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Funny Business

If you're a comedian, getting invited to perform at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen is somewhat equivalent to being an independent filmmaker invited to showcase your film at Sundance. Aspen is the place to be seen in the United States by agents, managers, comedy bookers, network bigwigs, and production company execs, who congregate each winter in the ritzy Colorado ski village to see what's being touted as the top comedic acts from around the country, as well as a few imports from such faraway places as Great Britain.

Though most performers who've made the trek to the five-day festival (which wound up its seventh annual event a few weeks ago) will tell you they get much out of the experience, the truth is that most of them do not walk away from Aspen with lucrative development deals in their pockets.

As standup Jim Gaffigan, who returned for his second stint at the festival, said, "I think Aspen is a great showcase, but I think people sometimes have this notion that they're going to walk away with gigantic deals. I think Aspen is more of a debutante ball, and I think there are rarely Cinderella stories, and most of the time when people hear about those Cinderella stories they really have happened over a long time."

Gaffigan is a good example of one of the stories that sounds like an overnight success but in reality involved nearly a decade of rejection before luck struck. Two days before heading to Aspen two years ago, he made an oral agreement with David Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants, to star in a proposed series, Welcome to New York (now on hiatus), for CBS. While the timing was great, Gaffigan pointed out that he had spent nine frustrating years struggling to get noticed as a standup, and it was not until a few months before Aspen that his career began to gain momentum.

Though fairy-tale stories of overnight success are rare at Aspen, a number of performers do secure representation as a result of being seen in the festival each year. Above all, nearly all of the participants at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival gain much-appreciated exposure to the very people who can eventually change their careers.

Saturday Night Live cast member Rachel Dratch found her agent (who is now Dratch's manager) at the festival three years ago, when she was invited to perform with Chicago's Second City troupe. Dratch, who was invited back to perform at this year's celebration, advises first-time festival performers in Aspen not to focus solely on career matters but rather, more importantly, on their comedy material. If someone is interested in your talent, they'll surely let you know, she said.

"Don't worry about who's going to see you, because you're going to be seen by somebody," noted Dratch, who recently put on her two-person show in Aspen with Second City alum Tina Fey (the first female head writer for SNL and current co-anchor for SNL's "Weekend Update"). "So don't stress out about the end result. Have fun, and enjoy seeing people's shows. If you can concentrate on the art and not on the business, it can be a lot more fun for the performer. Just having performed legitimizes you, and I think it gives you some clout."

Pilot Calls

Because the HBO-sponsored comedy festival takes place in the midst of television pilot season, most industry folks are probably traveling to Aspen with casting—rather than development—on their minds. Said Marc Hirschfeld, executive vice president of casting at NBC, "I definitely use the festival as a resource."

Hirschfeld, whose impressive casting credits (prior to being tapped for his current position at NBC) include Seinfeld, Third Rock From the Sun, NewsRadio, The Larry Sanders Show, Party of Five, and The Wonder Years, cited his recent recruiting of standup Paul F. Tompkins for the NBC series DAG. Hirschfeld noted that it was not just a matter of seeing Tompkins in Aspen one time. The casting executive had been following the comedian's development over the course of two to three years.

"I'd been tracking Paul for a while, and he'd been a festival regular for the last couple of years. He also performs at Largo [a Los Angeles club] a lot. We made a deal with him a year ago and then cast him into DAG," recalled Hirschfeld.

Another way industry members use the festival for casting purposes is for auditions during pilot season. As Los Angeles-based standup Greg Fitzsimmons explained, performing in the festival brings him far more auditions than he normally would be called in for.

Fitzsimmons, who was invited for his third time to perform in Aspen and walked away with this year's festival Jury Prize for Best Standup, said, "I came home from Aspen on a Monday, and I had an audition that day. I had three the next day, and I had three the day after that, which I would not have had if I had not gone to Aspen. I might have had one or two this week."

And because he returned to L.A. with a top award, he was able to skip a step in the typical pilot-audition process.

"Instead of going in to meet with the casting directors first, I was brought straight in for producers on each audition, which kind of gets you past the first hurdle," he explained.

