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Comedy enters a world of pain at USCAF

Stewart Oksenhorn
Damon Wayans at the Isis Theatre before the world premiere of his film "Behind the Smile" at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival last week. (Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times Weekly)
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“Behind the Smile” was one of the most notable events at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen last week. The film had its world premiere here, and represented a major commitment by Damon Wayans, who wrote, directed, produced, financed and starred in the movie. Wayans seemed energized by the event; he was everywhere during the festival. He appeared not only onscreen, but onstage at the Wheeler Opera House, where he performed a special stand-up show; at the St. Regis Aspen, hosting the Round Midnite drop-in stand-up show; and engaging in a Q & A with audiences following the screenings.

But “Behind the Smile” was more than just an event; it seemed to serve as a backdrop for the festival as a whole. Wayans’ film, the first he has directed, is not a comedy. Rather, it is a drama set in and around comedy clubs, a world that Wayans depicts with hot-iron intensity, even a measure of viciousness. “Behind the Smile” is the story of two comics: up-and-comer Danny Styles, played by Damon’s brother, Marlon Wayans, and established star Charlie Richman, played by Wayans. Charlie is determined to protect his place on top of the hill. But in Danny, he sees his younger self, and takes him under his none-too-stable wing. Charlie inflicts intolerable cruelty on Danny, which does, indeed, fuel Danny’s creativity, but destroys his humanity at the same time.Pain, Charlie demonstrates, is the real source of comedy, maybe of any art. And that idea rang true all around the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which made its 12th appearance in Aspen March 8-12.In the one-person show “First Day Off in a Long Time,” Brian Finkelstein flashes back to his four years spent volunteering for a New York suicide-prevention hot line. Much of the setup is built on Finkelstein’s training process with Glen, the mellow, hippie who runs the operation. But the drama heightens through the stories of three suicide attempts, two successful, one not. One is Amy, the 20-year-old NYU college student who was Finkelstein’s last caller on his last day on the job. One is Spalding Gray, the monologuist who created the minimalist format – desk, chair, microphone, glass of water – in which Finkelstein works here. The third – the unsuccessful one – is Finkelstein’s, which, for all its grave seriousness, had its humorous side: The episode concluded with Finkelstein vomiting on the gun he had placed in his mouth. Finkelstein’s sense of pace and observation gave the piece a comic kick, but the real pain underneath was its heart.There was no shortage of anguish on the stand-up stages either, and little surprise that the comedians that bared their hurt were the most memorable. Dave Chappelle is familiar with the peculiar brand of pain inflicted by the entertainment business. Chappelle notoriously walked away from a $50 million TV deal last year, citing the pressures of the comedy business. Chappelle literally took flight last year, surfacing in South Africa, but at the USCAF, he was apparently happy to reveal his bruises. Appearing in Aspen for a special screening of his new documentary film Dave Chappelles Block Party, the 32-year-old also made two unbilled stage performances, at Thursdays Round Midnite and at a festival-closing Experts Only stand-up show.Most of the Round Midnite performers dealt in predictable, humdrum graphic depictions of sex and foul language. But Chappelles stand-up, coming at the close of the show and well after my bedtime, reportedly rescued the event. Taking the Tent stage at Experts Only, Chappelle reportedly shifted out of straight stand-up mode. Instead, the unscripted, hour-long gig had Chappelle not only telling jokes, but fielding questions from the audience and relating personal stories from his recent travails.Dana Gould, one of the billed Experts Only comics, exposed the source of his humor in somewhat less dramatic fashion. Laying his childhood frustration at the feet of his Catholic upbringing and his fathers icy reserve, Gould, a writer for The Simpsons, claimed to have two emotional states: Rage. And suppressed rage.Pain reigned equally on the screen, where the festivals increasingly prestigious Film Discovery Program presented 22 feature films including six world premieres and an equal number of shorts.Friends with Money, winner of the best feature award, wrung laughs out of the pain of four friends. In Nicole Holofceners serio-comic film, a fabulous female foursome in Los Angeles Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener and Joan Cusack are all struggling with an array of bad neighbors, bad jobs and, of course, bad relationships. Aniston is fine as a pot-smoking house-cleaner, randomly eyeing a career move to become a personal trainer. She is oblivious to the requirements of the job, and generally clueless about the world: You dont have to love numbers to be an accountant. You dont have to love kids to be a nanny. It is reminiscent of the role she played in The Good Girl, and a reminder that Aniston does glamour-free quite well. But the highlight is McDormand, whose stress and rage emanate not so much from her sex-less marriage to a possible homosexual, but from an inner well of hormones and building frustration.Of course, the centerpiece of the pain-to-humor equation was Behind the Smile. Wayans, who has divided his career between stand-up, TV (In Living Color, with several of his siblings; My Wife and Kids) and movies (Major Payne), introduced the film, saying of comedians, People think were the most happy-go-lucky people. Were probably the angriest, most self-destructive people on the planet.The film proved the point. In a depiction that reeks of personal experience, Behind the Smile rips into the world of stand-up comedy. Characters are essentially divided into two camps. There are the sadistic, like Charlie, who abuses Danny in an effort to ease the pain of his own faltering creativity, and the comedy club owner Vicky Matters (Camryn Manheim), who trades performance slots for sexual gratification. And there are the recipients of the abuse: the bodyguard James (Terry Crews), who is supposed to be dishing it out but ends up a victim of Charlies manipulations; and Jeffrey (James Belushi), whose stand-up career hangs on his willingness to please Vicky.The key relationship here is between Charlie and Danny, and what a piece of pain this is. Danny, talented and ambitious, wants what Charlie can provide, a shot at the big time. More than that, Danny has genuinely worshipped Charlie from a distance. But Charlie is not the funnyman that Danny has seen in movies, or at least not the funnyman he once was. Charlie is, as Wayans promised, angry and self-destructive not to mention violent, manipulative and prone to stealing a joke. Charlie tosses Danny into the flame, and Dannys performance benefits from it; some of the stand-up sequences here crackle with intensity. But, as has happened with numerous comedians Richard Pryor, Damon Wayans own idol, to whom the film is dedicated, and Lenny Bruce, whose biopic, Lenny, was a template for Wayans Danny pays a high, pain-filled price for comic achievement.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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