Wheeler Opera House cancels Aspen Laugh Fest
City-owned venue moving ahead with sold-out Jim Gaffigan performances
The Wheeler Opera House has canceled its 2022 Aspen Laugh Festival, the city-run venue announced Thursday afternoon, dropping the annual comedy festival from its event lineup for the second year in a row because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“After many months of navigating the twists and turns of COVID in the event industry, the Wheeler Opera House has made the difficult decision to postpone the 2022 Aspen Laugh Festival,” reads the announcement.
The festival had been scheduled to run Feb. 19-23 though no comics had been announced other than Jim Gaffigan’s two kickoff shows on Saturday, Feb. 19. Those sold-out performances, expected to fill the theater to capacity of 460, will go on.
Wheeler director Lisa Rigsby Peterson said that the multi-show shuffle of the festival and the integral social and après-ski aspects of it made it incompatible with the current risk level of the pandemic’s omicron variant surge.
“It’s bringing people together in a lot of different ways in a very concentrated period of time with a lot of people,” she said.
Moving forward with a smaller version, she concluded, would not serve the Laugh Fest audience well.
“I think people would rather experience the Aspen Laugh Festival in the way that they’ve experienced it before and in the way that they love,” she said, “rather than a watered-down version that just doesn’t meet anybody’s expectations.”
The Gaffigan shows, though sold out, are relatively easy to manage for COVID risk, Peterson said, with two masked and vaccinated or tested audiences coming in and out of the theater with one turnover. The full Laugh Fest, by comparison, would normally have three such turnovers daily with concurrent shows at other venues, raising the level of potential exposure beyond what the Wheeler and the city are willing to shoulder amid the continued high rate of community transmission in Aspen.
The venue last week had more stringent COVID-19 protocols for its events approved by the Aspen City Council, including same-day virus testing for unvaccinated patrons, appearing to clear the way for more events at the Wheeler. Rigsby Peterson said those rules work for shows like the Gaffigan sets, but not the wider and more freewheeling Laugh Fest.
Aspen Mayor Torre said that he supports the decision to drop the festival amid the ongoing public health crisis.
“We are still in a state of supporting health and safety first,” Mayor Torre said. “I’d like to get through this and get back to as much normal as possible. But we still have people that are concerned about their health and well-being, so we’re going to err on the side of caution.”
Local transmission of the virus remains “extremely high,” according to the latest numbers updated by Pitkin County, with an incidence rate of 1,412 per 100,000 residents as of Monday. But that is down significantly from the first week of January, when the rate topped 3,800.
The Aspen Laugh Festival, in the years before the pandemic, had annually hosted top-tier comics — Norm MacDonald and Trevor Noah were among the 2020 headliners — along with local and regional acts at the Wheeler and additional venues including the Limelight Hotel and Silver City Saloon. The festival continues a Wheeler comedy festival tradition dating back to HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which ran from 1995 to 2007, and that has continued with annual Wheeler-produced festivals since then.
The Laugh Fest cancellation follows several at the Wheeler since the omicron surge began here last month. Among them have been the touring production of “Choir of Man,” musician John Oates and magician Justin Willman. Peterson said she is working to reschedule those as soon as this spring while also booking a full winter 2022-23 lineup.
“Given the insanity of the last weeks and months, I think the best way to move forward is to focus on in 2023,” Rigsby Peterson said.
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Garfield County’s “viral load” is ticking up as COVID-19 Omicron variant No. 5 cases increase alongside a late-blooming influenza and cold season, Public Health Director Joshua Williams said.