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Aspen Laugh Festival gives us permission to laugh

Locations: News Published

After what we’ve sloughed through the last few years, don’t we all deserve a few side-splitting belly laughs? The comics of Aspen Laugh Festival will gladly tickle your funny bone with nightly performances from Feb. 21-25 in the historic and intimate Wheeler Opera House.

Following a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Wheeler executive director Lisa Rigsby Peterson said in a recent press release, “I’m excited to help relaunch Aspen Laugh Festival, an Aspen tradition that we know so many have missed.”

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The festival showcases today’s best and brightest comedic talents and kicks off on Feb. 21 with Zainab Johnson, who grew up in Harlem as the fifth child in a family of 13 kids.

She explained that living in a house filled with children “gets you socialized very fast. Like how most people send their kids to daycare or school to get them socialized, but when you have 12 siblings, it is going to happen, whether you like it or not, at a much more rapid pace than [for] most kids.”

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When The Sopris Sun asked if the comedic gift ran in her family, she said, “I’m the only working comedian. I can assure you there are about three people that, believe me, are funnier than me.”

After college, she moved to Los Angeles to begin an acting career, but a friend convinced her to audition for a reality prank TV show. Shortly after booking the gig, she took improvisation classes and eventually found herself trying stand-up comedy.

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Johnson is also an actress and writer and lauded as one of Variety magazine’s 2019 “Top 10 Comics to Watch.” When interacting with the audience, she said, “I never converse with anyone — strangers or friends or whatever — intending to piss them off, make them feel bad, unworthy or self-conscious. When you converse with people, naturally funny things happen because that’s life.”

When asked about the disparity between men landing more highly-paid appearances than their female counterparts, Johnson explained, “We are definitely living in a patriarchy, and we are definitely inundated with ‘male-first’ and ‘male-mostly,’ and comedy is just a subset of that, so it’s going to be reflective of our society.”

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On the other hand, Johnson agrees that women in comedy have shown themselves to be funny and successful, but added, in addition to issues about gender, “ethnic makeup, your economic status — all of those things play a part in marginalization — and comedy is no different.”

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In his act, Pete Lee riffs on “midwestern nice” saying, “I’m a very kind person, but being kind is hard. It sucks. All of us go through our day and we want to be nice and we want to be kind but we get frustrated and that’s relatable to people all across the country.” Courtesy photo

Pete Lee, raised in Janesville, about 40 miles southeast of Madison, Wisconsin, now at the age of 45, has been part of the comedy scene for 25 years. He will perform on Feb. 23.

By the time Lee was attending the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, he was already a self-professed comedy scholar and fan. He and his roommates went to an open mic night at a nearby comedy club and, unbeknownst to him, his roomies signed him up for a stand-up slot that night.

He recalled, “I had been writing jokes for forever.” With a mere hour-and-half to cobble together a bit, he scoured his notebook for jokes and ended the evening by delivering three minutes of material onstage.

Lee’s comedy was formed by “being raised by divorced parents and a 19-inch television.” He added, “I’ve been marinated in the Midwest, and I wouldn’t even know how to bleach it from my soul.”

Having appeared many times at the Wheeler, Lee shared, “Aspen is a town that I’ve spent a lot of time in because it seems like every time I go there, I get stuck because of a snowstorm. On several different occasions when I’ve gone there, I’ve actually had to stay like three to seven more days, so I feel like, in a way, I’ve lived there,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Lee films his shows and posts them on social media. He observed, “When I’m editing, I feel like I’m watching a different person. I’m going, ‘Man, this guy’s funny!’ I don’t totally understand how it all happens so quickly on stage. And I’m not that quick of a person, so maybe it’s the adrenaline of the stage, or maybe I just give myself permission to be funny.”

All performances start at 7:30pm. Tickets and passes can be purchased online or by calling the Wheeler Opera House Box Office at 970.920.5770. For a full schedule of performances, go to

Tags: #Aspen Laugh Festival #comedy #Lisa Rigsby Peterson #Pete Lee #stand-up #Wheeler Opera House #Zainab Johnson
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