Live From Aspen…It’s Ben Bass Part 3!

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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 third report:

a great short film can indeed make things happen for its creators’ careers. Take Ari Sandel, the young director you may have seen last weekend winning a Best Live Action Short Oscar for his Arab-Israeli musical comedy, West Bank Story. I saw that movie here in 2005 blowing the roof off a sold-out movie theater. Ari Sandel was funny and engaging during an audience Q&A and was kind enough to send me, a non-industry type, a copy of his movie on DVD. Two years later he’s got an Oscar and an agent at Endeavor, a top talent agency. His directing career is off to a fast start and his short (a USC student film shot on a tiny budget, no less) had a lot to do with it.

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 third report:

a great short film can indeed make things happen for its creators’ careers. Take Ari Sandel, the young director you may have seen last weekend winning a Best Live Action Short Oscar for his Arab-Israeli musical comedy, West Bank Story. I saw that movie here in 2005 blowing the roof off a sold-out movie theater. Ari Sandel was funny and engaging during an audience Q&A and was kind enough to send me, a non-industry type, a copy of his movie on DVD. Two years later he’s got an Oscar and an agent at Endeavor, a top talent agency. His directing career is off to a fast start and his short (a USC student film shot on a tiny budget, no less) had a lot to do with it.


Hello once again to fellow Schadenfreude fans, bored office workers and/or my personal friends. After a lengthy Wednesday travel jeremiad leaving canceled flights and missed comedy shows in its wake, Thursday at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival dawned the way it was supposed to: early. After breakfast at Aspen’s best little hotel, the Annabelle Inn, we grabbed our festival badges and fistfuls of tickets to movies, shows and special presentations and started our daily hike down a snowy Main Street to the town center, where the laughter happens.

Some Aspen-goers start their day skiing or snowboarding at Aspen Mountain, Snowmass or the Highlands; some sleep off their vodka tonics from the night before at the William Morris agency party and find their pants; and others, like yours truly, head for the Isis, the charming local movie theater. The festival’s film program starts around 10 a.m. each day and fills all four screens until dinnertime, by which time the live shows are underway.

The movies are a mixed bag but there’s always something good to see. Some years they score big with multiplex-bound hits-in-waiting such as 2002’s Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State and Super Size Me; other years, like last year, there’s a lower-profile but still entertaining lineup. As at any film festival, the discerning ticket buyer should look past the obvious crowd-pleasers, which will be everywhere in three months, and at least consider the possible hidden gems that won’t get widely distributed.

First up for us Thursday was a variegated group of short films, one of several such lineups the festival screens each year (the full film and live show schedules are online at uscaf.com). When our parents were kids, it was routine for movie theaters to show shorts before or after feature attractions, but sadly, that tradition has died. It’s a shame, because as this festival proves each year, there are all kinds of great shorts being produced these days that only find an industry audience. They largely exist as calling cards for their directors, actors, etc. to get feature film work, a “here’s what I can do” thing.

One such short, A Gentlemen’s Duel, was a ridiculously expensive-looking CGI-animated seven-minute film about two noblemen dueling grandiosely over a beautiful woman. The money was dripping off the screen; it looked every bit as good as a Pixar feature, and likely exists as an invitation to movie studios to offer its creative team a Hollywood deal. Another funny short we liked, Alpha Mail, featured a wannabe stud and his life and times as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.

Incidentally, a great short film can indeed make things happen for its creators’ careers. Take Ari Sandel, the young director you may have seen last weekend winning a Best Live Action Short Oscar for his Arab-Israeli musical comedy, West Bank Story. I saw that movie here in 2005 blowing the roof off a sold-out movie theater. Ari Sandel was funny and engaging during an audience Q&A and was kind enough to send me, a non-industry type, a copy of his movie on DVD. Two years later he’s got an Oscar and an agent at Endeavor, a top talent agency. His directing career is off to a fast start and his short (a USC student film shot on a tiny budget, no less) had a lot to do with it.

