Burn, Aspen, Burn
By Brad "Chip" Pope
MARCH 30, 1998: A few weeks ago, I thought, "Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if I could build a bridge between myself -- a basic cable nobody -- and some bona fide 'A-List' celebrities?" I mean, you rarely see Tom Cruise hanging out with Up All Night's Rhonda Shear. So far, my only contact with "TV stars" consists of working with Howard Kremer, Laura House, and our other co-stars on MTV's Austin Stories (Wednesdays and Sundays, 9:30pm). So I had a problem: How can I meet and hobnob with some entertainment personalities by exerting as little effort as possible? The solution: A trip to Don Henley country. No, not Linden, TX... Aspen, Colorado, site of the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Howard was trekking up there and it seemed as good as any other idea I've stolen from him over the years to tag along and see how far appearing on channel 137 (in some markets) would take me.
This prospect downright excited me. I couldn't wait to get a glimpse of Usher, Monica, and Keith Sweat in action right in front of my eyes! Oh, wait. That's the R&B Arts Festival in nearby Woody Creek. Anyway, I armed myself with two Funsaver cameras, a coat, and a Walgreens phone card, eager to see what sort of tomfoolery I could get into. Here's the scoop:
March 5: Do Celebrities Really Exist?
As the flight blasts out of Dallas, I realize I've forgotten something: a legitimate reason to go to Aspen. Damn. Most of the comedy industry converges for the Arts Festival, which HBO began four years ago in response (some say) to the monopoly held by the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. Why should L.A. be content to take one snowy region hostage a few days a year when they could host a schmoozefest of Hollywood hype and friendly backstabbing in Colorado? Wait. Is Montreal snowy?
Suddenly, I wish I'd bought those encyclopedias instead of foolishly squandering a third of my life's income on porn. Okay, I've narrowed my problem with the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival to this: They didn't invite me to perform. Or even watch. Which is all right, 'cause I don't know anyone in Aspen or how to navigate around Colorado, but so what? I don't need an invitation! I'm a star! (Please sense sarcasm here.) Let's see how far my ugly mug'll get me.
I can't pass this up. All of Hollywood's comedic genius -- like the people who discovered Carrot Top and developed Head of the Class -- will be there in full force, chowing down on $15 hamburgers as they enjoy panels featuring the South Park creators discussing their craft. They'll thrill to hot new stand-up talent and reminisce to Cheers and Monty Python reunions. Gratuitous sex, random career crushing, and lying about how much you enjoy the work of others will also be on tap. And maybe some Yahtzee! Sounds like the jam.
In Aspen, the plane wobbles its way to touchdown, and two words spring to mind: Buddy Holly. I'm not sure if this is a sign of the rocky three days ahead, but it's one of those incredibly bumpy small craft landings that feels like stumbling down the runway over the dead bodies of previously aborted flights. I'm a little shaken, but we've finally landed. All right! Time to take out that Funsaver! Quick, what does a cartoon cat who's been hit over the head with a frying pan have in common with me? We're both gonna see stars, baby!
At the Aspen airport (two-thirds the size of any Wal-Mart), the first celeb I spot is the ever-cherubic Ed Asner! Well, that's what I'd write if I'd seen Ed Asner. No stars at the airport. I hop on a shuttle into town and ride with an Access Hollywood producer who tells me the only comic she enjoys is Buddy Hackett and confesses to a "fear of mountains" because "my only experiences with them are movies like Misery or Alive, where something hideous happens." Yeah.
The gimmick here seems to be that the whole town is -- get this -- surrounded by mountains. And unless I'm missing the point, the inhabitants love to shop. Damn skippy! There's more stores here than you could throw a kidney at! They even have a Gap. It hits me: I'm in the wrong part of town. I keep walking.
I spot my first star! Newsradio's Andy Dick! Wait, it's just a Dick-alike. (I'll see many of them during the festival: thin guys with curly hair and antique glasses who talk excessively with their hands.) I take a picture of him anyway in hopes that the suckers back home will be fooled.
What's this? The Wheeler Opera House, where they're taping Politically Incorrect. Unlike most festival events, the PI taping has heavy security and many doormen. I stroll up to one.
"Hi, I'd like to get into the show, please."
"Do you have a ticket?"
"Got a Diamond Badge?"
