Feature: Comics line up for Vegas festival

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Oct. 1, 2004 at 6:17 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- As comedians from around the country get ready for the third annual Las Vegas Comedy Festival, organizers say the new-talent portion of the program has opened doors in the entertainment business for dozens of previously undiscovered comics.

The event -- set for October 13-17 at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino -- gives young comedians a chance to show their stuff and absorb lessons from veteran comedians who show up each year to perform, and maybe pick up an award.

This year, for example, Don Rickles will be honored with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's Entertainer of the Year Award, and Ed McMahon will receive the Bob Hope Lifetime Achievement Award. Festival director Mary Thomas told United Press International the gathering helps promote a venerable tradition in comedy -- old hands passing on knowledge to newcomers.

"What I really like about the festival is that you're honoring the old comedians and giving them a chance to teach the new comedians," she said, "because the craft of the old is where the new comes from."

Each year contestants fill out a questionnaire that includes a survey on who their favorite comics are. The question shines a light on changes in which older comics are more influential among the younger ones.

In the first year the most-often mentioned role models were George Carlin and Richard Prior. By the third year of the festival the most-mentioned comics were Ellen DeGeneres and Dave Chapelle.

Thomas said the young comics are discovered through competition during a 15-city U.S. tour. Finalists are invited to compete for prize money at the festival.

Winners have included Ty Barnett -- who has appeared on "Star Search," "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "Last Comic Standing" -- and Arvin Mitchell, who was subsequently hired to appear on the Black Entertainment Network show "BET Live." Grant Dubose's exposure at the festival helped him land several commercials, and Brian Kellen received a management contract after his turn at the festival.

"More than 50 people got management and agency contracts over the last two years," said Thomas.

Industry veteran Jack Carter -- best known to TV viewers as a regular standup performer on "The Ed Sullivan Show" -- has a slightly different take on the quality of young comedians at the festival. He said many members of last year's class were not ready -- even if they did get work out of the festival.

"There are very few Seinfelds around," he said. "But all of them have a sitcom right away -- two minutes in show business, you get a sitcom."

Carter said part of the problem is that performers breaking into comedy today learn their craft in venues that do not push them or challenge them to be better.

"They work in those comedy rooms and it's a restrictive audience," he said. "They laugh at the weirdest things. They laugh at ideas today. They don't even need routines."

The festival will honor TV comedy pioneer Sid Caesar with its first Caesar Award. It will also honor veteran manager-producer Bernie Brillstein with its Steve Allen Pioneer of Comedy Award.

Brillstein -- whose clients include Wayne Brady, Lorne Michaels and Martin Short -- was a driving force behind Jim Henson's "Muppet Show" and "Saturday Night Live," which made stars out of his clients John Belushi and Gilda Radner. He told UPI he was particularly gratified to receive the award because "The Steve Allen Show" was one of his first assignments when he started with the William Morris Agency in the 1950s.

"(Allen) was the nicest, sweetest hippest guy on television I've ever known," said Brillstein. "They treated me there like I'd been in the business for 20 years. I would go see the dress rehearsals and it just really hooked me on show business."

The festival will also honor George Schlatter with the TV Pioneer of Comedy Award -- also known as the "Uncle Milty," in honor of the legendary comedian Milton Berle. Brillstein said Schlatter is most deserving of the honor.

"He produced shows for (Frank) Sinatra, Sammy (Davis Jr.), Steve (Lawrence) and Eydie (Gorme) -- then he put together this brilliant thing called 'Laugh-In,'" said Brillstein. "There's not a better show that has been on in prime time."

Brillstein said the kind of success he and Schlatter have had in developing young comedians requires instinct, rather than formal training.

"This all sounds so general but it's really true," he said. "You either get show business or you don't. You have to know that the people you're dealing with are a little nuts."

Brillstein is also the author, with David Rensin, of the best-selling 1999 show-business memoir "Where Did I Go Right?: You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead." He and Rensin have just published "The Little Stuff Matters Most: 50 Rules from 50 Years of Trying to Make a Living."

The new book offers tips on getting along in the competitive world of the entertainment business -- including some protocols that Brillstein said can make the difference between making and blowing a deal.

"This book is written for everybody who is getting into business, not just show business," said Brillstein.

Thomas and the festival's producers expect that the new faces coming out of the festival will help meet the demand for talent in the entertainment industry, a demand that continues to grow as more entertainment choices are put before consumers.

"Who knows what television is going to be like in three years? Scripted shows may be coming back," she said. "If that does happen we've got a stable of comics that can do almost anything at that point."


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