ASPEN - The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival folded in 2007. But its 13-year run brought George Carlin, Steve Martin and Billy Crystal and other comedy legends to Aspen, ensuring that the festival would live long in the collective local memory. But six years have passed, long enough that the attachment to the festival has faded.
"It's faded - faded into a mythic memory more than a reality," said Gram Slaton, the executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, a primary venue throughout the life of the Comedy Arts Festival. "People remember the glow of it."
So Slaton no longer has to contend so much with the stories of Jack Black getting a career boost in Aspen, the reunion of the Monty Python troupe members and appearances by Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. Instead, Slaton just has to present a festival that lives up to his own high standards for comedy.
It hasn't been easy. For three years following the exit of the festival, the Wheeler partnered with a comedy organization in San Francisco to present the Rooftop Comedy Festival. After the Rooftop Festival failed to find solid footing, the Wheeler launched its own Aspen Laff Festival. The third edition of the Laff Festival opens Thursday and runs through Saturday, and Slaton said the festival is still trying to find its place: the proper size of the event, the types of comedy that go over with local audiences and which comedians can, in fact, deliver those types of humor.
"Now, six years later, we're trying to find that formula that works," he said.
Slaton has been unwavering in one respect: He wants comedy that is smart, not just crude. Smart and crude is OK, but he has no tolerance for the standard jokes about bodily functions and sex or endless cursing.
"What people really want is something that's more than eighth-grade bathroom humor. You can hear that on the gondola car ride up the mountain if you want," Slaton said. "There's no challenge to that kind of material. I don't care if a comedian is potty-mouthed if what's behind it is strong. Too often, that's just a stand-in for real thought. Really good humor has to be articulate."
Slaton firmly believes at least one piece of the puzzle is in place for this year's Laff Festival. The festival closes with Christopher Titus, whose appearance to open the inaugural Laff Festival passes the Slaton test.
"He went two hours, straight through, didn't even take a sip of water," Slaton said. "A tour de force, one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen. You walked out of there exhausted and thinking about stuff."
In that appearance, Titus performed "Neverlution," a stand-up show centered around the idea that the U.S. under George W. Bush had become weak and complacent and especially soft in the child-rearing department. On Saturday, he will do the final full performance of his new show, "The Voice in My Head," about the mistakes Titus has made in his life.
Over six years, Slaton has learned that the best way to find more comedians like Titus is to ask comedians like Titus.
"You go to the comedians you respect and ask them who we should bring. That's the best resource you're going to get," Slaton, who has final say over the Laff Festival program, said. "Comedians, if they're good, are incredibly supportive of each other."
Two of the comedians at this year's festival - Jake Johanssen, who appeared several times at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, and Nick Griffin, who has made eight appearances on "The Late Show with David Letterman" - came by recommendation from other comedians.
"Unanimously, people said we should grab them," Slaton said.
Also performing are former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Colin Quinn; Bobby Slayton, another veteran of the Comedy Arts Festival; Troy Walker; Tammy Pescatelli; and Rachel Bradley. There are also two panel shows: "Comics on ... Elective Surgery" and "Comics on ... Congress and Lady Parts." The festival opens at 7:15 p.m. Thursday with a free show by Marion Grodin, daughter of actor Charles Grodin.
Slaton said that the most difficult part of putting the program together was finding female comedians.
"They always tend to go for the lowest common denominator," he said. "Which for the life of me I don't understand. There are so many subjects I'd love to hear them talk about."