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Late Show Fires Comedy Booker, Revives the Are-Women-Funny Debate (Sigh)

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CBS PHOTO by JOHN PAUL FILO

Letterman sits down with comedian Jerry Seinfeld in 2010.

Deep within a pretty fascinating New York Times profile last week of Eddie Brill, the comedy booker for Late Show with David Letterman, gave his explanation why the show booked only one female standup in 2011: “‘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.’”

What does that even mean? A bit more on that in a second, but the practical answer is: it means he’s fired. Comedy magazine Mirth, which slammed Brill’s remarks, reports that Brill is out as booker of Letterman’s show, the reason given being “speaking to the press without authorization.” It can’t have helped that the matter he spoke to the press about was, among other things, the exclusion of women for a show that was already a target of criticisms that it hired few female writers (and whose host not long ago took flak for sleeping with an employee). And you’ll note that he was fired for talking about the lack of female bookings—not for the lack of female bookings themselves itself.

Now about what Brill did say: it wasn’t exactly the old snipe that “women aren’t funny,” or at least it was a variation on that. There’s some idea of “authentic” women’s humor that Brill has in mind—what it is, I’d be genuinely curious to know—and he feels that the women comics he sees are ignoring that in favor of imitating male comics. Who are getting most of the bookings in late-night comedy, so, hmm, why would female comics ever try to imitate them?

I’ll be honest: I don’t closely follow the world of current standup, beyond what I occasionally see on Late Show and its peers. I couldn’t tell you how many hilarious up-and-coming women there are working the clubs, nor how many hilarious men, nor the ratio between the two. But I know a B.S. catch-22 when I see one. On the one hand, women deal with the essentialist prejudice (argued famously by the late Christopher Hitchens and echoed after his death by essayist Meghan Daum) that women inherently are not as funny as men. And now we hear that the women who made a career of comedy anyway weren’t getting booked on Late Show because they weren’t being true to their “authentic” comedic selves. Who authentically wouldn’t get booked because, apparently, they’re “not as funny as men”!

Again: not an expert on the comedy club scene. And I think I’d be naive to say that women and men are exactly the same as comics—or writers, or anything—given the different experiences and socialization women and men have. But there’s a difference between women not being “as funny as men” and women not being funny in the same way as men. Sitcom writing is not standup, but this season’s plethora of comedies created by women, not to mention the return of Portlandia with Carrie Brownstein, shows that women, given a shot, can be plenty funny. (And some of the best of their humor recognizes, and makes comedy out of, the differences between male and female characters.)

So I can’t judge Brill—or Late Show or other talk shows—by the standup-club talent pool. But the Times interview with Brill suggests a general problem, which is a narrow definition of what kind of standup works well on TV and what doesn’t. The piece notes, for instance, that Brill prefers punchlines to character-based comedy (Louis CK, anyone?) and that he didn’t care for comics who employ music (so much for Reggie Watts, I guess?).

No one expects Late Show, and other late-night shows, to book unfunny comedians in the name of fairness, but it would be silly to think that that’s the only option. Better to simply open up shows like this to more kinds of funny, period—different styles, tones, approaches—which I bet in itself would at least improve all kinds of balance, gender included. (Just as you wouldn’t want to limit a show’s musical bookings to nothing but indie rock, or hip-hop, &c.)

In the end, social fairness aside, that’s why non-inclusive booking (and hiring) is a bad idea. It’s not just bad for entertainers. It’s bad for entertainment.

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