Are women funny? Yes. Now can we please move on?

(Reprinted from mirthmag.com, January 2012)

I can only imagine the journalistic tingle that shot through New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman when his profile subject Eddie Brill, a veteran stand-up comic and the longtime comedy booker for The Late Show with David Letterman, gave him this quote:

“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.”

Wow. There’s enough to parse in those two sentences for several lengthy dissertations – and I’d be shocked if there weren’t several feminist grad students planning just such dissertations right now, along the lines of “Men, Women and Comedy – The Delusional Patriarchy and Their Fantastical Monopoly on the Human Funny Bone” – so I’ll just touch on a few points.

First, the speed of modern day discourse combined with my natural ADD leads to my getting burnt out on topical subjects with increasing velocity, generally before they’ve hit the mainstream. And few topics seemed more overblown to me than the recent “Are Women Funny” debates, and the never-ending need of female comics and comedy fans to defend their gender, mostly in reaction to two events – the infamous Christopher Hitchens article on the topic, and the film “Bridesmaids.”

Look: in the era of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Schaal, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Lisa Lampanelli, Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee, Whitney Cummings, Melissa McCarthy, Anna Faris, Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler – are we really still having this stupid discussion? As this list shows – and this is, of course, just a random and minor sampling – not only are there lots of funny women around, but they’re being funny in many different ways. There are funny, traditional stand-ups that some might think hacky; funny out-there comics, no doubt referred to in some circles as “alternative,” whom others find just weird; funny actresses, improv performers and showrunners; funny-smart and funny-too-reliant-on-stereotypes; funny clean and funny filthy. Pick a genre, and you’re sure to find funny women there. Treat yourself to a show at any number of venues from coast to coast such as UCB, Largo, The Pit, etc., and you’re sure to see funny women you’re never heard of before, possibly being funny in ways you’re never seen before.

The late Hitchens – a brilliant man who had zero direct connection to the comedy world – made his case for why women have less natural need to be funny than men, and right or wrong, it seems clear that the article would have been forgotten far more quickly if people had just let the damn thing go.

Brill, the man who selects comedians for Letterman’s show, is obviously a different case in that he does have influence on the comedy world. While a Letterman appearance is not an automatic career maker, it’s great exposure and a nice line on a resume. But that said, there was one line about this in Zinoman’s article that I believe Zinoman got wrong.

“…to understand comedy today, this question matters: What makes Eddie Brill laugh?”

Understanding what makes Eddie Brill laugh tells you absolutely nothing about comedy today, other than how to get on one show. That’s it.

We all well know that the days of comedy kingmaker Johnny Carson granting a comedian a career with one simple motion toward his couch are a thing of the past. The creators of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” became modern comedy innovators by virtue of a $200 pilot they shot themselves. Louis CK became the greatest stand-up in the world by plugging away over a 20+ year career, a slow and natural evolution in which no one appearance or venue can claim the credit. And it can easily be argued that the Comedy Central roasts are now a far more important comedy kingmaker – or, rather, queenmaker – than Letterman, given what they’ve done for the careers of Lampanelli, Cummings, and Schumer.

And here’s something else to know about David Letterman. I’ve seen the case made in the social media world since this article broke that Letterman and Brill are old and out of touch. Well, guess what – Letterman wants it that way.

Around 1999 or 2000, when I’d just started out as a joke writer, I was able to get my jokes to Letterman’s head writer at the time. Even though he had no idea who I was prior to my sending him my jokes, he was gracious enough to spend about 20 minutes on the phone with me, going over each joke, and explaining to me exactly what worked for Dave and what didn’t. And what he told me – this is about 12 years ago, so I’m paraphrasing here – is that Letterman intends to sound a bit out of touch. Seriously. Listen to his monologue jokes. They often go for a certain clueless uncle quality, and that’s both completely intentional and, I believe, part of his appeal over the latter part of his career. Dave never wants to be cutting edge. He finds certain themes and repeats them – how many squirrel jokes has he told over the years? – and he reached a point where he seemed like your smart but slightly daffy relative, and it worked, and continues to work, and that’s gonna be it until he shuffles off to retirement.

So what does this mean for the Brill quote? Let’s take a look.

“I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.”

