"People get nervous around me sometimes who I don't know, and I understand it because my dream was to be on the Letterman show. When that happens, I recognize it right away and put those people at ease and let them realize, hey, I'm just a comic like you. I just got lucky; I got a really cool job."
– Eddie Brill
Guy MacPherson: The first question I've got to ask you is about this great gig that you have on Letterman.
Eddie Brill: Yeah.
GM: How did you get that?
EB: You know, like anything in the entertainment world, it's who you know.
GM: But you gotta be good, too.
EB: Oh, yeah. I mean, that's very true. The interesting thing is I had done warm-up for a bunch of different TV shows and they were okay. They were nice jobs; they were a lot of work. And I had been offered once by one of the writers that Dave was looking for a warm-up guy. And I wasn't really that interested because I was doing a lot of travelling and I enjoyed that. Travelling around the world and all that kind of stuff. And then a situation came again where one of the writers said to me, "Eddie, Dave's looking for a new warm-up." So I went in for a meeting just to see what it would be like. And it turned out to be a great meeting and they gave me a six-week trial period, which has now lasted nearly eight years.
GM: Is that every show?
EB: Every show. Whenever there's a show, my deal is I have to be there. There's no excuse.
GM: And it's not just warm-up comedian; you're also the booker.
EB: Yeah. And all during the time that I did the warm-up, Dave and I got close and he we talked a lot about comedy. Almost every night. And on the commercial breaks I'd sometimes chat with him and I'd give him a line to say when we come back. And we'd talk about the comedians or comedy. And of course we had mutual friends, we found out, that were comics, and we'd discuss certain things. And then all of a sudden he was not happy with the person who was booking the comedians, or the way it was going. And I had told him before, I said, "You know, I'm really surprised that all these terrific comedians have not been booked on the show. And so many great ones out there." And he said, "Well, why don't you do it?" My first thought was like, I don't know because all of a sudden I'm going to have all these friends of mine, all these people I know, and my life would change incredibly. All of a sudden I'm just like a good friend and a guy that they can rely on to a guy who is the gatekeeper to a lot of their dreams.
GM: You were worried they'd be sucking up to you.
EB: Well, yeah, I thought that that might happen. But the one thing I was sure of was, because I've been very honest with people my whole life and have been pretty fair, that I wouldn't really have that problem. And I really have not had that problem. People get nervous around me sometimes who I don't know, and I understand it because my dream was to be on the Letterman
show. And when that happens, I recognize it right away and put those people at ease and let them realize, hey, I'm just a comic like you. I just got lucky; I got a really cool job. I take it very seriously. The most important thing for me is the art of standup comedy. We go away from that all the time. We go away from art all the time in our society. We go to the fast food and Last Comic Standing, which is the other end of the spectrum. You know, Otis Redding is soulful and Michael Bolton isn't. The Letterman show is a soulful TV show to do as a comic;Last Comic Standing, you're scraping the bottom of the barrel.
GM: So you don't have much respect for Last Comic Standing.
EB: No. No respect whatsoever.
EB: None. I understand why these comics do the show, because it helps them get publicity and helps them get out there, which is fantastic for them. But it also takes everything that we worked really hard on and spits all over it.
GM: Can you explain that a little more?
EB: What they do is... A reality show is never a reality show. First of all, a lot of the people who made the final house were chosen in advance. The judges didn't judge and vote and it worked out correctly. There was a little bit of a scam where they had picked out people. So anyway, that sucks immediately. That there are some guys from the middle of nowhere USA who stood in line for eight hours to show his two minutes to the people who were in charge, and they just laughed in his face because they were never going to use him to begin with. So that alone right there is evil. The second thing that's evil is that they tend to edit the show the way they want to make people look. There are people who didn't get one laugh at the audition; when they showed the tape, there was not only huge laughter but they cut to the audience of other comedians who were getting laughs.
GM: Ant! You're talking about Ant!
EB: I actually didn't see that one. But I know a couple different cases where there was not one laugh and those people got laughs [when it was shown]. I was on Star Search in 1986. I saw that happen to a friend of mine where he killed and the other guy bombed. The other guy won and they cut [my friend's] set down by 30 seconds and they added laughter and applause to the other guy's set. That's what they do whenever there's a contest. The fact that you're judging comedians is evil because you cannot judge a comedian. You don't compete against other comedians ever as a comedian; you're competing against yourself. Again, the show goes against all of that.
GM: So your problem is more with the producers, the network, I guess, rather than with the comics who apply.
