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A fest full of laughs, clunkers

Stewart Oksenhorn

For the first two days-plus of the fifth annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which concluded its stand in Aspen on Saturday, I was like a guy having a bad day at the track. I couldn’t buy a winning ticket.On Wednesday, I took in the late-night show, Aspen Alternative Hour Presents Zappa, Greenberg, Vargas & Abdoo. Maybe I’m not “alternative” enough; more likely, I hadn’t come into the Raw Space at the St. Regis – a wonderful venue – in the right frame of mind, i.e., stoned to the gills.While most everybody cracked up at Paul Greenberg, I scratched my head wondering what was funny about a guy fumbling the piano fingering of “The Entertainer.”Moon Zappa’s phony accent schtick, followed by a purportedly humorous history of her sad life, was lost on me. “I ordered my breasts to stop growing, and my thighs to expand” was a rare high point. Her father, Frank, could pack more laughs into a single song (“Catholic Girls,” “You Are What You Is”) while adding some of the most impressive guitar licks around to boot. (Zappa won the Amstel Light award for best alternative act, making me believe one of two things: The people voting were either liquored up on Amstel Light, or were big Frank Zappa fans.)Jacob Vargas, who combined the characters of the immigrant busboy with the romantic Latino lover, was the bright spot of the evening, although Greenberg’s encore of acting out the music to “Sleigh Ride Together,” got a chuckle out of me. (Latent contact buzz?) Rose Abdoo blaming her Dominican mother and Lebanese father for her eating habits was just plain bad.On Thursday afternoon, I caught the film “The Slaves of Hollywood,” a mockumentary about the making of a documentary about Hollywood’s slave class – the assistants to the studio executives. The film, directed and written by Michael Wechsler and Terry Keefe, had its moments. But it also had too many dull lapses, repeated jokes and cliches galore.Much better was “A Pack of Gifts Now,” a brilliant claymation parody of “Apocalypse Now.” In director Corky Quakenbush’s version, the Martin Sheen character reluctantly accepts the assignment of going to the North Pole to take out Santa Claus.Thursday evening I saw Jason Nash’s “Jimmy Ray’s Funeral,” an intentionally schlocky, rocking send-off to the legendary show biz hanger-on, Jimmy Ray Nash. Nash himself shows promise as a performer, but the concept of “Jimmy Ray’s Funeral” is hopelessly weak. Only a few of the characters conjured by Nash to pay tribute to his late daddy really took off.When I began my Friday with Cindy Caponera’s insufferable “The Debutante’s Ball,” about a series of insufferable female characters, I began to think the comedy gods were serving me my comeuppance: I was too snotty and sarcastic. I had told too many bad jokes. I had once laughed at Gallagher. By the middle of the third day of the festival, my personal highlights had been a five-minute short and seeing ex-Monkee Mickey Dolenz on three separate occasions. (By the end of the festival, I had seen Mickey no less than five times, leading me to believe Mickey, like Seinfeld, has a number of lookalikes trailing him.)And then, on Friday afternoon, the seas parted, the sun broke through the clouds, and the dam burst in an unprecedented comedic streak.The roll began with the world premiere of director-writer Mike Binder’s “The Sex Monster.” Marty, played by Binder, is slightly nebbishy and somewhat successful. But he dreams of big things: Namely for his wife, Laura (Mariel Hemingway), to engage in a three-way sexual tryst, with him in the middle. He finally gets Laura to consent, and Marty’s nightmare begins. Laura has become the liberated sex monster, hungrily preying on most every pretty thing she comes across: Marty’s assistant, Marty’s sister, the wife of Marty’s hoped-for investor.”The Sex Monster” turns out to be much more than the ultimate male sexual fantasy played out on screen with a handful of hot women. (Although it certainly works on that level, too.) Hemingway expertly combines innocence and sexiness, finally giving her sex monster an out-of-control quality. But Binder makes the movie. His Marty perfectly plays the victim of his own lust. Binder the director gives the film an appealing manic, exaggerated feel, and Binder the writer comes up with a script to die for.Perhaps best of all, Binder, an obvious and confessed Woody Allen fanatic, gives “The Sex Monster” a Woodyesque quality without ever becoming the Woody Allen character.Next up was the Aspen on the Edge show with stand-up comedian Robert Schimmel, who was, by consensus, easily the funniest person at the USCAF. Schimmel’s show is sex-obsessed: Even in the heart attack he suffered several years ago, all Schimmel can think about is the sexual implications of the episode. In one part of his routine, Schimmel reads, to hilarious effect, straight from the American Heart Association’s pamphlet on heart attacks and sex. Schimmel also hits masturbation, pornography, cybersex and sperm donation. And as graphic and raunchy as Schimmel gets, his performance was never childish or nasty – just funny.Actor Ron Silver’s staged reading of the work-in-progress “Bill Graham Presents … A One-Man Show” was not exactly comedic, but was compelling and incredibly acted. Throughout the 90-minute examination of the life of rock impresario Graham, it was nearly impossible not to confuse Silver with Graham himself.The lucky streak continued on into Saturday, with the “SCTV Reunion.” The eight former cast members who appeared all showed up ready and willing to talk about the comedy sketch shows that came out of Edmonton, Canada, of all places. Conan O’Brien proved to be an ideal moderator, one well-versed in the show. And the frequent video clips – featuring characters like Guy Caballero, game-show host Alex Trebell, and Ed Grimley – proved that “SCTV” was definitely a show worth remembering and celebrating.Gleaned from the word about town, other USCAF highlights included Neil Simon receiving the USCAF Writers Award (“like a seminar in comedy writing,” said one attendee); Kravits & Jones’ “Making Faces”; James Gregory’s “Grease, Gravy & John Wayne’s Momma”; and Tim Bagley’s “Happy Hour.” Stand-up program A, and Michael Loftus in particular, got raves, as did most of the stand-up programs. Among the entries in the Film Discovery Showcase, “The Wrong Guy” and “Nice Guys Sleep Alone” got clear thumbs-ups.Getting a thumbs-down were “The Trials of Monica Lewinsky,” “The Ben Stiller Show Speaks Out,” “`80s Reunion Concert” and the “Pick Your Shorts” cartoon program. “Pick Your Shorts” drew a roomful of kids, loaded up on the sugary Scoobie snacks handed out – and then treated to a video of celebrities naming their favorite cartoons. But no actual cartoons. Not a pretty sight, according to one attendee.


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