NYT weighs in… on SHECKYmag post?

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

Someone identifying himself as “Jason Zinoman” commented on our “Brill makes a ‘Kinsley gaffe'” posting (scroll down). “Jason Zinoman” is the name of the New York Times columnist that wrote the article on Eddie Brill which set off a chain of events that resulted in Brill’s dismissal as talent coordinator for Late Show. (We have no way of knowing if it’s really Jason Zinoman.)

Our commenter says:

So Shecky, let me get this straight. Previously, you argued that comedy shouldn’t have an independent columnist at the Times. Now you say that the conflict of interest issue that was reported on by the comedy columnist at the Times was real and important and while you knew about it, you didn’t write about it because of fear of criticism. That sounds to me like a counter to your original point, no?

Let’s take this point-by-point.

We never argued “comedy shouldn’t have an independent columnist at the Times.” We said that a column such as Zinoman’s…

…will have an effect on comedians, on consumers of comedy and on the business of comedy. And not all of it will be positive. Much of it may be negative.

And later on in our posting, we said:

Our biggest fear is that comedians will start changing to conform to what they perceive as the features necessary to receive the blessing of Zinoman (or other reviewers). The logical outcome of such a scenario is that comedians will slowly begin to sound, act and look the same. Already, we’ve heard from one comedian who cautioned that we should go easy on Mr. Zinoman, not anger him. The theory is that standup needs columnists. We’re not convinced. And such subservience gives the reviewer added, unearned power which might warp the creative process.

Emphasis ours.

So… we never said that “comedy shouldn’t have an independent columnist at the Times.” We stated that we weren’t convinced that comedy needs such a columnist, as some of our colleagues have suggested. And we urged folks to temper their joy with caution and we theorized that comics might take it upon themselves to change– not that the columnist might actively undertake to change the comics. Big difference.

“Jason Zinoman” also says that we were silent on Eddie Brill’s seeming conflict of interest regarding his workshops “because of fear of criticism.” This is not so.

This magazine is mainly for comedians. We rarely, if ever, cater to those who are casual observers of comedy. Our readers are comedians, industry people and perhaps a handful of rabid fans. And they all knew about Brill’s workshops. Many of our readers have taken the workshops! Brill conducted these workshops and publicized them and advertised them openly. We’re not sure what purpose it would have served to make a stink about such a conflict of interest. Like we said– we were appalled, privately. We didn’t see the upside to publicly airing that particular opinion. And, obviously CBS and Worldwide Pants had no problem with the arrangement. We are but a lowly online blog run by two comics/authors. The only result (from our perspective) would have been 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.” Weariness, not fear, is what often motivates us.

Our silence on this matter is in no way a contradiction of any of our previous opinions on the splendor/horror of an NYT columnist dedicated to comedy. We told our readers to be “careful what you wish for.” And, significantly, we said that the worst result might be not what the critic does but what the comedians do in response to the critic. This is a subtle thing. (And something that a culture critic for the NYT should easily grasp… which is why we have our doubts that our commenter is actually Jason Zinoman.)

We are rarely, if ever, motivated by fear. As some proof of this we might point out that we kinda/sorta trashed comedy’s independent columnist at the Times! Were we motivated by fear, we probably would have jumped on the “We Love Jason Zinoman” bandwagon and heralded his assignment with tears of joy and expressions of great relief. (Perhaps in the hopes that Zinoman might turn his attention to our book, which was released just weeks before Zinoman’s debut as the Times’ comedy critic.) Instead, we urged our peers to be cautious. (And we highlighted some of Zinoman’s egregious and gratuitous slams at us– “most of those comedians are ordinary or bad” and “a majority of male stand-ups are neurotics nursing anxieties.”) This doesn’t sound like the words or actions of fearful people.

We are puzzled when “Jason Zinoman” refers to the conflict of interest “issue” as “real and important” and says that he “reported on it.” We suppose that this is true in the strictest sense. It seems to us, however that the conflict of interest wasn’t the thrust of the story. Indeed, it was but a paragraph (the seventh!) in a story that had 19 paragraphs. And, in a story that totaled 1,114 words, the “real and important” “issue” took up a whoppping 46 of them. If we don’t count the words of Anthony Jeselnik, who, we are helpfully reminded in the parting graf, just might have an ax to grind by virtue of an (“unsolicited”) diss from Brill. If anything, it could be argued that the columnist created a protective bubble around Brill by treating the COI so cavalierly and subtly portraying the “skeptical” Jeselnik as disgruntled, thereby leading the reader to discount his criticism and the criticism of others.

In the end, Jason Zinoman (the real one) has made our point for us. We have no doubt that Brill thought that he would come out on the other end of his encounter with Jason Zinoman with a nice, glowing clip in the most influential newspaper in the country (nay, the world!). Instead, he ends up unemployed with his ethics questioned. Of course, Brill must take the majority of the blame for his predicament. Regardless of whether or not his comments were taken out of context (as he claims), had they appeared in the Des Moine Register or the The Oregonian, all would be sunshine and lollipops for him on this Tuesday morning. But he spoke to the independent columnist for the New York Times— great care should be taken when speaking to such an awesomely powerful publication. If you dare to speak to them at all, you should endeavor to appear modest and benevolent and you should, like a master chess champion, try to think several moves ahead. We’re somewhat surprised at the lack of savvy displayed by Brill.

We’re not surprised at the fallout.