The history of comedy at the Wheeler can be traced back to opening night on April 23, 1889 with a production of “The King’s Fool”. Traveling shows on “The Silver Circuit” would make a stop in Aspen on their way from Denver, before heading further west to Utah.
Shortly after the grand re-opening of the Wheeler in 1984, Lily Tomlin spent six weeks fine-tuning her Broadway hit, “The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In the Universe.” The one-woman play would later be made into a movie starring Tomlin in 1991, and have a revival of the stage play in 2022 starring Saturday Night Live cast member Cecily Strong.
HBO U.S. Comedy Arts 1995-2007
The tradition of great laughs at the Wheeler continued when HBO U.S Comedy Arts Festival came to Aspen in 1995. The festival presented the first-ever public reading of The Simpsons and brought to the stage comedic talents like Lewis Black, Margaret Cho, Aziz Ansari, and Dave Chappelle. For thirteen years of HBO U.S. Comedy Arts, the Wheeler would be the centerpiece of the festival and include shows by and tributes to Monty Python, Don Rickles, George Carlin, Goldie Hawn, and hundreds more.
Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival 2008-2010
In 2007, when HBO pulled the festival from Aspen, the Wheeler kept the laughs going by partnering with Rooftop Comedy. The Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival would kick off the summer season with national talents, emerging comics, and college student competitions. From 2008 to 2010, W.Kamau Bell, Hannibal Buress, Moshe Kasher, Pete Lee, Natasha Leggero, Marc Maron, Hasan Minhaj, and Tig Notaro would play the Wheeler, some for the first time.
In 2011, the Wheeler Opera House launched the first Aspen Laff Festival, fully produced and presented by the Wheeler team. The 2011 festival line-up would include Christopher Titus, Caroline Rhea, Tom Simmons, Carmen Lynch, Roy Wood Jr, and Jackie Kashian, and quite literally set the stage for a continued history of comedy at the Wheeler.
In 2017, rebranded as Aspen Laugh Festival, a local’s open mic night kicked off the festival, followed by a line-up of big-name comics Whitney Cummings, Margaret Cho, Adam Devine, and Kevin Nealon.
Aspen Laugh Festival 2018 brought headliners Paula Poundstone, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Jost, and The Second City to the main stage and up-and-coming comedians Alex Edelman, Jon Rudnitsky, Sarah Tiana, Mitch Fatel, and more were featured in a series of free performances throughout the festival.
Aspen Laugh Festival 2019 continued to grow with apres comedy events and dinner and show events around town. Headline acts Jim Gaffigan, Nate Bargatze, Kathleen Madigan, Tig Notaro, and Jo Koy would own the mainstage, and a Triple The Laughs line-up featured Rachel Feinstein, Moshe Kasher, and Julian McCullough.
Aspen Laugh Festival 2020 was a “go big or go home” year, the Wheeler stage headline acts included The Second City, Norm Macdonald, and a Triple The Laughs lineup with Taylor Tomlinson, Adam Ray, and Dusty Slay. Trevor Noah would close out the festival to rave reviews. Additional events at the Limelight Hotel in Aspen and Snowmass and a return of Apres Comedy featured comedians like Vir Das, Nancy Norton, Janae Burris, Joe Praino, Jackie Tohn, and Aspen favorite, Becky Robinson aka “Suzy Chapstick”.
Like many venues across the country, the Wheeler experienced a lapse of programming for the rest of 2020 and much of 2021. After a two-year hiatus due to, well, life not being a barrel of laughs, the Wheeler brought funny back to Aspen with Aspen Laugh Festival 2023. With five days of the best and brightest comics on the mainstage, patrons could look forward to side-splitting, belly-aching laughs in person in the beautiful, historic opera house. Building on past successes, the 2023 line-up welcomed non-stop laughs from Zainab Johnson, The Second City, Pete Lee, a Double the Laughs night with Ivan Decker and Ryan Hamilton, and closed the festival with Preacher Lawson. Opening acts included Sydnee Washington and Becky Robinson aka “Suzy Chapstick” also aka “The Entitled Housewife”. The laughs were back at the Wheeler and the legacy of comedy continues.
Since everyone needs to laugh, the Wheeler team is busy working on Aspen Laugh Festival 2024 . Laughter is the best medicine! Save the dates for Aspen Laugh Festival, February 21 – 24, 2024!