RoofTop Comedy Fest debuts in Aspen |

RoofTop Comedy Fest debuts in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Wheeler Opera House executive director Gram Slaton, left, and Jenn Stokes and Tom Hill of San Francisco-based RoofTop Comedy, have collaborated to create the Aspen RoofTop Comedy Festival, debuting this weekend. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN ” When HBO pulled the plug on its U.S. Comedy Arts Festival last year, ending a 13-year run that brought most every big name in the funny business to Aspen, some prominent players made noise about filling the laughter void. Actor Will Smith, a regular visitor here, was interested. Various factions previously associated with the USCAF floated ideas about restarting the event in one form or another.

The entities that have actually stepped up to the plate to bring comedy back to town are fairly well removed from the Los Angeles/New York-based entertainment mainstream. The Aspen RoofTop Comedy Festival, which makes its debut this weekend, is a collaboration between Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, and RoofTop Comedy, a San Francisco-based website specializing in comedy content, that was founded in 2005. What the two producers of the festival have in common is that, before this past winter, each had essentially never actually created comedy events.

“We were sort of third horse in line,” said Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler, referring to filling the gap left by the absence of the USCAF. “We were a building, not known as a producer.”

Slaton had witnessed two of the HBO-produced festivals from a close-up vantage point, as the USCAF used the Wheeler as a primary venue. He saw not only the attendance and energy generated by the festival, but also how suitable the Wheeler was for comedy performances. Not wanting to see comedy disappear entirely, Slaton brought in a consultant last summer to help explore the possibility of creating a new comedy event. Perhaps the most useful moment from that meeting was when the consultant mentioned the name, RoofTop Comedy.

Slaton checked out RoofTop, whose website features hundreds of clips of performances by little-known comedians, and got drawn in in a big way. The initial fallout from his fascination was What’s So Funny? a four-part stand-up series at the Wheeler this past winter. What’s So Funny? was a three-way partnership between the Wheeler, RoofTop, and comedian David Brenner, a former Aspenite who headlined each of the four shows.

The performances were received with enthusiasm in their own right. But they also served as something of a testing ground for a bigger event. The inaugural Aspen RoofTop Comedy Festival will present six separate shows, featuring some 32 comedians, over two days, Friday and Saturday, at the Wheeler.

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RoofTop Comedy was formed two and a half years ago, when four employees of a digital media corporation ” Tom Hill, Will Rogers, Andi Smith and Joshua Sanderson ” agreed that they liked digital media generally, but weren’t enamored of the boring clients for whom they worked. Smith was just then launching a side career in stand-up comedy, and raised the idea of giving other unknown comics a presence on the Internet.

“She turned us on to this amazing art form ” that nobody knows about,” said Hill who, having already been a fan of comedy, didn’t need much convincing. “She introduced us to these comics, and we were blown away. But the average comic on the street has no outlet to be heard. It’s not like music, where a record company is waiting to pick you up and take you away.”

RoofTop, which employs 15 people, opted for a model that is streamlined, simple and most effective for making stand-up performances accessible. Hill, who lives in St. Louis, went to a comedy club, St. Louis Funny Bone, and talked the manager into being the first affiliate associated with RoofTop. RoofTop installed a single camera, established an Internet connection, and began featuring on its website stand-up performances filmed at Funny Bone.

“We thought we could help him do this on a larger scale,” said Hill, RoofTop’s chief operating officer. “Instead of performing for a hundred people, they could perform for thousands of people online.”

RoofTop is now operating on a far larger scale. Their set-up is now installed in 20 clubs, including one in Scotland and two in Australia, with Canada expected to be added soon. Most of them are in mid-sized cities ” the network is strong in the middle of the country, from Minneapolis to Austin ” but RoofTop has no feeds from the comedy capitals of New York and Los Angeles. (Hill said they are working on an affiliation with an “underground” New York venue.) Some 2,500 comedians are now represented on their website.

