Comedy Fest is a unique gathering for all involved |

Comedy Fest is a unique gathering for all involved

Stewart Oksenhorn

For local audiences, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival has provided a rare opportunity.

In its six years, the USCAF has presented unique events like the reunion of the Monty Python troupe, tributes to Steve Martin and Albert Brooks, a presentation by the creators of “South Park,” and live staged readings of episodes of “The Simpsons.” They are events that don’t tour the country, don’t get televised, but are played out only for the USCAF audience.

Just as the performers deliver a unique show for the audience, the USCAF offers a special opportunity for the top-name comics. The audiences are filled with fellow comics, industry peers and the like, so the artists are playing to a crowd they know.

Moderators for tributes and awards presentations are hand-picked for their compatibility with the honorees. Few events are now broadcast or taped for later showing. It all adds up to a comfortable environment that can lead to rare performances.

“It’s a real event for peers,” said USCAF executive producer John Moffitt. “And it’s not televised, so it’s not exploiting them. We pick moderators they’re comfortable with. It’s become like a little boutique, a contained event.”

“It’s really about the shows. It’s about the people who perform,” said festival executive director Stu Smiley. “It’s not about business and money. They don’t get paid. It’s their time and their space. They do what they want to do. We don’t dictate.”

Moffitt and Smiley point to this year’s special show, “Fernwood 2 Night 22nd Anniversary Show.” They had asked Martin Mull if he would be interested in appearing at this year’s festival. Mull came back with a full script for an anniversary show some two decades after “Fernwood 2 Night” went off the air.

The anniversary show, which premieres tomorrow at 5 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, reunites Mull and co-star Fred Willard in their satiric roles of Barth Gimble and Jerry Hubbard. As a bonus, the event will feature an appearance by Norman Lear, the creator of the original show.

Other events at this year’s festival, which runs today through Saturday, include a presentation of the AFI Star Award to Billy Crystal, moderated by Martin Short; the USCAF Honors Bob Newhart, moderated by David Steinberg; and reunions of the casts and creators of “American Graffiti” and “In Living Color.”

The USCAF is also distinguished by the focus on developing talent, rather than simply presenting shows. Several dozen little-known standup comics will be featured in sketch and one-person shows over the next four days.

“We take comedians and steer them toward sketch comedy and one-person shows,” said Moffitt. “We do more of that, more development. We stress working with comedy talent to develop them.”

The USCAF has also become known for its Film Discovery Program. This year’s program includes some 50 features and shorts. The film program works in synergy with the live presentations.

“Film people can come and see the live talent, and see if they would fit into their next feature or short,” said Moffitt. “And the live performers can check out the film directors and writers. It’s a great place for people from both sides to find others to work with.”

`The Comic’

Among today’s featured acts at the USCAF is the theater piece “The Comic,” playing at the Hotel Jerome at 7 p.m.

Despite the title, and despite the fact that playwright Mark Schiff and lead actor Larry Miller have some 40 years as traveling standup comics between them, audiences shouldn’t expect an experience filled with nothing but laughs.

The two-person play stars Miller as Sydney J. Katz, a longtime touring standup approaching the end of the road, and Henri Lubatti as a room service clerk in a Tacoma, Wash., hotel. “The Comic” examines what gets stirred up when the characters meet in Katz’ hotel room.

“The show has a real edge to it,” said Schiff. “When people see it, it’s voyeuristic. It’s like the opportunity to look into a hotel room and see what goes on between two people in a hotel room.

“The first ending, nobody liked. It enraged people. In the first three drafts, the comedian killed the room service guy, and people wanted to kill me, because they loved the character so much.”

Every time Schiff puts pen to paper to create a play, his darker side seems to emerge. As a 12-year-old living in the Bronx, Schiff took his first stab at playwriting and came up with “Thoughts,” about a pregnant woman who gets thrown down the stairs and killed. More recently, the 45-year-old Schiff has written “The Desperate Mother” – not a comedy, he emphasizes – about an agoraphobic woman repeatedly raped by her husband.

Mostly what Schiff wanted to examine in “The Comic” was the character of the road comedian. “It’s a subject I know,” said Schiff. “In many ways, we’re like funny poets. We say things that all people notice, but we point it out before they see it.”

In portraying that character, Schiff has an ideal partner in Larry Miller. Miller spent years as a highly regarded standup comic, racking up numerous television appearances with David Letterman, Jay Leno and Johnny Carson, and on “Politically Incorrect.”

More recently, he has focused on film and theater work, which permits him to spend more time with his two young children. At last year’s USCAF, Miller earned best actor honors for his work in a film, “Pros and Cons,” which he also wrote.

Miller saw “The Comic” during its original run at Los Angeles’ arcade workspace. He was impressed, but didn’t immediately see himself putting his years of experience into the character of Sid Katz.

“In a detached way I wanted to do it: I thought, `Boy, those are good characters,’ ” said Miller. “It wasn’t like I wanted to get my hands on it.”

When Schiff approached Miller about playing Katz, Miller jumped at the chance. But he still didn’t see it as a role that he could bring something special to, simply because of his years as a standup.

“To me, it’s just a very well written play, with two strong characters and a very good story,” said Miller, who makes his debut in “The Comic” with tonight’s performance.

“But I could be wrong. It could be that I really know this character, because I’ve been in this business for so many years. This is a room I’ve seen many times. I know what room service is.”

Schiff firmly agrees with this latter assessment: “When people see Miller, they’ll know he’s the real thing, that he’s lived that life.”

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Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

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