Final Installment of Live From Aspen…It’s Ben Bass

Wright.JPG

Is that Ben Bass with a homeless guy? Nope, it’s Ben Bass in Aspen with comedian Steven Wright. We sent Ben to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado last week to get the goods on the hottest, trendiest and buzzworthy events. By sent, we mean he was going and we asked him to write about it. Check out his final installment after the jump.

Wright.JPG

Is that Ben Bass with a homeless guy? Nope, it’s Ben Bass in Aspen with comedian Steven Wright. We sent Ben to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado last week to get the goods on the hottest, trendiest and buzzworthy events. By sent, we mean he was going and we asked him to write about it. Check out his final installment after the jump.


Ben Bass here, writing from Aspen (if you’ll humor the conceit that by “Aspen” I mean Chicago, since I just got back), heading into the home stretch of the 2007 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.

Our last thrilling episode left off with the curtain coming down on Bob Newhart, Don Rickles and John Landis onstage at the historic Wheeler Opera House. You know you’re at a good comedy festival when the same curtain comes up 45 minutes later on comedy’s monotone master of the absurd non-sequitur. Do you even need me to say that it was Steven Wright? It was. (For the record, the curtain was already up as his show started, but I liked the way that sounded.) Wright walked onstage to a huge round of applause, as he always does, and started his act as he always does, with a deadpan, emotionless “Thanks” that got a big laugh, as it always does. He then killed with a solid hour of material, some old, some new, mostly weird and all good.

Every year, the festival offers up a popular late-night lounge variety show in the ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel. It’s a trip back to the old nightclub days as a headliner presents a wide-ranging smorgasbord of music and comedy. Two years ago the host was Catherine O’Hara; last year, it was Damon Wayans; this year, Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter of Stella and The State hosted one night, The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry the next. We opted for the former, and they had the capacity crowd roaring with some old bits from Stella, their popular NYC alternative stage show.

Among their guests, the highlight was rising Australian comic Tim Minchin. Well known in his home country, he’s off to a good start in the U.S., blending solid standup comedy with flashy piano jams and rock star charisma. He looks like a rock star with his black eye makeup (Billie Joe Armstrong, David Bowie), long, streaky hair (Dave Pirner, the Spin Doctor with a pocketful of Kryptonite), menacing trench coat (Trent Reznor, various poor man’s Trent Reznors) and bare feet on stage (Shakira, Jack Johnson, Joss Stone, Ron Jeremy).

The culture of the festival, to the extent that a five-day annual event has time to develop a culture, is something like, “Hollywood executives checking out striving new talent and proven stars from the roped-off front ten rows of seats; reporters, fellow performers, older rich white skiers, and young Reno 911-loving snowboarders from less prohibitively expensive neighboring towns filling the rest of the seats; and numerous late night parties of varying degrees of exclusivity but minimal variance in drunkenness.” No, not “something like,” that’s exactly what it’s like. There are so many TV and movie development people in town that if you need a detail to flesh out a paragraph for your festival writeup, you can just ask the guy at the computer next to you at your hotel and he’ll know. It’s a primitive, friendly form of Google.

Because of the late night party culture, not to mention that the festival plays at a ski resort in early March, morning events can play to mostly empty rooms. This is a shame, especially when they’re as entertaining as a Friday 10 a.m. panel discussion entitled “Blogging: Buzz vs. Biz.” Moderated by longtime comedy writer Andy Borowitz, it presented the nation’s top gossip bloggers, from websites like Gawker, Defamer, Vanity Fair and TMZ, along with a veteran publicist whose job it is to minimize the bloggers’ intrusions on his clients’ lives and careers. Although its relationship to comedy (and therefore the festival itself) is somewhat tenuous, the subject of gossip blogs and the celebrities who fear them predictably lent itself to freewheeling, juicy conversation.

