Live From Aspen, It's a Tribute!

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than two hours passed before the late John Belushi was mentioned even once. But his untamed, wild-eyed and thoroughly unapologetic presence could be felt throughout the American Film Institute's tribute to NBC's "Saturday Night Live" as part of the third annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.

It was as hard to miss amid the insults, off-color jokes and occasional moment of quiet reflection and genuine affection in the uneven tribute as alum Chris Farley, who was among the crowd of current and past show contributors on stage--appropriately enough, on Saturday night.

Farley was loud, breathless, red-faced and dripping sweat all over Jan Hooks' nice new suit.

"Do you think this is funny?" asked Steve Kroft--the "60 Minutes" correspondent who was supposed to (and failed to) moderate the tribute--after one of Farley's outbursts.

"Not funny ha-ha," Farley said, "funny like a smell in the back seat of a Cordova."

You can dress up comedy, but it isn't always fit for formal occasions. The "SNL" reunion--the first since a 15th anniversary get-together in 1989 supposedly prompted three ex-cast members to stop speaking to the show's impresario, Lorne Michaels--proved as much.

The reunion was the keynote to this sprawling four-day event--sponsored largely by HBO, which used it as a backdrop for several hours of weekend programming. In its brief history the festival has become a magnet for what actor Kevin Pollak, moderating an AFI tribute to Rob Reiner, called "industry members, hopefuls and wannabes."

It was rare air, indeed. "SNL" news reader Norm MacDonald took his shots between hits from an oxygen mask as he fought off the effects of altitude sickness. Dennis Miller, performing the night before, complained of a nosebleed. Three-time Tony Award-winning dancer and actor Hinton Battle, during one of the more strenuous parts of his one-man show, "Shine," gasped for breath and, in character, excused himself several times to get oxygen off stage. Rodney Dangerfield left town as quickly as possible after his 75th birthday salute, complaining, according to festival publicists, of trouble adjusting to the altitude.

"What do you expect?" stand-up Rick Overton said. "We're trying to do comedy just this far from outer [expletive] space!"

But between the requisite jokes about the mountain air, which is thin, and its nonwhite resident population, which is thinner, video guerrilla Michael Moore, "SNL" cartoon creator Robert Smigel and HIV-positive comedian Steve Moore were given forums to talk about their work.

Comedy Central gave a public showing of its "What's Up, Tiger Lily"-like savaging of "It's a Wonderful Life," "Escape From a Wonderful Life," currently kept off TV by corporate bickering.

"You know what I like about Aspen? The racial tension," said comic Colin Quinn, who packed the tiny game room of the Aspen Youth Center so full that even HBO President Chris Albrecht was turned away at the door.

Albrecht acknowledged that the festival may be outgrowing this mountain retreat for the rich and famous. But he said he is inclined to return here next year because the town is both posh and exotic enough to lure show-business types, but small and isolated enough that everyone winds up running into one another on the street or in the chair-lift lines.

That closeness has not necessarily translated to commerce.

This year's festival drew about 1,400 paid attendees, nearly twice as many as last year, according to executive director Stu Smiley. And the number of big-name participants appeared up. But the kind of deal-making done at the USCAF's rival comedy festival in Montreal has yet to develop, industry sources said, implying that the omnipresence here of HBO parent Time Warner might be an inadvertent factor.

But then, this event is not about serious business. It's about comedy.

Stand-up newcomers such as Laura House of Austin, Texas, who talked of checking back in with baffled classmates who signed her high school yearbook eight years ago ("I guess I wasn't 2 good 2 B 4 got, after all") and Chicagoan Mike Toomey, who mined familiar pop culture ("When Adam West played Batman . . . everything fit in Batman's belt except Batman's stomach") got to show their stuff.

More adventurous, Canadians Michael Kennard and John Turner performed as Mump & Smoot, clowns who frolic with various dismembered body parts. Los Angeles' Ensemble Studio Theater delivered a series of sketches, including one in which Joanna Gleason broke up with her boyfriend, a hand puppet, with a sympathetic "I've outgrown you."

Cleveland's Seth Isler performed a manic one-man version of "The Godfather" while the Chicago-area improv troupe Bitter Noah fleshed out an entire film on stage based on the suggestion of a single song lyric. Rick Hall inhabited 13 characters in "Pigboy," his affecting look back at his childhood home. And British comic John Hegley, a Buddy Holly look-alike who plays the mandolin, read poetry and ad-libbed verse that, in his own words, "makes you really appreciate the scripted stuff."

Hegley made his U.S. debut at the festival with off-kilter, deadpan paeans dedicated to such mundane stuff as his pet ("My doggy don't wear glasses / So they're lying when they say / A dog looks like its owner / Aren't they?") and his brother-in-law ("His heart is in the wrong place / It should be in the dust bin / He's as miserable as sin / But not as interesting").

Veteran performers Michael McKean, David Lander and Harry Shearer reunited on stage as the Credibility Gap for the first time in more than 20 years, offering, among other things, the Self-Righteous Brothers' deliberately schmaltzy Branson-esque ode to dead rockers, "You've Lost That Living Feeling."

Oddly enough, "SNL" vets McKean and Shearer--like Miller, Smigel, Quinn and Janeane Garafalo--were in town for the festival but did not participate in the "SNL" tribute, which nonetheless featured an unwieldy 28 people on stage, including frequent guest host Steve Martin.

HBO's Albrecht and "SNL" impresario Michaels said invitations were extended to original cast members Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin, who apparently declined. Eddie Murphy, who, according to David Spade, once responded to an on-air slam by saying Spade wouldn't have a job without Murphy's "SNL" contributions, was another notable no-show.

This is probably just as well inasmuch as seven of the panelists, including Garrett Morris, never got a chance to say anything in the verbal free-for-all dominated by Michaels, Farley, Chevy Chase, Dana Carvey, Al Franken and Jon Lovitz.

Even the supposedly straight-forward industry seminars took on the quality of performance art. ABC News correspondent (and National Lampoon alumnus) Jeff Greenfield moderated a panel discussion on the role of content in TV and movies using a hypothetical case study of stand-up comedian Danny Starr, a best-selling author and daytime TV host who wants a crack at prime time.

Caryn Mandabach, president of the Carsey-Werner Co., questioned the premise. She wanted to know if the fictional Starr could act, whether he was funny, before saying whether she thought he would get a network sitcom.

"You're raising the question whether he has talent," Greenfield shot back. "I'm telling you he's a star!"

When Greenfield pressed on whether someone with so little proven talent as an actor would get a show, former "Late Show With David Letterman" executive producer Robert Morton cracked, "If he's as funny as Brooke Shields, I think he will."

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