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Just for (Aspen) Laughs!

What’s funnier than waiting outside a comedy club on the upper west side on a freezing cold morning in November? Nothing! Except it’s the only way to get an audition for the US Comedy Arts Festival, commonly known as the Aspen Comedy Festival, held every year in Aspen, Colorado. What’s the big deal, you might say? Well Aspen is to comedy what Woodstock or Glastonbury is to music, what NASCAR is to driving, what the Olympics are to athletes. It’s a way for comics to flex their funnies in front of mostly industry people, executives from the networks, casting directors and top executives from the comedy world.

Armed with only my notes, a large cup of coffee (decaf, I was jittery enough) and a small shred of dignity, I showed up outside Stand Up New York in the pitch dark. Arriving at 4:30 A.M., I found 12 people already ahead of me on line. Smart people with stools and chairs, wise people in cars with sleeping bags. I parked myself on my backpack on the damp ground and waited for the four hours or so before the club opened up and started to take names for audition slots.

The world of stand-up comedy is a scene unto itself. Along with fellow comic Ann Design, I produce a monthly comedy/music show at the Irish Arts Center. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to know many of the comedians that perform around the city and how much work it takes to ply this particular craft. But I’m fairly new to stand-up and having come from the “legit” theater world, I’m finding out first hand what the world of instantaneous reviews is like!

On the line I meet “Sparky”—a comedian who has driven all night to get here. A heavyset gentleman dressed more for a Goth concert than a comedy audition. Sparky knows the routine—he was here last year. He’s a regular on the Boston comedy circuit. I meet Pat from New Jersey, who’s performed at our show. He’s been in comedy for 6 years. I am a rookie compared to these guys. Over the next few hours we banter and bash, wondering what is the intrinsic quality, the certain characteristics that the panel is looking for. We all decide that we don’t know! In between running for cups of coffee, taking breaks on the sunchair that someone has brought, we are polishing up our act, tweaking the material that must be compressed into the 2-minute audition slot.

The rewards for a comic who “makes it” can be very lucrative. The Aspen Comedy Festival can be a breeding ground for the next crop of sitcom or comedy special stars. Getting a development deal or TV show may mean never having to do an open mike again. And yet anyone who’s seen the documentary “Comedian” about Jerry Seinfeld knows that more than money motivates someone to do this for a living.

Finally I get my slot—I’m Number 14. We’re shepherded into the club and told to line up on the right side of the stage in orderly fashion. There are people from NBC, HBO, and ABC on the judging panel. Suddenly it all becomes about this brief span of time and making just one more trip to the bathroom. Wearing my “Everyone loves an Irish girl” T-shirt, I step onto the small stage and launch into my material. Just 2 weeks earlier, I had seen Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan do a killer set on this very spot. Big footsteps to follow in! It goes okay for me. I get an “applause break.” (I don’t know what that means but Ann says it’s good.) And just as quickly as it starts, it’s over, and another performer grabs the mike.

I won’t be going to Aspen this year. Nor will many of the over 200 people who showed up for that open call. Perhaps one lucky comedian will get a break of a lifetime, a chance to be discovered. For most of us, it’s back to the Village Lantern on a Monday or Tuesday Night Train Wreck or the Duplex on a Wednesday. I hurry back to my desk job, mumbling new lines, thinking of ways to improve my routine. There is always next year.

I produce "Sundays at Seven" - you can link to my website for info. www.fionawalsh.com


© 2005 BIGBreakNY, LLC. No material may be reprinted without permission.