I'm starting to sense some prejudice against those who don't have these things.
"Sorry, you can't get in."
"I think my friend's in there, can I check?" It's a reach, and the stevedorian dude politely pushes me into the street. Okay, maybe I should go through the proper channels, but badges cost $500, and tickets are $10 to $50. At that rate, I'd lose my budget of $100 way too quickly. I press on.
Wandering around a strange place is fine when the sun is out, but now the sun has gone down and it's 30 degrees colder than when I started. Yikes! On average, the temperature here is about 80 degrees colder than my body. An Austin boy can't deal with this weather. If this keeps up, I'm gonna find Louie Anderson, split him open with my light saber, and crawl inside to keep toasty. Unfortunately, he's nowhere to be seen. Four hours pass, and I finally spot my first star: Howard Kremer. Does that count?
We hit a late-night show hosted by Janeane Garofalo, and the lineup boggles my "small potatoes comic" mind: Jon Lovitz, Steven Wright, Kevin Pollak, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), Robert Klein, Tom Arnold (don't ask), Margaret Cho, et al. Surprises: Bill Maher (in audience) gets into a little argument with Klein (onstage), Neil Diamond (yes) tosses a hat onstage for Garofalo (she's honored), and Arnold is entertaining (in a circus freak sort of way). Whew. Between my travels and all these top-flight comedians, my head's about to explode. I trudge back to the condo, which is still empty. Just as well. One of my objectives here is not to meet the other people staying in the condo.
March 6: Don't Make Movies About Hollywood
I sleep until three. By the time I awake, the festival is underway again. There are actually poor souls who get up in front of a crowd and perform one-person shows at this hour. Suckers. I try my luck at the movies. One of the town's two theatres screens short films and indie features trying to secure distribution. My first stop is Hacks (about a group of troubled Hollywood writers, starring Ileana "To Die For" Douglas and John "Come and knock on our door..." Ritter), which proves a bit slow and too "inside" for its own good. So I bop over to the critically lambasted Burn, Hollywood, Burn at the other theatre, which I quickly dub "Walk, Audience, Walk." The film begins with an audience of 40. It ends with five, one of whom is probably still napping. Wow, people would rather slosh around in the snow and sub-arctic temperatures than watch this film. I do recommend it if you'd like to see the only known footage of Coolio and Chuck D hoisting Shetland pony person Billy Barty on their shoulders and running with him. The lights go up, and it's live comedy time.
Today I'm extremely lucky. Not only is the snowfall light, the mountain air invigorating, and the McDonald's cheeseburger scrumptious, a friend gives me a ticket he can't use to "Three Sketches by Steve Martin." A troupe of actors including William H. Macy (Fargo) and John Ritter ("Take a step that is new...") perform brand new short pieces by Martin. The favorite, "The Arrival of Helen Into Troy," reminds me of the free-form lunacy that Martin used to do but seems to have shied away from lately. The piece is fresh and inventive, and I hope it shows up elsewhere soon.
After the sketches, I rush over to one of the six venues where the festival showcases talent to support JR Brow, another Austinite performing in the festival. JR has come a long way from his beginnings as a guitar comic, honing his act into imaginative and entertaining stories about his neighbors and family that hits a chord with audiences all over the country. The audience loves him, and it's rewarding to see a local boy do Texas proud. Houston's Scott Kennedy, a frequent visitor to Austin comedy clubs, also does well. Glory, glory! Not all the comedy will be received so enthusiastically because much of the audiences are composed of jaded industry types with no senses of humor. If you've ever seen The Nanny, you know what I'm saying.
On the way to David Cross' midnight show, I run into Thomas Lennon (Mr. Laupin on Comedy Central's Viva Variety), who informs me that the show has been signed to another season. He asks about the future of Austin Stories, and I reply, "What's that?" I say I'm not sure if it's coming back and he tells me of the long waiting periods he endured on unemployment between seasons of The State. I wonder if MTV follows some sort of pattern in making people who do shows for it sweat it out. Hmmm....
