Arts » Comedy

The Comics' Comic: Eddie Brill

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When he’s not working on The Late Show With David Letterman, where he does the pre-show audience warm-up and books the comics, Eddie Brill is on the road doing standup. And looking for standup talent. And helping standups improve their work. And helping shape an annual standup comedy festival. And consulting on the Reader’s Digest humor issue. And acting on shows such as “Louie.”

It sounds exhausting, but Brill isn’t. In a phone interview to talk about his upcoming show at Morty’s Comedy Joint, he sounded exhilarated. He talked about his role finding the best comics for the Letterman show — “What I’m looking for is that 1 percentile, the ultimate comic, the one of a kind” — and the art of standup.

He said he’s feeling great too. Last year, he went to the Hippocrates Health Institute and lost 130 lbs.

“It made me younger,” he said.

Here’s more of what he had to say.

NUVO: You primarily spend your time working for Dave, right?

Brill: It’s odd, because I actually have around 10 jobs right now, and three of them are full-time jobs. Two of them are working for Dave. One is warming up the audience, which I’ve done for nearly 15 years. It will be 15 years in February. For 10½ years, I’ve been booking the standups on the show. I just booked myself a week and a half ago. You can see it on YouTube. I don’t book myself that often because I’m the booker and there are so many good comics and so few spots. But it was my birthday, I was feeling pretty good and I’d written a lot of new stuff. I figured: Let me write a set for the show. It turned out pretty well.

NUVO: I know you work really hard working with the standups. (Indianapolis native) Hugh Fink told me you helped him shape his last set on the show, and that’s a fairly substantial amount of time. So, what’s driving you?

Brill: I love doing standup, and to be able to help people put a set together is a fun, creative process. So I’m on both sides of it. I get stronger as a comedian by helping other comedians with their sets. And I went to Hugh Fink when I was doing this set. I said, “Here’s my material. What do you think of it?” And he made a couple of suggestions. One thing I started using and then I changed it, and another thing I wasn’t going to use that I ended up using. He called me afterward and said, “That was great.” It’s fun to workshop a set.

I also run comedy workshops. I’ve been doing that for almost 15 years, around the world. It’s a bunch of comics being each other’s eyes and ears. When you teach, you learn so much. I just did one in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles and it was phenomenal. The one in San Francisco, all the comics had been doing standup for 15 years — Will Durst, Johnny Steele and Larry “Bubbles” Brown. It’s great to have a bunch of veterans talking shop and helping each other with their sets.

NUVO: Since you mentioned having 10 jobs, what are some of the others?

Brill: I’m the creative director — I didn’t start it — but I shaped the Great American Comedy Festival, which takes place in Johnny Carson’s hometown, Norfolk, Neb. This year will be our fifth year. It’s been wildly successful. We’ve had incredible shows where people are just blown away by the talent I’ve brought to this very small town. Each year, we have a Legend Award, so we’ve had Dick Cavett and Ed Asner and Bill Dana. Last year, it was Cloris Leachman.

And as hosts, we’ve brought in Robert Klein, David Brenner, Louie Anderson and Larry Miller. Then I find 20 of the best young comics in the country — not amateurs, but people who have either done Letterman or The Tonight Show or are on the cusp of doing these shows — for a sort-of competition. That’s in mid-June. I’m working on the lineups now. January and March, I go out looking for comics. I do a 12-city tour.

NUVO: Is there something good comics have in common, besides being funny?

Brill: Yes. There are three things — and one of them is funny.

I’ve been watching thousands of tapes of comedians. And of course, I look at all the classic comedians. And I say, “What is the thread in all the great comedians?” And other than funny, there’s two things: vulnerability and honesty. Richard Pryor is the ultimate vulnerable guy. We have all this bravado in life, and we get knocked down to size often. And that’s the vulnerability.

And the best comedy comes out of honesty. Of course it’s embellished. But it has a base of reality. That’s the thread of all the great ones — Carlin, Cosby, Pryor, all these people.

NUVO: Is that something you’ve known for a while or something you’ve just discovered?

Brill: I’ve known it for a while. I’ve seen a lot of guys who are very funny and very popular, but they trash the audience. They put everybody down but themselves. That’s really not that funny after a while. I worked with Robert Schimmel. For years and years, I traveled with Schimmel and I noticed that’s why he was so great. He said, “I asked my wife if I could go in the other way and she pulled out her vibrator and said, ‘Let me do you first.’” What’s great about that is, he has all this bravado and then he gets knocked down to size.

Look at Rodney Dangerfield — “I don’t get no respect.” It’s all about vulnerability. Jack Benny. Johnny Carson — the ultimate vulnerable host. Look at Letterman, Jack Paar. The best people in history. Carlin told me, “You never tell the audience, ‘You suck.’ It’s ‘we suck.’” One of the thrills of my life was that my hero became my friend — George Carlin. He gave me a lot of good advice.

NUVO: So what’s a day like for you? Are you at Letterman all day?

Brill: No. The nights I have a comedian on the show, I’m there a little bit earlier. But I don’t have to be there because my home can be my office. I’m only there physically for the warm-up. I come in a little earlier and hang out and take care of mail and go through videotapes, things like that. But I have a short day at the show. Tonight, I’m running over to see the comedian who’s taping the show Thursday, Myq Kaplan. We worked on the set a bit last night; we’re going to do more work tonight.

NUVO: You must be hit up by every comic on earth to get on Letterman. How do you handle that?

Brill: For years, I wanted to be liked by everybody. That’s out the window. Thousands of comedians contact me wherever I go to work — and I work around the world — but I understand that. I’m approachable. I’m also really honest. That saves me, by really being honest with everyone. Myq will be the 19th comic on the show this year. By the end of this year, I believe there will have been 21 comics on. That means I’ve had to say no to 99 percent of the people who wanted to be on the show.

That’s their dream — the same dream I had. So for me to be able to sleep at night, I have to be honest with people and let them know where they stand and why they’re on the show or not on the show. If they don’t like me because of that, it’s their stuff, not mine. But I watch every tape. It’s physically impossible to talk to everyone, but I talk to a lot of people and give them feedback.

NUVO: Finally, do you have a joke you’d like to share?

Brill: I had a dream with Gene Hackman in it. I tried to get Robert De Niro, but he wanted too much money. But I got a three-dream deal with Hackman — two afternoon naps and a night dream.

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