by John Wenzel on May 28, 2008
Word got out last May that HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival was leaving Aspen, causing a great whooshing sound across Colorado. Dang! We had gotten used to watching the biggest names in the English-speaking comedy world show up in our tony mountain town every year, from Jerry Seinfeld to John Cleese, and everyone in between.
But since that festival isn’t coming back, we’re happy to report that Rooftop Comedy, an online site featuring original video content and links galore, has decided to fill the void. Their festival, which will bring 30 comics to Aspen Friday and Saturday (May 30-31), is based more on up-and-coming talent, although many of the performers have already enjoyed national TV and major web exposure.
We e-mailed Rooftop Comedy president Will C. Rogers to pick his brain about the festival, which includes competitions and awards, and the state of new comedy in general.
When did the idea for Rooftop Comedy strike you? Is it modeled after anything in particular?
We founded Rooftop Comedy three years ago as an avenue for comedy fans to access great comedy that they can’t get via traditional media outlets. As huge fans of comedy, we knew that amazing comedy performances are taking place at venues all over the world — with no record of those performances and no ability for someone outside of that immediate location to see it. We record dozens of comedy performances every night of the week from comedy clubs all over the U.S. (and now in the U.K. and Australia), and we publish them to RooftopComedy.com.
Where did the name come from?
The day we decided to stop working for “the man” and founded the company, two of my partners and I had a congratulatory cocktail on my rooftop in San Francisco. From there, the name RooftopComedy seemed a natural fit. But there’s more to it than that. In order to see comedy that differs from the mainstream, you’ve long needed to go “underground,” seeking out elusive, lesser-known comics, shows or recordings. With Rooftop Comedy we’re giving the edgiest comedy out there top billing. It isn’t stuck in the basement. Now it’s shouting from the rooftop.
Why did you choose Aspen to host the current competition?
Aspen played host to HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival for over 20 years. It was the industry event for Hollywood insiders and celebrity comics. There’s something satisfying about bringing comedy back to Aspen. We’ll be highlighting some extraordinary comics, many of whom HBO would have certainly overlooked, as they aren’t already household names. Moreover, we like the symbolism of being in Aspen. You don’t need your own limo and a personal assistant to see shows in Aspen. You don’t even need a cable subscription to see highlights. Now you just need a web connection and a visit to RooftopComedy.com.
How many people do you expect this year?
We’re anticipating a couple of thousand to attend the event in person. No doubt hundreds of thousands will watch highlights (online).
Is the web replacing traditional “pay-your-dues” stand-up circuits as a way to break new comedians, or do comedians still need that real-life seasoning and experience to ascend?
The concept of having to “pay your dues” in comedy is dead. With the web, you don’t need that elusive TV deal or the right set of contacts to play in front of thousands, if not millions, of viewers or to build an extraordinary following. Nevertheless, only comics with real talent will truly ascend. Stand-up comedy is one of the most difficult art forms — to be able to make a room full of strangers laugh for 90 minutes with nothing more than a microphone is no small feat. No amount of web access can create that skill. In this new era of Internet distribution, comics don’t necessarily need to pay their dues, but they still need to hone their craft.
I noticed that a handful of the names on the early-performers’ list for Aspen also overlap with the independent comedy scene, which eschews traditional venues for rock clubs and music festivals, tours with/around indie rock bands, releases albums on labels like Matador, Sub Pop and Drag City, and generally aligns itself more with a punk/underground ethos than mainstream comedy.
Alternative music is music that doesn’t fit with the mainstream. Alt-music has thrived by finding non-traditional methods of reaching its audience, whether through small clubs, indie labels, college radio, or most recently via a plethora of online distribution outlets like Pitchfork. Non-traditional comedy is experiencing the same phenomenon. The general public isn’t satisfied with the limited selection of one-sized-fits-all comedy that Hollywood churns out. And comics want to explore comedy forms that don’t fit into set parameters. It’s not surprising that alternative music and alternative comedy would find common cause in reaching their audiences using similar mechanisms.
Why do you think there’s been this inexorable movement toward underground music in certain sectors of comedy?
We’re not big on hard and fast labels at Rooftop. What was “indie” or “alt” a few years ago is today’s accepted mainstream. What we’re convinced of, however, is that in this age of Internet distribution, comedy fans don’t have to settle for any one type of comedy. And comics can explore the freedom of performing their craft as they want it performed, with the knowledge that, if done right, they can find and build their own audience. It’s what Rooftop Comedy’s all about.
For more information on this weekend’s events, visit the festival homepage.