Fitzsimmons also had success performing at the equally prestigious Montreal Comedy Festival, held annually in the summer. The standup landed his first agent and manager as a result of being seen in Montreal in 1996—the same year he first performed in Aspen. He subsequently got his first gig on Letterman, a milestone for any standup, and his career has slowly but surely been moving forward since then.

If Fitzsimmons had one complaint about Aspen, it is that it drives him crazy to see some of his fellow standups using their 10-minute sets to try to sell a sitcom idea.

"I think people sometimes try too hard," he told Back Stage West. "I see people up there trying to do their 'Here's my sitcom' set. My manager is always yelling at me because I refuse to do that. I refuse to talk about my life as if it's this great sitcom. I consider standup to be a real art form. I do it because I like to do it, and if it leads to something else, that's great."

Wrapped Package

Still, consider standup Debi Gutierrez, who has succeeded so far at translating her seven-minute set into a pilot for NBC. (Whether the pilot will be picked up by the network is not yet known.) Two years ago, Gutierrez performed at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival as a relative unknown. Her routine was all about her life as a frazzled, middle-class mother of two, trying to hold on to her sanity and make ends meet. After her first festival stint, Gutierrez signed with a well-connected manager, which was followed by a development deal with Castle Rock Entertainment.

When Gutierrez was invited to perform in Aspen again this year, she thought it would be a piece of cake. With so much industry brass in town, however, she soon realized the pressure was on her to shine and to help sell her pilot.

"To tell you the truth, I thought it was going to be so much easier," admitted the comedian, who recently added a third child to her fold. "I thought, I'll just go do my little standup and shake some hands, but I worked my tail off this time. Everybody was interested in the show and wanted to hear all about it. People from NBC, Warner Bros., and Castle Rock [all involved with the pilot] were there. So I had to talk to a lot of people. From the minute I got up and left my hotel, I was campaigning for the show."

Though Gutierrez may soon have to take a break from performing on the road if her pilot gets picked up, she stressed the importance the festival has played in exposing her to so many of the comedy club bookers who regularly attend the festival.

"You're auditioning for club owners, where otherwise you'd have to send a tape to a comedy club and then do some follow-up and maybe come out to their club for free. So the exposure is amazing," said Gutierrez, who advised comedians traveling to Aspen to come prepared with such practical business tools as business cards to hand out to interested bookers.

Dan Mer, the president of the Improv comedy club in Tempe, Ariz., finds the festival to be an extremely convenient and valuable resource for showcasing talent.

"I'm not in one of the major showbiz hubs—like New York, L.A., San Francisco, or Chicago—where you have a giant talent pool that's always available to you, and where new talent is always showcasing," sad Mer, who attends Aspen every year. "At the festival, I get to see a lot of fresh, new faces, all within a matter of a few days, which would take me much longer if I were showcasing in Los Angeles or New York. It's really productive in that sense."

Robert Hartman, who heads the L.A. Improv office and books acts for all 11 (soon to be 15) of the company's venues around the country, is often already familiar with many of the standups who get chosen to perform in Aspen, because the festival's talent bookers often showcase at the L.A. Improv. Still, he is often pleasantly surprised by some of the talent he sees each year.

"The [festival's organizers] will often throw in new faces—people I am not aware of," said Hartman. "Also, a lot of times I know the standups, but I haven't seen their growth and development. I may have seen them two years prior, and now they've really developed. It gives me an opportunity to see them at a further-along state. And sometimes I miss talent. At a point when I first saw them I didn't think they were that great, but when they showcase at the festival they have a more clear, concise voice, and I can perhaps get excited about them."

Hartman added that just by having a credit like the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival or the Montreal Comedy Festival can help speed up the process of being considered for a booking in one of his company's clubs. Said the talent booker, "When someone's performed in Aspen, they have to go through a screening process to get in there. A number people I respect in this business are looking at them and evaluating them, and if they think they're good enough to be put on their stage, I will definitely throw all those people to the top of my list when I review tapes."

