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Rocky Mountain High Jinks : In Aspen, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival hopes to do for its industry what Sundance Film Fest has done for independent movie-making. Skiing and skewering targets are also part of the lineup.

March 25, 1995|DAVID KRONKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ASPEN, Colo. — Among the purposes of the first U.S. Comedy Arts Festival here is to provide "an invaluable opportunity for the meaningful exchange of ideas among peers and leaders of the theater, motion picture and television industries."

Sure, it sounds good, and such a lofty aspiration is not to be sniffed at. But by Thursday, Day Two of the four-day festival, an even more impressive goal had been achieved: A mutual admiration society had been forged between Arianna Huffington and Hunter S. Thompson.

Said alliance emerged at a non-broadcast presentation of Comedy Central's "Politically Incorrect," hosted by Bill Maher, fresh from his turn offending our nation's leaders at a Washington performance.

Huffington, the author/aspiring talk-show host and wife of failed California U.S. Senate candidate Michael Huffington, sat next to Thompson, everyone's favorite gonzo journalist/firearms enthusiast/chemical connoisseur. Huffington stole the show with scathing comments about Bill Clinton and O.J. Simpson that made Maher's D.C. turn seem positively tame.

But perhaps the best exchange came when Maher, wondering aloud whether wealthy people become out of touch with mainstream society, turned to Huffington and said, "You're rich." To which she responded: "I am much less rich than when my husband ran for the Senate." (Michael Huffington will get equal time when he tapes an episode of Maher's series in Los Angeles next week.)

Thompson's most lucid line was, "Functionally drunk may be better than dysfunctionally sober." At one point, he hurled his drink into the crowd and Huffington told him, "The FDA wants your organs."

Afterward, at a reception for Maher's show, Huffington said that she and Thompson bonded before the performance, adding, "He's actually a lot of fun," and that Thompson's penchant for muttering incoherently was "partly an act."

In an adjacent room, longtime local resident Thompson took a drag off a sawed-off tobacco pipe and, with a distinctly non-tobacco aroma wafting in the air, declared himself "enchanted" with Huffington, and that Maher "missed the real story--that she's a serious presidential candidate. She has a savage determination and a single-minded focus on domination." Thompson even said that he would help with her campaign.

Such strange bedfellows seem to be typical of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which hopes to become as influential to the comedy industry as the Sundance Film Festival is for independent movie distributors. It has brought a battery of industry folks desperate to find the next Seinfeld or DeGeneres, alongside a variety of performers interested in stretching the boundaries of self-expression and with little interest in network TV. And, of course, there are many comedy club-weary veterans eager to land their own sitcoms.

Among the highlights of the festival:

* Spalding Gray, in his familiar work, "Interviewing the Audience," questioning legendary comedy manager Bernie Brillstein's 16-year-old son Michael about the ponytail worn by the principal at the private school he attends.

* At a press conference for a retrospective of his film work, Albert Brooks hilariously trashing "The Tonight Show," "Saturday Night Live" and Tony Danza. (Referring to Danza's skiing accident last year, he said, "He's the only guy who could be in a coma and still be just as funny.")

* Comic Dana Gould describing an evening of alternative comedy as "stuff that doesn't work in (comics') regular acts dressed up under the guise of performance art."

* HBO chairman Michael Fuchs calling a close to a press conference because, he explained, the celebrity panelists all had impending ski-lift reservations. (Indeed, virtually no live events were scheduled during daylight hours so entertainers and industry attendees alike could hit the slopes.)

Although Aspen had programmed an annual comedy festival for six years prior, the fact that HBO has taken over the event, along with Comedy Central, ensured that bigger names would attend and a higher media profile would result.

Said Fuchs, "Albert (Brooks) says you shouldn't take comedy seriously, but we take comedy seriously as a business. There is such a depth of comic talent in this country. A sense of humor is such a fundamental American characteristic. Tracey (Ullman) said, 'Funny is money.' It's true."

*

In almost every show were jokes about the host town, where cellular phone-wielding industry types routinely mingle in an uneasy coexistence with locals whose scruffy insouciance belies the area's affluence. The laid-back locale and the ostensibly cutting-edge comics made for a sometimes uncomfortable mixture.

Danny Hoch, an acclaimed New York performance artist, acknowledged that Aspen isn't the ideal venue for his edgy sensibility.

"I'm definitely out of my niche," admitted Hoch, whose "Some People"--a pointed and poignant look at urban multiculturalism--will be taped for an HBO special and is coming to the Taper, Too in Los Angeles next month.

"I have a few strikes against me. A: I'm not in an urban setting; B: A lot of these people--it might be safe to say all of these people--are not theatergoers. I'm kind of worried that people will think they're gonna be seeing the next Seinfeld . . . some guy telling jokes, and I'm the opposite of that. My idea is to fool people into liking theater and think that it's comedy."

Some of Hoch's fears came true, as a few audience members trickled out of the show early. But, overall, the response was strong, and the performer left at least one member of the industry rueful that Hoch hasn't set his sights on mainstream TV.

Also scheduled for the festival was a tribute to Albert Brooks on Friday; a taping of an HBO special, "Women of the Night," hosted by Ullman; and the "Young Comedians" special, to be hosted by Garry Shandling and to air tonight at 10 on HBO. And, of course, more skiing; no one's encouraging anyone to break a leg.

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