EB: Right. And then what happens after the first season when this guy who's not really a standup comedian wins the standup comedian winner of the show, and then goes on the road and cannot fulfill his comedy because he's not a great comedian. He did it because he got the sympathy of the audience. And then I see these other comics come up there and they try to use that sympathy thing instead of being funny.
GM: And it reflects poorly on the profession.
EB: Right. Like, for instance, Ralphie May. His father died before he went out to do the thing. Well, instead of going out there and taking whatever strength and love and humility that comes with the death of your loved one and going out there and having a good set, he shit all over his father's memory by using that to get sympathy on that show.
GM: I really hated that. That was the last episode I saw. I was going, "Come on, suck it up." Both my parents are dead, so I speak from experience.
EB: Right. My sister died and I had to go do the Letterman show. Did I go on stage and go, "This is for you, baby"? I went out there and I had the set of my life, and she was with me while I was out there. And that's how that works. I did Tough Crowd with, uh, this guy...
EB: Ralphie. And I lost respect for him there. And then I completely lost respect for him. He had done The Tonight Show and he did somebody else's bit onThe Tonight Show. And that's the guy who's selling a ton of DVDs around America because he was on Last Comic Standing.
GM: Is he still on?
EB: I'm not sure. I stopped... I can only watch bits and pieces just to sort of get angry and then turn it off. Kathleen Madigan is a phenomenal comedian. She's so outstanding. And unfortunately maybe she wasn't getting the accolades she deserved, and the stage time and the money, around the country. And what's happened for her is she did Last Comic Standing and now she's making some good money from the tour. And I'm very happy for her because she's a great comic who I respect. And she's been on Letterman and all that stuff, and she got more respect from America for Last Comic Standing than Letterman, although it should be the other way around.
GM: So there are comics from the show that you would have on Letterman.
EB: Bonnie McFarlane did Letterman.
GM: Good Canadian kid.
EB: Yeah, fantastic. Funny, smart, goofy, funny.
GM: I really liked her and she was out in the first episode.
EB: Of course. Like if you look at Star Search, Dennis Miller lost.
GM: To Sinbad!
EB: I thought he lost to a guy who was, like, whipping a hose around and making a song. But it might have been somebody else.
GM: I don't know if this has changed now, but I used to think that Dave, who I admired and loved from even before he had a talk show, as a comic, that hosting he had a real disdain for comics. Or was it just those comics he wasn't happy with before you came along?
EB: Well, no. He really respects standup comedy. He loves standup comedy. The one thing about the show is that he wants the comics to really deserve to be on the show, not just to have everybody and his brother who does standup on the show. You have to really be special to get on that stage. The way he felt, how he had to work hard to get on The Tonight Show. He was the biggest fan of The Tonight Show. The reason why we had standup comics on Friday nights on our show is that's how Johnny used to have it. My first two-and-a-half years booking the show, we had a comic every Friday. But logistically this last year has been less because of different scenarios. What happens in a television show, bookers book the show and present it to Dave. And Dave says, "Okay, I like this, I like this, I don't like this, let's do more of this." And that's how it works. So it's a team. I'll change subjects. People say, well, "Dave's not a really nice
guy. He's really mean to people." And I watch him every day. He's so lovely to people and so warm and terrific. He's only turned off by someone who acts bigger than they are. And then when that happens, he makes fun of them.
EB: Right. Anyone who's phony. He's so humble and so intelligent – and I'm not just saying that because he's my boss. I'm there everyday. I used to love him, and now I have more respect for him than I ever had. He's really a nice guy. When Farrah Fawcett was on the show, and she was in some sort of trouble – we're not really sure what – he was so kind to her, and could have been so mean to her. And of course it came off like it was Dave's fault that this all happened. The director Robert Altman... At the Cannes film festival they asked Farrah about the Letterman show and Robert Altman sort of put Letterman down and made it like Letterman was a big idiot for doing that. And if you watched the show, he couldn't have been nicer to her.
GM: And his intelligence. The impression I get is that because he must be a hermit, he's so famous, that he just stays home and absorbs news and information.
EB: He is a guy... I have friends who are big stars. I have friends that are known wherever we go. And it's kind of fun at the beginning. But then it gets really tiring. And now you're on television every single night. People feel like they know you and you know them. I'm only guessing, because I'm not him, Dave Letterman, I'm guessing that he just likes to be a regular guy with a real life. He has his girlfriend, he loves his baby, and that's what he wants to do. He wants to be with his baby every second. Obviously he enjoys doing what he does on television because he's there every day working hard. He even works when there's holidays.
GM: How much time does this job of yours take up at Letterman? I know you're also out there performing.
