A new era for Aspen comedy
ASPEN The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival has pulled out of town, but the Wheeler Opera House is making sure that Aspen hasnt seen its last laughs.Last week, the Wheeler unveiled a plan to keep the town in good humor this winter even without the HBO-sponsored U.S. Comedy Arts Festival (USCAF), which had become a marquis event over its 13 years in Aspen. The Wheeler will present a new four-part stand-up comedy series, Whats So Funny?, over February and March.The USCAF, which announced that it would not be coming here in 2008 (and has made no statement about its future in Aspen beyond 2008), was typically held over five days in early March at the Wheeler and other local venues.The new series will focus on little-known comedians, though it does boast one big name: David Brenner, who has lived in Aspen on and off since the mid-80s. The 71-year-old, though known as an author and a frequent guest host of The Tonight Show, has always had a preference for performing live, stand-up comedy, and he will appear in that capacity in Whats So Funny? Each event will conclude with Brenner doing a 20-to 30-minute set of new material, with a fresh routine planned for each show.David said to me, Do you realize youre going to have me working harder than I ever have in my career? said Gram Slaton, the executive director of the Wheeler Opera House.Brenners involvement with the series, however, only begins with his on-stage appearances. Brenner, who performed at the Wheeler last year around Christmastime, joined Slaton, in the belief that the Opera House was too good a venue, and Aspen too strong a market, to let them go comedy-less. The two conceived a plan that focuses exclusively on stand-up, and mostly on rising, young performers.Davids at the point where hes seriously considering what his legacy will be, Slaton said. What we found is, hes passionate about stand-up as its own art form, not as a way to get a TV series.Slaton was likewise concerned about Brenners legacy. He observed that Brenner, though he has remained busy as a performer, was little-known to younger audiences.George Carlin was cool, but he went through a period of being unhip before he became cool again, Slaton said. Davids the same way hes so funny, but theres a generation that missed out on him.I was thinking, what can I do to introduce him to a younger audience? What to do about David and about the Comedy Festival?The Wheeler isnt exactly staging a festival not yet, anyway. Whats So Funny? will feature four separate events between Feb. 2 and March 14. Each event features three young comedians under a loose comic theme.The series opens Feb. 2 with New and Out There; Feb. 14 Valentines Day brings Up Close & Too Personal. On March 1 its Alien Encounters, featuring comedians from outside of the WASP realm, and the series closes March 14 with Made for TV, spotlighting entertainers known for their acting abilities.A third partner in the series is Rooftop Comedy. The San Francisco entity began as a web-based comedy clearing house, a sort-of MySpace of comedy, where performers could post clips of their act. Rooftop has broken into working as an agency, and was looking for venues in which to place its comedians. While trolling the Rooftop website to look for talent, Slaton and Brenner struck up a relationship with the organization.With Rooftop on board, Slaton is looking toward bigger comedic events. Whats So Funny, he said, is a dry run to see if the Wheeler might be able to pull off a full comedy festival. A comedy festival could be staged at the Wheeler as early as Memorial Day weekend of 2008. At the very least, Slaton expects the Wheeler to host the finals of the Rooftop-sponsored College Comedy Contest in May.As they get into the comedy business, Slaton and Brenner are looking to put their stamp on what kind of humor makes its way to the Wheeler. Slaton was critical of the overall tenor of the USCAF, which he said focused too heavily on shock comedy.We want to make it appropriate for kids 16 and older, which the Comedy Festival almost never was, said Slaton, who sampled several hundred comedians on the Rooftop site. A lot of what we saw at the Comedy Festival was shock material: How rude can I be?That doesnt mean its going to be Walt Disney night at the Wheeler. But we made the comedians aware that we want teenagers to be comfortable here.Slaton said that the comedians he has booked represent, on the whole, a brainier brand of comedy. That may be a reflection of our taste. Or it may be that thats the best thing happening in comedy today. It takes some creativity to put together an act that makes people stop and think for a minute.Tickets for each show in the series are $27.50, and include a post-show meet-and-greet with the performers. A four-show ticket package is also available, for $95. Tickets on sale at http://firstname.lastname@example.org
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