest was four days of humor — both obscure and less so — but it also was bursting at the seams.

Big-name attractions such as Eddie Izzard and the reunions of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong and of the cast of Christopher Guest mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman” were standing room only, and in some cases even ticket holders were turned away.

Popular restaurants in town were reservation-only by 7 o’clock, and bar crowds spilled out onto the snow-lined streets.

Looking at alternatives

The limitations imposed upon a festival in an alpine village — where the biggest venue, the ballroom in the St. Regis Hotel, holds 600 people — are not lost on the fest’s organizers, who say that in past years, they’ve explored relocating to less confined, more accessible destinations such as Las Vegas and Santa Barbara.

Last year, the fest’s 10th anniversary looked like it might be its last when primary sponsor HBO considered backing out.

“It’s a great event, but Aspen has no direct business benefit for HBO,” said Chris Albrecht, chairman-CEO of the pay cabler. “It had been 10 great years, but we said, ‘Let’s phase it out.’ ”

Ostensibly, HBO uses Aspen to scout talent for programming, but the real benefactors have been the artists who get some HBO airtime (parts of the fest are filmed and shown on the net) and are put in front of TV and film execs from other companies.

In the end the cabler decided to recommit its energies and finances — in part because it has a renewed interest in comedy programming, both for its TV and film units — with the proviso that a more expansive, commercially viable festival be added to the agenda.

Hence, the Las Vegas festival, which will take place at Caesars Palace, which can pack in an audience of more than 4,000. Vegas event’s programming will be more mainstream and seek to attract an audience of more than just industryites from New York and Los Angeles.

By contrast, the goal in Aspen, as fest director Craig Minassian put it, is “to make it as relevant to film and TV people as possible.”

Aspen will retain its current size and scope and will be viewed as a feeder for Vegas.

Sundance on pot

If Vegas will be Aspen on steroids, Aspen is Sundance on pot. This year, like others, the festival had a relaxed, apres-ski feel, fueled by the mountain setting as well, perhaps, by the fact that the products of sponsor Bass beer were available at most events.

Even some of the performances had a what-the-hell attitude.

Following a well-received reunion show, Cheech & Chong decided to perform impromptu at Catherine O’Hara’s latenight lounge in a gig that included a silver-bearded Chong grinding out the duo’s signature song “Up in Smoke” on his bass, as well as a lot of “Hey, man’s.”

Eddie Izzard, who opted to forgo his drag queen attire in the 30-degree Rockies, seemed to ad-lib his way through the first half of his Thursday night show before picking things up with his imitation of life in a beehive. The act required much prancing around onstage, causing a wheezing Izzard to remark on how thin the air is in Aspen.

O’Hara’s lounge, kind of a freestyle potpourri showcase of the festival, is an aud favorite. When it kicked off after midnight on Saturday, the crowd and the performers were well warmed up, and both seemed to relish after-hours irreverence and back-and-forth heckling.

Besides live perfs and films, there also were healthy doses of nonperformance entertainment.

McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers led a discussion with graphic novelists including Chris Ware and Charles Burns, and a group of New York-based writers, including Jonathan Ames, Amy Sohn and John Hodgman, read from their work, giving the fest a markedly literary bent.

“Sunday Morning Shootout” hosts Peter Bart and Peter Guber filmed two shows live with guests including Cheech & Chong, Sarah Silverman and Tom Green.

Garry Trudeau was on hand to receive this year’s Free Speech Award, despite the fact that, on the eve of the award presentation, he broke his collarbone skiing.

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