An ascendant Aspen Laugh Festival opens Tuesday
2018 ASPEN LAUGH FESTIVAL
Tuesday, Feb. 20
6 p.m. Colorado Comedy Night, Limelight Hotel (Free)
Wednesday, Feb. 21
7:30 p.m. The Second City, Wheeler Opera House ($40)
Thursday, Feb. 22
4 p.m. Aprés Comedy Hour with The Second City, Jon Rudnisky, Sarah Tiana and Alex Edelman, Silver City (Free)
7:30 Paula Poundstone, Wheeler Opera House ($60)
Friday, Feb. 23
4 p.m. Aprés Comedy Hour with Jon Rudnisky, Sarah Tiana, Benji Afialo and Megan Gailey, Silver City (Free)
7:30 Colin Jost, Wheeler Opera House (Sold out)
10:30 Jeff Ross, Wheeler Opera House ($52)
Saturday, Feb. 24
4 p.m. Aprés Comedy Hour with Sarah Tiana, Megan Gailey, Jon Rudnisky and Benji Afialo, Silver City (Free)
7:30 Mike Birbiglia, Wheeler Opera House ($75)
10:30 Tiffany Haddish, Wheeler Opera House ($55)
Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: http://www.wheeleroperahouse.com; Belly Up is also hosting an “Aspen Laugh Fest Encore” with T.J. Miller on Monday, Feb. 26. Tickets are $28-$45, available at the Belly Up box office and http://www.bellyupaspen.com
After eight years, the Aspen Laugh Festival appears to be hitting its stride.
The 2018 edition of the comedy festival, hosted by the Wheeler Opera House, opens tonight and runs through Saturday. It features some of the biggest names in comedy alongside rising stars, harkening back to the glory days of HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival at the Wheeler, and is generating buzz in Aspen and beyond.
Alex Edelman, one of a half-dozen young comics who will be doing free sets as part of Laugh Fest’s new Apres Comedy Hour, wrote on Twitter that it “is low-key one of the best festivals in the country and I’m thrilled to be returning.”
Gena Buhler, who took the reins of the festival as executive director of the Wheeler in the spring of 2015, gradually has tweaked Laugh Fest’s programming over the past three years, aiming to give it a true festival vibe and to get more segments of the Aspen community excited about it.
“It was in a place that was not great,” she said. “It wasn’t really doing anything for the community — the buzz wasn’t there, the level of comedians wasn’t there, and I felt like we weren’t really integrating in the community.”
This year, it’s expanded to a five-day festival, at multiple locations with varied formats and price points.
The festival was founded as the Aspen Laff Festival in 2011 to carry on the legacy of winter comedy in Aspen after three years of the Rooftop Comedy Festival and 13 years of the HBO Comedy Fest that made the town a stand-up Mecca. It hosted memorable headlining sets by the likes of Christopher Titus and Tom Papa over the early years. But, Buhler noted, it felt like a festival in name only.
“It was a couple shows that were happening at the Wheeler. We were calling it a festival, but that was all,” she said. “My takeaway was that I wanted it to truly be a festival and get it back to being one of the hallmark festivals in the industry.”
Last year, Laugh Fest added some free shows, events outside of the Wheeler and a night of local stand-up that proved wildly popular and brought an overflowing crowd to the Limelight.
For this year, the Wheeler staged a competition between local performers, which took place two weeks ago at Silver City. Winner Rebecca Robinson will perform Tuesday at the Colorado Comedy Night at the Limelight alongside Edelman and Colorado comics, including Aspen regular John “Hippieman” Novosad.
“I took the approach of, ‘Let’s see how much we can expand this to get different interactions and engagements with all these different comics at different levels,’” Buhler said.
As a city-operated entity, the Wheeler is bound to serve locals. Buhler has prioritized full-time Aspenites and seasonal residents at Laugh Fest. The free shows are one way to do that, giving people who can’t drop $50 on a headliner a way to see quality comedians. Adding late-night 10:30 p.m. shows is another, providing service industry workers a performance they can see after an evening shift.
The festival tried its first late shows last year with Adam Devine, which proved a success and drew a younger audience.
“It was an experiment to see if people would come to the Wheeler late. I know they go to the Belly Up late, but we’re not necessarily known for doing late shows,” Buhler said. “We saw a lot of the hospitality industry come in.”
The caliber of the headliners for 2018 also has drawn notice. The main stage shows open Wednesday with the iconic improv troupe The Second City, which also is hosting a workshop, followed on Thursday by stand-up legend Paula Poundstone.
The weekend’s headliners are: 2017’s breakout star of the entertainment world Tiffany Haddish, who has a memoir on the bestseller list and Hollywood it-girl status following her star turn in “Girls Trip;” Colin Jost, who has ridden the Donald Trump comedy wave as head writer on “Saturday Night Live” and co-host of its “Weekend Update;” Mike Birbiglia, whose “Thank God For Jokes” was among the most acclaimed comedy specials of a comedy-special-glutted 2017; and Jeff Ross, who has transformed his popular Comedy Central roasts into some of the most socially relevant comedy of our time with “Jeff Ross Roasts Cops” and “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border.”
Buhler said the next-level lineup resulted from boosting the festival’s budget slightly and from the assistance of Professional Facilities Management, the Rhode Island-based booking firm the Wheeler recently hired. Laugh Fest was the first project the company worked on for the Wheeler.
“They were able to have a further reach and bigger scope than I ever had as just one person sitting in my office,” she explained.
Buhler said the company gave her the choice of 50 potential headliners for the weekend. Convincing the country’s best comics to come to Aspen isn’t difficult, she said, due in part to the rich history of stand-up in Aspen.
“When you say, ‘Aspen is interested in this,’ you don’t have to do a lot of explaining,” she said. “HBO laid the groundwork for us. There is that legacy of what Aspen is that makes comics want to be here. We don’t have to pitch it as much. It’s not, ‘Hey, it’s the Peoria Laugh Festival.’”
Ticket sales are pacing slightly ahead of last year, Buhler said, with Jost selling out a week in advance, Birbigia expected to sell out soon, and Second City pacing 100 tickets ahead of its show at the festival two years ago.
From here, Buhler aims to expand the community-engagement side of the festival. She’s been in talks with The Temporary at Willits about hosting brunch hour events in the future to give Laugh Fest a foothold downvalley. She’d like to see the festival bring comedy back to the St. Regis, for instance, and hopes to land shows at Belly Up in future years (the club this year is hosting Denver native T.J. Miller on Monday night, in what Belly Up is billing an “Aspen Laugh Fest Encore”). And she’s eying more pop-up events beyond the walls of the Wheeler.
“We have a formula now that works for the headliners and the main stage,” Buhler said. “Now it’s about, ‘How can we expand it?’ How can we make it a true festival where there’s comedy popping up everywhere?”
The festive season is upon us with lots of holiday events and activities on the calendar and a cheerful atmosphere with snowy slopes and twinkling lights all around town.