Ouch. OK – there’s a whirlwind of wrong here, since the quote seems to lay down a clear separation of what’s OK or expected for men to do compared with what’s OK or expected for women. When Lisa Lampanelli spews out a dirty sex joke, is she “acting like a man?” Or is it when Tina Fey has the audacity to run a show? I’m pretty sure the latter is not what Brill meant, but the truth is, I have no idea what he meant. I do know that, short of a woman coming on stage with a full handlebar mustache and scratching her imaginary balls, statements like that are probably best avoided, especially by 53-year-old men.

But this quote has me even more intrigued:

“There are a lot less female comics who are authentic,” Mr. Brill said.

I find this remarkable because while some have posited that it’s just Brill’s code for “women aren’t funny,” to me it brings up the question of what it means to be authentic in comedy.

Did he mean authentic to, and therefore revealing of, one’s inner self – as I tend to use the term in this context – or simply authentic to one’s own comedy persona? Given the full context, followed as it is by saying that female comics tend to act like men, I have to believe it’s the former.

That being the case, it should be noted that true, revealing authenticity in the comedy world is a relatively new – and rapidly evolving – phenomenon. For decades, comedy was vaudeville and schtick, like Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. No disrespect to these comedy gods – if you’re a comedy fan unfamiliar with the work of Groucho and Harpo, then your education on the subject is lacking – but authenticity to one’s true self was never the point. While the Marx Brothers material contained brilliant physical comedy, satire, and wit, it told us little about who these men really were – especially since, as any biography of the brothers reveals, Groucho was actually the shy, awkward one of the group.

While some made minor strides in self-expression – Phyllis Diller broke ground on this in her own way – the real breakthrough didn’t come until the massive changes and turmoil of the hippie-dippie sixties, which led George Carlin and Richard Pryor to shed their suits, grow their hair, and truly talk about their lives in ways beyond what any who came before them – even their predecessor and influence, Lenny Bruce – had done.

But while this set the tone for a generation of comics, the past decade, spurred on by blogging culture and the explosion of the popularity of memoir, has been the real breakthrough in this area. It’s no surprise that many stand-ups have embraced the exploding storytelling scene over the past five or so years, because that’s where true authenticity is evolving these days, and where many more comics than ever before are gaining both the skills and the courage to be truly revealing in ways that many then bring back to their stand-up.

And if you look at that scene, along with the proliferation of web video and the improv teams at UCB, The Pit and more, you see a far greater percentage of women than you had at the stand-up open mics of old.

That’s where you find real authenticity – and, that’s where you go to understand not just comedy today, but the comedy of tomorrow as well. Not in the offices of the Late Show with David Letterman.

Rep. Anthony Weiner calls out the Republicans

We already know that Rep. Anthony Weiner brings serious Brooklyn attitude to his job. Well, here he is from the floor of Congress yesterday, calling out the Republicans for being “a wholly-owned subsidiary of an insurance industry.” My favorite part – he starts off like he’s about to do five minutes at the Chuckle Hut. “You gotta love these Republicans…” His old roommate, Jon Stewart, would be proud. (Thanks to Sean Crespo for turning me on to this.)

“The Big Bang Theory” stolen by Belarus?

This is one of the odder stories to come out of TV land in a while.

At the end of every episode of his hit CBS sitcoms “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” the show’s creator, Chuck Lorre, has some fun with the vanity cards, the quick title shots that flash on the screen for a second promoting a show’s production company. (Remember “Sit Ubu, sit?” That was a vanity card.) Lorre actually writes mini-essays on his, so fans with TIVO or DVR can pause the TV and read them. And for those without, he keeps them on this website.

On the vanity card following last night’s episode, Lorre told how a production company in the nation of Belarus has created a show that is a completely ripped-off version of “The Big Bang Theory” called “The Theorists.” The characters are called Sheldon, Leo, Hovard, Raj and Natasha, and the show is more than just a shadow of its inspiration – each episode is basically a translation of the episodes here!

And the worst part, according to Lorre, is that nothing can be done, because the production company is owned by the government of Belarus.

A search of our beloved Internet unfortunately failed to uncover any video of this future Peabody winner (if you uncover any – please send!) but we did find some fine still photos of the cast. Imagine the cast members of “The Big Bang Theory” shot up with a quart of vodka per day and aged twenty years – welcome to “The Theorists.”

Will Jon Stewart ask ex-roommate Anthony Weiner about these disparaging comments on tonight’s Daily Show?

Jon Stewart’s guest on tonight’s “The Daily Show” is Rep. Anthony Weiner, who many New Yorkers know as the man who almost ran for mayor against Michael Bloomberg in 2009, ultimately decided against it, and probably regretted that decision after seeing how close Bloomberg’s Democratic challenger Bill Thompson came.

