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."
It's not something Becky can stuff in a suitcase for the trip home, but it's something. Carpenter's got something, too: the warm glow of encouraging words -- and those business cards. That's something he can hold onto, as he does now, hours after the best of his five shows at the festival. He killed them, and he knows it -- a 9 on a scale of 10, he says.
"It was a confirmation of everything I could do. That one show could make everyone a believer," says Carpenter. "One thing I can tell you, I came up with something. I don't know what, but something. The rumors are too strong."
He's anxious to get back to the party, seeing as how the guests include women. Carpenter, a charismatic single father of a 5-year-old son, is often seen in the company of one or more women here. As he quits the lobby for the ballroom, he inadvertently leaves those business cards behind on a side table. The cards, simultaneously, are everything and nothing.
Fat women? No, Carpenter doesn't really have a thing for fat women. He dismisses the question with a quick shake of the head. It's as if you asked John Cleese, erstwhile member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, if there really was a man with three buttocks. It's a bit, that's all.
A mainstay, though, of his stand-up routine. Big women, he says, he loves big women: "Big draaawers, big draaaawers!" Carpenter chants the refrain as if he were a Baptist preacher. And off he goes into a not-suitable-for-prime-time routine about making love to large women.
Where this particular shtick came from, who knows? Carpenter's been doing it for years, changing it here and there. He never writes anything down, can't describe the origins of any material. It takes years to develop this stuff, he says. After nine years at it, he figures he's got nearly two hours of good material always at the ready. At the festival, his longest set is 20 minutes.
"I think to really see my true talent you need to see me in concert," says Carpenter. Watching a short set, he says, is "like seeing [Michael] Jordan shoot a couple baskets."
Indeed, if Carpenter's stage presence were much further from that of the stereotypical neurotic, self-doubting comedian, he would be Michael Jordan.
A slim man about 6 feet tall, Carpenter doesn't just step onto the stage, he seizes it. Picture the amiable swagger of Will Smith in "Independence Day" and you're close to an image of Carpenter -- confident, sexy, likable and above all, cool. It's what people in the business notice about him: his stage presence, his charisma, his command of an audience.
Carpenter's act sometimes parodies self-revelation, but it's not about letting anybody know who he is. Not directly. It's the same in conversation. He'll talk expansively about his ambitions, but turn to his personal background and you pull the answers out a couple of words at a time.
Seeing Richard Pryor at the Kennedy Center sparked his interest in comedy. He was a teen-ager then, a funny kid growing up with his brother and sister. He recalls no epiphany about making comedy his career; one thing just led to another. He doesn't think in grand terms about humor, comedy or the meaning of his material. Asked about his preparation for his next performance, he says: "I'll just talk some s---."
And so he does.
"Man, two brothers in a row!" he says one night at the Aspen Club Lodge. Standing before a white audience in white Aspen in a comedy festival created by and for white television executives, he has just followed another African-American comedian onto the stage. "We taking Aspen's ass over. ... They brought me up here 'cause they just want to see one nigger up on that mountain. I can't go up there. I ain't got no insurance."
Skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, bungee jumping -- all these stupid things white people do. Why? They have insurance. You never see black people do these things. No insurance, he explains. Find out for yourself. Get yourself a black friend, he says. Very handy, especially in winter. Everybody knows black people draw heat. You get two, three black people in the house, "cut your electric bill right in half."
That's a paraphrase. The actual routine has a few words we can't print, and a few never printed as often as Carpenter uses them. "Nigger," for example, is a staple of his routine, as it is for many comedians performing on shows like HBO's "Def Comedy Jam," wherein African-American performers work to largely African-American audiences.
Carpenter did "Def Comedy Jam," and has worked primarily before black audiences most of his career. In Aspen, he seems to work the white crowds with the greatest of ease, receiving ovations any comedian would envy. Yet he'll tell you that "crossover," as they say in the business, is not as easy as it looks. He has to soften his language, omit certain inside jokes, appear less "threatening."
"My market will be predominantly black," he says. "That's my comfort level. That's where I came from. Ninety percent of black audiences know who I am. That's an edge right there."
He also knows, of course, that comics like Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Steve Harvey have achieved such success because they make the crossover. Carpenter says he can work beyond his comfort level, it just bothers him that he has to do it. White comedians, he says, don't even have to think about this.
He's not complaining, he keeps saying, he's not bitter. But one evening Carpenter is sitting in a hallway at the St. Regis Aspen talking to a reporter, venting frustration about the personal politics of show business. Patrice O'Neal, a black comedian from Boston, overhears. He's heard it before.
"What is this story called?" O'Neal asks in mock outrage. 'One Angry Motherf-----' ?"
Carpenter laughs. But it's not been a very amusing night. Word just drifted down the hall that D. L. Hughley, an African-American comedian about Carpenter's age, just got a deal with ABC to star in six episodes of a sitcom. Hughley, it turns out, is represented by Dave Becky.
This news follows an unpleasant reminder of his own TV near-miss: a chance meeting with the woman from Fox who'd introduced him to the people who, it once seemed, had a deal lined up.
"What do you think when you see someone like that come up and give me a hug, and three months ago she wouldn't return my phone call?" he asks.
Dave Becky has seen a million of them. Comedians and more comedians. Ever since he started busing tables at the Improv in San Diego while he was in college, life has unfolded in an endless parade of stand-ups, sketch acts, ventriloquists, impressionists. Pretty soon he was booking the shows, then leaving college to manage the club, then producing segments for Dennis Miller's TV show. After Miller's show was canceled, he got into talent management.
