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Comedy Fest 2008

Laughs, yes. Big deals, no.

Now, when we need laughter more than ever, what role does a comedy festival play?

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Dane Cook plays Saturday night at 11.

Talent-wise, the stars are as big as ever, with Jerry Seinfeld, Dane Cook, Andrew Dice Clay and dozens more slated to appear throughout Caesars Palace at the fourth annual Comedy Festival. Yet elsewhere, things feel different. Last year’s critical highlight, the endearingly offbeat Andy Kaufman Awards, have vanished. So have the Comedy Cares Celebrity Poker Tournament and the colorful outdoor area filled with auxiliary acts, activities, contests, promotions and other time-passers. At three days, the festival is down one from last year and two from 2006.

Not that the changes accurately reflect the festival’s health. Public perception might very well blame the flagging economy and hesitation of potential ticketholders to fork over up to $150 for a live glimpse of performers they can catch on TV, DVD or comparatively cheaper satellite radio. But such assumptions may fail to account for the important correlation between laughter and a healthy emotional state. Offers November 22 headliner Jeff Dunham, “There’s always that theory that when the economy goes bad people will still spend their money on things that make them laugh. In a bad economy are we going to do better? All I know is that there’s a bunch of people spending some pretty tough bucks on tickets to come see my goofy little show, and I don’t take that for granted at all. Right now we’re doing an arena show four or five times a week, none with less than 5,000 or 6,000 people. Some of them are 10,000 seats. And that’s a huge compliment.”

And those who do attend comedy shows may be more inclined to appreciate the opportunity. As 2006 veteran and 2008 headliner Dave Attell puts it, “Because of the economy, you’re seeing that people who come to the shows now really, really want it. It’s sad that nobody has any money, but it’s always cool when they come down and spend whatever money they have on you. It makes you feel like a special, pretty girl.”

Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show kicks off the fest Thursday at 7 p.m.

As far as TBS, the festival’s new title sponsor, is concerned, ticket sales, says President of Turner Entertainment Networks Steve Koonin, “continue to go up as the quality of the festival goes up. And even though Vegas isn’t doing really great right now because of the economy, and nobody’s doing really great, we’re still very bullish about what is expected for the festival.”

Original presenter HBO was integral to the festival’s inception, providing name recognition, a healthy bankroll and countless development and distribution avenues, as well as shifting focus from the network’s previous comedy crown jewel, Aspen’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. For 13 years the Aspen event was viewed as the most important industry showcase in the United States, before calling it quits mere days after the 2007 edition. HBO later shed the Comedy Festival, as well.

With HBO out and TBS in, the pressure’s on to deliver. Boasts Koonin, “I’m very proud of us, because it’s not our core business, and we did take over the festival from HBO. We’ve had a fervent belief since we’ve been attached that this festival could be something really special.” In response to the economy, he points to the late addition of the LOL Lounge, free nightly shows featuring roughly 30 “up-and-coming” comics performing in the Emperors Ballroom.

In its short history, the festival has geared itself toward consumers rather than the industry. The purpose is not to provide a sense of community or to discover, break and parlay showcases into development deals for newer talent, as Aspen and Montreal’s annual Just For Laughs Festival did in their heydays, but to put butts in seats, period. That’s not specific to Vegas, by any means. The role of comedy festivals—and of the comedy industry as a whole—is more in flux today than ever.

As an art form, stand-up is in tremendously good shape. A boom, as they say. Yet with few exceptions, the upswing is a direct result of individuals banking on their arsenal of material above all else. For those comics who choose to take the television route, there are fewer and fewer sitcom-role or writing-gig pots of gold. As Dane Cook can attest, those gunning for the big screen have seen the onetime box-office successes of comics-in-limbo Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey replaced by the likes of Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen.

Jerry Seinfeld plays Friday and Saturday nights in The Colosseum.

At the same time, however, individuals like Jim Gaffigan, Louis CK, Mike Birbiglia and others are filling theaters—not merely comedy clubs—like never before. Rather than venturing into a club to check out random “comedy nights,” today’s audiences are far more likely to actively seek out name comics, those who have taken years to hone their material, personality and messages and, perhaps most important, their own branding and promotion.

