Re: Eddie Brill

17 Jan

In summary, for you guys who aren’t comics/following comedy news: Veteran comedian Eddie Brill, who was the stand-up booker for The Late Show with David Letterman, stepped down from his position following a shit-storm of criticism over comments he made in an article profiling him in the New York Times that seemed sexist/dismissive of women comedians.

Now, as when any issue around something like gender or race comes up, people on one side are characterized as hyper-sensitive whiners who want any excuse to act like a victim, and the other side are characterized as ultra-reactionary assholes who interpret any plea for consideration or sensitivity as entitlement. I’ve seen people attack Brill for the fact that not that many women comedians have appeared on The Late Show, despite the valid argument that women are still a minority in comedy, and that comedians who make it to The Late Show are THEMSELVES a minority, so Brill could just be a simple victim of statistics. Then I’ve also seen other people blast anyone who takes umbrage at Brill’s comments as people who have a “everyone gets a trophy” kind of mentality that are just bitter that THEY haven’t made it onto TV.

Frankly, I think both sides have missed the point a little. People’s knee-jerk reactions have yielded just as much noise as signal, if not more. What should be discussed, I think, has nothing to do with who gets booked on Letterman or whether or not Eddie Brill is a decent human being, but instead we should take a break from yelling “SEXIST!” or “FEMINAZI!” at each other and maybe consider there are some problematic attitudes implicit in what he said and how that can reflect on the comedy community as a whole.

I take the following quote as my case in point:

“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.”

I have a whole lot of problems with the phrase “act like men.”

See, I grew up with a mom who basically did everything physical around the house. If something needed fixing, Mom got out the tools and got it done. Something needed moving? Mom was helping you out. I can’t remember a time I ever went to Home Depot without my mom. In fact, even the last time I was in Miami, she was, despite being a sexagenarian cancer survivor, still putting in the elbow grease around the house, taking out pipes to unclog the kitchen sink.

This is why the show “Home Improvement” was a particularly confusing premise for me as a kid, because it tried to establish tools and doing anything with your hands as an exclusively male domain. So was my mom “acting like a man” when she did all those things? Was she being insincere and inauthentic when she lent me her drill set when I needed it to build robots?

In middle school, before I got into wrestling, my predominant interest was cooking and watching cooking shows on TV. My sister often asked me for advice when shopping for clothes. Most of my friends were female. Other guys didn’t call me “inauthentic,” they just called me “a faggot.”

Maybe I’m being a little extreme, but that goes to show what kind of problems there can be with saying that there’s a certain way men or women should act. What KIND of comedy behaviors is Mr. Brill assigning as being “like men?” Being dirty? Talking about sex? Being mean or insulting? What is it about a Y chromosome that makes those behaviors somehow more inborn? Any way you slice it, the very statement sets clear boundaries that there are certain behaviors that are only okay for men and others that are only okay for women, and that is the very definition of sexism. The remark wasn’t made out of malice, I’m sure, but it’s a naked admission of the fact that he doesn’t believe there is (and possibly shouldn’t be) a level playing ground.

What ensues from that is the fact that female comics are also trapped in a serious “damned if we do/damned if we don’t” scenario. If a woman tries to make an attempt to relate to male audiences, she gets called insincere; however, I’ve also heard (non-comedian) people complain that female comics do “nothing but period jokes.” Meanwhile, a friend of mine who does stand-up recently showed me his notebook, and there was one page that simply said “my penis.” Nothing else. This wasn’t even the last page he had written on and simply failed to write more notes on. There were notes on the page afterward and notes on the page before, but “my penis” stood alone on this page as, I guess, a necessarily large chunk of material, which is perfectly acceptable and natural.

Then there’s the whole question of how this mentality applies to any kind of queer comedians. Should a gay man act more like a man to compensate for his transgressive nature? Or should he actually act more feminine to fit with the already established perception of people of his sexuality? I have friends who are transsexual, meaning they already struggle with people criticizing them in their ordinary lives for being insincere or inauthentic just because they’re not acting in the way prescribed by their biological sex. I can only imagine how frustrating it would be if they were comedians and had to deal with that criticism in their professional lives as well.

(Maybe I’m full of liberal arts BS and am just white-knighting. That’s also a possibility.)

Should Brill have been fired? No. When you simply look for someone to decapitate just so you can put his bloody head on a pike and dance around it, you don’t get anything done. It’s kind of like what Louis C.K. said about the Tracy Morgan situation. A lot of anger on both sides is just anger with no productive result. There needs to be both acknowledgment of something potentially destructive AND a level-headed, reasonable approach to correcting it.

Women are still a minority in comedy, and the problem is we have not decided if we want to admit that comedy for women by women is its own unique culture that should be recognized and given its own space or if we should measure female comics and comedy that appeals to females by the EXACT same rubric as that for males, and I think Brill’s remarks show that very confusion. The truth is, comedy is subjective, and while comedy that caters to a certain audience is just as valid as any other, there still happens to be a persisting perception that the only comedy that can be a “mainstream” success is that which plays to a white male audience.

Maybe it would be easier for women comics to get ahead if they actually knew what it is people wanted from them.

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One Response to “Re: Eddie Brill”

  1. Kristine Sara Ekman 01/18/2012 at 9:49 am #

    Didn’t know much about this situation, but the topic of female v. male comedy has definitely been on my mind over the past year or so. Interesting.

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