With Aspen out, Vegas comedy fest prepares punchlines

Insult the Comic Dog

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CORRECTED 3:42 p.m. PT Nov. 14, 2007

What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas -- and now more than ever, the comedy community is praying this is true. It certainly can't be said of Aspen, former home of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival (USCAF), which after 13 years disbanded in May (with faint hope of a resurrection elsewhere). That leaves The Comedy Festival (TCF), which, in its third year, runs from today through Saturday at Caesars Palace in Vegas, as the only remaining major annual comedy extravaganza held within American borders.

That's a heavy load for a funny fest. HBO co-sponsors TCF and had sponsored USCAF, so the loss may seem minimal there. USCAF had long been hailed as a grand exercise in experimentation, with industry-friendly showcases that broke new comedy acts and led to development deals. But weather made the spot untenable, so USCAF won't be held in 2008. Anything beyond that remains iffy.

So it comes down to Vegas, where mountain resort intimacy gives way to gaming tables. But that's not the only shift: TCF has a more consumer-targeted bent than its Colorado counterpart, says Bob Crestani, who served as CEO for USCAF and the Vegas event, and who resigned from the festival and HBO earlier this month.

"We still want the industry to come, as that's part of the whole fabric of what this festival is all about," Crestani emphasizes. "But we don't encourage comparing Aspen to what we're doing here. Aspen provides a truly unique experience in a beautiful, intimate environment. The largest venue was 400 seats. But it was hard to get in and out, and that proved to be a major economic hardship. By contrast, Vegas is much more accessible, and in coming here, we don't feel like we lose any of the relevancy or coolness."

TCF isn't hurting for marquee names: Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock are on hand to promote DreamWorks/Paramount's "Bee Movie," while Ellen DeGeneres is hosting the variety program "Ellen's Really Big Show," which will be turned into a two-hour special airing on festival co-sponsor TBS.

But at the same time, TCF director Lucy Simonet maintains that the festival has gone to great lengths to strike a balance between the big-ticket names and up-and-comers.

"We're also able to do some more alternative and sketch things in Vegas like we did in Aspen," she points out. "Still, this is Las Vegas. It's very different than Aspen. You have to pull out the stops."

Ticket sales are key, says Crestani. "We have to sell 4,100 seats in the Colosseum," he says, "and you need a certain level of performer to fill the place up. So we need a Seinfeld, a Rock, but we also have Bill Engvall, the Blue Collar Comedy guy. It's a mixture."

What is missing from TCF, admits Simonet, is the heat that drove the comedy business in the 1980s and '90s, when, she recalls, "you or I could have gotten up onstage and sold 2,000 seats -- and everybody got a sitcom. Now, things are a lot more niche-related."

It has also become a lot more about the money at shows like The Comedy Festival, observes Paul Provenza, who has long been a creative consultant for the Just For Laughs festival that runs each summer in Montreal.

"The Vegas show doesn't seem to have a tremendous artistic pulse at all," Provenza charges. "It isn't about experimentation or reaching out to find things that aren't obvious. I'm not putting down any of the big comics who are there. But this show isn't about pushing any edges."

Barry Katz, head of talent management for New Wave Entertainment, who manages the careers of both Dane Cook and new TBS personality Frank Caliendo (performing at the festival as part of DeGeneres' show and with his own showcase), believes The Comedy Festival is a first-class showcase but at the same time "a losing proposition" designed to bring respect to the involved companies.

"The big names help that respect process along," Katz adds. "Nobody is going to this festival to break talent. There's a chance an executive might cut a check if he sees a comic or two with potential to last, but that really isn't the way this stuff works anymore. When you have a Jerry Seinfeld and a Chris Rock and you're a young festival, that makes a certain statement of what you are and what you want to be."

Several of the broadcast networks have no plans to send a representative to the festival, says one comedy industry executive, "which tells you how far off of the radar landing comedy talent has fallen."

TBS disagrees. The cable network has been a TCF sponsor since the event debuted and continues to tie its brand identity exclusively to comedy with its "Very Funny" moniker. With speculation following Crestani's departure that HBO may be exiting the festival business altogether, TBS is the next likely candidate to take over the festival and build it into its own brand for 2008.

"Comedy is far from dead," maintains David Hudson, vp specials and production for TBS and TNT. "Our ratings are on the increase. There is no other comedy platform of its kind that's as accessible to the general public here in the United States."

John Meglen, co-CEO and president of AEG Live/Concerts West, which in tandem with 50-50 partner HBO and sponsor TBS puts on The Comedy Festival, agrees. He maintains that the festival is profitable "from the standpoint of what it does for all of our companies across the board: HBO, TBS, Caesars Palace and AEG. We haven't made a lot of money so far, but we haven't lost a lot, either."

And while the days of the standup comedy gold rush in terms of landing development deals are a thing of the past, TCF might still generate a little bit of that, predicts Jim Hess, head of personal appearances, West Coast, for Paradigm.

"Not that you're ever again going to see the $500,000 development deals signed on the spot," Hess admits. "But this is still a great, diverse event. It's still far more consumer-driven than Aspen. It's not that there is anything wrong with that. It's just reality."   

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Hot bits: What shtick not to miss at this year's Comedy Festival

The three-year-old Comedy Festival presents a star-studded and diverse four-day lineup of some 50 standup, sketch and alternative comedy acts. Here are four events that are sure to be near the top of the 2007 fest's buzzmeter:

Jerry Seinfeld: No matter how many movies he makes, Seinfeld will always go back to doing what he loves best: doing his observational shtick in standup. He's been at it for more than 30 years, and nobody does it better. He's the top ticket at this festival and will remain so whenever he chooses to perform. (Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., the Colosseum, with opening act Mario Joyner)

Eddie Izzard: Izzard isn't a frequent live performer, so when he takes the stage, it's something of an event. The co-star of FX's series "The Riches" combines stream of consciousness and improv elements with a Monty Python-like sensibility to make for a hugely entertaining and uniquely theatrical comedy act. (Saturday at 10 p.m., Augustus Showroom)

The Lucky 21: This event springs from an ambitious talent search to determine the 21 best standup comedians in the country via a nationwide comedy club competition and fan poll. Those fortunate comics will each get their shot onstage in Vegas in an event arranged and backed by Comcast's video-sharing Web site Ziddio.com. (Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., Thursday at 10 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., the Emperor's Ballroom)

Hot Tamales Live!: The ladies take over in this show-closing event hosted by Eva Longoria Parker of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" fame, along with Kiki Melendez. Considering the midnight time slot, the outrageousness is expected to flow in a showcase that includes standup, sketches, music and dance from a largely unknown collection of comics. (Saturday at 11:59 p.m., Palace Ballroom)
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