Who killed, who died at the Comedy Fest
Every year around Comedy Festival time, I get a mass of variations on the same question: Is this going to be funny? And I think: A) How the heck should I know? B) My prediction probably will have nothing to do with what someone else thinks, and C) Just take your ticket and find out for yourself.What makes this prognostication business so difficult – apart from the fact that I’ve never seen virtually any of the acts that come each year – is that the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival is marked each and every year by wild inconsistency. There’s brilliantly funny, and there’s the stuff that has you wishing you had sat closer to the door so your exit could be more inconspicuous. And then there’s the shows where your seat assignment doesn’t even matter, so heavy is the flow of traffic toward the out door.
Here’s a roundup of the big laughs, and the laughably bad, from the 11th annual USCAF, which took place Feb. 9-13.Killed: Demetri Martin. Demetri Martin experimented with delivery techniques: telling jokes while playing completely unrelated riffs on guitar, or flashing the stalest jokes imaginable – about Aspen’s lack of oxygen and black people – on paper, while simultaneously delivering far better lines. The delivery, though, is beside the point; more important is Martin’s slightly surreal material, delivered in a happier version of Steven Wright’s deadpan. Examples: “Telling someone ‘I apologize’ and ‘I’m sorry’ are the same thing. Unless you’re at a funeral.” Or: “Swimming’s weird – sometimes you do it for fun, and sometimes you do it to not die.” S.O.Died: “Waiting for Guffman” Reunion. Over and over, the point was made that director Christopher Guest and his company of actors – Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy and Bob Balaban – made “Waiting for Guffman” without a script. So why did such a skilled crew of improvisers have such trouble flowing the humor onstage? Guest in particular was stiff, responding to most questions with odd stares rather than insight or comedy. Invariably, the best laughs at the event came when clips of the film itself were screened. S.O.Survived: The Civilians: “Gone Missing.” Give the New York theater troupe their due: They overcame the horrific handicap of a sound glitch that made the first five minutes of their show inaudible. So it was an accomplishment that “Gone Missing,” a music theater piece based on actual interviews with people who had lost things, had some high points. Particularly good was the policeman who gave detailed accounts of dead, decomposed bodies. S.O.
Died: Festival ticket management. So overselling shows is a business plan? That’s not funny – especially when you’ve got a baby sitter for the night, stand out in the cold for a half-hour, are told that the tickets you hold in your hand are no good, and find out the next day that there were so many empty seats that the comedian joked about it. (Eddie Izzard: “I don’t mind empty seats at my show, but couldn’t you put them in the back row, where I can’t see them?”) S.O.Killed: “The Aristocrats.” It doesn’t say much for me as a person – or my likely destination when I die – that seeing the filthiest joke imaginable spewing out of the mouths of the “South Park” cartoon kids had me doubled over in laughter. Fortunately, I had company: Most everyone who survived the raunch of director Paul Provenza’s film, a peek at the lengths comics must go to make other comics laugh, saw “The Aristocrats” as a comedic achievement. (Among the casualties of the foul language was my wife, to whom I give much credit.) The biggest applause went to Snowmass Village magician Eric Mead, who illustrated the film’s running joke with a sleight-of-hand card trick. S.O.Killed: “The Thing About My Folks.” At the other end of the film spectrum from “The Aristocrats” was “The Thing About My Folks,” a bittersweet father-and-son road trip. Peter Falk shined as Sam, an elderly man who takes his wife’s departure as an opportunity to bond with his son (played by writer Paul Reiser). Apart from a plethora of fart scenes – if Falk didn’t have a stunt double, I’m really impressed – the film focused on the inevitable ups and downs of a long relationship. Thanks to Falk’s typically unglued performance, the message was delivered with plenty of laughs. S.O.Died: Off the Page. John Hodgman, one of the writers – not performers – featured in Off the Page said of the event: “The USCAF figured audiences want to see people who were unable to memorize their material.” Just like the USCAF figured people would want to buy tickets to events they couldn’t get into. The problem in this collection of offbeat readings – advice on how to win a fight, a woman wondering whether administering oral pleasure on a first date was such a good idea, and something else that had my mind wandering – wasn’t the lack of memorization, but the reality that subtly witty readings don’t fly among all the stage veterans. S.O.
Survived: Writers’ Room: Harvard Lampoon. I know the event was supposed to be about the Harvard Lampoon. But how do you get five prominent “Simpsons” writers onstage and devote just five minutes to the greatest TV show ever, and almost as an afterthought at that? Saving the event was Mike Reiss, whose rants about how much he hates Harvard were priceless. S.O.Killed: the overall festival experience. More than any Aspen event, the USCAF puts a visceral charge into the town. It felt like I had the world of comedy at my disposal. I congratulated “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening for making it up the Wheeler Opera House stairs. (The outcome was in doubt to the final step.) I had daily encounters with Mike Reiss, and developed a little crush on his fellow “Simpsons” writer George Meyer. I talked film ratings with Paul Provenza. (“The Aristocrats,” he assured me, would not be subjected to the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system.) I located the one person (apart from my idiot brother), Sarah Silverman, with whom I could trade lines from “The One and Only,” an obscure 1978 film starring Henry Winkler as a professional wrestler. I’ve never witnessed another festival with that level of interactivity with the performers. S.O.Died: Stewart Lee. Stewart Lee may soon be tried for blasphemy in his home country of England. (Really. For suggesting Jesus was gay.) But his edgy brand of political and social commentary failed to raise any eyebrows in Aspen. Or many laughs. Lee’s delivery was slow and repetitive (at one point he actually pretended to lie down and fall asleep onstage). His punch lines, although funny, were not worth waiting 20 minutes for. E.H.Killed: Rebecca Drysdale. Of all the lesbian-themed Dr. Seuss parodies out there, Drysdale’s had to be the best. Winner of the Breakout Award, she shared the bill with Flight of the Conchords, which made for a seriously hilarious hour. Drysdale’s song during the Late Night Lounge, about the audience wondering who the f— she was, was also a standout. B.S.
Killed: McSweeney’s Presents: The Rise of the Graphic Novel. Or, the nerdiest cluster of folks you are likely to see onstage this side of a Star Trek Convention. This panel discussion was a glimpse into the creative workings of people who are clearly far more comfortable sequestered away with their drafting boards than on a stage discussing their art. Lynda Barry, creator of “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” was a highlight, a hilarious and unaffected artist. Despite their shyness, the assembled artists were passionate and articulate and offered many entertaining insights into the lives of “famous” cartoonists. A refreshingly charming event. B.S.Survived: Cheech & Chong: Together Again. One of this year’s main shows, Together Again was a strange mix of old and new. On the one hand was the old guard, legends who turned a generation on to alternative comedy. On the other, the host Xzibit represented the brash new generation following in their footsteps. But I had never heard of Xzibit, rapper and host of MTV’s “Pimp My Ride,” which made me feel old. There was a time when I watched MTV religiously, especially on Sundays (when “Beavis & Butthead” was on). Now I have editors talking to me about business briefs and a subscription to The New Yorker and I don’t know who Xzibit is. I ain’t getting any younger. But for an hour during Together Again, I was able to giggle, to be silly, to travel back to my dorm-room daze. C.A.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Eben Harrell, Chad Abraham and Barry Smith contributed to this story.
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