The Aspen Laff Festival debuts

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Christopher Titus

ASPEN – Gram Slaton runs through a bunch of metaphors – one about finding a favorite, forgotten shirt deep in your closet, another about shopping for shoes – before hitting just the right one.

“It’s like the difference between doing surgery with a meat cleaver and a scalpel,” he said. “You’re going to remember the meat cleaver – but not fondly.”

What Slaton was seeking was a metaphor for the Aspen Laff Festival, which makes its debut Wednesday. The inaugural festival, produced by the Wheeler Opera House and comedian Tom Simmons, runs through Saturday and features star comedians Christopher Titus and Caroline Rhea, themed shows centered around drinking and religion, and 11 comics who have distinguished themselves on the club and competition circuit.

Wednesday’s program opens with two free events – Local Laffs, featuring valley performers; and the Laff Fest Sampler Pack, spotlighting festival talent – followed by Titus, who might give a sneak preview of his new routine, “The Neverlution,” which posits that Americans are too lazy to create the revolution the country so sorely needs.

Slaton, the executive director of the Wheeler, used the meat cleaver analogy to pinpoint just what kind of humor he is attempting to present. Over past comedy events in Aspen – the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, the showcase industry event that ran here for 13 years; the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival, which fizzled out last year after three editions – Slaton saw more lowest common denominator jokes than he needed to hear in a lifetime. It was endless jokes about bad airplane food, sexual acts, and Aspen-oriented lines having to do with altitude, wealth and white people. (Those would be in the meat cleaver department.)

“There’s so many comedians out there, that you have to do something in the first 60 seconds to score a hit, or you won’t get more work,” Slaton explained. “They have to go for the shock humor, the eighth-grade humor, just to get noticed. And that dilutes it for everybody.”

What Slaton is determined to put on the Wheeler stage are the surgeons, the latter-day Richard Pryors and George Carlins. “That’s what we’re after – those guys you want to see, and see again; tell their jokes to your friends; post them on Facebook,” he said. “Carlin, Pryor, Andy Kaufman – it’s 20 years later and you’re still reciting their jokes, because they’re so brilliant.”

Slaton singled out a few comedians from the Laff Festival: Roy Wood Jr., whose routine includes getting a text from his suicidal girlfriend. “He doesn’t go for the easy stuff. He goes for stuff that you have to think about before you’re going to laugh,” Slaton said. And of Jackie Kashian, he said, “It’s family humor, the way Bill Cosby did family humor. It’s not something from a sitcom.” [Writer’s note: Slaton, was referring, most likely, to the pre-sitcom Bill Cosby.] “It’s nervier and darker than that.”

Slaton’s partner in finding the talent was Simmons, a North Carolina comic who makes his living on the club circuit and has taken first prize at the San Francisco International Comedy Competition. Simmons, who has appeared at the Wheeler three times in recent years, also co-produced last year’s Smackdown Series at the Wheeler; Slaton said that nine of the 10 comedians Simmons brought in “struck paydirt.”

“I’d gone through all my channels: Rooftop, Comedy Central, HBO, TBS. I felt like we’d already gotten the picks of all the litters,” Slaton said. “[Simmons] goes to a lot of comedy festivals, and he’s throwing out names I’d never heard before. I trust his sensibility.”

Slaton and Simmons didn’t just dig through hundreds of performance clips in search of the comedians who would fit best. Slaton also sent a note to the performers he booked.

“‘This is what we want to make our festival stand out from other festivals. We want you to concentrate on your smartest, best humor,'” Slaton said of the message he has been trying to get across. “A lot of them go to a new audience, an audience they don’t know, and they feel the need to dumb it down. We said very clearly: no airport jokes, no [unmentionable sexual act] jokes, no altitude jokes. We’ve heard those all before.

“And they all embraced it. They said, ‘Hallelujah! We can be ourselves here.'”


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