For 17 consecutive years, audiences waiting in New York’s Ed Sullivan Theatre for a taping of The Late Show With David Letterman got their first laughs of the evening from Eddie Brill.
Quoth the New York Times: “Eddie Brill, who has a large head, quick smile and gently avuncular manner, may be the most influential comic you have never heard of.”
Oh, he did standup numerous times on Letterman, as well as all the other network chat shows, but Brill – who’ll perform Sept. 30 at the Palladium in St. Petersburg – was at his most influential as the program’s warm-up comic, who went out onto the studio floor before the cameras were switched on.
“My job was the liaison,” he says. “I was taking an audience that was cold, and making a cohesive scenario. So that’s pretty what myself and the band’s job was, before the show. Johnny Carson and his producers were very kind to Dave, and they showed him how to do a good warmup – not just have the audience sitting inside for a very long time. Keeping the imagery up, keeping it cool inside there.”
There are several important reasons talk shows utilize a warm-up guy.
“We were able to tell what the audience was like – how they’d respond to some of the comedy I’d do before the show,” says Brill. “These are tourists, mostly; it wasn’t really a New York crowd. There were people from other countries who barely spoke English! They were very excited to be there, the audience.”
Not exactly a tough crowd. “Occasionally there was an audience that was not great, not cohesive, not sharp, but very rarely. It was mostly an audience that really wanted to have a great time.” For 11 of those years, he was also the show’s standup talent coordinator.
He left The Late Show in 2014, right around the time Letterman retired, but unlike his longtime boss, Brill hasn’t put his feet up just yet.
He’s not only a tireless performer who makes people laugh the world over, appearing regularly in the U.K., Hong Kong and Australia, he’s a comedy coach traveling the country holding workshops for budding standups.
He was the architect and longtime creative director of the Great American Comedy Festival (held in Johnny Carson’s Nebraska hometown).
“Of all the things I do, and I do a lot, I still love standup like crazy,” he says. “It gets better and better. It’s the one profession where the more you do it, the better you get. In a lot of scenarios, people aren’t savvy enough to know that it’s a job where you don’t get put out to pasture when you get older. Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, everyone does comedy in their 80s, 90s, and they get better and better at it.”
Brill, who’ll turn 64 next month, believes he might just become one of those storied veterans, bringing the funny at age 90 or beyond. It’s possible, he says, “As long as you remember to wear your diaper.”
The native New Yorker spent his high school years in Hollywood, Florida, and attended Boston’s Emerson College. There he formed a comedy troupe that included, among others, Denis Leary, Steven Wright and Mario Cantone.
“Steven was doing standup, so in ’81 we all decided to give it a try,” he recalls. “And in 1984, an opportunity came for me to start a comedy club in New York City. I haven’t stopped since then.”
In 1984 he opened The Paper Moon, his own comedy club, in New York City.
He’s been conducting comedy workshops now for 22 years. “I don’t believe you can teach someone to be funny – you’re funny or you’re not – but you can workshop it. You can put yourself in a situation with a bunch of comics, where we can be honest with each other and give each other our perspective.
“As a performer, it’s really nice to hear an honest perspective on what you’re doing. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it’s very helpful to be honest with each other.”
What he doesn’t do, Brill makes clear, is say things like “lose that bit,” or “that’s just not funny.” It’s not about criticism, constructive or not.
“If your kind of comedy is you standing on your head, that’s the choice you’ve made and if you get laughs it’s funny,” he explains. “There are no rules in comedy.
“We’re just sharing perspective, and that’s really the key. The important part is that it’s really honest, with respect. Because I respect anybody who does this, whether I think they’re funny or not. I know how difficult a job it is, and I know how dedicated people must be.”
The Comics of Late-Night TV with Caroline Rhea, Eddie Brill and Nick Griffin, Friday, Sept. 30 at the Palladium. Tickets here.