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Comedy festival to celebrate free speech

By The Associated Press


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ASPEN, Colo. — Laughter may be the best medicine during tough times, but the 8th Annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival will look at whether humor can survive after Sept. 11.

Festival organizers have joined with the First Amendment Center to create a "Celebration of Free Speech" acknowledging the challenges faced by outspoken artists such as George Carlin, Bill Maher, Norman Lear, the Smothers Brothers and Dick Gregory.

Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, will host the special celebration event. Paulson also is participating in two panel discussions at the festival, and the First Amendment Center is taping multiple editions of its weekly television program on free expression and the arts, "Speaking Freely" with participants at the Aspen event.

"The success of comedy has always depended on the freedom of speech," said Stu Smiley, executive director of festival.

"People have quit talking about fluff, what's wrong with airline peanuts. The generic observational stuff is gone," said Judi Brown, senior producer of talent for the festival. "Comics are like a truth serum, they take on the hypocrisy of the government, the media."

Brown said that while she was scouting for talent for this year's event she noticed a distinct "grittiness" to the acts. Some of that will be reflected in a special performance called "Regarding 9/11."

During auditions, Brown found that "no two comics have the same reaction to September 11."

Scheduled for one performance on March 2, "Regarding 9/11" features stand-ups and poets that will be "funny, heart wrenching but most of all, thought provoking," Brown said.

In fact, the entire festival has a thought-provoking theme. "We felt it was not the time to do vanity tributes," said Smiley. "It was more important to talk about things of substance. People like the Smothers Brothers, Dick Gregory and George Carlin all made choices and paid for it in their careers."

Two years after Jerry Lewis said during the festival that he didn't think women were funny, the festival is showcasing a stronger-than-ever lineup of female comedians, including Obie Award-winner Stephanie Berry, who chronicles growing up as a black woman in 1960s urban America, and Michelle Krusiec, who tells the story of a young Asian-American and her old-world mother.

Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin will be honored this weekend, respectively, with the American Film Institutes Star Award and a special comedy festival honor.


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