(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.