EB: The warm-up is very easy. I'm there for the taping, which is an hour-and-a-half of my day each day. And on Monday now we tape two shows, so it's about twice that much. But the booking part of it consumes my life. I mean, it's not a bad thing; it's a great thing. I'm a comedian as well. I travel around the world. I've been working in Europe and Hong Kong and these other places. And I know all these comedians because I've been working for 20 years in a row as a comic. So wherever I go people want me to see them constantly for the Letterman show. I've put on Irish comics and British comics on our show because I want the world to see that there are smart people all over the world. So it consumes my life that way. Plus if I'm booking someone, I'm looking at a videotape of a comedian, I'm taking a call from an agent, I'm calling the comedian and producing the segment for the show. It's pretty intense.
GM: When you come to a festival, like you will in Vancouver, not a world-known festival or anything, will you look at that and go, "Hey, maybe there's
EB: My idea has been, since I've taken over the job, "Look, I'm going to go headline in Tempe, Arizona, anyway. Why don't we set up a showcase of the guys and girls who are in Tempe who are married with families who can't move to LA or New York, who are probably really funny and smart. Let me go to Austin, Texas. Let me go to St. Louis. Let me go to these cities." Now I'm going to Vancouver. I'm very excited to see the people... I tried to set up a showcase in Seattle that fell through, of the comics of the Pacific Northwest area of America and, like, Vancouver and that area. But now I'm going to actually see these people. Whether anyone is good or anyone has possibility, that would be great. If I see somebody, they're not going to be booked on the show right away. We're booked for a while now, for a few months.
GM: If you did find someone, would you work with them? Would you say, "We like this, but we don't like that"?
EB: Exactly. That's what I do. Eventually I make sure that the set is what they want. It's really their set and their time on stage. I'm just there trying to give the perspective that I have, and I've gotten better at and I've learned by producing this segment this often.
GM: At these showcases, how many do you have to see before you actually go, "Hey, there's one possibility"?
EB: You know what? In all the over a thousand videotapes that I've watched, I've only seen two people that I didn't know about that caught my eye. Out of the showcases, there have been showcases where three comics on the showcases have gotten the show. And there are many showcases where none of the comics were good enough. But what I try to do is offer my time up after the showcase to let these comics know exactly how it worked. Because I remember as a comic, you'd go into a showcase and the guy or the girl in charge would leave and run out of there and you never knew how you did and you couldn't sleep that night and you didn't know for weeks what happened. This way, that night they know, look, "You were great, you're hilarious, but you're not right for our show." I look for poise, which is very important. I look for originality, which is very important. It sounds like a Miss America contest. But I look for poise on stage,
which is very rare. I look onstage for people who have something to say. But I also look for monologists because that's what Dave wants. If it was the Eddie Brill Show, I might be a little different. But it's the Dave Letterman Show.
GM: By monologist, you mean not so jokey?
EB: No, jokey is fine if it's a style that's your own. It's more like not characters. You're not doing, like, Jim Carey's act, even though it was hilarious.
GM: Do you also look at the body of work? Or could you just take somebody that no one's heard of, just a local guy or girl? Or do you have to say, "What
has he done?" because maybe he or she was just good for this five minutes that I saw?
EB: Um, I'm not sure what you mean. Like for instance, there was a girl named Karen Runkowsky (?). No one's really heard of her except other comics. She's a road comic. I saw her tape. She made me laugh really hard. I know that Dave would love her. I'm very excited about when she gets on the show. We've been working together for over four months. She's been sending me tapes. I've been calling her up and going over the tapes, and then she goes back and keeps working and rewriting and working and rewriting. So she's someone that no one's ever heard of. I don't care... Like, someone will call me and say, "Look, my client opened up for Bill Cosby." I go, "What are you telling me? Maybe I should book Bill Cosby." I don't care if they opened for Bill Cosby. I don't care if they have a sitcom. There are many sitcom comics who are awful comedians. So what do I care about what you've done in the past. If you can do four-and-a-half minutes of really smart, funny, original material, I think I can put you on the David Letterman show.
GM: By "body of work", I didn't mean so much a name or who they've worked with. But you mentioned that this woman was a road comic. And I'm just thinking there might just be somebody in some town who doesn't even go out on the road, but performs three or four times a week in their city.
EB: That's probably one of the comics I'd probably like because they're working often on their set. You know, something that's very interesting about sitcoms
is every sitcom that has ever been successful with a standup comic as the lead, the standup comic has been doing it probably 10 to 12 years minimum. Like Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Brett Butler, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, all these people. Every sitcom, every show where a comic has been doing it less than that, the show has lasted a year or less. And that's because people are not ready. And the industry keeps throwing these young comics out there trying to get them deals when really they're not ready. And nowadays, what that's also done is made standup comics write for sitcoms instead of writing standup. Like, you don't have that many George Carlins out there or Steven Wrights. You know, you'll get a Mitch Hedberg, or that kind of a guy nowadays, who's very much like a Steven Wright type. You'll get a few of those, but less and less these days do standups really care about the art of standup comedy.