There’s certainly a rich history of such notables as George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor and many, many more superseding the label of “comedian” to become household names. Yet today, self-marketing as an individual is not only more prevalent, but it also seems to be the norm. And it’s these unique talents, whether they are alternative, political, observational, Blue Collar, relationship-centric or any other genre imaginable, that are responsible for the current comedy resurgence. It’s a complete 180 from the industry-driven boom of the sitcom-glutted, club-choked ’80s. That era celebrated comedy as a hot industry, period, and its mere existence bestowed many talent deals, specials, sitcoms, films and much more that comedians of comparable talent today would never have a shot at. Individual stars are creating and feeding the modern industry, not the other way around.

What does this mean for comedy festivals? For one, mirroring the manner in which the public increasingly discovers new talent, they are turning to the Internet. “The Comedy Festival will never break stars like the AVN Porno Awards, but it still does have a place in show business,” Attell jokes, before turning serious. “I don’t believe there’s any big deals to be had. It seems all the big acts are coming off of YouTube now.”

Dave Attell goes onstage Saturday night at 11:30.

Following suit, this year’s Comedy Festival newly offers the opportunity to watch one of four live streams featuring stand-up, behind-the-scenes interviews, interactive chat, previous years’ highlights and more for free at thecomedyfestival.com. “We’re a TV network; that’s what we’re doing every day, getting that content on multiple platforms,” Koonin says. “It became one of the things that we always liked, this idea of a virtual comedy club, so you’ll be able to, at home on your computer, scroll and see who you like and sample them.”

As for festival talent, an appearance might earn a nice paycheck, allow comics to catch up with fellow performers, gain a few new fans and add a nice resume booster, but the industry upsweep seems to end there. “I don’t know if any festival is going to ‘make’ somebody,” cautions November 20 festival co-headliner Ralphie May. “It used to be, like, if you did The Tonight Show and you did well, you had a television show the next day. For me, I did The Tonight Show, I got a standing ovation, and I still couldn’t get calls back from my agent. You know what I mean? It puts it in perspective. It’s all kind of changed.”

Instead, many now view festival appearances as just another aspect of individual brand management. In addition to her stand-up and talk show, for example, Ellen DeGeneres, host of the festival’s November 20 Ellen’s Even Bigger Really Big Show taping, confirms that the “Ellen brand” additionally comprises producing television projects, a film, a CoverGirl campaign, an American Express campaign, a pet-food company and burgeoning philanthropic endeavors. What does the festival actually provide her? “A brand-new energy,” she predicts. “I mean, because it’s 4,000 people, it’s a big stage, I will be probably a little more—not so much nervous, but excited just because it’s a different place. I miss the largeness of that sometimes.”

No matter what the state of the economy or the comedy industry, there will always be room for festivals—and the Comedy Festival—to grow, both physically and idealistically. As Koonin puts it, “We think this is going to be the Olympics of comedy. We’re very excited about doing something that hasn’t been done. If we can keep growing this bigger and bigger, there’s a lot of unique, fun, creative things we can do. … We’ve done a few things different this year that I think will work with the huge variety of acts, the demographics. It’s more multicultural, from Cheech and Chong to David Alan Grier. We’re bringing quality comedians from every generation to the stage.”

Concerning its own brand imaging, earlier this year TBS announced a partnership with Montreal’s Just For Laughs contingent for a new endeavor: Just For Laughs: A Very Funny Festival, to be held in Chicago over five days this coming summer. Insiders guess that sketch-comedy institution Second City (in addition to announced headliner DeGeneres) will play a large role, but diversification won’t be a trait relegated to the Midwest offshoot. “I think you’re going to see more than just stand-up,” Koonin envisions of the Comedy Festival’s future. “Reunions, themed shows, all kinds of musical acts. A litany of things. The Aspen Comedy Festival that HBO used to do, one of the great things about that was you saw multiple aspects of comedy. ... I think that comedy has so many dimensions, and we’re just scratching the surface this year: heavy stand-up focus, we have a roast, we’ve got Laffapalooza and other theme shows. But I think this could be a platform for a lot of unique programs. We’re just going to continue to work on them.”

In the meantime, performers will continue to hone their skills and hope for the best, whether the best ultimately involves festivals or not. “It’s an interesting debate to know where things are headed right now,” concludes Dunham. “There are more and more comedy festivals popping up around the country and around the world every year. And then you’ve got Last Comic Standing. So you don’t know. Are festivals shrinking, are festivals growing, do festivals help? Is comedy shrinking or growing? Or are they different? I have no statistics; I don’t know. But you’ve got to think that anything that brings awareness to the public and makes it exciting has got to be a good thing.”

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Julie Seabaugh

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