Eddie Brill: Fearless Leader and Impresario.


Eddie-Brill-1Eddie Brill is one of those guys who not only has been making people laugh for almost 30 years, but is a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. Brill booked all the comedy acts for The David Letterman Show, books the prestigious Great American Comedy Festival that is located in Johnny Carson’s hometown in Norfolk, Nebraska, and is constantly on the hunt for new comedy talent. SUSC was happy to glean a few minutes away from Brill, who travels the country following New York sport teams,  doing gigs and signing acts.

Eddie, It’s DNA in Santa Cruz, California.

Yes, sir, how are you?

Good. I wanted to mention several years ago, I Facebooked you to ask a quick comedy question and you answered me immediately.  I think it’s pretty rare for an established comic that has been rocking the mic for decades to have the time to answer questions.

I believe if you don’t answer right away you end up with stacks and stacks of email—so it’s best to answer as soon as possible. A lot of people send me their stand up clips and want me to look at them and the weird thing is I am so backed up—I have 24 of them waiting to be seen right now—and because I have been so busy I haven’t been able to get to them. That’s what happens when I don’t respond immediately. I think it’s best for everybody if you answer as quick as you can.

So it’s a pragmatic decision so your workload doesn’t pile up. But what is your philosophy? Are you afraid you might miss the next George Carlin if you don’t answer every email?

Yeah, I’m a comic, so I know what it’s like to want to have your questions answered. Everyone is a potential George Carlin. Even if you suck at the beginning like I did, you get better at it.


I mean if you stay with it, and you’re passionate, often times you get better at it.

Speaking of when you started, when you were back at Emerson College, putting together the Emerson Comedy Workshop, were you already doing stand-up?

We were doing comedy improv, and it was fun and cool. Steven Wright was our friend and we would go see him perform and it got us excited to want to do stand-up. A couple of us started doing stand-up because we had seen Steven do it. It was a good comedy scene in Boston in the late 70s / early 80s. There weren’t a lot of comics, but what was going on–the scene–was amazing. It was real quality and an exciting time.

You were a contemporary of Denis Leary; you guys were coming up at the same time.

We were all in college together, so it was pretty cool.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s it was the beginning of the comedy boom. Were you going to NYC or were you staying in Boston?

I was in an improv group in ’76 and started stand-up in ’78.  I only worked in Boston.  I stopped doing stand-up in 1980 when I graduated college…and then moved to NYC. I quit because, although it was fun, it didn’t seem like I could have a career in it.  There was a lot of good work in Boston and my friends stayed in town and did very well.

For those four years that you took off, were you trying to get a real job?

I thought I needed a real job, so I got into advertising. It’s funny because I was lying for a living, making lousy money and I didn’t sleep well.  Now I tell the truth for a living and I love it.  It is an amazing life: I get paid doing what I love and I sleep like a baby.

So when you came back from advertising in ’84, you opened up a comedy club, The Paper Moon. For getting your feet back into comedy, it’s great to have your own venue.

There was guy from college, who, after graduation, worked at a restaurant and cabaret in NYC. He told me the venue was interested in putting a stand-up show together and he contacted me to help him run it.  When he stopped being involved, I took over and made it a full-time comedy club. I hadn’t done stand-up in four years, but the first week, I was at this new, cool venue and hosting the show–I got that feeling again.   I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve missed this!” And I haven’t stopped since.  It was at the Paper Moon comedy club, and that first show back was July 27th, 1984. I’m about to celebrate my 30 year anniversary (in a row) that I’ve been doing comedy.

Are you going to celebrate at a certain club or venue?

I haven’t even thought about it. I’ll probably be on stage somewhere and go, “30 years, yah!”

I keep going back to the 1980s, because for comedians today, the stories about the comedy boom are legend. It’s difficult to imagine that the hills were once filled with gold. Was it as incredible and easy to get work and get paid as we hear about?

That was a very fun and creative and wild time. In the beginning, we weren’t being paid much.  We were splitting the door and it wasn’t a lot of money. But the later part of the 80s, and the beginning of the 90s, there was a lot of money involved. The Boston clubs were paying very well and booking and helping to “raise” top-notch comics. In 2008, the whole world took it on the chin because of Wall Street and everyone scaled back money in every industry. There was so little disposable income. The clubs are starting to do well again, but not all of them are paying like they used to.  Yet comedy is not falling apart.  In fact, this a great time for comedians. I’ve been out on the road looking for comics for different festivals and there so many great comics. There are more great comics now than there have ever been before–more than I have ever seen.

There seems to be groups of comics in every small town in America.

Austin, Texas, is great; Denver, Colorado, is great; Seattle is great; Chicago–comedy is so popular. Like all art, there is only a tiny percentage that is really great.  Because there are so many comics, there’s a larger amount of great talent. I’m having no trouble finding young, great talent and comics.

When you book for The Great American Comedy Festival in the Midwest are you looking for clean comics?  Do you think a comic has to be clean to have a successful career and still be true to their authentic voice.

For the GACF, I am looking for smart, authentic comics, who can also do a network TV clean set, without losing their edge. I also book comics for other shows, and it isn’t important that the language is TV-friendly.  The amount of exposure one gets on television is incredible. And just because a comedian is edgy, doesn’t mean they can’t do TV.   The young Richard Pryor did the Ed Sullivan Show and Merv Griffin and other talk shows, and was hilarious.  One of Pryor’s best TV sets was when he did The Tom Jones Show.  It was a brilliant and smart set. It was a very edgy, controversial set. If you look at all the comics on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, they weren’t  milquetoast, middle of the road, clean comics. They were smart, edgy comics. Comedy is subjective.  There are all kinds of comics.  The brilliant Brian Regan is squeaky clean and does amazing work on television.  Robert Schimmel, one of the greatest comics of all time, and labeled as an “X-rated comedian,” made many hilarious network TV appearances. Tommy Tiernan, one of the greatest comics in the world, from Ireland, is incredibly raw, but I was able to help him to shine on American network television.

Do you have a different philosophy for booking the Great American Comedy Festival than you did for Letterman?

I kind of use the same philosophy. These comics all have that spark, where I just know in my heart that they are very creative and passionate. They are not there only because of their marketability, they are there because they have the whole package. They have the poise of being a great comedian. They are great performers, matched with great writing and a unique style that is only their own.  The combination of style AND substance.

Have you found anyone recently who fits that bill?

All the time. I just saw Grayson Morris in Asheville, North Carolina, and she has only been doing stand-up for a short time, and she’s brilliant.  And I can see in her that she is one-of-a-kind talent. Her brain works a certain way—the way the great genius comics worked. I’m bringing her to Nebraska this year, because she should be part of that group, even though she hasn’t been doing it as long as some of the others.  By putting smart comics together, they take their game to the next level.

Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson were what everyone watched. There’s no patented formula for a comic making it in 2014.

“Making it” is a hard term to lock down. There’s a lot of mediocre stand-up comedians that make it big, lots and lots, and that will always be the case. The same is true in the art world. There are movies that are crap, not even fun crap, and audiences will pack in to see them. That’s the way it goes—you don’t worry about that kind of stuff. As far as I’m concerned, “making it” is doing what I love every day, and doing something creative and challenging and not taking the easy way out. I look for the George Carlins and the Lily Tomlins as opposed to comics that just get by.

Is comedy part of the art world?

Comedy is definitely part of the art world, although there are people who do not, or cannot, understand why. If you want to be in the comedy art world, you’d better be always growing and reaching for the edge.


Keep an eye out for an SUSC workshop in Santa Cruz with Eddie Brill in the Fall!







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