Alternative Voices

Back Stage West spoke with a number of respected industry executives about what they gain from attending this festival. For many, Aspen is a terrific arena in which to view a cross-section of the best comedy acts from around the country. While traditional standup remains a popular component of the festival, some of the more alternative acts were what really excited audiences, especially industry members, this year.

Some of this year's most talked about shows were: The Bomb-Itty of Errors, a hit Off-Broadway adaptation of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors infused with hip-hop; Def Poetry Jam, a fresh style of performance art set to spoken word; The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show, a hilarious white-trash comedy revue; The Comic, a new play by Mark Schiff about the not-so-glamorous life of a standup on the road, and Are You Dave Gorman?, U.K export Dave Gorman's one-man show, which previously was a top draw at the 2000 Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

As Hirschfeld, who is also one of the festival's executive committee members (which helps decide on talent), told Back Stage West, the festival's organizers have lately been making a more concerted effort to expand the styles of comedy presented at the festival.

"I think there had been pressure the last few years to book a lot of standups, and I think as a result the quality went down, because there is a finite number of people out there doing standup material who have the maturity to be able to do more than just a three-minute set," said Hirschfeld. "There was pressure to fill out the standup slate with people who weren't quite ready. So a lot of the shows were disappointing. I think we limited the number of standups this year, because we found that much more exciting work was being done in alternative comedy, like Un-Cabaret, Bomb-Itty of Errors, and one-person shows by Dave Gorman and by Jamie Denbo.

"In the last couple years, we've really broadened the type of talent in the festival. We do have traditional standups, but now we have a lot more alternative comedy, as well as comedic short and feature films, and tributes to comedy greats like Billy Crystal and Bob Newhart, or in recent years the Smothers Brothers and Steve Martin. There are also seminars on the future of the business. So it's a lot more than just another standup showcase."

Indeed, "diversity" seems to be the favorite word industry members used to describe this year's festival.

As Danny Robinson, an agent at the Agency for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, summed up, "There's two major gatherings for the comedy world—Aspen and Montreal. Aspen has a more diverse setting: one-person shows, sketch shows, short plays, as well as some really strong standups. And you get slightly different types of people of coming to Aspen. You get a lot more of the film community coming to Aspen [such as George Lucas, who attended this year's festival as part of a tribute to American Graffiti]. So you have a broader spectrum of shows than in Montreal," which focuses on standup.

Added Sidney Clifton, the vice president of television programming and development at Film Roman, Inc., which produces The Simpsons and King of the Hill, "Those diverse voices in Aspen really appealed to me. I think the people who produce the festival are so smart in doing that. You can get jaded sitting on the other side of the desk and thinking that comedy is this one group of people with this one voice and one perspective, and when you see that it's not, that is exciting."

Clifton, whose company is currently developing, in addition to its animated shows, live-action programs in partnership with such networks as HBO and MTV, was also pleased to see a fair amount of ethnic diversity at this year's festival.

"I have to say, as an African-American woman, it is great to see diverse faces in Aspen," commented Clifton. "It's great to see people of all colors embraced. That is an encouraging statement about this business in general."

Indeed, this year's lineup did seem more inclusive than in some years past. Such acts as Wayne Brady (see cover story on page 8), Cedric the Entertainer, and Def Poetry Jam, as well as a tribute to the cast of In Living Color, were welcome sights in a town that, frankly, is lacking in colors other than white, and I'm not just talking about the snow.

Still, one African-American television executive, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that she wished she had seen more minority talent included in the standup roster at the festival this year.

She did say, however, "I went to Aspen previously, in '97, and I really felt there was a concerted effort this year to have diverse programming and diverse talent. So I was impressed."

Consider It Art

For performers, especially those who do not fit the typical standup billing, participating in the Aspen festival is a reminder that what they do is an art—not just a form of entertainment for the drunken masses.

Beth Lapides, who was invited for the first time to bring her long-running Los Angeles show, Un-Cabaret, an alternative comedy show using a style of intimate, conversational, stream-of-consciousness storytelling, felt validated by her inclusion in this year's event. Her popular weekly show, which she's hosted for seven years—first at LunaPark and more recently at the HBO Workspace in Hollywood—has included such well-known comedians as Julia Sweeney, Andy Dick, Moon Zappa, Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Bob Odenkirk, and David Cross.

