Comic opera High drama at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival: A comedian from Maryland seeking a manager, and a TV deal. A well-connected manager seeking new talent, and a TV deal. Would they find each other? Would both find a deal? You must be joking.

March 29, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

ASPEN, Colo. -- The cards seem real enough. At least Ted Carpenter can take them out of his pocket, hold them in his hands and say he's got something to show for three nights' work at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. They're not tarot cards, but they might as well be for the mysterious power they suggest. As if the Hanged Man or the Emperor himself walked up to Carpenter and said: great show, nice work, let's talk.

Instead, these talismans come from an agent in Beverly Hills and a manager of casting for Disney Studios, among others. Perhaps they foretell Carpenter's future. Hard to say. Perhaps the meaning of these signals from a baffling universe will become clear in weeks or months -- or never.

Ted Carpenter, 33 years old, lives in Upper Marlboro, between Annapolis and Washington, and has nine years' experience as a stand-up comedian on the club and concert circuit. He knows what he can do onstage, and makes good money at it. But Carpenter is itching to take the next step: television, maybe his own situation comedy or talk show. A strong showing here, before the assembled gods of television programming, just might clinch it, he thinks.

It's as good a showcase as any: four days of stand-up, sketch comedy, theater pieces, films, retrospectives and seminars attended by some of the most powerful people in television. From among hundreds of comedians who auditioned for this fourth annual festival, 25 were chosen to perform brief stand-up sets. Among them Carpenter, who makes it clear that he ascends to the rarefied air of Aspen with high expectations.

"This is for the money," he says. "This is what I'm here for."

He had a TV deal a few years back, or so it seemed -- his own late-night talk show on the Fox network. Then things unraveled; happens all the time. Carpenter puts it this way: "One thing with L.A., man: What is, is not."

Handsome in his black shirt and blue jeans, Carpenter is standing outside the "wrap party" at the St. Regis Aspen on the last night of the festival. The crowd is hundreds strong: managers, agents, producers, promoters, performers, casting directors, television vice presidents, even a network president or two -- all jammed together for a few last schmoozy gasps before heading home, which in most cases is Los Angeles or New York.

Note the male executives in graying ponytails and expensive parkas, the sort of people writer Fran Lebowitz once described as "audibly tan." Note the women in ankle-length furs. The dense aura of self-adoration in the St. Regis ballroom could make your eyes water.

A personable fellow, Carpenter's been chatting with people, spending the days snowmobiling or snowboarding with the folks known collectively as "industry." But he's not pretending this is his crowd. He grew up in Southeast Washington, sometimes does bits about his old neighborhood, like the time he walked into the bathroom and found a cockroach standing on the scale jabbering about its weight problem like Richard Simmons.

The Aspen festival, sponsored by HBO, is a four-day homage to television, celebrity, money. Carpenter is as interested in those things as everyone else in the room, but the means to the end sometimes make him a little queasy.

"I don't fake mingle," he says. "I don't name-drop. I don't kiss [up] well."

He's making the best of it, moving through the room with confidence, but without representation. He has an agent with William Morris in Los Angeles, but no manager. That's what he needs, he says, a connection to these gods, a shaman, someone who "speaks the language."

Someone like Dave Becky, perhaps. A manager with 3 Arts Entertainment -- the agency representing Chris Rock among other hot names in American comedy -- Becky has come to Aspen to promote his current clients and scout for new talent.

Tonight, as the festival ends, Becky is hearing promising signals from the gods. His clients performing here -- stand-up comedian Todd Barry and the sketch comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade -- or "UCB," as Becky calls them -- have been voted the festival's best performers in their respective categories.

A tall, friendly, 35-year-old man in black leather jacket and jeans, Becky scans the wrap-party crowd looking for Doug Herzog, president of cable channel Comedy Central. Becky has been trying to nudge a potential TV deal for UCB to fruition. Last fall, the troupe made a pilot for Comedy Central; since then, no word.

Unshaven and looking weary from four days of snowboarding by day, show- and party-hopping by night, Becky approaches Herzog: Any news? What's the buzz? What's the story with UCB? You know, "doing my pitch," Becky says. Herzog knows, but he can't say. Not now. The gods aren't ready to speak. Instead he looks at Becky and says only: "Don't worry."

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