Paula Poundstone performs at the Wheeler Opera House during 2018's Aspen Laugh Festival

Seemingly anytime an article appears about comedy in Aspen, it mentions HBO's dearly departed US Comedy Arts Festival. Well, we're not falling into that trap. (See what we did there?). Here's the scoop on the present-day Aspen Laugh Festival.

Since its debut in 2011 (when it was unfortunately styled as the “Laff” Festival), this annual celebration of comedy has grown each year, so that it’s now a full-fledged, multi-venue festival that fills town with giggles, snorts, chuckles, and guffaws each February.

As good as the festival has become, it’s not resting on its laurels. Says Wheeler Opera House Executive Director Gena Buhler, “We want to be sure that we make the right steps as we grow. But I do have my sights fixed very high for the next phase—so high, in fact, that I’m looking at comedy at the top of Aspen Mountain. Nothing is solid yet, but I would say in the coming years, we might get our comics on the hill.”

Now that could make for a fun gondola ride.

Who’s headlining this year?

Jim Gaffigan plays two sold-out shows on Friday, February 15 in a kind of Laugh Fest warm-up. Then it’s Nate Bargatze, Kathleen Madigan, Alex Edelman, Tig Notaro, Gary Gulman, and Jo Koy, plus a triple bill with Rachel Feinstein, Moshe Kasher, and Julian McCullough.

Who picks the comedians?

The Wheeler Opera House programs and presents Laugh Fest, in partnership with its booking firm, Professional Facilities Management. Says Buhler, “PFM’s booking director and I attended the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal last summer, as well as scouted comics on the East and West coasts throughout the year. We aim for diversity—bringing together different comedians with different styles to make a well-rounded festival.” Buhler and Wheeler staff members ultimately decide who makes the cut.

My friends always tell me I should be a stand-up comedian; can I perform at Laugh Fest?

Actually, yes, you can give it a shot—just not this year. A comedy competition was held February 7 at Aspen’s Silver City Saloon, and the top four contenders—Brady Shelhorn, Aaron Diaz, Maxim Allen, and Sam Hayes—nabbed spots to perform in the Fest’s Colorado Comedy Night (Feb 19 at the Limelight Hotel), along with pro comics Dino Archie and Nic Novicki.

So mark your calendars for next year’s comp. You never know where it might lead. Aspen native and current Denverite Rebecca Robinson placed third in 2017’s contest, just a couple of months after she had ventured into performing at an open-mic night in Boulder. She was then invited back to compete last year and took top honors, earning two opportunities to do short sets at other Laugh Fest shows.

This year, Robinson will host Colorado Comedy Night and take the stage at the Apres Comedy Hour at Silver City on February 23. And she aims to make her living as a comedian, having now performed frequently in Colorado’s Front Range, Hawaii, and elsewhere. “I’m a comedy nerd,” says Robinson, 25. “Even when I was writing papers in school, I was always bringing it back to how comedy can affect society.” Now that she’s gotten a taste of the funny life and is continually working to hone her skills, “I can never do anything else ever again,” she declares.

Rebecca Robinson during last year's Laugh Fest

Which shows should I go to?

The ones that aren’t sold out, duh. That said, Buhler’s top four picks of not-to-be-missed shows (though obviously she endorses all of them) are Julian McCullough, Alex Edelman, Tig Notaro, and Jo Koy.

Robinson’s must-sees: Tig Notaro, Alex Edelman, Gary Gulman, and the Triple the Laughs show featuring Rachel Feinstein, Julian McCullough, and Moshe Kasher. Of the latter, she says, “He just did a Netflix special, and I was lucky enough to feature for him this past New Year’s in Honolulu. He was so nice and so funny.”

Some big names are appearing at the Fest; why should I check out the ones I haven’t heard of?

The short answer: You may discover a new favorite, not to mention someone who will become a big name several years from now. You’ll also be able to feel like a comedy insider, as you become familiar with some lesser-known comedians that other comics love.

Says Buhler, “We aren’t just booking big names that will sell out the Wheeler every night. That would be too easy.” Instead, she and her team offer audiences a range of options, including both up-and-comers and established acts. That may mean a newer comedian who’s just put out a popular new Netflix special or it may be someone who doesn’t usually perform at smaller venues but wants to do so in Aspen.

Adds Robinson, who deems February her favorite month because of Laugh Fest, “My favorite part of this fest is that they bring people who are well known in the comedy world but not yet household names.”

Did I read that right—some shows are at the Limelight Hotel?

Yes, you did. New this year are two regular, ticketed shows at the Limelight Hotel, with the Monarch Room (past the lobby lounge) being transformed into an intimate 100-seat venue. “I wanted to create the feel and vibe of a comedy club,” says Buhler. Make it a full evening by buying the pre-show dinner package.

Friday evening features Alex Edelman, whom Buhler describes as a festival favorite for several years running. “When I was in Montreal this summer, he had a new show,” she adds. “I instantly told him that he needed to bring it to Aspen.” Becky Robinson will open the show.

On Saturday evening, Gary Gulman performs, with Edelman opening. “Alex told me once how he looked up to Gary, so being able to pair the two of them is perfect,” notes Buhler. “The cool part of this festival is that we have a lot of talent around that we can mix and match throughout the week.”

One of the Après Comedy Hours at Silver City Saloon during last year's festival

It all sounds great, but I work three jobs and don’t have money to spare for tickets.

For you, friend: three Après Comedy Hours at Silver City Saloon and Colorado Comedy Night at the Limelight. All are free (with the caveat that the Feb 21 show requires a two-drink minimum).

“Because this festival is funded in part by the Wheeler real estate transfer tax fund, we wanted to be sure that we were offering comedy that was accessible to everyone in town,” says Buhler. “That’s how we came to partner with Silver City. They have the perfect space for après comedy. Being underground, it’s dark and cozy. And the audience gets the up-close and intimate experience.” 

A bit of programming insight: Becky Robinson and Julian McCullough, both on Saturday’s après bill, appeared at Wheeler Sunset Sessions last summer. Buhler recently saw another of the comics, Ismo Leikola, at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club. “I’d seen his clips from Conan before, but he was even better live,” she says. 

How can I make the most out of the festival?

Buy tickets as soon as you can, as many shows will sell out. And note that the Wheeler box office and Aspen Show Tix website are the only authorized ticket sellers. “Don’t buy from secondary sites, as many times we have to turn people away who have been defrauded,” cautions Buhler. “If you do end up buying tickets for a sold-out show, do it from a friend or family member.”

“If you’ve never been to a comedy festival, just have a good time,” emphasizes Robinson. “People here sometimes forget that they’re there to laugh. It’s about enjoying yourself, not seeing what the person next to you thinks of a joke.”

Take it from one who knows: “Comedians don’t want hecklers,” says Robinson. “And if they do, they’ll let you know. Be respectful of the performer.” No matter how tipsy you are, we’ll add.

Tickets range from $30–$75. Colorado Comedy Night and the Après Comedy Hours are free. A three-show flex pass saves you 20 percent off single-show ticket prices.

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