Like virtually every other entertainment business confab these days, the traditionally standup-oriented U.S. Comedy Arts Festival is getting heckled by the digital revolution.
It’s logical response? Change the material.
With comedic talent increasingly showcased online on MySpace pages and in viral videos — and the TV networks and tenpercenteries saving SkyMiles to find them there — the festival is working to invent ways to include performances that aren’t exactly live.
Or, in the words of festival CEO Bob Crestani, “We’re doing some things a little differently this year.”
In its 13th year, the festival’s slate will include the “Broadband Theater,” billed as “a new show that looks at the genre-busting ideas being found on the Web.” Hosted by Sara Schaefer (from AOL music channel “The DL”), the show will screen the works of JibJab co-founders Evan and Gregg Spiridellis, podcast guru Jonathan Coulton and online sketch comedy troupe Olde English.
Meanwhile, a bumped-up focus on sketch comedy will feature an appearance by online shorts duo Joey Manderino and David Young (aka JoeyandDavid.com), who will attempt to combine their commercial parodies with in-person theatrics.
“It’s a multimedia show that has live elements as well as video elements,” Manderino explains.
The slate also includes the panel “Blogging: Buzz vs. Biz,” which will include the Defamer himself, Mark Lisanti, TMZ impresario Harvey Levin and Jessica Coen, formerly with Gawker.com.
The USCAF’s outreach is also punctuated by an online activity: The Friday night “Accidentally Famous” show at Belly Up will feature amateur talent culled from an eight-week-long online search. “A few years ago, so much of our business was about live performance,” Crestani concedes. “In today’s world, so much of what is done is on digital materials that are being sent around. There’s very little sketch material that doesn’t involve digital production, for example.”
To evolve, the USCAF’s brain trust — which numbers around 30 people at full capacity, many of whom have talent-agency backgrounds — now scouts “through many different lenses,” Crestani explains, noting that fest denizens previously programmed the event almost exclusively by hitting the club circuits.
As such, the fest will bill a robust slate of “alternative artists” whose acts can’t necessarily be described as standup, such as the Andy Kaufmanesque Charlyne Yi and the Gotham-based Dave Hill, who will bring his strange talk/variety show, “The Dave Hill Explosion,” to Aspen.
“We look at a tremendous amount of people to try to find someone who can do something interesting live without taking away from their material,” Crestani says. “We have a really high water mark for new discovery.”
The USCAF and its principal sponsor, HBO, bill the Aspen event as an industry-focused place to find new talent; the sibling Las Vegas Comedy Festival, which will kick off its third campaign in November, is supposed to be the more commercially driven, consumer-oriented venue for established names.
“Aspen is a labor of love. The Las Vegas festival is the one that will hopefully be profitable for the company,” Crestani explains.
However, Aspen still tries to book enough big names to fill the marquee, and this year is no exception.
The USCAF will hand out two honors this year: Don Rickles will be on hand to receive the Pinnacle Award, alongside filmmaker John Landis, who will show off clips from a still-incomplete docu about the comedian; and Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert will get the inaugural Person of the Year trophy.
The Fest has several established standup acts booked, including George Carlin — touting his 50th year in comedy — along with fellow veterans Steven Wright and Katt Williams.
On the TV comedy side, the cast of HBO’s “Entourage,” along with creator-exec producer Doug Ellin, will be on hand to present “Entourage: Behind the Scenes,” while Seth MacFarlane will screen his latest creation for Fox, “The Winner,” starring “Daily Show” correspondent Rob Corddry, who also will be present along with series co-creator Ricky Blitt.
The event’s film program, meanwhile, will kick off with “Waitress,” written, directed and starring the late Adrienne Shelly and co-starring Andy Griffith, Keri Russell and Cheryl Hines.
Also on the slate are the world premieres of “Eagle vs. Shark” (a New Zealand film starring Flight of the Conchords denizen Jemaine Clement), “Cook-Off!” from helmer Guy Shalem, Frank Oz’s “Death at a Funeral” and Jim Pasternak’s Jonathan Winters docu “Certifiably Jonathan.”