Becky hung in from the boom days of the 1980s, when it seemed every beer joint had an open mike night, through the comedy shakeout of the 1990s, when clubs folded like so many S&Ls.;
Reports of the death of stand-up comedy, however, were grossly exaggerated. With the explosion of comedy programming on cable television, stand-up has become a training ground for TV performers, writers, consultants, producers. Echoing through the Aspen mountains this year was the news about just how big television comedy has become: NBC offered Jerry Seinfeld $5 million per episode. Five million per episode. Comedian Steve White works it into his act. For that much money, says White, an African-American, he would join the Ku Klux Klan, put on the sheets, burn crosses, whatever.
"Our industry is so hungry for great new talent," says Julie Pernworth, NBC's director of casting. No, she did not come to Aspen looking for the Next Seinfeld. She's looking for "anything that will make good television. ... Someone who has a great point of view you can build a show around. Or someone we can cast in a show."
David Himelfarb, Disney's senior vice president for creative affairs, says festivals like Aspen save executives a lot of club-hopping. "This and Montreal [a July festival] are the only real scouting I do all all year."
Becky, though, still goes to the clubs. And it has paid off, leading him to clients like the Chicago-based Upright Citizens Brigade, which he's represented for several years.
In Aspen, the UCB's show features variations on themes of ethnic prejudice and political correctness. A bizarre exercise in group apology to a Jewish man quickly turns anti-Semitic. Also doomed is an attempt to show tolerance for a much maligned and misunderstood minority group: astronauts.
The group performs three times in Aspen, with Becky nudging TV executives into the shows like a legislative whip herding votes. In a business of colossal egos, Becky works the corridors and parties with an unpretentious, congenial manner. The approach seems to work. Even if he can't always land a long-term TV deal, he's seen several clients join what must be the fastest-growing segment of the American population: those who have had a half-hour comedy special on cable.
He's now managing about 15 clients, serving as their business adviser, their personal Web browser through the often complex connections that make things happen. At the festival Becky spots at least one comedian he'd like to add to his client list: Ed Byrne, an Irish stand-up whose humor might remind you of Guinness: dark with a sharp bite.
Becky is struck not only by Byrne's jokes, but his charisma and striking look: green velvet jacket, bone-white skin, mop of reddish hair. But Becky soon learns that Byrne already has representation.
Ted Carpenter, though, needs a manager. Becky catches two of his shows at Aspen, including his killer final set. He admires how Carpenter makes his so-called "urban" show work in Aspen. He likes his stage presence, his command.
4 "A great performer," says Becky. "Very likable."
But stand-up comedy is one thing, situation comedy another. The skills valuable in one form may or may not translate to the other.
"Teddy rocked the room," says Becky. But "I didn't see a point of view that I think directly translates into a TV show."
When the pair run into each other at the wrap party, Becky greets the comedian with a glowing review of his last show: "You had a good set. You smoked."
Yes ... and? And?
And that's that. The two men exchange pleasantries, not business cards, not plans to discuss business. Both head back to the party in the waning hours of a vast media mating dance.
Back in New York the next Monday morning, Becky learns tha Comedy Central's "don't worry" has firmed up. The official word: a 10-week commitment for an Upright Citizens Brigade show starting Aug. 12. Taping will start in April.
Terms are not disclosed. "They're not going to get rich off the deal," Becky says, "but they're going to have huge exposure and won't have to have day jobs."
Aspen, it turns out, was not crucial. Kent Alterman, Comedy Central's vice president for development and original programming, says the group's strong performance "didn't hurt," but that the deal would have happened anyway.
Becky also has been fielding inquiries about Todd Barry, who did stand-up at the festival and performed in a two-man show with Jonathan Groff, head writer for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." Barry -- a low-key, observational comedian, almost a cross between Steven Wright and Jerry Seinfeld -- has made numerous TV appearances.
But now, Becky says, NBC is interested in "something that he would write and star in," and Comedy Central is looking at Barry and Groff for its "Pulp Comics" show.
In Upper Marlboro, Ted Carpenter has been resting, taking care of his son. Since his return from Aspen, he's received no follow-up calls. He hasn't heard from John Ferriter, his agent at William Morris. Ferriter is not returning calls from a reporter, either.
Carpenter says he is undaunted. He feels at peace with his performances in Aspen, says he accomplished what he set out to do: "I guess my attitude is if you don't pick me now, it's your mistake. I delivered my goods."
Timing, though, is everything, he says.
"It's pilot season," he says. "If you're not right for the project they have" at the moment, they're not going to call."
He doesn't plan on just sitting by the phone, though. At last word he was considering a trip to Los Angeles, maybe sitting down with some of the folks who gave him their cards.
One of those is Ruthanne Secunda, an agent with the United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills. Carpenter, she says, has "great stage presence ... real sex appeal."
"He really knows how to handle an audience. You hope someone with all those qualities would be able to act. ... As a goal you want to to get into business with people who can go beyond one project."
So? So, she says, if Carpenter "was going to be in L.A. and wanted to have a conversation, he should call."
Leland LaBarre, an agent with Paul Kohner Inc. of Beverly Hills, was impressed with Carpenter's humor and "suave" presence. But the geography, he says, is a problem.
"If he said he was moving out here, I'd be able to have a more serious conversation with him," says LaBarre. "I could introduce him to other people. He should meet people."
Interesting idea: meeting people, networking, exchanging business cards. Carpenter has heard that can mean everything, or nothing at all.
Pub Date: 3/29/98