Every February, when the Aspen Laugh Festival comes to town, valley old-timers will inevitably draw comparisons between it and the long-gone U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which used to envelop downtown for a week each winter. Admittedly, the former may never approach HBO’s Hollywood-style celeb-fest in sheer scale, but in one important regard it may have eclipsed it.

Because, while the Comedy Arts Festival drew huge names to town, a lot of those names were sitting down – in panel discussions about sitcoms, in Q&A sessions about comedy movies, in talks about famous sketch troops. The Laugh Festival is all about standing up – or, rather, standup, the art of getting on stage in front of a live audience and making them laugh – and when it comes to that, Aspen’s homegrown fest has become a behemoth.

Even those who know nothing about comedy know who Jim Gaffigan is. He’s one of those comedians who’s achieved rock-star status, which is why his two shows tonight at the Wheeler Opera House have been sold out for weeks. Those who follow comedy a little more closely will tell you that the rest of the slate, coming to the Wheeler and other venues around town Feb. 20-23, is every bit as impressive, with nine of the country’s biggest comedy-club headliners.

The fact that they’re not all household names like Gaffigan is just testament to another aspect that makes the Laugh Festival such a success. Not only has it stayed true to the art of standup, it also does a great job each winter of celebrating comedians who have done the same.

“Well, I’m not an idiot,” said Kathleen Madigan, who will be appearing at the Wheeler Feb. 21. “If someone offered me, like, five million dollars to do a sitcom, yeah, sure, I’ll do it for a year. But it would have to be a ridiculous amount of money. I just don’t have the patience.”

Madigan recounted a story of going to Hollywood to shoot a scene in a movie for some friends. “We were filming in an Irish bar for 14 hours, and there was no alcohol being served. That’s like my idea of hell. It’s brutally, brutally, brutally boring. If you have any ADD in you … there’s nothing about it I enjoy. Maybe the end product.”

Instead, Madigan has remained a road warrior for 30 years while so many comedians of her status – from Ellen in talk, to Drew Carey and Howie Mandel in game shows, to Leno and Letterman in late-night, to Kevins Hart and James in movies, to Seinfeld ad nauseam in sitcoms – have peeled off for greener financial pastures. But here’s the thing most of those mega-names would tell you: They’d rather be out playing clubs, doing standup just for the thrill of it.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Laugh Festival closer Jo Koy, who will be doing two shows at the Wheeler on Feb. 23 and whose comedy-world star is as bright as it gets.

“Everything else is a bonus for me, but I will die doing standup,” said Koy. “I live and breathe that road. I can’t get enough of it. I love venturing out and seeing new cities. I love the adventure and the new things you encounter when you go on the road.”

It’s a road that has brought Koy and Madigan, as well as fellow headliners Nate Bargatze, Alex Edelman, Rachel Feinstein, Moshe Kasher, Julian McCullough, Tim Notaro and Gary Gulman, to Aspen for one of the best comedy lineups you’ll find anywhere. They may not be the movie and sitcom stars of yore, but at least they’ll be on their feet.

Todd Hartley is the special sections editor for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at todd@aspendailynews.com.

Special Sections Editor