But what many may not know is that earlier in their careers, Stewart and Weiner were roommates, living together in a crash pad in Soho back when Stewart was first hitting New York’s stand-up clubs, and Weiner was working for then-Congressman Chuck Schumer. (Technically, Stewart was actually rooming with a girl Weiner was dating, and Weiner was the boyfriend who moved on in.)

I interviewed Weiner for City Scoops magazine last year, when a mayoral run still looked possible, and asked him about his relationship with Stewart. Weiner, who said that he and Jon were still friends, surprised me with some negative comments about “The Daily Show,” calling it a “scam,” accusing it of fostering political cynicism, and claiming it had a “corrosive effect” on politics. Here’s the exchange:

LG: Have you been on “The Daily Show?”

AW: No. I don’t have a book. You gotta be selling something to go on his show.

LG: Well, if you run for Mayor…

AW: If I become Mayor, then they’ll probably waive that requirement. I wouldn’t want to go…I don’t know.

LG: Because it would be too weird?

AW: No, I love Jon’s show, and I TiVo it and watch it every day. But I think it has a bit of a corrosive effect on my business.

LG: In what sense?

AW: Its entire ethos is to make fun of politicians. Colbert’s worse…or better at it, I don’t know. I guess it’s really not fair to say it’s corrosive. It’s just that for a remarkable number of Jon’s viewers, that’s the sole source of news, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good that they’re gonna get it somewhere, and if it’s gonna be at a comedy show I’d rather it be there than Bill Maher or something like that. But on the other side, I don’t like the idea that there’s such a cynical view of politics and government.

LG: But you understand why that cynicism exists, right?

AW: Do I understand why that cynicism exists? Yes. I think it exists because of Jon’s show.

LG: Do you really?

AW: We could have the circular argument if you want. I think it accelerates itself. I think there becomes a feedback loop that’s corrosive. Congressmen do dumb things, yes, then are highlighted for doing dumb things, and highlighted some more, and people watch it and say that congressmen do dumb things, and so then when another congressman does a dumb thing, it’s like, “Well, my audience wants to watch a congressman do a dumb thing,” and then the audience laughs at the congressman doing a dumb thing, and then Jon says, “Hey, I got a great scam here, lemme go find another congressman doing a dumb thing,” and where do I get in? Where do I get in not doing a dumb thing? Not being a bozo?

LG: Have you ever expressed that to Jon?

AW: Oh yeah, we had…yes. The answer is yes.

LG: What did he have to say?

AW: The argument was somewhat predictable.

LG: Well, after last night, we know very well how Jon argues. (This interview took place the day after Stewart’s takedown of CNBC commentator Jim Cramer)

AW: What I thought was interesting about last night was the irony of watching the comedian be critical of the news guy for being funny.

LG: I don’t think that was the reason…

AW: …at the crux of it, it was the news guy defending himself by saying, “I’m being an entertainer. I’m being funny.” And the comedian saying, “Dude, don’t do that. You be the serious one and I’ll be…” which is kind of a theme of Jon’s joust with the “Crossfire” guys. The irony with Jon…we have to remember that Jon was critical of “Crossfire” because it dumbed down the debate. Some of my concern about Jon is that, it’s smart, but it can be just as corrosive, because we’re being treated like we’re dumb. And maybe some of us are.

Weiner’s comments to me were widely reported at the time, appearing on Politico, Wonkette, New York Magazine, and Gawker. So will Jon address these accusations on tonight’s show? Stay tuned.

Next Up for Conan O’Brien

The Conan/Jay saga has finally wound down after two insane weeks, a brief impasse until March 1 when the now much-hated Jay Leno returns to The Tonight Show, and he and Dave go at it with a venom beyond any they ever had before as direct competitors. The most interesting aspect of their battle, I think, is that as Jay was winding down The Tonight Show the first time, he and Dave seemed to have made peace with each other. There was even talk, before the 10:00 show came up, that Jay might appear on Dave’s show again at some point. He was even supposedly offered an appearance on Dave’s show the night of Conan’s debut, and while he turned it down out of deference to Conan, both sides left the possibility open. Now, it’s safe to say no matter which show leaves the air first, that guest spot will never, ever happen.

So March 1 marks the beginning of the next battle in the last night wars, and as for the battle after that? Well, if we all keep our fingers crossed and pray really hard, it just might come in early September, as Conan O’Brien enters the fray on Fox as direct late night competitor # 4 (against Jay, Dave, and Stewart/Colbert.)

