This weekend, I was part of Boston’s 6th annual Women in Comedy Festival. I got to hang out with a bunch of other funny people, perform my funny jokes, and see a lot of funny shows in a cool city. Pretty typical festival experience, all in all.
Like a lot of festivals, this one offers panels & talks intended to help attendees grow their comedic skill set, learn about the business of standup comedy, and interact with industry professionals. On Saturday, May 10, I attended the generically-named “2014 WICF Panel” which promised to be “a roundtable discussion about industry trends and creative practices shaping the current comedy scene, especially as they apply to women and minorities.”
Anyone who knows me is well-aware that this is my jam, so I was excited to be in a place with other people like me who want to see different voices bringing their brand of funny to audiences. The panel included comedy royalty Judy Gold and Wendy Liebman, local club owner Rick Jenkins, headliner & talk-show host Erin Jackson, and moderator/headliner in her own right, Erin Judge.
We don’t need another hero—they’re already here!
Curiously, the panelist who received top billing in our festival brochures was Eddie Brill, the now-disgraced former booker on Letterman’s “Late Show” who was fired in the wake of making some sexist comments about comedians in the New York Times. I Googled Brill quickly during the sparsely attended continental breakfast before the panel (comedians are not early birds, even when free doughnuts are involved). I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed some sort of admission of wrongdoing on his part, or a pledge to be a better ally to people like me in the future, but everything I found was dated 2012, just after publication of the Jason Zinoman NYT profile. According to CBS (who retained Brill as Letterman’s warmup comic), the official reason for Brill’s firing was making unauthorized comments to the press, but his incendiary dismissal of women comics as “less…authentic” than their male peers was the primary topic of online conversation.
In addition to reprints of Brill’s comments, and some think pieces in the wake of the scandal, I also found a Variety piece that intimated Brill’s firing had more to do with the workshops he runs, trading on the Letterman show prestige to drum up students and make extra cash on the side. This kind of class (or even comedy “school”) is pretty common: a comic promises to show you the ropes of stand-up or give you feedback on your act, despite the fact that s/he probably isn’t very good at it or s/he’d be earning a living doing that. I took one myself back when I first started out, and they’re pretty harmless in general, but this one has the extra carrot—find out from a real, live late-night booker what you can do to increase your chances at getting your shot at America’s increasingly apathetic-about-standup, half-asleep comedy audiences!
I wasn’t sure why this person would be on a panel about overcoming challenges in comedy at any festival, given the compelling case that Eddie Brill himself is a challenge in comedy, but I figured the organizers knew what they were doing and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
That lasted for all of five minutes. My fellow attendees and I were immediately pressed into duty as captive audience for the Eddie Brill Apology Tour. No matter what question the moderator put forth, Brill managed to twist it around and whine to all of us how he was the victim, the author misquoted him, he was always pushing for more women and minorities (or, as he put it at one point “Blacks, Chinese…” and then at another point, “colored, or whatever”*), it wasn’t him who only put one female comic onstage in 2011, it was his nameless bosses, see, they pulled all the strings, leaving poor, old Eddie holding the bag when that New York Times muckraker pointed out their abysmal track record on diversity.
I don’t know what happened when Jason Zinoman sat down to talk with Eddie Brill, but I do know that Jason Zinoman is a respected journalist and author who writes for one of the most respected papers of record in the US and Eddie Brill is a man who has the audacity to flat-out ignore Judy Gold’s forceful demand that he stop hijacking the conversation and making excuses for a scandal so old that the baby comic** seated next to me finally had to whisper, “What is he talking about?” I also know that Eddie Brill is a person who is too stupid to even pretend he understands why people of color might not appreciate his various outmoded ways of addressing them, even as he’s literally sitting next to another panelist who happens to be a Black woman. He may have, as he claims, lobbied for more women and minorities to appear on Letterman, but based on all the evidence, I’m calling this dispute for Zinoman.
You go, Glen Coco!
