It’s Eddie Brill’s job to warm up the crowd for The Late Show with David Letterman. But what if there’s no audience? When Hurricane Sandy roared into New York City on Oct. 29, the iconic talk show host played to an empty house. Along with most of the staff, Brill was sent home. “They didn’t know how bad the storm would be,” he said recently by telephone. “I wish I would have stayed in retrospect, but I went home and took care of things.”
Brill did a benefit for storm victims a couple of days before the interview. “The energy here is palpable. … You still have that uneasy feeling that your neighbors are hurting,” he said. “It sounds corny saying it out loud, but you really feel it here that people don’t have their homes and electricity.”
He’s worked on the Letterman show for more than 15 years. But when production wraps on Thursday – Friday’s episode is filmed the same day – Brill heads off to do his act. When the show’s on hiatus, he tours internationally. “Standup is my number one favorite thing in the world,” he said.
No one much cared about comedy when he arrived at Boston’s Emerson College in the mid-’70s, but that changed quickly. With the help of a sympathetic writing teacher, Brill and a few friends created a comedy workshop at the school that included Denis Leary, Steven Wright and Mario Cantone. Brill also worked with All in the Family creator and Emerson alum Norman Lear to launch the first Comedy Writing Department at the school. “It was a great time,” said Brill. “I go back to teach every year.”
Oddly, upon graduating in 1980, Brill began a career in advertising – but quit four years later. “There were times when it just felt dirty,” he recalled. “When you learn the tricks, and see that some people lie to sell their stuff, it’s unsettling. I can tell whether a product is good or bad not by using it, but by looking at how much money is spent on the commercials. The more they spend, the worse it is. Think of it – you could be mean to people in a commercial and people will still buy it. Mercedes Benz — go to hell, and you’re like, what? Well, I want one.”
In 1984, Brill received an invitation to open a comedy club in New York City’s West Village. “Now I’ve been a comedian for 28 years,” he said, though early on he had a few doubts. “One night I saw Bob Goldthwait on stage - he’s one of the smartest guys we’ve ever known. He was so brilliant I almost quit again because I thought I could never be that good. For a moment I really thought, ‘What am I gonna do for the rest of my life?’ Then I loved it so much … there’s no way I could stop.”
His work on Late Night earned him a nickname – “The Kevin Bacon of Comedy.” Brill laughs at the moniker, but it takes very little prompting to elicit several names of comics he’s worked with and considers talented. “Tom Johnigan, Hal Burriss, Karen Ronkowski – she’s silly and so funny, so refreshing. Carmen Lynch is on Letterman tonight and she’s just brilliant.” He also organizes an annual comedy festival in Johnny Carson’s hometown of Corning, Iowa, where a couple of years back he booked Manchester comic Matt D. “He’s very funny — I saw him three weeks ago, we hung out.”
Truth and lies are at the center of Brill’s standup act. “My grandmother told me the truth will set you free,” begins one of his best bits. “Then she went to jail for perjury. No, I’m lying.”