GM: When you're doing these showcases, does it bother you that other talk shows or festivals might be there watching as well?
EB: Well, you know, it goes either way. Like for instance, if I was putting the showcase together myself with people I was interested in seeing, well then I have every right to close it off just for me to see it. But this is a festival and really I'm not there to... If the comedian really really loves the Letterman show, and that's their dream, well, if that's their dream, then they're going to want to do the Letterman show. The Leno show, I'm not gonna put it down. But I don't respect it that much.
GM: Letterman is now the new Carson for comics, isn't he? Maybe not with the impact.
EB: Not the same impact. But he's the guy. One thing I'll tell you about the Leno show that's kind of upsetting is, on our show we do one shot straight on, called a three-quarter shot, of the comic. And that's the way it should be. That's the way it always has been. If you watch The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, what happens is there's a shot of the comic straight-on and then a shot from the side where you see Jay in the background. So that to me shows insecurity or ego, either one, or a combination of both, on Jay's part. It also says to the audience, it pulls focus from what the comedian is trying to say or do. Any visual that they're trying to show or any kind of wordplay that they're doing, the audience loses it for a second. They go to look at Jay to see if he's laughing.
GM: You talk about a certain style that you want. For Letterman, a monologist. Is there a different style for each show? I guess there is.
EB: Um, I'm not really sure. I guess Conan, which is a really terrific show that Dave really respects, that comics really respect, they like it to be a little edgier. Dave doesn't mind it being smart and edgy as long as it's not scatological. I mean, we had Colin Quinn who talked about September 11th about a month after the scenario, and did a really smart, intelligent joke not about September 11th but dealing with the scenario, which was great because it was a really good catharsis for people who were just holding all of this anger inside. Dave lets comics talk about real life scenarios, lets them talk about politics. But it's all about really just being smart and funny. I've seen on some other shows, some of my friends doing their material and not really nailing it, for one reason or another. But again, it's easy to make fun of the other shows, but I'm not competing against those shows.
GM: How many times have you performed on Letterman? Are you always on standby?
EB: I am, but I've done the show as a guest eight times, and I've been bumped probably as many times as I've been on the show because of running out of time or that kind of thing. But I don't put myself on that often because my job is not to just further my own career. I used to go, like, once every year.... [lost a chunk] I went to LA and saw Dwayne Kennedy. I don't know if you know Dwayne Kennedy.
GM: No, I don't.
EB: From Chicago, lives in LA. And Letterman saw him and he really hadn't done any network television before. And Letterman said, "This guy reminds me of the old style comics." So we put him on. I'm throwing words around and thinking of ten thousand things at once, so my quotes are coming out weird. Letterman, when he respects somebody, he really roots for them and we put them often and we make sure that the world knows that these people are great comics.
GM: You hold workshops, right?
EB: I hold workshops in New York every once in a while. And they asked me at the festival if I will do some workshops in Vancouver and I said I would. It's a lot of work. But you learn by teaching. I learned that a long time ago. I used to teach years ago. I learned more from teaching than I did from anything. So what I do is I apply that to these workshops. I help comics. Because you can't teach standup comedy. I help comics.
GM: So you help working comics and you fine-tune them.
EB: Yeah. And they help fine-tune each other. By helping each other, they learn more.
GM: Are you still growing as a comic?
EB: Yeah. Constantly. I think the best comic of our generation is Chris Rock. He's almost what I aspire to. I think I'm a pretty damn good comic. I work really hard at it. But I still am not where I would... I don't think I'll ever be where I want to be. I'm happy in my life, but I also want more.
GM: Do you have goals outside comedy, like movies or TV?
EB: I've done a bunch of films. I love films. But now that I'm at the Letterman show, it kind of keeps me from doing so much that I can't really leave town that often. And I'm not a big fan of sitcoms. But I'm a fan of dramatic shows like The Shield, or Homicide: Life on the Street. And to do little parts in those kinds of shows, character stuff, that would be fun.
GM: Well, Richard Belzer did it.
EB: Yeah. Exactly. Also, you know, I'm involved in music and writing some music. I do a little bit of that as a hobby and I've been doing a little bit more trying to get involved in trying to produce jingles and different things like that. Plus I'm getting more involved producing some shows, putting together comics for shows around the country. Plus I go to Europe and work all the time. So I'm constantly trying to do something creative.