Tom Simmons takes Aspen Laff Fest stage |

Tom Simmons takes Aspen Laff Fest stage

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesTom Simmons, a co-producer of the inaugural Aspen Laff Festival, performs in the festival Friday at the Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – Tom Simmons’ contrarian streak runs deep. He launched his comedy career at the Uptown Comedy Corner, a club populated almost exclusively by blacks – and by Simmons, a white guy who earned the audience’s attention and respect by daring to do race-oriented material. A few years ago, when Michael Vick rivaled Osama bin-Laden for being the most convenient target for popular venom, Simmons came out as pro-dog fighting. While other comedians chase sitcom glory in New York or Los Angeles, Simmons resides in Greensboro, N.C., and has made his career almost exclusively in clubs, competitions and festivals.And Simmons goes against the grain in his art. Comedians working the club circuit are often expected – encouraged even – to shoot for the cheap and easy laughs, to keep the crowds happy and the taps flowing. Simmons says this is especially true in the Southeast: “It’s hard to come out of the South and not be a bar comedian – doing jokes about drinking, being a cheerleader,” the 44-year-old said.But Simmons is cut from a different mold. When he appears Friday at the inaugural Aspen Laff Festival, his set is likely to take a thoughtful, provocative look at religion and the intricacies of the world’s money supply. And at his current obsession, that ever-popular font of comedic material, the planet’s diminishing supply of oil.”Things I’m passionate about, I want to get across to people,” said Simmons, who has been carrying a copy of “Stupid to the Last Drop,” about the energy industry in Alberta, Canada, with him in Aspen. “I don’t want to be the doom-and-gloom guy. But I want my 10 minutes to be about something I’m interested in – rather than about my wife won’t give me [certain unmentionable sexual act that invariably seems to come up in interviews with comedians] anymore.”Simmons suggests that telling sex and booze jokes is probably an easier way of doing stand-up. Turning peak oil and federal reserve policies into a comedy routine requires more thought and nuance than simply uttering words that are sure to get an audience’s attention.”These kinds of subjects are hard to do,” he said. “It takes me months of annoying people, asking questions, to find the lines I want to say, and a way to condense the facts so I can get my side of the argument out.”With the Aspen Laff Festival, Simmons’ job of blending jokes and intellect got even trickier. As the Wheeler Opera House’s hand-picked co-producer of the festival, Simmons has had to hand-pick comedians who fit the Wheeler’s notion of smart comedy: limit the sex bits, kill entirely jokes about airports and the altitude.Simmons first became acquainted with the Wheeler, and Wheeler executive director Gram Slaton, in March of 2008, when he appeared in What’s So Funny? a stand-up series produced by comedian David Brenner. Simmons returned later that year for The Best of What’s So Funny? and last year he assisted in programming the Wheeler’s Smackdown Showdown event, which he also appeared in. Slaton was impressed with Simmons’ tastes in comedy.”I trust his sensibility,” Slaton said. “When he brings a comedian to me and says he’s great, I know he’ll be great.”For the Aspen Laff Festival – which more or less replaces the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival, a less than ideal event which included Rooftop Comedy as a co-producer – Simmons selected about a dozen performers with the appropriate approach. Most of them he knows from the comedy circuit; a few came recommended by friends.”Probably every one of them wrote a Godzilla joke about the situation in Japan. But 90 percent of the ones here probably discarded that joke. They’re looking for, What’s the deeper story here?” Simmons said of the comedians in the Laff Festival, which opened to good-sized and receptive crowds on Wednesday, and runs through Saturday, March 19. (According to the Wheeler, the festival had already grossed more in ticket sales as of Friday morning than any of the three editions of the Rooftop Comedy Festival.) “Most of these guys want to be great; they want to be the next George Carlin. They don’t want to just have a sitcom. They want to move comedy forward. They’re just powerful voices to me.••••Simmons’ comedic aspirations began, actually, with humor of the silly, sexual, second-grade variety. But he had an excuse: he was in second grade at the time. The teacher was reading a story that used the word “pussy” to refer to a cat.”And I thought that was very funny. Somehow I knew that was a funny word; I’d nudge the guy next to me,” he recalled. He soon graduated to albums by Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy, and “The Seinfeld Chronicles” the pilot for what would become “Seinfeld.”Through his childhood, Simmons’ family moved from place to place, hitting Atlanta, Wisconsin, Illinois and Colorado Springs, as his sister pursued competitive figure skating. The constant relocations instilled in Simmons the outsider persona that he has carried into his comedy career, and most every other aspect of his life.In college, at Georgia and Florida State, Simmons majored in partying. “I was unchained,” he said. “It was like high school review.” Instead of classes, he tuned into the comedy club broadcasts that flooded cable TV in the ’80s. He found himself weaving jokes he’d heard on TV into his conversations. Around 1993, he started doing open mike nights, then worked his way into the Uptown Comedy Corner.”I was the white guy,” he said. “Most people were afraid to go there. For open mike night, the standard was to boo people off stage. But I saw it as a huge advantage. It’s humbling. There are jokes that don’t go over well with black audiences – they’re not watching ‘Seinfeld.’ And the jokes had to be tighter and faster and more powerful. It gave me some balls when I got in front of other crowds.”After several years, Simmons made the move to New York, where he took acting classes. The New York experience – essentially, begging to get onstage for a 7-minute slot in front of seven people – didn’t impress him. “I decided to blaze a different path. I could go on the road and get crowds and get paid,” Simmons, who lived in an RV for three years, said.Living a different sort of life went hand in hand with a different brand of comedy. Simmons’ style started getting serious when he had the big realization about religion: that it was all made up. For several years, he read deeply on the subject of religion, and turned it into comedy. He then moved into money, and now into energy.It’s an unusual personality profile for a comedian. Unlike the typical comedian – eager to please, outgoing, cynical – Simmons projects an inner intensity and a pensive pessimism. The trick had been turning that into comedy, but he seems to have a handle on it; Simmons won the 2009 San Francisco International Comedy Competition, and twice was a finalist at the Boston Comedy Festival. One of his bits in progress is comparing an individual’s drug addiction to a society’s addiction to oil.Simmons’ act includes jokes about everyday topics: parenting, commercials, self-can checkout machines in grocery stores. He says he fantasizes about “doing an hour of silliness.” But his heart is into the weightier stuff.”I’m into peak oil, and how much turmoil that’s going to cause. I want to show all the disaster that’s coming,” he said. “My mom tells me I’ve got to stop reading so much. The more I read, the more I become a doom-and-gloom guy.”

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