HBO pulls U.S. Comedy Arts Festival
Ryan Summerlin May 12, 2007
ASPEN ” As the chairman and CEO of HBO, Chris Albrecht was the man who made the decision each year whether HBO would present its U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Since 1995, when HBO launched the biggest comedy event in the U.S., Albrecht gave the nod each year to host the festival in Aspen. But Albrecht resigned from his position at HBO earlier this week, after being arrested Sunday in Las Vegas, for allegedly assaulting a woman.
Gone with the man who gave approval for the festival is the festival itself. Bob Crestani, who has served as the CEO of the USCAF, acknowledged that HBO had pulled the plug on the 2008 event, and that the future of the festival ” in Aspen or anywhere ” is up in the air.
“The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival has had 13 great years as part of the Aspen landscape,” said Crestani in an e-mailed statement. “We’ve made the bittersweet decision not to host the festival there in 2008. We hope that circumstances will allow us to return to Aspen in the future.”
In late 2005, Crestani reiterated that hosting the USCAF was a year-to-year decision, and that the continuation of the event was in Albrecht’s hands.
“We evaluate the [ Aspen] festival every year; there’s no plan to do it long term,” Crestani told The Aspen Times in November 2005. “It’s Chris’ gift to the industry and the community.”
No HBO or USCAF executives were made available to comment on whether Albrecht’s resignation was a deciding factor in bringing the festival to a halt. The Denver Post and Aspen Daily News reported Thursday, quoting an anonymous HBO spokeswoman, that the USCAF would not take place in Aspen in 2008. According to those reports, the shortage and high cost of hotel rooms were cited as the reason for curtailing the USCAF. The newspaper further reported that HBO has scouted out Santa Barbara, Calif., as a potential site for the festival.
Albrecht’s gift to Aspen and the comedy industry has come in a big package over the 13-year run of the festival. The USCAF has presented such special events as a reunion of the Monty Python troupe, live presentations of “The Simpsons” and ” American Dad,” and a preview screening of “The Aristocrats.” The festival has honored such comedians as Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams and Steve Martin, and brought together the casts of “Animal House,” ” Waiting For Guffman,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Cheers.” The USCAF, which emphasized young comedians and new forms of comedy, helped boost the careers of Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano, Jack Black and Eddie Izzard.
Despite the USCAF’s uninterrupted stretch in Aspen, the festival’s continuing existence often has been tenuous. Several years ago, producers of the festival acknowledged that they had considered relocating the event, with Park City, Utah, mentioned as a possible alternative. The high cost of hotel rooms in early March ” when the festival usually took place ” and the difficulty in booking those rooms often were noted as hurdles for the USCAF. In 2005, HBO launched a second event ” The Comedy Festival ” in Las Vegas, featuring many of the same big names that had appeared in Aspen. Vegas’ Comedy Festival, geared toward a general audience, and Aspen’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, largely an industry event, existed simultaneously for just two years.
“I would hope we can keep both of these things going and happening, and each with their own identity,” said Crestani just before launching The Comedy Festival, of which he also served as CEO. “The idea that we’re doing another festival is a compliment to Aspen. We think Aspen is special.”
The presence of the USCAF in Aspen brought the town a good deal of attention. Promo spots on HBO regularly mentioned Aspen in conjunction with the festival; HBO also placed promotional messages on the inflight videos on United Airlines. Performances taped in Aspen occasionally appeared on Comedy Central and HBO.
Still, the biggest player in the local business community gave only grudging acceptance to the festival. The Aspen Skiing Co. repeatedly stated its preference that HBO move the USCAF to a time other than early March, when demand for hotel space is already near its peak. Bill Tomcich, president of the central reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, called the festival’s termination ” bittersweet news” for the business community. “It’s a great disappointment to some, and maybe welcome news for others,” he said. Stay Aspen Snowmass “booked a lot of business because of this event. But it may come as welcome news to people who believe they can fill their rooms and seats with premium-paying guests. [ The USCAF] was at a time when hotels and airline seats are at an absolute premium.”
For Aspen’s comedy lovers, however, it’s hard to see an upside to the disappearance of the festival. Except, perhaps, for a good excuse for a road trip.
“For my tastes, it was the event of the year. It was the week I became a tourist in my own town, coming downtown every day and staying out late,” said Aspenite Barry Smith, who writes comedy (including the column Irrelativity for The Aspen Times) and performs comedic one-man shows. “I always said it was something I would go elsewhere to see, and luckily I never had to. Now, I guess I get to see if I really meant it.”