Live From Aspen…It’s Ben Bass Part 2!

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We asked good friend Ben Bass – who happens to be at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen (henceforth referred to as “USCAF”) to occasionally write back and let us know how things are going. Here’s a snippet of his second report:

A comedy festival is a double-edged sword, at once thrilling and frustrating, because every show has the potential either to blow the roof off with raucous laughter or leave its audience quiet and disappointed. When you’re buying tickets, all you have to go on are promotional blurbs written by the groups themselves; it’s a crapshoot. How, for example, did I see four, count them four, sketch shows at the 2007 Chicago Sketchfest, and not laugh more than two or three times, yet somehow miss the several performances by a terrific sketch group, Summer of Tears?

US-Comedy-Arts-Fest.jpg

We asked good friend Ben Bass – who happens to be at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen (henceforth referred to as “USCAF”) to occasionally write back and let us know how things are going. Here’s a snippet of his second report:

A comedy festival is a double-edged sword, at once thrilling and frustrating, because every show has the potential either to blow the roof off with raucous laughter or leave its audience quiet and disappointed. When you’re buying tickets, all you have to go on are promotional blurbs written by the groups themselves; it’s a crapshoot. How, for example, did I see four, count them four, sketch shows at the 2007 Chicago Sketchfest, and not laugh more than two or three times, yet somehow miss the several performances by a terrific sketch group, Summer of Tears?


Hello to fellow Schadenfreude fans and weird LA residents who got here by Googling the new guy at work, Adam Witt. This is Ben Bass “reporting” (in the way that, say, our president is “governing”) from the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado.

In yesterday’s entry, by the time I’d set the stage (theater metaphor! watch your back, Frank Rich) by placing the festival in its cultural and historical context, and complaining about weather-related flight cancellations, I ran out of time to say much about this year’s festival. Let’s do that today.

When this tale left off, our heroes (myself and fellow Chicago comedy enthusiast David Facchini, the Hiro and Ando of comedy-oriented leisure travel) were late for a movie but happy finally to be in Aspen after an all-day journey. Unlike Hiro, we couldn’t travel back in time, so we missed a highly regarded six-minute short film, “My Wife is Retarded,” about a man who discovers the secret behind his perfect marriage. Happily, almost every film and stage show at this festival is presented two or three times, so we’ll have another chance.

This will also help us catch “Misled” with Pat O’Brien, Peter Grosz and Jake Schneider. This was the show David and I were most excited about seeing, as we performed at Improv Olympic with Pat O’Brien, know Jake and Pete from around town, and took classes with the show’s director, some guy called T.J. Jagodowski (if you’re an improviser, you know his work; if not, think “Jordan is to basketball as…”).

After finally getting here, we raced from the hotel to the show, but had just missed “Misled.” It’s being presented with two other Chicago-bred sketch shows and we did manage to catch the second half of “KevINda,” Kevin Douglas and Inda Craig-Galvan’s smartly observed and very funny two-person sketch musings on black-white relations. We also caught “Moist,” a four-woman sketch show featuring Megan Grano, Colleen Murray, Emily Wilson and Meagan O’Brien Flanigan, Pat O’Brien’s sister.

Two Chicago-trained siblings getting invited to this festival in the same year? Not unprecedented, as Rebecca Drysdale’s one-woman show and brother Eric Drysdale’s sketch group played here in 2005, but most impressive nonetheless. We ran into Pat and Meagan’s parents in the airport; you could tell them by the proud smiles on their faces. They’re here as part of the “Moist”/”Misled” entourage, which also includes Pete’s wife and fellow Second City alum, Deb Downing; Second City producer Beth Kligerman; and Megan Grano’s funny talent agent, Bob, whose last name I would have caught had it occurred to me that it would be less embarrassing to report both of his names in an eventual online writeup.

I attend this festival every year and always find my offstage conversations with performers, producers, journalists, club owners, agents, locals and staff, in their way, just as entertaining as the festival’s performances and films. You can learn something interesting from literally anyone in town if you just ask a good question or two, and whoever you ask for the time or sit down next to in a movie theater is probably working for HBO New Media (check), supervising festival venues, from tent to opera house to hotel ballroom, for the past thirteen years (check), coordinating press access to the talent (check) or working on the production team running the festival (check, three or four times).

Enough deep thoughts, let’s talk about the shows. After “Moist,” we caught four more shows in the same venue, a large tent in downtown Wagner Park. The first was a two-man sketch show, ” Joeyanddavid.com,” from the eponymous comedy website of two young comedians whose first names I forget; was it Jeff and Danny? Their show wasn’t particularly funny, but at least they kept it interesting with a musclebound African-American understudy for one of the two average-build Jewish actors, and a Queen Latifah lookalike belted “Amazing Grace” in the big finale.

Next up was Brendan Hunt, who charmed the ski pants off the audience with his autobiographical show “Five Years in Amsterdam,” about moving from Chicago to the Netherlands to work for comedy theater Boom Chicago. Tight, pithy writing and nutty, sex-charged anecdotes made this fish-out-of-water monologue a lot of fun. Hunt described his satirical show ridiculing easy target Jerry Springer, “to whom we duly socked it,” and lumped the drug Ecstasy in with “other things I feared, like bungee jumping and Mexico.”

A comedy festival is a double-edged sword, at once thrilling and frustrating, because every show has the potential either to blow the roof off with raucous laughter or leave its audience quiet and disappointed. When you’re buying tickets, all you have to go on are promotional blurbs written by the groups themselves; it’s a crapshoot. How, for example, did I see four, count them four, sketch shows at the 2007 Chicago Sketchfest, and not laugh more than two or three times, yet somehow miss the several performances by a terrific sketch group, Summer of Tears?

These young USC grads scored big laughs with hilarious video after hilarious scene. They gave us two snobbish Ivy Leaguers’ pretentious argument over Mark Twain contrasted with the actual ribald thoughts of the white-suited Twain himself, in a blue-tinged update of Woody Allen’s grabbing bystander Marshall McLuhan to prove a point about Marshall McLuhan in “Annie Hall.” (Marshall McLuhan reference! Pack your bags, Ben Brantley.) The snobs argued about the Twain’s intentions with Huckleberry Finn, but Twain confided he was just looking for “something that rhymed with Fuckleberry.” Twain explained that he was born in Hannibal, Missouri with the “largest baby dick ever recorded,” but because the name Samuel Clemens was so effeminate, he changed it to “Mark Twain, as in, I’m going to be Twain your legs.” Somehow, when I saw Hal Holbrook channel Mark Twain on Broadway, he missed this side of the man.

They also offered a spot-on Matthew McConnaughey impersonation by an actor who also could have been his twin brother. When McConnaughey drawled, “Daddy always said, ‘Make ’em laugh, make ’em breakfast,’ ” it was easy to imagine the actual Texas playboy saying the same thing. Summer of Tears, welcome to Hollywood; surely you’re leaving Aspen with a development deal. The best sketch group of 2006, The Whitest Kids U Know, signed a Paramount deal in 2006, which in turn has attracted a gaggle of studio scouts to Aspen in 2007. Someone will land the prize.

The final show of the night was the cleverly titled “Pete and Brian’s One-Man Show,” a heady, meticulously scripted two-man attack from recent NYU Tisch School grads Peter Karinen and Brian Sacca. Featuring extended simultaneous dialogue and coordinated pretaped video, the show impressed not only for its funny characters and dialogue but also the sheer amount of work that obviously went into it.

That brings me to the end of Wednesday night and it’s now Friday morning. Another show is about to start; more to come.

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