The Cross show offers what the industry calls "alternative" comedy, and if it's done incorrectly, it can be an alternative to comedy. Not tonight. This is the best in modern stand-up: Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, Paul F. Tompkins (Mr. Show), the Upright Citizens Brigade (which will have a series airing after South Park in August, thanks in no small part to the festival), Jen Maclean, Groff and Barry.... Their names are unfamiliar to you now, but their acts demonstrate what stand-up has been leading to in the last decade. It's unpredictable and nontraditional, confident without being too polished, but most of all, creative. Basically, it's the antithesis of comedy from the Eighties. These performers cause the most impact at the festival. They're visionaries who tread a line onstage between success and failure. Gallagher? Nowhere in sight.
The last day of the festival and still no signs of the others in my condo. Good. I have a lot of beauty products, and I don't want strange eyes gawking at them.
On the streets, I spot my manager of two months. It's been difficult keeping up with my agent and manager this weekend as they've been scouting new talent. Howard and I have been incredibly fortunate to nab representation at a few major places in L.A., but the new kid at a major talent agency is treated quite differently than the new kid at an elementary school.
Elementary school: "Hey, look at the new kid! He's cool! Wow! He wiped his snot on his shirt! Ha! Ha! More snot? Aww, we love you!"
These agents possess the power and resources to nudge you past your first projects and get your name out there, but they must concentrate on keeping their breadwinning clientele happy. I can't complain, though, because the "A-List" events of the festival happen today: "A Morning with the South Park Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone" and the Monty Python reunion. It makes sense that both events are on the same day since South Park owes a great debt to the esteemed Brits. Both feature low humor mixed with intelligence, a love of bodily functions, extreme violence for laughter's sake, and a disregard for political correctness and religious icons. Of course, the Park panel is early enough that I sleep right through it (although I couldn't have gotten in anyway). That evening, I'm content to watch (via closed circuit) the Python reunion. I feel honored to see any part of this momentous event because I put Python on a pedestal. They helped change the face of humor in the Seventies and Eighties. The room couldn't be more excited when they announce they'll work together next year. People actually applaud the TV screen!
As the reunion winds down, the mass of festivalgoers converges for the closing night party. This seems like the right place to whip out my... Funsaver camera. And boy, do I save the fun! Jon Lovitz, Mickey Dolenz, Ben Stiller, and even Third Rock's French Stewart party down! Okay, it's only a cardboard ad of Stewart for Clamato, but I took a picture with him. The food at the party is divine: pretzels, chili, and baked potatoes. I didn't know Colorado had a Sam's Club! Thanks, HBO! The few industry parties I've attended were surreal, and this one is no exception. It's odd to see people who exist in some far-off part of your mind indulging their basic human needs like drinking and smoking, and brother, do they ever indulge! Every time you try to talk to someone, they avert their eyes and scan the room to see if there's someone more helpful to their career to chat with. Nutty!
The pressure's lower at the after-party at "The Lift" condos (all the places to stay have cutesy "ski" names like "Snowmass Run," "Powder Pass," and "Unforseen Kidney Complications"). All the schmoozing and boozing of the weekend comes down to this: I sit on a chest of blankets in a strange, rented bedroom. "Temple of the Dog" blares out of a tinny jambox as I stare at a corny Leroy Neiman knockoff on the wall. Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo sit next to me on the chest -- not on some 60-foot high screen, but as close as they could be. Garofalo seems tired from the weekend's events, while Stiller holds court over a group of young performers who sit on the floor around him. They ask Stiller what he's working on. "Three different movies," he replies. More questions are asked, and after a while, the mood of the room feels a bit awkward. Everyone knows the Big Names are in the back room. To cut the tension, I turn to Stiller and refer to the people on the floor: "Are you gonna pull out a guitar and sing us a folk song?" He appreciates the jibe, and I hadn't thought about it until now, but maybe that's the secret of relating to these people: You just treat them like anyone doing a good job.
Before Aspen, I almost thought entertainers didn't exist after I turned off the TV or left the theatre and got on with my life (which ironically consists of entertaining). But they actually exist, whether it's the South Park guys getting ice in the kitchen for their hard liquor, or Jon Lovitz in a hotel lobby trying to mack on some lovely ladies.
Now if I could just figure out why they exist.
P.S. I finally saw the others in the condo, against my will. What a letdown.
Brad "Chip" Pope is currently awaiting word on the future of Austin Stories. He hated being in Los Angeles during South by Southwest and wanted nothing more than to return home safely for some Amy's ice cream.
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