Independent Weekly: What are you going to be doing at the N.C. Comedy Arts Festival?
Eddie Brill: Well, for me, I'm willing to help any way I can, both as a standup comedian and as a booker on the Letterman show. I'm going to perform, and look at the comedians, possibly for Letterman or for The Great American Comedy Festival, which takes place in Johnny Carson's hometown [of Norfolk, Neb.]. And I'm going to run a workshop while I'm there—it's something I've been doing all over the world for the past 10 years. I just want to help comics help each other, and be each other's eyes and ears and help our work evolve to the next level.
Tell us about your workshop.
When I was at Emerson College in Boston, I helped form the first ever comedy workshop department in America. I was asked to be a teacher, along with Denis Leary. When we were done teaching our first semester, we agreed we'd learned a lot from teaching. So I got the idea from there.
Years later, I was working a new talent night with some young comics in New York, and I was asked for advice, and I had one-on-ones with some of them. Then I got the job on Letterman, and I didn't have time to meet one-on-one. So I started a workshop, and as it grew, I used that theory you learn from teaching. So I applied that—everyone teaches each other, and helps each other, and is honest each other, which is the most important part.
It's a six-and-a-half hour workshop, it's very, very intense, but it gives everyone that opportunity, to be honest with each other.
There's been such an interesting sea change in how comedians break out over the last few years—MySpace, YouTube, etc. What's your take on this? Has it produced a strong new crop of comedians, or do you feel that some need to learn the fundamentals through the "classic" method of breaking in?
Well, comedy is comedy and everyone needs to laugh. There's always been some kind of outlet for it, whether it was in the Greek times of the theater or the Internet today. Everything gets spread so fast and so immediately—someone can do a comedy show in Russia, and you can see it live, or in a few minutes.
What's great about the Internet is people can find more creative ways to get their work out into the public. Marketing has always been important, whether it's what some king said to get his point across in Roman times up until now. We've always used advertising to spread the word, and you can use video and MP3 and other things to spread the world of your material. You don't have to be very good, you just have to be a great marketer.
The choice is: What's more important to you? Do you want to be known as popular, or an artist? Of course, a combination of the two is the best. The Internet gives a chance for everyone to be popular.
Which is kind of chilling when you think about it -- sort of Andy Warhol's "15 minutes" personified.
Yeah, but it's always been like that. The most popular artists are often not the most talented. But there are talented dudes. Bill Cosby has always been popular and talented, or guys like Bill Hicks, who was not popular, but considered one of the best comics ever. And you know, the Internet has probably helped Bill Hicks reach an audience who had never seen or heard of him before.
How has working with other comedians affected the way you approach stand-up?
Well, the more I help other people, the more I help myself. The more I hear myself talk, the more I understand what I'm doing. I recently did a set, I recorded it on DVD, and passed it on to two other comedians to critique it. When I started, they didn't video-record sets, but now you can get a DVD of a set right after it's finished! I learn from others, I learn from watching myself, and I learn from hearing myself talking about other comics. It helps me become more astute about writing, performance, every aspect as comedy.
You want your comedy to be natural and organic, but there are things you can do—when you write, for example, it's usually just word, word, word, but it's easy to leave the physical element out. How you look, how you act can play a major role in how an audience responds. Jack Benny got his biggest laughs on pauses.
You've had a unique seat for the recent late-night wars. I was curious about your opinion on that.
The interesting for me is—I'm involved with The Late Show, and for all of us, all we have to do is be funny. We don't have to worry about what the other people are doing. But as a comedian, as a person separate from The Late Show, and as someone who respects the industry, The Tonight Show is an incredible venue. It's had Steve Allen and Jack Paar and Groucho Marx and Johnny Carson, people who were unique and took risks.
For the last 17 years, it's been Jay Leno. And five years ago, the network decided they didn't want to lose Conan, and Jay gave his blessing, and Jay could have moved on and done something else. He could have gone on to another network, or toured as a comedian. But he said yes, and then he went back on his word. It's kind of funny—they didn't give Conan enough time, just seven months.
Conan is a very inventive guy, more in the Johnny Carson/ David Letterman mold than Jay Leno. Seven months isn't enough time. It took Letterman a long time to build an audience, and then when he found his audience, he took off. Same thing with Conan: He brought his audience from 12:30 to 11:30, but that's a huge drop-off in numbers. So my feeling is that Jay should have honored his word and moved on. He didn't, and that looks awful from my perspective on Jay's part.
Any final thoughts about the Festival?
It brings me to a different market. I've worked in Asheville, but this gives me a chance to work with young and up-and-coming comedians from all over the country who I might not have met because they haven't made their way to major markets like LA or New York.
The beautiful thing about working on the Letterman show is I get to travel the world and see comedians from their perspective. I've gotten to see comedians all over the world, in all kinds of different places. North Carolina is a new market for me—I've never really worked clubs there, so hopefully this will be great for me and also the community.