Comedian Julian McCullough returns for two Aspen Laugh Fest sets
The Aspen Times
If YOU GO. . .
What: Aspen Laugh Festival
When: Feb. 19-23
Where: Wheeler Opera House, Limelight Hotel, Silver City Saloon
How much: Free to $75
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
LAUGH FESTIVAL LINEUP
TUESDAY, FEB. 19
6 p.m. Colorado Comedy Night, Limelight Hotel
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 20
7:30 p.m. Nate Bargatze, Wheeler Opera House
THURSDAY, FEB. 21
4 p.m. 2 Drink Minimum, Silver City
7:30 Kathleen Madigan, Wheeler
FRIDAY, FEB. 22
4 p.m. Consensual Improv, Silver City
6 Alex Edelman, Limelight
7:30 Rachel Feinstein, Moshe Kasher, Julian McCullough, Wheeler
9:30 Tig Notaro, Wheeler
SATURDAY, FEB. 23
4 p.m. Becky Robinson, Julian McCullough, Ismo Leikola, Silver City
6 Gary Gulman, Limelight
7:30 & 9:30 Jo Koy, Wheeler
The Aspen Laugh Festival returns to Aspen this week for five days of stand-up shows, including seven headliners at the Wheeler Opera House, shows at a newly converted ballroom venue at the Limelight Hotel and intimate, free apres-ski sets at Silver City Saloon.
The week includes some of the biggest names in comedy, with veterans like Jo Koy, Tig Notaro and Kathleen Madigan alongside such recent breakouts as Nate Bergatze and Julian McCullough.
McCullough said festivals like Aspen’s are a rare treat for road comics.
“We work alone all year, so when there’s a festival you get to see your friends that you haven’t seen in so long — it’s like a bunch of great white sharks getting together,” he said Friday from a tour stop in Madison, Wisconsin. “We get to see what they’re working on and you get reminded why you go into it, because you get to see people that you look up to, people who are your peers. It’s great for comics and it’s great for audiences.”
McCullough will perform two sets this week — Friday night on the main stage with Rachel Feinstein and Moshe Kasher at the Wheeler, and Saturday afternoon at Silver City Saloon.
McCullough has known Feinstein since 2005, when he was first getting his start in comedy in New York. Laugh Fest also reunited him with an early mentor in Gary Gulman. When McCullough was broke and first starting out in comedy, he recalled, Gulman hired him to help with his tax returns by adding up a stack of Gulman’s residual checks that had piled up from reruns of Gulman’s time on “Last Comic Standing.” Gulman may have paid McCullough more than the checks totaled, McCullough recalled — an act of generosity that speaks to the way comics support one another in their strange business.
“He knew I was young and I needed money,” McCullough said. “Looking back, it was a really nice thing that he did.”
McCullough honed his craft in those early days by hanging out around comedy clubs and studying comics like Gulman, Colin Quinn and Patrice O’Neal work the stage at Manhattan clubs.
“You learn by talking about it and by watching them work out material and being around and hanging out in the New York clubs and seeing what happens,” said McCullough, who moved to Los Angeles in 2011.
McCullough made his local debut in August, when he played a “Sunset Sessions” show at the Wheeler.
“I’ve been on tour for 15 years and never been there,” McCullough said. “It was fascinating to finally see it. It’s a gem of a place. I stopped several times on the street and just stared at the mountain. I loved it.”
His two Aspen stops come on the heels of McCullough releasing his first hourlong stand-up special, “Maybe I’m a Man,” on Comedy Central. Though definitions of success in comedy have evolved rapidly in the social media/podcast age and with the fracturing of late-night TV audiences, making a special is still the breakthrough achievement comics seek.
“It is a big deal,” McCullough said. “I thought about if I’d never get to make one. A lot of deserving comics don’t get to make them.”
McCullough said the special is a more lasting product than a spot on “Conan” or one of the hundreds of live shows he does every year.
“It proves you’ve actually been doing this,” he said. “When you’re doing comedy, your family is like, ‘Yeah, but what are you doing?’ So you finally have this piece of work to show them and say ‘This is what I’m doing.’”
Along with wider exposure, the format proved to be a creative breakthrough for McCullough, allowing him to spin a hilarious long-form stand-up set for a national audience.
“You can tell a longer story and have some quiet moments,” he said. “You get used to that and you want to keep doing it that way because it doesn’t feel rushed, and that’s a good feeling.”
It led him into some personal areas he’d previously avoided in his work: talking about an embarrassing tattoo, for instance, and his relationship with his quirky dad who loved free jazz and was known to trip on mushrooms while playing with Julian as a kid.
The set also includes a bit about having a crush on Prince as a youngster. Though McCullough is straight, he’s found that the increasingly fluid cultural definition of sexual orientation is fertile ground for his comedy. The new material he’s bringing to Aspen, he said, includes an extended bit about recently attending — and loving — a Chippendales all-male revue in Las Vegas.
“I had so much fun that I’m almost confused,” he said. “Because it’s totally not for me, but I appreciated it so much. So in 2019, how much are we allowed to explore right now?”