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Comics take on Wall Street at Aspen Laff Festival

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesTom Simmons, comedian and co-producer of the Aspen Laff Festival, will perform Thursday in the festival program "The Stupid Truth: Comics on Wall Street" at the Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN – Several years ago, Tom Simmons spotted, in his brother-in-law’s car, a copy of the book “Secrets of the Federal Reserve.” Simmons was instantly hooked on the subject and has spent much of his professional life since then exploring the topics of the Fed and money. He has pointed out the alarming fact that the enormously powerful Federal Reserve is a privately held, for-profit corporation run by a small handful of people. He has observed how money is an all-encompassing aspect of life.

“Money’s our god,” he said. “It’s what we worship.”

Simmons is not an economist, not a banker and not a social theorist, exactly. He is a comedian, and when he’s not handling the heavy stuff like the Fed, the 44-year-old is likely to be riffing about TV commercials, parenting or self-scan checkout machines at the grocery store.

But he prefers more substantial topics, subjects that don’t ordinarily come up on comedy-club stages. Other areas that have been central to his routine in recent years are peak oil, religion and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“In my comedy, I like to do the bigger-picture stuff. I think, ‘What would Carlin have done? What would Kinison have done?'” he said.

Simmons hosts the program “The Stupid Truth: Comics on Wall Street” Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House’s Aspen Laff Festival. The show will include several other comedians from the festival, including Costaki Economopoulos, Danny Bevins, Keith Alberstadt and Hippieman – most of whom were inclined to pass on the invitation to do the Wall Street gig on the grounds that they didn’t have any suitable material.

“My point to them was, ‘Yes, you do,'” said Simmons, a North Carolina resident who co-produces the festival with the Wheeler. “Money controls politics; it controls your life. Your joke about winning the lottery fits in. The bit about your girlfriend making a thousand times more than you fits in. Money is everyday life. Money is God. We’ve all thought about it plenty. We’ve all lived through a financial collapse and written on it.”

For Simmons, money has become a core part of his act, usually taking up about nine minutes of his set. He says he isn’t obsessed with money, but, as with religion, it is a subject that is close to people’s lives and full of illusions waiting to be shattered by witty observations.

“Look at the truth versus the contradictions – that’s comedy to me,” said Simmons, who started his comedy career with appearances at the Uptown Comedy Club, an Atlanta spot that attracts a predominantly black audience. (Simmons is white.) “All the people who are on money – Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Franklin – were all against a Federal Reserve Bank. It’s like putting Mother Teresa’s face on a condom and passing them out at Planned Parenthood.”

Simmons notes that money itself is an illusion; like religion, it is something people have made up. “We make up money out of nothing, and banks sell it at interest,” he said. “Even Sam Walton goes, ‘Wow, that’s a great business model.'”

Simmons says that he limits how much Fed-oriented material he does in his set. “Like my wife says, People don’t want to hear you do PBS for an hour. You’ve got to do jokes too,” he said.

But many of those jokes can be money-related without getting into the intricacies of the Federal Reserve System. Talking about the prospect of sending his son to college, given the cost of an education, Simmons quips, “He’s going to be home-colleged.” (Simmons’ son is named Owen, he said, “Because that’s what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life.”)

Such lighter jokes point to one of Simmons’ essential comedy principles: People will laugh about things they have an attachment to, even if it’s a serious subject.

“When there’s a deep emotional attachment, to me, there’s funny,” he said. “I have to care about it. I have to care that we’re being enslaved into debt or the jokes won’t work.”

He also believes that exploring such topics can be psychologically beneficial. “If you can make people laugh about what they’re afraid of, and get them informed about things – that’s helpful,” he said. “Comedy can get that stuff across, in posters, political cartoons, signs. They can get across great points about money, inequality, injustice.”

Simmons suspects that the next weighty topic that will work its way into his routine is the prediction that 2012 will mark the end of human civilization.

“And that bigger thing of, Why do we do this all the time? Why are we always talking about the apocalypse?” he said. “Natural disaster. Peak oil. Overpopulation. All these things that are, ‘Oh, it’s coming down!'”

The Aspen Laff Festival opened Wednesday and runs through Saturday with nightly events. Performers include David Brenner, “Cash Cab” host Ben Bailey, the free show The New Faces Final, and The Stupid Truth: Comics on Parenting. For a full schedule, go to wheeleroperahouse.com.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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