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As broadband looms over the entertainment industry, the kings of comedy huddle in Aspen to worry over the fate of storytelling -- and who will pay for their jokes now.

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I'm a hard hotel case. My demands and anxieties tend to match the price of the room. When we travel, my wife won't allow me direct access to the front desk anymore. So I was happy to be able to report to her that I'm an absolute pleasure to deal with compared with the Hollywood machers, kingpins, comic geniuses, and myriad supporting stars who were in Aspen two weeks ago at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.

There was, at the St. Regis hotel, nearly everybody who was anybody who had ever generated a laugh line. This included some of the oldest living specimens of modern comedy, Jerry Lewis, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Dick and Tommy Smothers; their successor generation, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Martin Short; and a sea of semi-famous faces (is that Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees? Dr. Melfi of The Sopranos? Sabrina, the Teenage Witch's bosomy aunt?) as well as the guys who make money off of them, from Gerry Levin and Mike Ovitz and Bernie Brillstein to a retinue of producers and booking agents. And at every position at the front desk, at seemingly any hour of the day, there was a recognizable figure or his wife making intricate and precise demands (tropical rather than winter fruit), or insisting on corrections to previously made intricate and precise demands (that flower versus this; liquid soap versus cake), or insisting that the hotel show cause why it could not meet said demands ("Why do you think they call it a service business, huh?").

Such a sense of entitlement, the frantic need to be pampered (I am pampered, therefore I am) among Hollywood folk is hardly a surprise (although to see it in action is to experience a force of nature). But what was really stunning was to see the classic Hollywood way, that most extreme form of royal behavior, or royal bad behavior, being played out just when the only thing anybody was talking about was the end of all this. Or, if not the end, the beginning of a new world entertainment order that would, at the very least, upset billings, hierarchies, and pay scales. And that was what the optimists were feeling. For many others, here and, the week before, at Sundance (many came to Aspen direct from the film festival), there was, for the first time among show folk, a serious face-to-face coming-to-terms with the rough beast (a.k.a. the new paradigm waiting to be born).

My contribution to the panel was to argue that Time Warner would inevitably screw up AOL, just as I noticed Gerry Levin sitting studiously in the audience.

This sudden recognition of mortality was provoked not only by dot-com market penetration, and the creation of vast new fortunes that mock Hollywood wealth, but, in this most insular of businesses, by something closer to home. That is, the merger of Time Warner with AOL. Indeed, the festival was a vivid reminder of just how much of Time Warner is Warner -- that is, how much of the company is plain old show business rather than distribution monolith and New York media power. And, accordingly, how difficult it was going to be to move much of Warner's business -- big stars and comedy routines -- into a new-media world.

A kind of mournful undercurrent of the festival, whose primary sponsor is HBO, was that this would be the last time Time Warner would be here in its current form. Gerry Levin, who in ordinary times has a forlorn look, seemed now practically poignant as he moved through the St. Regis and outside on the slippery streets to the Wheeler Opera House and the Red Brick theater.

The two themes that ran through the four-day conference were the brave new world of broadband (there was probably not a conversation that didn't include the word; people said things like "As we march into the new broadband frontier") and the eternal need for laughter and storytelling. This last was evoked as a sort of whistling-in-the-dark defense. Laughter and storytelling confirm our humanity, etc. Laughter and storytelling are like oxygen or sex. And, because humanity needs such funny stuff, humanity will always need Hollywood. Right?

Broadband itself (although largely undefined) was interpreted as a possible instrument of salvation. What broadband meant, or what it meant to many of the people here, is that they would be able to keep doing what they did, or some order of what they did. That is, what they did depended on moving pictures, and what broadband meant was that it would be easy to get moving pictures on the Internet, ergo . . . they would still be in business, wouldn't they?

There was, on the part especially of the agents, a dead-set determination to believe that the Internet could be an entertainment medium, damn it, and that the segue, while it might be bumpy, would be no more bumpy than silents into talkies, say, or movies into television. Existential resignation was mixed with an Alamo spirit.

"I'd rather be at the top of the Internet than the bottom of cable," Politically Incorrect's Bill Maher was saying to an Internet producer who was eager to get Maher to think about doing a version of the new show Maher was producing, and which Fox had passed on (twice), for an Internet site.

"It cost us $250,000 for a half-hour segment; can you handle that kind of cost yet?" asked Maher.

"Well, maybe -- but that's for a half-hour. What about for a few minutes?"

So here was the new notion: Yes, mankind would always need laughter and stories -- if they were very short. The Internet had not only compressed attention spans but algebraically increased viewing options. So to the extent that laughter and stories were universal needs, they would just have to be supplied on a significantly more economical basis.


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