Along with the editor of Us Weekly, the syndicator of Entertainment Tonight and the manufacturers of condoms and penicillin, these might be the only people alive who would publicly call Paris Hilton “the gift that keeps on giving.” Vanity Fair’s Jessica Coen said of her own site, “We’re highbrow-lowbrow; we’ll have Matthew McConnaughey looking great, then an Olson twin looking like a freak.” Defamer’s Mark Lisanti shot back, “Where’s the highbrow there?” Laughter, then Andy Borowitz pointed out, “One of the Olson twins is pretty smart.”

Full disclosure note: I wrote up a few more of the panel’s wisecracks, along with other comedic moments from the festival, for the good people at the Chicago comedy site thebastion.org. They linked to this report, so I thought I’d, what do the kids say?, holla back. Check it out.

I got so carried away covering the festival for Schadenfreude that I decided to skip a midday movie, a wacky comedy about the insanely cutthroat world of L.A. house deals entitled “Closing Escrow,” despite the fact that I am an attorney and licensed broker who invests in real estate for a living. Meanwhile, my fellow traveler Dave Facchini, ace animation filmmaker, professional film editor and frequent star of the comedy stage, attended and went nuts over the real estate movie. Apparently Dave and I are stuck in each other’s dream jobs.

Our next show was the second of three from a storytelling collective called The Moth. Entitled “On Thin Ice,” it consisted of five actors and comedians sharing true tales of peril from their own lives. A surprise hit was actor Billy Baldwin, in town with two new films. Surprising at least to this casual observer, whose Baldwin categories until today consisted of “Alec” and “various interchangeable morons who keep getting arrested, announcing their political and religious views to an indifferent world, and making movies I will never see.”

Billy Baldwin broke the mold. He started by exploiting that very confusion with a funny riff about which Baldwin he was, then described growing up in a large family in which every kid had a role (athlete, good student, class clown, black sheep, etc.). His was the peacemaking voice of reason, and his field work has included dealing with the drug and alcohol problems of his various siblings, especially brother Daniel. His wife, Chynna Phillips, has also battled these demons as the daughter of two of the Mamas and the Papas. What chance did she have for a normal life, Baldwin argued, when no less a partier than Keith Richards once told her, “I used to love hanging around with your dad, but he ran so hard I couldn’t keep up.” Billy was amusing, grounded and self-aware; in fact, he was so charming, it actually might have been Alec.

Next up was Misled, the sketch show from Chicagoans Pat O’Brien, Pete Grosz and Jacob Schneider, which I caught with Pete’s lovely wife and fellow Second City alum, Deb Downing. We stood at the back of the venue and watched a sellout crowd laugh heartily, as we did, at the sophisticated sketch work of three guys at the top of their game. Highlights included an exchange of mash notes from improbably mature grammar school students, two caricaturists drawing each other while trapped in a repeating conversational Moebius strip, and a book group whose members mysteriously keep dying. Misled ran last year to sellout crowds at Improv Olympic (as I will always call the IO Theater in my mind), which also plays host to the sequel, Misled 2, Friday nights this month.

If it’s starting to sound like all I did for four days was attend a handpicked international selection of movies and comedy shows, you’re pretty close. And they’re generally either good or great. There’s also nonstop parties where outrageously attractive people swarm buffets and open bars, plus skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, and an annual sampling of Chicagoans who break through with a sketch show, standup appearance or newly finished movie. See why I go every year?

For a change of gears, our next move was a one-man show from Alan Zweibel, a big name in the comedy industry. He started as a joke writer for Catskills comics before breaking through as an original Saturday Night Live writer from 1975 through 1980. He went on to co-create It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, consult on Curb Your Enthusiasm, win some Emmys, write a few movies here and a book there, co-write Billy Crystal and Martin Short’s respective one-man shows, raise a family and run the New York Marathon. What a slacker.

Zweibel’s show was the story of his own career as a writer, crafter of hit shows and high-functioning human joke machine. Happily, those very skills made his take on his own life fast-moving, endearing and hilarious. He told how at the first-ever meeting of the SNL cast and writers, he was so nervous and scared that he hid behind a potted plant in the corner of the room, where he was joined by a caring and empathetic Gilda Radner. Thus began their friendship and his lengthy collaboration on her career-defining work. He was later made the head of Weekend Update, where on several occasions, he literally sat underneath the anchor desk writing last-second jokes and handing them up to Bill Murray to read on live TV.