We also caught the first half of Starter for 10, a Tom Hanks and Sam Mendes-produced, by-the-numbers 1980s coming-of-age British teen flick with the obligatory blonde hottie, brunette girl of substance, and Cure song on the soundtrack. I left my buddy Dave to watch the guy end up with, shockingly, the brunette, so I could catch The King of Kong, a documentary about the low-stakes, high-intrigue world of world-class video game players and their cutthroat battle over the coveted (by forty people, anyway) title of world’s greatest Donkey Kong player. It was comical — we laughed at, more than with, the video gamers — and heartbreaking, ultimately more about yearning than video games, and I was not surprised when the director told me it had just scored a distribution deal. Look for it in theaters this summer.

From there it was straight to the first of three shows presented by NYC-based storytelling group The Moth. This is their fourth time in Aspen and they’ve sold out every show. I first caught them up here, and since at the New York Public Library, and they always deliver the goods with funny, poignant, offbeat, moving stories told by industry types and others. This show, “The Show Must Go On,” featured show-business stories from Andy Borowitz, Nora Dunn, Michael Ian Black, Kirk Fox and Nilaja Sun. All good, all interesting.

Kirk Fox, an actor and standup comic, talked about his brief marriage to Clint Eastwood’s daughter, Alison: “She married me because I reminded her of her father, and I married her for the same reason.” As with Nicolas Cage’s eventual disenchantment with Lisa Marie Presley, he said, he eventually discovered that he hadn’t married his favorite star, but his daughter. As their marriage was failing, and Eastwood the elder called Fox a son of a bitch, his first thought was, “Clint called me son!”

Michael Ian Black told how, as 22-year-old stars of 1990s MTV sketch comedy show The State, he and his castmates became big stars among a demographic of their exact contemporaries. Several of these funny young opportunists decided to rent a van and embark on road trip to college towns with a specific mission in mind: “To fuck our fans.” Entertaining candor. When not skirt-chasing, the young Black also crashed the van at 75 m.p.h. but luckily everyone emerged relatively unscathed.

Incidentally, I have been assisting The Moth with planning their first-ever Chicago show, at the Metro on April 12. Mark your calendars, as it’s sure to be well worth seeing. The lineup has not yet been announced, but from what I understand, there will be a bunch of funny, talented local and national names presenting their true-life tales. See themoth.org for more.

One more movie followed, Eagle Vs. Shark, featuring Jemaine Clement, known to HBO viewers and Aspen-goers as half of Flight of the Conchords, “New Zealand’s fourth-leading folk comedy duo.” The movie featured more of his quirky Kiwi charm in a sweetly comic, vaguely Napoleon Dynamite-reminiscent turn.

That brought us to our ten-minute dinner, something quick but at least hot served up at a rolling popcorn wagon and short-order grill outside the Wheeler Opera House. This was the venue for two of the festival’s highly anticipated, sold-out main events.

First up was The Rickles Project, a look at a work-in-progress labor of love from John Landis, who apparently directed some comedy films I had never heard of such as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Coming to America. (Beyond these beloved titles, he also directed a great documentary called Slasher, about an itinerant used car salesman, that pops up occasionally on channels like Sundance or IFC; set your Tivo and thank me later.)

Landis is in the process of making a Don Rickles documentary movie, a tribute to the iconic insult comedian blending celebrity interviews, career-spanning performance footage and Rickles’ home movies. Despite Landis’ profuse advance apologies about how the footage was raw, the color timing wasn’t done, and so on, it looked great on the screen and the crowd roared with laughter.

In one interview, Rickles’ lifelong friend Bob Newhart told about the first time his wife, Virginia, met Don Rickles. She had not seen Rickles’ stage show but heard that he was kind of prickly. After meeting him, though, she told Bob that she’d found Rickles quiet and charming, not at all abrasive, an unassuming family man. Minutes later, Rickles was onstage telling an audience about the Newharts, whom he called “that stammering idiot from Chicago and his hooker wife from Bayonne, New Jersey.”

After the film screening, Rickles came onstage to a huge ovation and received the Pinnacle Award as an industry legend.

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It was presented by a surprise guest: Bob Newhart, who’d flown for the occasion. Cheers and smiles abounded as they shared stories from their lives and careers and took questions from an appreciative audience.

Incidentally, Rickles turns 81 soon and looks to be slowing down. If you want to catch him while you can, he and Joan Rivers are playing the Genesee Theater in Waukegan on Friday, May 4 and the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet the next night; tickets went onsale today at Ticketmaster.

Another show’s about to start, so I’ll interrupt the narrative here. More to come.

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