ASPEN—Nick Swardson, a comedian from Los Angeles, was standing in the lobby of the sprawling, red-bricked St. Regis Resort, wearing a gray T-shirt with a silver revolver on it, low-slung jeans and sneakers. It was 10 degrees outside. “It’s such a weird place—I almost feel like I’m in Dumb and Dumber,” said Mr. Swardson, 30, who plays the rollerblading prostitute in Reno 911!: Miami, of this bucolic mountain village where the indigenous uniform is diamonds and fur, where a plate of pancakes and coffee runs you nearly $20, and where hordes of scrappy artistes descend around this time every year for the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival—or “Aspen,” as it is more commonly known.
Just then, a woman walking a white Maltese, both of them in coats, marched by in the general direction of the gift shop. “The comedians are like poor children with their noses pushed up to the windows of restaurants where rich people are dining on pig and lamb,” Mr. Swardson said. It was a leitmotif he would explore during his performance the following night, during which he likened Aspen to “fuckin’ Narnia.” (“There are trees. Everything is white. There are little people with hooves passing out Turkish Delight.”)
Yet few comics would turn down the opportunity to take part in this annual ritual, in which slick Hollywood commerce and the scruffy stand-up circuit collide for four days of shtick, schnapps and snow. “It’s a ski vacation for suits,” is how one attendee put it.
Aspen has subtler effects on its participants than the Sundance Film Festival, which can make an artist’s career overnight. Though Aspen is where Ray Romano first got noticed, and where Sarah Silverman sold her film Jesus Is Magic, it’s rare that someone walks away from here a bona fide star. “It’s not like American Idol,” Mr. Swardson said. “It’s not like Comedy Idol. You’re not gonna explode out of here. It’s a mistake to come here thinking, ‘I’m gonna be discovered.’”
A select few do walk away with TV development deals, and almost everyone goes home with the promise of “meetings” back in L.A. For example: Chris Fleming, a 20-year-old theater and dance major (“because I’m a guy’s guy”) at Skidmore College, who skipped out of school to perform in an Aspen showcase and met two entertainment lawyers in a sandwich shop. “They thought my name was John Fleming,” he said—but still! “We’re gonna have a little meeting today,” he said, practically rubbing his hands.
The biggest fuss this year was made over the Australian musician-cum-comedian Tim Minchin, who looks like a cross between Eddie Izzard and Dave Navarro. Though agents were lining up to sign him, Mr. Minchin is booked for a year of international shows and not ready for movies or TV yet, so he declined all suitors.
Charlyne Yi was considered one of the “It” comics even before she arrived, based on her absurdist, cute-little-Asian-girl shtick. Backstage before one of her rehearsals, sitting on a couch covered in tossed winter wear, Ms. Yi, who turned 21 in January (she could pass for 13), wore black-framed glasses, a pale gray Puma sweatshirt and cuffed jeans, her long black hair pulled messily back. “It’s free food and it’s free fun,” she said, giggling.
Ms. Yi wasn’t staying at the palatial St. Regis, but rather at the relatively more downscale Aspen Mountain Lodge, a shuttle’s ride away. She knew what she was missing. “There’s a guy who accidentally got a presidential suite, and I went in there,” she said. “He had a baby grand piano and a chandelier!”
A native of Fontana, Calif., in the Valley, where she got her start performing in A.A. rooms, biker bars and veterans’ homes, Ms. Yi now lives in the Koreatown section of L.A. and plays “theaters and clubs and coffee shops,” she said. “Oh, laundry rooms—and ice-cream shops.”
It was at El Cid in Silver Lake that she was discovered by Judd (The 40 Year Old Virgin) Apatow, who called her a “genius” and cast her in his next film, Knocked Up. She’ll also appear as a wheelchair-bound character in the upcoming Will Ferrell movie Semi-Pro, and is developing a pilot for NBC called The Doo Doo Show.
“People keep inviting me to parties, but I’m really scared to go,” Ms. Yi said, and she appeared serious. “Because, I don’t know, people are”—here her voice rose and became a question—“scary?
“I don’t want to walk in there like, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’” she said. “And if no one comes up to me, it’s gonna be awkward. Or even if they do come up to, it’s probably gonna be awkward.”
But Aspen lacks the intimidation factor of Sundance (after all, it’s Disney chairman Michael Eisner and Dell Computer founder Michael Dell who have chalets down the road, not Robert Redford), as well as the hordes of celebrities, the swag, the orchestrated schmoozing. Indeed, the parties—hosted by the likes of the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade and the medium-sized talent agency APA—seemed practically open to the (gross!) public.
On Friday night in the Sierra Mist Lounge at the St. Regis, where a round of beer pong was commencing after midnight, the only A-level star in sight was an entourage-less Jeremy Piven, lining up like everyone else for a plastic cup of beer to go with his pork shumai.
The night before, at Matsuhisa, a minimalist chic Japanese restaurant in town, Mary Lynn Rajskub, a stand-up who plays the nerdy problem-solver Chloe O’Brian on 24, was getting bathed in adulation by the festival’s C.E.O., Bob Crestani. “He loved you,” Mr. Crestani gushed of Ms. Rajskub’s recent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. “I could tell. I repped him in the early days, and I can tell who he likes. Have you gotten a date back?”
Ms. Rajskub said that she had.
“See? I knew it!”
Ms. Rajskub then excused herself to go have a picture taken with Don Rickles, who was being honored that night with a lifetime achievement award.
On Saturday night, Ms. Yi sang a few numbers, brought audience members up onstage to enact a Dadaesque version of The Dating Game, and otherwise killed.
After the show, she stood by the exit door with her pink-and-white electric guitar slung over her shoulder, anxiously looking around the room at the crowd that was filing by, making its way back out into the cold.
When asked if anything was wrong, Ms. Yi looked bashful and said she was looking for “Fred,” as in Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live.
“I saw him a year ago, and he was incredible,” she said. “He said he was coming tonight.”
More people walked past, offering their congratulations, but still no Mr. Armisen.
Two college-aged young men came up to Ms. Yi and told her how good she was. They looked genuinely impressed.
“Is that sketch that you do, or improv?” asked one.
“Um, I don’t really know,” Ms. Yi answered, giggling.
“Do you have a Web site?” asked the other one.
“No, but I have a MySpace page,” Ms. Yi said, and gave them the address.
The men promised to e-mail her and then reached out to shake her hand. “Congratulations,” one said. “You’re a star.”
Follow Nicole LaPorte via RSS.