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There were the laughs

Aspen Times Staff Report

Some surprises emerged from the seventh annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which wrapped up its four-day stand in Aspen on Saturday.

Who knew that Billy Crystal and Steve Martin would do rare stand-up performances, appearing unbilled as part of Catherine O’Hara’s Late Night Lounge?

Who figured that “The Comic” would be a tragedy – but one filled with hilarious bits and one-liners – and immensely appealing as a dark-edged character study?

Who would have imagined that former porno actress Traci Lords would be as appealing an actress with her clothes on as off?

And who knew just how short all these so-called giants of comedy would be? Did you know that Gilbert Gottfried practically qualifies for midget status? (It wasn’t noted anywhere in the press materials.)

Billy Crystal just might hit 5-foot-8 on a good day. George Lucas, who I always thought was a big guy, is 5-foot-7, tops, and I’m being generous.

I always wondered why Martin Short has been designated the USCAF’s permanent guest moderator. (I suspected it was not his stellar film career.) It’s that he’s as short in height as he is in name. Nobody looks as short as they are standing next to him.

And not that I’d want to, but I could eat peanuts off Richard Dreyfuss’ head. (It extends beyond this year’s festival: past featured comics – Ben Stiller, Jerry Seinfeld, Robert Schimmel – all are not what you would call tall.)

Most revealing were the stories spun by Crystal, as he was being presented with the AFI Star Award in a Saturday night ceremony at the Wheeler Opera House. Crystal told about being raised in a household where everyone, from his 300-pound grandmother to his brother Richard, was funny, and being on stage was a natural part of existence.

Crystal’s father was in the record and concert business, and jazz musicians were regular visitors to the Crystal’s New York house. Crystal, interviewed by Martin Short, told about his first movie-going experience – accompanied to a screening of “Shane” by singer Billie Holiday. (“Shane, come back,” said Crystal, repeating the film’s immortal closing lines. “He ain’t comin’ back,” added Crystal, reprising Holiday’s answer to the screen.)

Crystal noted that his signature “Saturday Night Live” impersonations, of Sammy Davis Jr. and Fernando Lamas, were created out of immense respect for the entertainers. Crystal expressed deep disappointment that his most personal film to date, “Mr. Saturday Night” – about an aging stand-up comic, written and directed by Crystal – was a box office failure, despite good reviews.

For the most part, however, the event was upbeat. Crystal closed by saying how he felt his career is only just beginning, and he looks forward to the work that lies ahead.

Crystal and Martin were part of the overflow audience that marveled at the theater presentation “The Comic.” Written by Mark Schiff, “The Comic” starred Larry Miller as Sid Katz, an aging stand-up comic facing the end of his career.

Holed up in a low-rent hotel room before his final performance, Katz engages the downtrodden room-service clerk in reflection and introspection. What emerges is the essence of the stand-up comic – a superior manipulator, an entertainer always driven by the need to perform, a person with authority over his act but no control of the audience.

Alan Aymie (who’s 5-foot-6, maybe) turned his real-life experience – a man determined to be a father to his unborn daughter, despite the protests of the child’s mother – into the surprisingly fast-paced one-man show “Child’s Play.” Creating a variety of characters – relatives advising he whack the former girlfriend, members of single-father support groups – Aymie balances laughs with honest sentiment. Jamie Denbo, whose one-person spoof of Disney World, “Pixie Chick,” followed Aymie’s, is a flat-out gifted performer, with the potential for a bright future.

On the celluloid side, two treats were “Chump Change” and “Barstow 2008.” “Chump Change” followed the career path of “Milwaukee” Steve, a Wisconsinite who tries his hand as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Director-writer-actor Steve Burrows gets a lot of mileage out of the Los Angeles sleaze he encounters – agents and managers, and a producer played way over the top by Tim Matheson.

Steve returns to Milwaukee, where he finds hometown girl Sam who, like Steve, enjoys the finer things in life – red, condiment-less meat; a good corner pub; bowling. Former porno star Traci Lords is surprisingly appealing as the down-to-Earth Sam.

“Barstow 2008” is a mockumentary centered around Benny Finch, the town schmuck of Barstow, Calif. But the bald, fat Finch, played by Paul Wilson, is a schmuck with dreams. He’s already realized his dream of being Barstow’s first male manicurist; now he wants to bring the Olympics to Barstow. Director Bob Morrow gets big laughs out of Benny and the small-town losers who surround him.

Not so successful was “Londinium,” written and directed by, and starring, Mike Binder. Set in London, “Londinium’s” premise of two couples tangled in a furtive sex quadrangle is promising enough. But the pacing is atrocious. For the last 45 minutes, “Londinium” is one presumed ending after another, making for a dragging film-going experience.

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