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HBO's Vegas event looks for big encore

So what’s for the encore?

As topnotch comics prepare to invade Las Vegas for the second annual Comedy Festival, promoters and sponsors remain giddy over last year’s success. But while the kickoff edition went splendidly, all agree there’s definitely room for improvement.

The biggest change is that that this year’s fest, which opens today at Caesars Palace, is expanding from three days to five.

“We were stepping over ourselves last year,” says John Meglen, president of Concerts West/AEG, the org that, along with HBO, is putting the show together. “We would sell out a room, but it would only be three-quarters full because people didn’t have time to get from one show to another. Now we’ve spread it out.”

The top-tier events will once again be the presentation of the Comedian Award — this year’s recipient is Chris Rock, with Jerry Seinfeld having received it last year.

Also, eight years after the last big show, Comic Relief returns — with original hosts Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams — for a three-hour telethon. The event will be broadcast live on the pay cabler and TBS (also a fest sponsor), with monies raised to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Fest talent appearing on different stages at Caesars is wide-ranging. There will be standup, improv and extravaganzas including Tom Joyner’s “Oh Oh Oh Comedy Show,” with Mike Epps, Mo’Nique, Damon Wayans and Katt “The Pimp Chronicles” Williams.

Other acts will include Mario Cantone, Dave Chappelle, Kathy Griffin, Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman and someone who knows a little something about playing Vegas, comic icon Don Rickles, who will be bringing along an orchestra.

Meanwhile, the “Lucky 21” show will showcase one hand-selected comedian from each of the major Vegas clubs. Audiences will vote for their favorite, and that person will be allowed to perform at the 2007 Comedy Festival.

The Vegas gathering differs greatly from HBO’s much smaller Aspen fest — to be held Feb. 28 through March 4 — in that consumers have easy access to tickets, while Aspen is mostly geared to industry types. Also, Aspen venues can only hold up to 500 or so while Caesars’ showrooms are significantly larger, including the Colosseum — the permanent home of Celine Dion — which can accommodate 4,000.

“Year one for us was a big step in establishing a different vibe than Aspen,” explains Meglen. “That’s a very elite fest.”

“The way I look at it, (Vegas) is more of a concert play than an industry play,” adds Brillstein-Grey manager Tim Sarkes, whose client Bob Saget will perform at the Comedy Festival. “We always ask, ‘Is this the right deal, right venue and right time to be there?’ Vegas is always a money play.”

What intrigues Carmi Zlotnik, HBO’s exec VP, new media programming group, is that killer performances in Vegas have the opportunity to turn into full-fledged comedy specials or series for the pay cabler.

“It’s cost effective for us to shoot them here, at one place and at one time,” she says. “Before Johnny retired, this was like a spot on Carson. And if you appear on HBO, you know you’ve made it to the top echelon. Comedians appreciate the platform where you can talk in an uncensored way.”

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