Punch lines

Eddie Brill and the Boston Comedy Festival
October 1, 2007 5:37:21 PM

VIDEO: Eddie Brill does standup

NASHVILLE — A tide of laughter breaks over comedian Eddie Brill as his high-speed spiel about an antic bar pick-up recounted in a string of clichés — “drunk as a skunk,” “hung like a horse” — halts. The Saturday-night crowd at Zanie’s is reeling, gasping for oxygen, as Brill ramps up again, diving back into the clever wordplay that’s his trademark.

The next evening he’s back at the club, but this time he’s in the audience watching 10 comics, purportedly the best in Tennessee, flex their stage muscles. Most of them get people chuckling or roaring, but Brill’s the one they want to please. Because Brill’s more than a deft funnyman. He’s one of the most powerful guys in the comedy business, though you’d never know it from his soft-spoken, gentlemanly demeanor and sometimes almost professorial precision with language.

When he’s not traveling the world headlining comedy clubs, Brill — who comes to the Boston Comedy Festival next Thursday, October 11, to host one of its main events, the all-star benefit “31 Years of Comedy at Emerson College” — books comedians for Late Night with David Letterman, where he’s also been the warm-up act for Letterman’s audiences for 10 and a half years. “My job is to be a gateway to people’s dreams, and I don’t take that lightly, because comedy was once my dream,” he says when we talk, the afternoon of the auditions in a comfortable hotel lobby. “Every so often I still look over and go, ‘That’s David Letterman!’ ”

Brill and fellow dreamers Denis Leary, Mario Cantone, and Steven Wright founded the Emerson Comedy Workshop during the 1976-’77 semester. “We were the funny kids in the towns where we grew up, and we all met at college. Although we didn’t get any support from the school, we were wildly successful. I was a shy kid from Hollywood, Florida, and all of a sudden it was like being in the Beatles: our shows were packed, girls were interested in me . . . ”

But the Emerson administration wasn’t — not until Brill encountered Norman Lear. The producer of the classic TV sit-coms All in the Family and The Jeffersons was visiting with Emerson’s president, and all the class presidents, including then-sophomore Brill, were invited.

“At first I was too nervous to talk to Norman Lear, but the administrators started talking about how great the Comedy Workshop was, and I got mad enough to go to him and say, ‘I need to tell you the truth. These people do not support us. They gave us a room nobody else wanted to work in, and we turned it into something beautiful.’ ”

A half-hour later, Lear was still listening. Weeks after that, he made a donation to start Emerson’s comedy-writing program, the first at any college. Since then, the program has produced a slew of humorists including Bill Burr, Anthony Clark, David Cross, and Laura Kightlinger.

After graduation, Brill went into advertising in NYC while his friends kept chasing their dreams. “After a while I realized they were making more money telling the truth than I was lying.”

In 1984, he re-entered comedy as manager of New York’s Paper Moon, where he put his Boston friends and other newcomers on stage. Four years later, Brill was doing stand-up, and in ’97 he landed a “temporary” gig as Letterman’s warm-up, thanks to a recommendation from Late Night writers Louis CK and Bill Sheft. (Sheft still writes for Letterman.) Then he was given the show’s comedy-booking chores. He gets 15 to 35 comedians a year before Late Night cameras.

“My job is to make Dave laugh. He likes comedians that are smart and silly. I’m looking for one-of-a-kinds — comedians who have something in common with the greatest: Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby. The best comedians are vulnerable, and they come from the soul. Any real artist is like that. I always say, ‘This is Ray Charles.’ ” Brill points at his heart. “And this is Kenny G.” He points at his head. “There’s nothing wrong with middle-of-the-road performers, but we’re looking for the tellers and soul talkers.”

He adds, “Getting on the show isn’t the be-all or end-all of somebody’s career, but it is the most prestigious showcase for a comedian on network television.” Letterman used to insist on monologuists, Brill says, but these days anything goes — even folk-pop satirists Flight of the Conchords, who were on Late Night in June.

Last year’s Boston Comedy Festival also had a Brill-organized show celebrating Emerson’s history of funny alums, with Bill Dana as host. The 82-year-old comic graduated the school in 1950, followed by Andrea Martin, Jay Leno, and Henry Winkler, before Brill and his cronies arrived. So though “31 Years of Comedy at Emerson College” isn’t an entirely accurate description of the school’s history of producing comedians, it is a fitting name for a benefit for the comedy-writing program.

“With the money from last year’s show, we created an endowment for students who need financial aid to come to Emerson for comedy writing,” Brill explains. “We’re building on that with this year’s show.”

Brill, Leary, Clark, Burr, and others will take the stage at Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre. “Denis and I have both taught in the program. But the real reason I want to do this, besides getting to hang out with all my friends and laugh, is that a lot of people helped me, so I vowed to help people in return.”

EDDIE BRILL + DENIS LEARY + LENNY CLARK + BILL BURR | Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston | October 11 at 7:30 pm | 617.824.8000


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