The crowd roared with laughter throughout, safe in the hands of an absolute pro, and his Borscht Belt anecdotes and Yiddish slang went over with an entertainment industry crowd. Having seen Billy Crystal’s show “700 Sundays” on Broadway, I was reminded of Zweibel’s distinctive comic voice and briskly moving showbiz life-story structure. I caught the show with some Chicago friends and part-time Aspenites, Dennis and Karen Chookaszian, my friend Mike’s parents and two of the nicest people around. Although I don’t think they grew up hearing as much Yiddish from their grandparents as I did from mine, they loved Alan Zweibel’s show too.

I then hustled over to the Wheeler Opera House to catch the last part of a sold-out three-man comedy show from Jamie Kennedy, Fred Armisen and Nick Swardson. Each of these guys was in town promoting some newly completed or work-in-progress movie or TV show. The festival is so crammed with programming that you have to decide what to see and what to miss, and I never intended to catch their scheduled gigs. This standup show was apparently thrown together later (unlike every other event, the program guide didn’t even indicate who was performing), and because I annually splurge on an all-festival credential that admits its bearer to more or less everything, I had the luxury of wandering in for a few minutes. I loved the standup banter of Nick Swardson, a guy who, despite what you might infer from his having written the Benchwarmers movie, is very quick and funny live. (Lest you think my “Leonard Zelig of comedy” bit is Colorado-centric, I was also there in Austin, Texas, in the late 1990s when Fred Armisen devised the underground South By Southwest interview video that led to his scoring an SNL gig, but that is a story for another day.)

The final big show of the night was the presentation to Stephen Colbert of the inaugural Person of the Year award. The town was primed for this one, having been blanketed in promotional posters featuring a smirky Colbert closeup, the Person of the Year heading, and a tagline reading “Not you. Me.” Throngs of people showed up and I’ve never had more trouble getting into a show in four years at this festival. Sure, Colbert is popular, but they must have oversold it. It was post-iceberg Titanic in the St. Regis hotel, and Pete Grosz, Deb Downing and I were the last three to get lifeboat seats. Forty people with tickets were stuck outside watching on video monitors.

Jeff Greenfield proved a perfect choice for moderator, with newsman gravitas and a surprising sense of humor. Colbert was as self-effacing, witty and funny as his onscreen Bill O’Reilly manque is oblivious, overbearing and funny. He explained that his popular bit “Better Know a District” was born of desperation, as obscure congressional back-benchers were the only Washington figures Colbert could get for live interviews when his show first started. His trickle of obscure legislators eventually became a flood of bigger names who got the joke and happily volunteered, until the Democratic party leadership apparently shut off the tap for several months during the 2006 election campaign. Now that they’ve taken back the House, he said, his big guests are back and “we’re booked through the end of the summer.”

Colbert described in detail the road to his notorious turn as host of the 2006 White House correspondents’ dinner. He and his writing team spent the two weeks before the event writing outrageous material. On the train ride from New York to Washington, Colbert’s wife read over the harsh one-liners and subtle digs lambasting the president. Her
reaction: “Oh my God, are you really going to do this?” Colbert also successfully recruited White House pressroom institution Helen Thomas to help out (her reaction: “Oh my God, are you really going to do this?”). During the big moment, sitting mere feet from His Accidency, Colbert fearlessly intoned such loving homages as “The critics say this Administration is going down on the Titanic. That’s negative thinking. They’re going upward! On the Hindenberg!” The front of the room was all Washington media and political power players who didn’t laugh, but Colbert figured they were afraid to so close to the president. He was heartened that the back of the room roared, and so did Aspen.

It comes as little surprise that the safe-as-milk Rich Little was booked for the next correspondents’ dinner, but as Greenfield pointed out, he does do a killer Herbert Hoover impression.

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