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Rooftop Comedy returns to Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Anita ShevettPolitical comedian Will Durst appears Thursday in the Rooftop At Large No. 1 program, in the opening night of the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival at the Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN – Oral sex in the Oval Office: Bad for the country, bad for democracy, a tarnish on the American presidency. But a boon, one would presume, for the career of Will Durst, a comedian who specializes in political satire. (And, also presumably, a nice thing for Bill Clinton, at least in the short run.)

But Durst is a kindhearted man who doesn’t wish misfortune on others – even if it does make for good comedy. He does not approach the morning newspaper hoping that President Obama has revealed an embarrassing ignorance of world geography, or turned an unfortunate situation into a national catastrophe – in other words, been transformed into George W. Bush. And Durst, since the age of 12, has counted among his heroes Bugs Bunny, and sees his brand of comedy in the same reactive – not proactive – vein of the cartoon rabbit.

Bugs Bunny “never instigated an altercation. He always responded,” said the 57-year-old Durst, a co-headliner at Thursday’s Rooftop At Large No. 1, the opening program at the three-day Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. “His big line was, ‘Of course you realize this means war!’ He was never outright aggressive. He’d respond in kind.

“I’m forced to respond. I’m a reactor. I just follow the news and wait for it to come to me.”

At the moment, Durst is figuring out how to react to having a president who is articulate, has the overall sympathies of his constituents, and has yet to make a major, planet-altering gaffe. But Durst – who performs in theaters and at corporate events, writes a syndicated column, contributes one-minute commentaries to YouTube, and created both book and stage versions of “The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing” – has navigated similar challenges before. Transitional phases are always rough – from Bush I to Clinton, even from Clinton to Bush II.

“I do Obama jokes and people don’t want to hear them. They don’t want to laugh at him,” said Durst, from his home in San Francisco’s Sunset District. “You can’t mock hope. It’s like mocking a small, furry, whimpering thing with big eyes.”

Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lean times for a political satirist. Between Gov. Blagojevich, Somali pirates and the outcry over Judge Sotomayor, Durst has found plenty to make sport of. Still, it pales in comparison to the period following Hurricane Katrina, when America was united in its assessment of the government’s stumbling reaction – and, residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward excluded, its willingness to laugh at it.

“Everybody in America, they kind of fell in line. For a while it was just the coasts” who thought Bush’s actions were the stuff of a stand-up act, Durst said.

He added, though, that having a president act like a walking punch line isn’t necessarily to his advantage. Clinton being fellated under the Oval Office desk, George H.W. Bush throwing up on a Japanese prime minister – that is fruit that hangs so low that every comedian in the country is going to go after it.

George W. Bush “elicited so much antipathy. There were comics who weren’t political, but the stuff just spewed out of them. We political comedians got overshadowed a bit,” Durst said. “Clinton – that was all below-the-belt stuff. So you had every comic in America doing dick jokes, and were able to call themselves political comics.”

Durst aims for something brainier, or at least less obvious. Among his aphorisms regarding the current state of the economy: “When everybody in America knows the name of the secretary of the Treasury, that’s not good.”

Durst moved to San Francisco 29 years ago from his native Milwaukee, after finding that his hometown lumped comedians in with strippers, and a stand-up performance required an exotic dancer’s license. After becoming accustomed to doing two or three shows a month in Wisconsin, he landed eight gigs in his first week in San Francisco, which he still finds to be a “comedy Valhalla” for a comedian like him.

“They’re so literate out here,” he said. “But my comedy’s not that restrictive. It’s for people who read, or who know people who read.”

• • • •

Will Durst co-headlines, with Ted Alexandro, at Thursday’s Rooftop At Large No. 1 program, at 6:45 p.m. The show, which also features Dan Cummins and Laurie Kilmartin, plus local comedians Don Chaney and Alexa Fitzpatrick, kicks off the second annual Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival, co-produced by the Wheeler Opera House and San Francisco-based Rooftop Comedy. Also Thursday: the National College Comedy Competition Semifinals.

The festival continues through Saturday, June 13, with multiple events each night at the Wheeler, including the finals of the College Comedy Competition, which will be webcast live.

For further information, go to wheeleroperahouse.com.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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