Said Lapides, "I think it's great that they call it the Comedy Arts Festival, and it's refreshing to be in a situation where comedy is seen as an art form and not as a lesser genre. So many times people think of comedy as somehow less than drama or tragedy, and, really, it's such a delicate art form. It felt great to be in a corporate-sponsored environment where comedy is considered an art. So it has this great feeling of people looking at it that way, and I think it has the chance to shape people's opinions and open their eyes to different kinds of things."

Indeed, HBO's annual event is more than just play—although there is plenty of that taking place on the ski slopes and at the late-night parties. The festival has the potential to influence key people in their decision making and possibly to open up doors—not just for individual comedians but also for different kinds of comedy.

Scott Howard, a prominent talent manager in Los Angeles, acknowledged the significance this comedy festival has in shaping people's views.

"If HBO thinks that some of these acts are worthy of the festival, then I think that a lot of other people follow suit," said Howard, whose clients include Friends cast member Lisa Kudrow, frequent late-night talk show standup Jake Johannsen, and Steve Oedekerk, a writer on Patch Adams, The Nutty Professor, and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

Sharon Chazen Lieblein, the head of West Coast Casting at Nickelodeon, added that there were a number of acts at this year's festival that she probably would not have attended had she been invited to see them in Los Angeles. Once she was in Aspen, however, she really made a point to see some of the more alternative shows and found that she gained new insight as a result. She cited Def Poetry Jam as a prime example.

Said the Nickelodeon executive, "The festival opens our eyes to different things. With Def Poetry Jam, it was all about the spoken word. I thought it was very interesting, and it's not something that is normally done with kids' programming. So I thought that might be an interesting thing to think more about. Honestly, if I'd normally gotten an invitation to that in L.A., I probably wouldn't go to a night of poetry reading, because I wouldn't think that it would help me. But being up in Aspen and hearing the buzz about how great it was, I went and saw it, and it was amazing. It just makes me think of different projects we can do."

Work & Relaxation

Getting invited to perform in Aspen is not a matter of sending in an application, although the festival's senior producer of festival talent, Judi Brown, welcomes performers to contact her office early in the process to invite her to see them perform. (The deadline for festival consideration is in late November.) Brown and others in her office scour the country year-round for the best that comedy has to offer, and if she or one of her associates does take a liking to you, the process often entails further showcasing to the festival's executive committee and other top festival associates.

Alan Aymie, who performed his well-received one-person show, Child's Play, at the festival this year, was called in by Brown to present his show six times at the HBO Workspace for various committee members before finally getting the invitation to perform in Aspen. Prior to his show being considered for the festival, the L.A.-based writer/actor had performed his show in New York and at various L.A. venues, most recently at the Zephyr Theatre on Melrose, where it played for a successful three months.

Said Aymie, "I think what the people at HBO were doing was seasoning me as the process was going. They get you used to feeling that kind of high-stakes pressure so that you're as comfortable as you can be with it when you go to Aspen."

Being able to relax in such a high-stakes environment is the overriding advice veteran performers to this festival offer our readers. Relax and enjoy the spotlight, they say. Just getting to Aspen is a feat worth celebrating. It is also a rare and wonderful opportunity to be considered a colleague among some of your idols, who for comics this year included such famous funny people as Harry Shearer, Fred Willard, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Newhart. Aspen does draw some of the best-known comic actors in show business, after all.

As Dratch excitedly recalled, "In addition to our own show this year, Tina and I were practicing a little bit for this Catherine O'Hara lounge show, and Steve Martin walks into the room. It was just us and Steve Martin, and he says, 'What are you guys going to do for the show? Well, show me what you're going to do.' And so we're sitting there doing our little bit for Steve Martin, and it felt like I was in some surreal dream. The same goes for hanging out with Catherine O'Hara. Or last time I was in Aspen, [members of] Monty Python were walking around the St. Regis Hotel. It's really cool to be up there with your idols." BSW

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