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Aspen Shortsfest: The king of comedy documentaries

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
B Plus ProductionsDocumentary filmmaker and comedy writer Bob Weide, right, with Woody Allen, subject of Weide's recent TV piece, "Woody Allen: A Documentary."
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ASPEN – Laughter, as the saying has it, is the best medicine. But limiting laughter to its medicinal qualities is a lot like saying pot is a great cure for a headache: It overlooks what other effects it can have on you.

Take the case of Bob Weide (and to be clear, we’re talking the realm of laughter here.) At the age of 9, Weide, who grew up in California’s Orange County, was already beginning to see the power of comedy. He saw “Take the Money and Run,” one of Woody Allen’s early comedies. He was hooked on Allen, and eagerly saw “Bananas” and “Sleeper,” and managed to get himself into the premiere of Allen’s groundbreaking, Oscar-winning 1977 film, “Annie Hall.”

But being introduced to the work of Allen isn’t what Weide refers to as “the tipping point,” or “the thing that did me in.” That is reserved for discovering the Marx Brothers: seeing “The Cocoanuts” on TV one night, followed quickly by his first watching of “Duck Soup.” This was more than medicine; this was an opening up of the gates into the rest of his life.



“Seeing ‘Duck Soup’ – that solidified it for me. It was like falling in love, really,” Weide said on a recent afternoon in the lobby of Aspen’s Hotel Jerome. “I was quite obsessed with them.”

At 52, Weide’s view of comedy’s transformative power, and of his comedic favorites as oversized heroes, doesn’t seem to have faded. When he lists for me his uppermost echelon of comedians – the Marx Brothers, Woody, Lenny Bruce and Kurt Vonnegut – he refers to it as “the Mount Rushmore.” The name of his production company, Whyaduck, is taken from “The Cocoanuts.” He says he took a recent job, making the widely praised TV film “Woody Allen: A Documentary,” mostly because it provided a way to hang out with one of his idols.



During his high school years, Weide and his friends would gather to listen to the latest highly anticipated LP. “Those albums would come out – the Beatles, Jethro Tull’s “A Passion Play” – and if you were the first to get it, you’d invite your friends over to show them: ‘Oh, listen to that solo; this is fantastic,'” Weide said. He views the body of documentaries he has built over the years – “The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell,” “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth,” “The Great Standups,” “Woody Allen,” and the Vonnegut project “American Made,” which has been in the works for years – in the same way as those listening parties. They’re not detached summations of their subjects’ working lives, but enthused, informed pieces of boosterism.

“That’s what my documentaries are. You want to share it with people,” Weide said. “And if they’re alive, it’s a sneaky way to meet them.”

Weide is in Aspen to participate in the Aspen Shortsfest panel discussion, The Sometimes Hilarious Pain of Writing Funny, on Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House. Weide – who joins “The Simpsons” writer Mike Reiss; filmmaker Alexander Payne (“The Descendants,” “Sideways”); and Shauna Cross, who adapted the screenplay for “Whip It” from her own novel, “Derby Girl,” and wrote the screenplay for the upcoming “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” – brings to the panel not just the observations he has made of other funny people.

In 1998, Weide got a call from an old friend from the comedy world, Larry David. David had been a marginal stand-up comic before striking gold as the co-creator of “Seinfeld.” Before David even got through his pitch – a one-off faux- documentary special for HBO titled “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – Weide was on board.

“It was the only time I ever said yes without any details,” Weide said. “I knew Larry before ‘Seinfeld,’ when he was absolutely unemployable. I thought he was brilliant, even if no one got him. I said yes before he even fully formed the question.”

Even before the one-shot special aired, HBO executive Chris Albrecht was championing the show as a series. David agreed – but only after negotiating the offer down from 13 episodes to 10, contrary to the standard practice of signing on for as many episodes as the network will give you. Weide was the principal director and became an executive producer.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is in its eighth season (it has taken a year off here and there) introduced a new approach to television comedies. Each episode begins with David coming up with some story outlines – Larry takes a hooker to a Dodgers game so he can drive in the car-pool lane; Larry misspells the word “aunt” in an obituary, causing the grieving family even more grief – and then the dialogue and scenes are improvised. Weide was a key part of the creative process, getting calls from David when the stories were in their earliest stages, and contributing plotlines and jokes.

In the mid-’00s, Weide decided to leave “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “HBO stayed off our backs. Everybody was friendly; there was a lot of laughing. So after five years, of course I had to leave,” he said. “I was getting too comfortable.”

Weide is still a bit mystified about the success of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “We did it, thinking it would make us and a dozen of our friends laugh. And would go nowhere,” he said. “Because it’s so personal and so specific. The conventional wisdom was half a dozen Jews in New York would connect with it.”

Instead, Weide constantly hears of people referring to their own “Curb Your Enthusiasm” moments – uncomfortable moments, rage-inducing moments, when people wish they had a Larry-like lack of self-censorship.

“‘Curb’ strikes a note with people,” said Weide, who occasionally directs an episode of the show, and earned a Directors Guild Award last season for the Palestinian Chicken episode. “There’s something joyful about setting up a character – then to comically torture that person. There’s something satisfying about seeing a guy who’s very confrontational, who does all these things we wish we could do.”

Weide, who recently wrote a pilot for a series for the BBC, still finds that satisfaction in laughter. He couldn’t say exactly what it was about the Marx Brothers movies that appealed to him – only that he got hooked and that hook has stayed in him.

“I watched that first night and something hit me on a deep level,” he said. “I can watch those and still plug into the fascination I had back then.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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