Stewart Huff in Aspen: The positive comedian
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Stewart Huff, one of the comedians set to perform Thursday in the Aspen Laff Festival, has some simple reasons why he isn’t on the bill for the program “The Stupid Truth: Comics on Drinking,” which is set for early this evening. For one, he doesn’t drink. All his booze jokes, then, are observations on the drinking habits of others, which brings us to reason number two for his passing on Thursday’s show: He doesn’t want to be seen as making fun of the audience.
Some other tidbits about Huff revealed over a conversation: He has practically no interest in landing a sitcom; he doesn’t care for the standard four-and-a-half-minute slot given to comics on late-night TV; he is into nuances like leaving an audience wondering whether his tales are true or not; and he is determined to find the positive angle on most every topic – with a pronounced interest in the brighter side of homeless people.
Which leaves the question: Can a sober optimist who has turned his back on television and is careful not to offend the audience be considered a comedian?
Yes, but with a qualification. Huff says he is more of a storyteller. Left to his own preferences, he would tell 15-minute tales that challenge him to incorporate narrative structure, character – and sure, a bunch of jokes – into his performance.
“So I’ve heard for years: ‘You’re too long,'” Huff said. “On Letterman, they told me they liked what I did; they were real nice to me. But on Letterman, you get four-and-a-half minutes, and they want nine to 11 jokes, on different topics.”
When the 39-year-old Huff appears Thursday, on a bill with Darryl Lenox, he is likely to spin a story about creative homeless people; expound his theory on how the Wright Brothers killed creativity; and explore the legend of the 5-year-old boy who stole a penguin from a Cincinnati zoo.
A Kentucky native, Huff went to school at North Carolina’s Brevard College, intent on becoming a writer. Even if he did have writing skills, he had no idea how to get published.
“Instead of reaching out and asking someone – I was too shy – I went into an open mike, with a poet and a musician,” Huff said. “They stared at me. But I loved it.”
Huff doesn’t recall what material he used that night, but he does point out one story that got him hooked on his atypical way of doing comedy. He poked into the character of his great-uncle, a man who, after participating in the robbery of a jewelry store and the shooting of the shop owner, refused to join his cohorts in fleeing the state. Instead, he hid underneath the local prison, where his wife brought him breakfast and the newspaper till the pursuit cooled down.
Huff has no trouble finding the cuddly side of his relative. “It was easy to start with him, he was so colorful and so rich,” he said. “He was the kind of guy you don’t like, but you like to watch. He was an alcoholic, made moonshine. He won a bear in a poker game. A great, beautiful Southern gentleman.”
Huff betrays not even a touch of irony in this. Looking for the uplifting angle in any situation is part of his make-up as a performer, and as a person.
“I’m a positive comedian,” he said. “Meaning if something angers me, I’m not going to get up onstage and tell you why I’m angry. I’ll go the other direction, and try to illuminate that anger.”
Then there’s homelessness. Huff doesn’t seem to have any anger directed toward the homeless, or the fact of homelessness. This might be explained by the fact that Huff was once homeless himself, for about a year. The experience seems to have left him with a unique perspective on the subject. With the hope of altering the audience’s opinion about homelessness, he searches out the creative and humorous side of the homeless. Like the Denver man with no legs, and a sign reading, “Give me a dollar or I’ll kick you in the face.”
Huff says there was one “tiny moment” when he landed a few auditions for major sitcoms. It left him questioning whether he should adjust his artistic approach: “‘Can I change to be what they want?'” he said. “And I decided, I wouldn’t be happy at that, and wouldn’t be successful. So I dove into the stories, made them even longer.”
After 15 years performing professionally, Huff has concluded that there is room for more comedians like himself.
“I think there’s a whole bunch of people who have a longer attention span than Hollywood gives them credit for, who like to be sucked into a story, who enjoy going for the ride,” he said. “In four-and-a-half minutes, there’s not a lot of room for emotion.”
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