`The Simpsons’ (hoo-hoo!) the hottest comedy ticket | AspenTimes.com
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`The Simpsons’ (hoo-hoo!) the hottest comedy ticket

Sarah S. Chung

There were the usual bright spots and a few resounding duds in this year’s chapter of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. But for Simpsons fans who found their way into a pair of live performances, Aspen held the key to Oz – or at least Springfield.

Crowd control is not often necessary in the proximity of the historic Wheeler Opera House. Generally speaking, Aspen crowds are a somewhat sophisticated, aloof bunch. That wasn’t the case Thursday and Friday night, when anxious fans of TV’s favorite animated family descended on the venue, hoping for a seat to the first live readings by “The Simpsons” cast.

But then, “The Simpsons” was never something that made a lot of sense, conventionally speaking. Who could have predicted or can explain the frenzied devotion which surrounds television’s longest-running cartoon?

Far be it for me to deconstruct the phenomenon, but there’s no mistaking that “The Simpsons” is not just another cartoon. What other showcase of animated characters would prompt an adult man to reverently utter, “this is the happiest moment of my life,” as the lights dimmed for the performance?

Needless to say, there were some pretty high expectations laid at the show’s feet. It did not disappoint.

“This is the first time we, as a whole, have been able to celebrate the show. So this is a real treat for us,” said Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening.

The live performances allowed the actors, writers, producers and fans a unique chance to collectively bask in what makes “The Simpsons” so special.

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to hear people’s love of the show,” said Simpsons writer John Frink, the real-life alter ego for character Professor John Frink. “You could really see the actors getting off on the reaction of the crowd.”

Following the readings, the audience got to ask the voices and imaginations behind “The Simpsons” a few burning questions.

At both shows, the bulk of the queries were about what actor supplied the voices to the lesser-known characters. The late Phil Hartman’s characters, audiences were told, have been retired out of respect.

But Simpsons’ fans can rest assured that Homer, Marge and the gang will keep it coming for at least two more seasons – “one year to coast and another year to drive it into the ground,” Groening quipped. A few highlights For four days each year, Aspen hosts the cream of the funny business crop.

New acts are showcased before oxygen-deprived producers, agents, and bookers and legends are given their due. There were a lot of professionally funny people around, but a few standouts in this year’s crew include Sarah Jones, Jake Johannsen, D.C. Curry and Godrey.

In Jones’ “Surface Transit,” she proved intolerance is a subject that can be handled with humor and empathy. In her one-woman show, Jones gracefully breathed a layer of humanity into people often reduced to sound bytes or dramatic quotations.

To many, a bigot is someone to avoid. But Jones imparted a sense of how one’s world gets a little smaller by not digging deeper. She somehow made a bigot seem almost likable – someone you might have a drink with.

Not all of Jones’ characters were racially or otherwise intolerant, but strangely, as a young, black woman, Jones’ most resonant impersonations were of the very people who might do her harm.

On a lighter note, Johannsen’s act was a dead-on favorite for anyone who likes having sex, misses having sex, likes to drink, or may ponder the intricacies of “washing the girl of your choice” in a public venue.

Bachelorhood is a subject long mined for comedic material, but Johannsen does bitter better than most. It has been said a happy comedian is an out-of-work comedian. So while I wish him well, loneliness may not be a bad thing to hold onto, career-wise.

In a festival like this one, acts and jokes tend to meld together, but several standouts deserve honorable mention: Rick Harris, Jeff Altman, Paul Gilmartin, Happy Cole, Robert Rothstein and Marian Kelly. An unexpected ebb On the whole, this year’s offerings held a good number of delightful surprises. Dan Castellaneta’s one-man show wasn’t one of them.

It seems I’m in the minority on my assessment of Castellaneta’s act. But there’s little gray in comedy – you can’t make yourself enjoy something, even if you really, really want to.

I’ve never met Castellaneta, but his voice role with “The Simpsons” (as Homer, among others) left me expecting greatness. It wasn’t there.

Castellaneta’s choice in characters, with the notable exception of a bicycle messenger eating at Wendy’s, seemed obvious and familiar. And the moral of the story, which ran along the lines of, “why can’t we all just get along,” tied things up a little too neatly for my taste.

After the show, Groening called the performance “brilliant … not surfacey like so many acts,” so what do I know? Perhaps not much, but I went in there waiting, longing to laugh, to scarce avail.

So, a new week starts and Aspen is, thankfully, little L.A. no more. But, as soon as I get some sleep, I’ll start looking forward to next year’s invasion of the funny people.


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