Just in case anyone’s “man-bashing” trigger finger is getting itchy, I just want to point out that Rick Jenkins was a fantastic panelist, giving concise, helpful, amusing answers to questions when he was able to get a word in edgewise. My overall experience with him at the festival was terrific (I performed at his club, the Comedy Studio, on Thursday night), and everyone I spoke to about him had nothing but nice things to say. Rick is good people.
The panel itself wasn’t able to really address many industry trends or even the paths the comics on the panel had taken in their careers. I would have loved to hear about how Erin Jackson got her Aspire Network talk show, Exhale, or how Wendy Liebman handles her taxes—practical, nuts and bolts stuff. I would have loved to hear everyone’s opinion of and strategies for handling social media as a comic. How do I go about finding an agent or manager? Any tips on turning over material? When should I move to LA or NYC?
Instead, it wound up being a lot of bluster about the frustrating challenges we face as women in this industry, but how could it be otherwise when one of the challenges, one we’d all thought had been neutralized, is sitting right next to you, talking over you, still attempting to silence you? There is some comfort in knowing that working professionals suffer the same injustice, prejudice, and lack of opportunity that I do. But more comforting would have been to hear their advice on dealing with it beyond keeping my head down and ignoring it—when do we speak up? Do they wish they could be more radical in demanding equality from bookers and other comics, thus abolishing the need for female-focused festivals and “diversity” lineups? There are so many people who want to pick up this torch, but they—we—need help.
I live-tweeted the panel, ripping Eddie Brill apart as best as I could. My tweets got very little traction—few of my comedian friends responded or RT’d. Other festival attendees were surprised at my no-apologies condemnation of the man, despite their own discomfort with the way things went down, saying, “Yeah, well, he books stuff still…”
I have no idea how much pull Eddie Brill still has in this industry. I don’t know whose ear he still has, and I give zero fucks. I do not want Eddie Brill’s good opinion because his good opinion is worthless to me. He has already proved himself obsolete in an industry that is changing and becoming more diverse, recent late-night shenanigans notwithstanding. If he is booking a show or a festival or a tv spot, I do not want that show or festival or tv spot. I don’t care if I get blacklisted from every opportunity worth having for saying I dislike this person with the fire of a thousand suns and I don’t respect him at all. I will get an apartment with a balcony and just do my standup there, Eva Peron-style.
Don’t cry for me. Seriously. Don’t.
One last thing . To the people behind the scenes at WICF, how did this happen? I heard some scuttlebutt at your closing party that Brill somehow strongarmed his way onto that panel. I have no idea if that’s true. But I’m pretty sure you knew who Brill was, and why his name is mud. I’m also pretty sure that, knowing all that, you wouldn’t have insulted everyone in attendance by seeking him out for this panel. It’s your festival. You started it and you have kept it going for six years. You know how to get sponsors and venues to work with you. You know how to book great comics and sketch groups and improv teams. You know how to build lineups. You know how to publicize.
You need to learn how to say “no.”
He has no power over you!
Brill may have been powerful for years. He may have been close to the final word on whether or not a comedian could appear on Letterman. But not anymore. The industry that Brill is an expert on has already changed beyond his own recognition. David Letterman is retiring. Jay Leno is retiring. Their replacements and competitors all have the same skin color and dudely bits, yeah, and that’s frustrating. But in 30 years, Eddie Brill, David Letterman, and Jay Leno will be dead. All the old, white men who hired them will be even deader, or at least retired.
Florida! A fate worse than death.
And maybe the younger people, the women, the male allies, the people of color who rose to run networks against all odds—maybe they won’t be scared anymore. Maybe they won’t be scared anymore because you said “no” to Eddie Brill. And then someone else said “no” to another lily-white late-night anchor*** and then said “no” again when the network tried to pull it after a single season. And people just keep saying “no” until comedians who happen to be women, or gay, or have skin that’s darker than ecru get to hear “yes” more often.
Then we’ll all have what she’s having!
*Not a Zinoman-esque “misquote,” I assure you. I heard it, my friends heard it, people I had never met before heard it. Trust.
**A “baby comic” is a newer comic, someone with 2 years or less under her belt.
***Oh snap, that just happened!