Anybody can tell a half-decent fart or private parts joke. But reaching an audience with stand-up comedy that’s incisive and feels true to an audience is a far rarer skill.
It’s those smart, top-of-their game comics that the team at the Wheeler Opera House sought for the third annual Aspen Laff Festival, which runs there through Saturday night and includes some of the best comedians working today.
“Whether it's political humor or observational humor, we try to find the best comedians out there and not just more of the same child’s stuff that you can see on any college campus,” says Wheeler executive director Gram Slaton.
The festival kicked off Thursday with a free show by Marion Grodin and a headline spot by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Colin Quinn. Friday’s headliners are the renowned “Pit Bull of Comedy” Bobby Slayton and Robert Hawkins.
Christopher Titus closes the festival Saturday night, capping three nights with 10 comics on the Wheeler stage. Best known for his TV show “Titus,” he’s the comic poet laureate of family dysfunction, bad decisions and brutal honesty.
“He’s an absolute genius,” says Slaton. “Christopher Titus will tell you the things that everybody knows, but is afraid to say out loud.”
Mined from his personal life, Titus’ self-eviscerating stand-up TV specials have covered topics like his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s suicide and, improbably, turned them into comic gems. His Laff Fest set, he says, stays personal and proves that his mistakes didn’t stop once he got rich and famous, and got a TV show. To wit: he once uttered a single sentence that cost him $30 million. (Come to the show to find out what it was, he teases).
“It’s basically all my failures,” he says. “I’ve been a loser my whole life. I know we all feel like losers, but unless you’re living in Cell Block D, top bunk, drinking toilet bowl wine and wearing lipstick because everyday is Valentine’s Day in prison, then I win.”
Titus performed at the inaugural Laff Fest two years ago. This weekend’s show features material from his forthcoming comedy special, “The Voice in My Head.” The 48-year-old comic is quick-witted and fast-talking, and he’s a believer in the comedy of truth. The best comedy, he argues — going back to legends like Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and George Carlin — comes from identifying with an audience and swallowing your pride.
“They all just told the truth,” he says. “If you can find that, the audience will get sucked into the show. As opposed to getting up and telling a bunch of dead grandma jokes or blow job jokes. ... What I learned about comedy awhile back is that whatever tragedy you’ve had, whatever mistake you made, everybody in the audience has done something like it. We’ve all done stuff we’re ashamed of, or embarrassed by, or had something terrible happen in our life.”
He recalled after his special, “Love is Evol,” which focused on his divorce and abusive relationships, a fan told him a story about how his girlfriend had stabbed him on Thanksgiving, and how Titus’s act had convinced the fan to dump her.
“I’m shaking my head saying, ‘Oh, I’m glad I could help. But you didn’t leave when she stabbed you? My comedy got you away from her?”
Jake Johannsen performs earlier Saturday night, and has a similar philosophy of honesty and stand-up.
Johannsen is best known as one of David Letterman’s favorite comics, with upwards of three dozen appearances with the “Late Show” host over the years. He’s a master of quirky storytelling and observation — his current act includes peculiar and perceptive riffs on a range of topics from social media to whale-watching with his family.
“Sometimes people will come up and say, ‘Thanks for explaining me to my wife,’ next to people who are saying, ‘You’re a weirdo,’” Johannsen says. “You hope that by being honest about yourself that people will relate to it, whether they’re like you or not like you at all.”
Troy Walker, of Denver, who won the audience favorite award in last year’s New Faces competition at Laff Fest, returns to open for Johanssen.
The festival has dropped sketch comedy and focused on stand-up, with improv worked into nightly panels on laugh-rich topics. Friday features a group of comics riffing on “Congress & Lady Parts,” while Saturday offers their takes on plastic surgery.
“It gives you great insight into what it’s like back in the green room,” says Wheeler marketing coordinator Lauren Pierce, “all the comedians just hanging around and throwing jokes at each other.”
Nick Griffin, who takes the stage Friday on a double bill with “Last Comic Standing” veteran Tammy Pescatelli, says festivals like this one are a joy for the comics themselves — a break from the road, focusing on their own act, to hang out with some different comics.
“Bobby Slayton, Colin Quinn, Jake Johannsen — these are like some of the great comics of the last 25 years, so I’m excited to see them myself,” Griffin says.
The Laff Fest also arrived at a transformational moment in comedy. In just the six years since the HBO Comedy Festival left Aspen, comedy has moved into an egalitarian and audience-friendly period, where podcasts, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos and other platforms provide seemingly endless choices for fans. Not so long ago, comedians simply grinded it out in clubs and hoped for a shot on Letterman or the “Tonight Show,” then gunned for the spotlight of an HBO special and maybe a sitcom.
“It used to be that if you were on ‘The Tonight Show,’ there were only three channels, so anybody who was awake would see you and that was huge,” says Johannsen.
There are no such gatekeepers of comedy now, and up-and-comers can find an audience with little more than a laptop.
But, the comics agree, listening to a podcast, watching a video clip or Comedy Central does not compare to the experience of seeing stand-up live at a venue like the Wheeler.
“To see it live is so much better,” says Johannsen. “When you’re watching stand-up on TV you’re watching a great show, but what you’re really doing is you’re watching an audience watch a show. It’s like the difference between watching a porno and having sex with an actual person. They can both be intense experiences, but one is vastly superior to the other.”
Wheeler Opera House
Friday Feb. 22
6 p.m. Comics On ... Congress & Lady Parts
7:15 p.m. Nick Griffin and Tammy Pescatelli
9 p.m. Robert Hawkins and Bobby Slayton
Saturday Feb. 23
6 p.m. Comics On … Elective Surgery
7:15 p.m. Jake Johannsen and Troy Walker
9 p.m. Christopher Titus with special guest Rachel Bradley