In the meantime, here are some thoughts/links on the astounding battle now behind us.

1. ESPN’s Bill Simmons, who correctly predicted that Leno would be back at The Tonight Show helm within a year back in March, tells New York Magazine’s Will Leitch that Conan’s show “sucked” at 11:30, that he was “too whiny” in how he handled it, and that if he does land at Fox at 11:00, he’ll fail there as well.

2. The Los Angeles Times’ Neal Gabler, in a piece that includes some fascinating background on how networks became so focused on younger demographics and why that might be a mistake, calls Leno’s ultimate victory here the revenge of the dorky over the hip.

3. Newsweek’s Joshua Alston lays out a road map for Jay Leno to rehabilitate his image, but unfortunately repeats the now established media fiction that Conan “lost his job.” He didn’t. He quit.

4. Johnny Carson’s longtime head writer says that all the hosts – Dave, Jay, and Conan – could learn something about class from his former boss, who he believes would just tell the whole lot of them to man up.

Rich People’s Problems: Did Conan Make the Wrong Choice?

“There are real people out there with real problems.”

This sentence was spoken last night by Conan O’Brien on his second-to-last Tonight Show. He was referring to the problems in Haiti, but depending on what happens next for him, he might have also inadvertently been referring to members of his staff.

As we’ve all read by now, O’Brien and his reps haggled for days to get every dime they could from NBC for his staff’s severance packages, and Conan himself will donate a large sum – a seven figure amount, according to his management – toward those packages out of his own settlement, which is reported to be around $32 million.

There’s no word on how exactly the severance will break down – given the amount of money involved, maybe each staffer gets six months pay? One year’s worth? More? – but however long it lasts, given both the current weakness of the economy and the generally tough nature of finding jobs in television, there’s no guarantee that every member of his staff will find employment before their severance runs out.

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What “The Wire” can teach us about Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, and the current late night debacle

So now, if you believe New York Magazine, the intensity of the outrage surrounding Conan O’Brien’s removal from The Tonight Show is a parable for our recessionary anger at the fat cats – “Leno is AIG,” writer Adam Sternbergh claims – who have bullied us little people around, laid us off from our jobs, and generally caused everything bad to happen in our lives.

Conan O’Brien, therefore, is us – the little guy. Conan is he or she who is mad as hell, can’t take it anymore, and is now rising up to claim what is rightfully theirs.

Hogwash.

Because if we’re looking at this situation realistically, a much better comparison – and one that contradicts the Conan-as-revolutionary meme – comes to us from HBO’s landmark series, “The Wire.”

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Kimmel, O’Brien, and the truth about Leno-Hate.

Did’ja hear what Jimmy Kimmel said to Jay Leno last night? How he answered every question Jay asked him for Jay’s incredibly awkward 10@10 segment by alluding to the NBC debacle, and placing the blame squarely on Jay’s shoulders?

Oh my god…he eviscerated him! It was incredible!

That’s the word around the Internet, anyway. And it was incredible – but not just for the reasons people are giving.

Yes, Jimmy took him apart. Jay – who’s been placed in an absolute no-win situation, public relations-wise, as people ‘round the ‘Net delight at every joke offered at his expense by Dave, Jimmy, Craig, and yes, even poor little Conan, but rise up in anger when Leno has the nerve to strike back – invited Kimmel onto his show two nights after Kimmel spent his entire show in a Leno wig and chin, talking in a demeaning Lenoesque accent. It was really an incredibly ballsy move on Jay’s part – something no one has really acknowledged – and he took a risk, possibly based on the much-reported friendship the two formed during the writer’s strike, that Kimmel would play nice.

Needless to say, the risk did not pay off.

Instead, Kimmel, sensing the blood in the water, saw an opportunity to throw his name into the “Team Conan” buzz in a huge way – especially important now, since the late night viewing audience is about to be thrown up for grabs yet again – and always having a sharp sense of business savvy, Kimmel grabbed it with both hands.

But it was his ending salvo that added a surreal sense to this already far-too-surreal affair. As Jay was ending the bit, undoubtedly regretting his attempt to play along with all the scorn being heaped on him, Kimmel unleashed the following.

“Listen Jay. Conan and I have children. All you have to take care of is cars. We have lives to lead here. You have $800 million. For god sakes, leave our shows alone.”

And with this one devastating verbal grenade, Kimmel exposed everything backward about this whole “Team Conan” movement.

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