Brill makes a “Kinsley gaffe”

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on January 17th, 2012

We’re not sure what all the fuss is about. Eddie Brill, the comedian who coordinates the talent for CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman, was profiled by Jason Zinoman. (Zinoman, our readers will recall, is the man tapped by the New York Times to regularly comment on standup comedy. We talked about the danger of such an animal here.)

Anyway, Brill said some outrageous things while talking to Zinoman. Oh, he probably said a bunch of innocuous, boring, predictable things to Zinoman, too, but the truly ridiculous statements made it to print in the “paper of record.” And that is what has Brill swimming and simmering in a high-temperature broth.

As far as we can tell (judging from the hoo-ha that has sprung up on the WWW), the thing he said that was most controversial or offensive was this:

“There are a lot less female comics who are authentic,” Mr. Brill said. “I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.”

We here at found other of Brill’s statements to be outrageous, among them that Brill “never thought Bob Hope was a great stand-up comedian.” And we’re certain that others are fuming over his tepid assessment of Eddie Murphy— “I never thought of him as a great stand-up comedian.”

But it’s the (you’ll excuse the expression) broad condemnation of female comedians that seems to have given most folks the greenlight to trash the large-headed, obscure, avuncular yet influential comedian (all Zinoman’s characterizations, not ours).

Ho-hum. It merely puts Brill in the company of such giants as Johnny Carson, Christopher Hitchens and Jerry Lewis. And, from watching the show over the past few years (or at least watching YouTube clips of the comedians on the show and monitoring Facebook bulletins about who appears on the show, as we have not really watched the show for quite some years), we have noticed something: There are hardly any female comics on the show. Nor have there ever been. So… anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention to the show has noticed that something (not so) funny has been going on.

So… why is this a shock to anyone?

Which explains the title of this post. A Kinsley gaffe is defined as “a politician inadvertently saying something publicly that they privately believe is true, but would ordinarily not say publicly because they believe it is politically harmful.” (And what is Eddie Brill if not a politician?)

We here at have known Brill for about 20 years, having worked in the clubs with him, way before he ascended to his current position. And, even though we’ve had our disagreements over the years, we’re still probably what one might call “friends.” (Although that might be stretching things, as Brill “un-friended” both Halves of the Staff on Facebook because TMHOTS once labeled one of Brill’s hyper-political Facebook status updates as “childish twaddle.”)

(Full disclosure: The Male Half solicited feedback from Brill back in “04 or so– for the purpose, of course, of exploring the possibility of appearing on the show– and found Brill to be complimentary. But the follow-up feedback was a smorgasbord of somewhat off-putting, vague, “advice,” contributing to a very damaging bout of second-guessing and a lengthy period of self-doubt. He has since recovered and learned from the encounter. Among the lessons: Never try to get on Letterman again.)

The Female Half auditioned for Letterman’s show many years ago. How long ago? So long ago that TFHOTS acknowledges that she wasn’t ready for the show, but was, in fact, learning “how to auditionunder pressure.” It was a bizarre episode at the old Comedy Connection in Boston (the one under the Charles Playhouse) in which one of the show’s producers hit on TFHOTS just prior to the showcase. So… the “chick problem” at the show is… systemic. And long-standing.

So no one should be surprised. We certainly weren’t. (Which is why we ignored the article when it first came out.)

We have been more appalled at the fact that Brill has been regularly staging workshops– at various festivals and venues throughout Standup North America– in which he purports to teach people how to get on the show. This is mentioned by Zinoman only in passing (“Mr. Brill teaches comedy workshops…”), but we think it represents a glaring conflict of interest. We’ve never gone to the trouble of mentioning it in the pages of this magazine because… well… we didn’t feel like putting up with the raft of shit from fellow comics who would say (with utmost certainty) that the only reason we did so was because Brill has never seen fit to put us on his show. And, of course, the raft of shit from the comedians who would inevitably defend Brill’s practices in the hopes that doing so would make Brill more favorably disposed to slotting them on the show. Like we said, Brill is a politician. And there are plenty of amateur politicians out there. It’s an exhausting game.

So we kept our traps shut, put our heads down and tried to hone our acts for the other late-night showcases. (Privately, however, we made no bones about our dissatisfaction with the conflict of interest.)

And while we’re on the subject of conflicts of interest, we always thought it was somewhat… imprudent… for the show’s standup talent coordinator– Eddie Brill– to occasionally schedule Eddie Brill on the show as standup talent. Of course, who among us wouldn’t take advantage of that?! Perhaps that’s the problem… should a late-night show hire a standup comic– who is still interested in being a comedian– as its standup talent coordinator? Or, if it does so, should it not do so with the understanding that said comedian never appear on the show as a standup comedian, so as to avoid the appearance of some sort of (Entertainment Industry Version of the) appearance of impropriety? Perhaps we’re being too scrupulous here, but we would never take the gig unless there was an understanding that we would never ourselves appear. (With the possible exception of taking one shot– at the end of our tenure– as a sort of a golden parachute. You know, just to get the credit.)

Our estimation of comic Anthony Jeselnik skyrocketed when we read this quote: “He trades on the name of the show,” the young comic Anthony Jeselnik said. “He has workshops, a festival. He has the market cornered. I can’t believe Letterman lets him do it.”

The article contains other insights into the muddled alchemy that goes into booking the comics on a late-night show. We’re not surprised at all that it’s an inexact science. Or that female comics get the shaft. Or that acceptance or rejection is based on such fuzzy, nonsense as “the comic importance of vulnerability.” That’s his prerogative. And, were we he, we would probably never give people like Zinoman any kind of meaningful quotes that would give away our formula for choosing comedians. There’s just no upside. It just opens you and your methods up to examination and criticism.

We suspect that Brill just couldn’t resist. After all, a hit in the NYT means higher fees for personal appearances, workshops and the like. And there you have that nasty conflict of interest rearing its ugly head again.

There have been plenty of tremendous comedians on Letterman over the years. And there will be plenty more on the show in the future. And they should all be proud of their credit, as it is a prestigious one. And we are certain that this little hiccup won’t tarnish that credit one bit.

And we acknowledge that there has to be some sort of filter (some sort of “gatekeeper” as the NYT calls Brill), but we suppose that it’s just somewhat jarring that the one who has been doing the filtering has applied such clumsy, benighted criteria for so long. Or that the process isn’t as… pure… as everyone had imagined/hoped it to be.