Live performances are filmed with a single camera. The material is then edited into small segments ” “We’re on Internet time now. Nobody has an hour and a half to watch a performance,” said Hill ” and posted on the RoofTop site ( Performers at the clubs are welcome to decline having their acts distributed in this way, and some of the bigger-name talents do. But Hill said that 95 percent sign on, embracing the exposure. The site has become a tool for club owners as well, who are looking for promising acts.

“What we hear from venues is, they have a hard time finding comics,” said Hill. “It’s a very local business. There are great comics in Minneapolis, but if they don’t tour around, you wouldn’t know them here.”

Hill maintains that RoofTop is overwhelmingly artist-friendly. He said that Smith, one of the company’s founders, is still working her way up the ranks in stand-up, and insists that her fellow comics be treated well. So RoofTop doesn’t claim ownership over the material on its website; the comedians are free to use it as they please. Even the CDs that RoofTop is beginning to produce ” four so far, with another dozen or so slated by the end of the year ” are made at no cost to the comedians, who can earn money by selling copies at their shows. RoofTop, which has developed a relationship with Apple’s iTunes, does take a percentage of money earned from the digital distribution of video clips.

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RoofTop has been something of a shadow presence in the comedy world. Typically, there is no one from the company even at the performances being filmed; the cameras are remote-controlled. RoofTop doesn’t work as an agent, though it is considering moving into some areas of management of comedians. Mostly, it has been a clearing-house for comedy clips.

This approach has allowed RoofTop broad latitude in the content it features. “It’s not watered down, not politically correct, uncensored,” said Hill. “That’s what we’re about. It’s not TV.”

As the company has developed, however, RoofTop has wanted to be more of a hands-on figure, and has contemplated producing its own events. The Wheeler Opera House was having the same thoughts, and a match was made between venue and comedian warehouse.

When RoofTop mentioned a desire to get into production, Slaton said, “That’s funny. We want to create a comedy festival.” Slaton had his eye on late May, a time not yet clogged with events in Aspen.

In fact, RoofTop already had an event in the works: the National College Comedy Competition. The competition was held in 32 colleges across the country. Teams of eight comedians from each school were then pitted head to head in 16 regional competitions. The winners plus one runner-up, all determined by audience judging, had clips posted on the RoofTop website, and Internet voting winnowed the finalists down to four: Tim Ball (from Duke), Mary Sasson (University of North Carolina), Kathleen O’Brien (University of Virginia), and Reid Faylor (Xavier).

The finals of the competition made a perfect centerpiece for the Aspen RoofTop Comedy Festival. The finals are set for Saturday, May 31, at 6:45 p.m. Admission is free and the event will be broadcast live, with both the live audience and the Internet viewers eligible to vote for the winner. (The event will also include screenings of the four finalists in a short comedy film competition.)

The festival also includes five more shows, divided into such categories as RoofTop After Dark, The Big Show, and RoofTop Best and Brightest. The comedians scheduled to appear in those events were hand-picked by Slaton, and are mostly mid-level artists, with appearances on late-night TV, but still largely unknown outside comedy circles.

Slaton said the festival was shaped around the National College Comedy Competition. The competition, especially the earliest round, featured plenty of beginners who were making their first-ever stage appearance. The low level of professionalism didn’t bother Jenn Stokes, a RoofTop employee who oversaw the competition.

“It was fantastic,” said Stokes, who attended some 25 competition events, from mid-February to mid-April. “It definitely ran the board. It was anywhere from your typical college humor, typical pot-smoking jokes, to very thought-provoking, topical, intellectual humor.”

If the overriding purpose of RoofTop Comedy is to locate and expose new comedic talent ” which was, as it turns out, also the of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival ” Stokes says it has done its job with the College Comedy Competition.

“I feel very confident that the best four comedians from each category, stand-up and short films, are coming to Aspen,” she said.