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Festival Leaves 'Em Laughing

Comedy * 'In Living Color,' 'Fernwood 2-Night' and Billy Crystal are among honorees in Aspen.

March 05, 2001|HILARY STUNDA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ASPEN, COLO. — The comedians are spent. The agents are frazzled. For the past five days, there's been a lot of laughing, chortling, chuckling and occasionally guffawing in this town of occasional pretentiousness, where nannies drive Mercedes and know what to order at Les Roches in St. Barths. The buzz is that Aspen is the perfect place to host a comedy festival. The nature of the town deserves it.

Among the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival's endless performances and screenings were packed houses at tributes to comedy's best.

Folks in line for Saturday's "In Living Color" tribute jostled and pushed their way toward a door manned by a security guard on a cordless mike. A man and his girlfriend cut in line to the jeers of the crowd. Like a mob scene on the way to an execution, the frenzy to attend was comedic and bizarre. George Lucas was there (wearing the tiniest of cowboy boots), as were some hot L.A. babes sporting tank tops and baggy jeans, oblivious to the parka weather.

When "In Living Color" premiered on Fox in 1990, it was the first ethnically diverse sketch show to go mainstream since Flip Wilson's in the '70s. Born on the cusp of hip-hop, when low-riding, triple-oversized baggy jeans and gold chains were "phat," the show's irreverent, self-deprecating style won its creators an Emmy the first season (best variety, music or comedy series) and launched the careers of Jim Carrey, Rosie Perez, Jennifer Lopez (a Fly Girl), Tommy Davidson, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier and the brothers Wayan: Damon, Keenen, Marlon and Shawn.

At the tribute, most of the cast mates were on hand. Keenen Ivory Wayans, the creator and visionary of the show, sat next to moderator Carson Daly.

"I wanted to do a multiracial show," said Wayans, "a 'Saturday Night Live' with attitude. At the time, 'Saturday Night Live' was flat. And I knew there was this blending of youth culture going on. It was no longer a divide. White kids were wearing the same clothes as black kids. Clubs were half white, half black."

He talked about his vision. He cast the Fly Girls--the tough, sexy, hip-hop fantasy dream girls--as a lure, chose a diverse cast specifically not of Hollywood mainstream types, and brought in four of his siblings. "I wanted to do work that was funny, edgy, and thought-provoking," he said. But the struggle to be irreverent and make the Fox network bosses happy was tricky.

"Black people had never been made fun of before," he said. "We decided to send the network stuff we knew they'd say 'no' to. We would send them insane material--we knew it would never be accepted. Then when we had to pull back we were where we wanted to be." The Homeboy Shopping Network, Homey the Clown, Wanda the Ugly Woman and Men On . . . were born.

For the Wayanses, a family of 10 kids, comedy was a way out of the New York projects. "Damon and I would be playing two gay guys and we would get on the subway and never get out of character," he said. "All the characters are based on the people we grew up with or were in our family."

The character Anton was based on an uncle who was a heroin addict, he said. "We'd be playing and see this drunk on the park bench and it was our uncle. He had no shame. As kids, we thought he was funny," he said, with a laugh.

Turns out, they didn't have to change their comedic method too much. "I told the writers, 'Don't write it black, white or Asian. Just write it funny and we'll bring the ethnicity, the color, to it,' " he said.

*

Later Saturday evening, Billy Crystal was the recipient of the AFI Star Award, which recognizes general excellence in all things media. Past recipients include Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Monty Python, Albert Brooks, Steve Martin and Rob Reiner.

"I grew up in a house of coughing, spitting and gas," said Crystal, confirming the comedic law that the more textured the family, the better prepared for the comedic life.

Martin Short was on hand to play the perfect unpretentious foil to Crystal. The evening was peppered with colorful anecdotes and hilarious digressions.

By the end of the night, Crystal had offered an intimate look into his life. As a child, Crystal's father let him stay up late to watch Sid Caesar. The first movie he ever saw was "Shane"--when he was 5.

Clips highlighted the best of his career, including impersonations of Sammy Davis Jr. and obscure stand-up routines. In an old clip, Crystal and Muhammad Ali swapped impersonations: Ali became Howard Cosell; Crystal became Ali.

*

During "Fernwood 2-Night's" 22nd anniversary tribute Friday, actors Martin Mull and Fred Willard presented themselves with the first-ever Barth Gimble and Jerry Hubbard Award, named for their characters on the acclaimed talk-show parody.

The series' creator, Norman Lear, and comedian Harry Shearer, were on hand to introduce the show, a talk show taking place in the town of Fernwood, Ohio, home to Lear's landmark hit, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

"Norman and his cast of creatives believed that some of these citizens would organize their own nightly TV talk show, doing their best to do a kind of 'Tonight Show,' but with the talent that was available in Fernwood, Ohio," Shearer said.

Thus was born Barth, the twin brother of the late Garth Gimble from "Mary Hartman," and his dim-witted sidekick, Jerry Hubbard.

Unfortunately, "Fernwood 2-Night" played better as a TV series than on stage. Mull and Willard tried to recapture some of the wry flavor of the show that was a cult hit in the late '70s, but because the series championed the subtle nuance, the humor on stage was lost. The cue card man in the front row tried to keep them up to speed, but even that at times, proved challenging.

"Card please," said Mull.

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