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Live From Aspen, It's a Tribute!

Reunion of Past and Present 'SNL' Stars Caps the U.S. Comedy Festival

March 03, 1997|PHIL ROSENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ASPEN, Colo. — More than two hours passed before the late John Belushi was mentioned even once. But his untamed, wild-eyed and thoroughly unapologetic presence could be felt throughout the American Film Institute's tribute to NBC's "Saturday Night Live" as part of the third annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.

It was as hard to miss amid the insults, off-color jokes and occasional moment of quiet reflection and genuine affection in the uneven tribute as alum Chris Farley, who was among the crowd of current and past show contributors on stage--appropriately enough, on Saturday night.

Farley was loud, breathless, red-faced and dripping sweat all over Jan Hooks' nice new suit.

"Do you think this is funny?" asked Steve Kroft--the "60 Minutes" correspondent who was supposed to (and failed to) moderate the tribute--after one of Farley's outbursts.

"Not funny ha-ha," Farley said, "funny like a smell in the back seat of a Cordova."

You can dress up comedy, but it isn't always fit for formal occasions. The "SNL" reunion--the first since a 15th anniversary get-together in 1989 supposedly prompted three ex-cast members to stop speaking to the show's impresario, Lorne Michaels--proved as much.

The reunion was the keynote to this sprawling four-day event--sponsored largely by HBO, which used it as a backdrop for several hours of weekend programming. In its brief history the festival has become a magnet for what actor Kevin Pollak, moderating an AFI tribute to Rob Reiner, called "industry members, hopefuls and wannabes."

It was rare air, indeed. "SNL" news reader Norm MacDonald took his shots between hits from an oxygen mask as he fought off the effects of altitude sickness. Dennis Miller, performing the night before, complained of a nosebleed. Three-time Tony Award-winning dancer and actor Hinton Battle, during one of the more strenuous parts of his one-man show, "Shine," gasped for breath and, in character, excused himself several times to get oxygen off stage. Rodney Dangerfield left town as quickly as possible after his 75th birthday salute, complaining, according to festival publicists, of trouble adjusting to the altitude.

"What do you expect?" stand-up Rick Overton said. "We're trying to do comedy just this far from outer [expletive] space!"

But between the requisite jokes about the mountain air, which is thin, and its nonwhite resident population, which is thinner, video guerrilla Michael Moore, "SNL" cartoon creator Robert Smigel and HIV-positive comedian Steve Moore were given forums to talk about their work.

Comedy Central gave a public showing of its "What's Up, Tiger Lily"-like savaging of "It's a Wonderful Life," "Escape From a Wonderful Life," currently kept off TV by corporate bickering.

"You know what I like about Aspen? The racial tension," said comic Colin Quinn, who packed the tiny game room of the Aspen Youth Center so full that even HBO President Chris Albrecht was turned away at the door.

Albrecht acknowledged that the festival may be outgrowing this mountain retreat for the rich and famous. But he said he is inclined to return here next year because the town is both posh and exotic enough to lure show-business types, but small and isolated enough that everyone winds up running into one another on the street or in the chair-lift lines.

That closeness has not necessarily translated to commerce.

This year's festival drew about 1,400 paid attendees, nearly twice as many as last year, according to executive director Stu Smiley. And the number of big-name participants appeared up. But the kind of deal-making done at the USCAF's rival comedy festival in Montreal has yet to develop, industry sources said, implying that the omnipresence here of HBO parent Time Warner might be an inadvertent factor.

But then, this event is not about serious business. It's about comedy.

Stand-up newcomers such as Laura House of Austin, Texas, who talked of checking back in with baffled classmates who signed her high school yearbook eight years ago ("I guess I wasn't 2 good 2 B 4 got, after all") and Chicagoan Mike Toomey, who mined familiar pop culture ("When Adam West played Batman . . . everything fit in Batman's belt except Batman's stomach") got to show their stuff.

More adventurous, Canadians Michael Kennard and John Turner performed as Mump & Smoot, clowns who frolic with various dismembered body parts. Los Angeles' Ensemble Studio Theater delivered a series of sketches, including one in which Joanna Gleason broke up with her boyfriend, a hand puppet, with a sympathetic "I've outgrown you."

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