Guest post: This is what happens when we keep talking about gender in comedy

By Molly Knefel

Last week, the New York Times published a profile of Eddie Brill, the man in charge of booking stand-up comics on The Late Show with David Letterman. The article reported that only one out of the 22 comics booked in the year 2011 were women, and included this quote from Brill:

“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.”

I wrote a response to Brill’s comments here at Feministing, arguing that the overtly sexist words and actions of this very powerful man prove it’s important to keep addressing gender issues in comedy. I also criticized the NYT’s relative lack of space devoted to Brill’s sexist comments– in a 19 paragraph piece, only two were about the sexism, while six were about vulnerability and three were about the workshops Brill teaches.

There were many other responses, including comic Erin Judge at Salon (she also created a hilarious Tumblr called Authentic Female Comic) and Larry Getlen at Mirth Magazine. Getlen’s piece was called, “Are women funny? Yes. Now can we please move on?” to which I would respond, no, clearly, we cannot move on. As much as we are all tired of hashing this stuff out, as long as powerful men and powerful institutions are complicit with sexist behavior, we must continue to call it out.

Calling it out, it turns out, was quite effective. The responses to the NYT piece were widely read and discussed. I’m a comic, and in the last few days, every comic I’ve seen– and I’ve seen at at least fifty– has wanted to talk about what happened. I’ve talked to men, women, people who’ve been in the business for years and are close with Brill, and people whose careers are on track for a Letterman spot. Not all of them agreed with me, but every single conversation I had was a positive, constructive discussion about gender in comedy.

That wasn’t the only thing that happened. In the comments section on Getlen’s piece at Mirth, Brill himself responded. One of his claims was that he had been quoted out of context, and that he was only talking about “a couple of comics,” not all women. The author of the NYT piece, Jason Zinoman, responded in the comments too, refuting that claim. Zinoman has the tape of the interview, he said, and the question asked was, “How come there aren’t more female comics on the show?” Brill then responded again, saying:

“I am hurting in so many ways. I know that I am a good person with good intentions and that I should have been more accurate with my words and feelings in the interview. … It is time for me to accept the consequences of my printed words..and to learn from this. I apologize to all who have been affected by this.”

On Monday, word spread among comedians that Brill had been fired, and yesterday, that information went public. The reason given for Brill’s demotion (he will continue to be the warm-up comic at the show) is not his sexist comments but that he spoke to the press without asking. In my very informal survey of comics, some of them buy that, most of them don’t.

The fallout surrounding the NYT piece has been illuminating. I believe Brill when he says he’s hurting. What this whole thing shows is not that Eddie Brill is a bad man, but that institutionalized sexism is so deeply ingrained in comedy that it is often invisible, and it is perpetuated in ways we don’t even realize. This is way bigger than Brill.

In a conversation about the silencing of women’s voices, almost all of the voices amplified were male: Brill and Zinoman hashing it out on the Mirth piece, which was written by a man, Getlen. Most of the follow-ups linked to Getlen’s piece, and most of those follow-ups, including two by the New York Observer and one by Mediaiate, were written by men. Getlen’s piece was great and that’s where all the action happened, but it’s worth noting that none of the major coverage, as far as I know, has linked to Erin Judge’s Salon piece, her Tumblr, or my Feministing post. I say this not out of crankiness, but just to point out — so many male voices, we don’t even notice. It feels natural. It feels invisible.

The Observer‘s subheading was: “Funny women still no laughing matter.” In my mind, this evoked the image of some stern, frowny, feminist Lady Hulk: “Women MAD! Women say STOP LAUGHING!” What the Observer meant to say is, “Sexism is still no laughing matter.” The language we use, even in our subheadings, still perpetuates these stereotypes.

I wouldn’t have wished Brill to get fired, I would have wished him to apologize for his words and book more women. His losing his job won’t destroy the “women aren’t funny” belief. It won’t undo the damage done by years and years of sexist behavior by other powerful people in this industry. And it’s not even a clear symbolic action– CBS didn’t come out and say, “We will not tolerate prejudice.” Even so, Brill’s words had consequences. Despite the mind-boggling, nonsensical prevalence of the women-aren’t-funny stereotype, it is far less tolerated than it once was.

People often say, “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t talk about WHY people say this stuff, just BE funny and prove them wrong. Cool. But women have been funny forever, and it’s only relatively recently become socially inappropriate to say they’re not. Sometimes just being funny isn’t enough, because no matter how funny you are, you clearly only have a 1 in 22 shot at getting booked on Letterman.

Women need to keep being funny. Men need to keep being forced to face their own assumptions, to recognize institutionalized and invisible sexism. The conversation that Eddie Brill and Jason Zinoman started has been invaluable for comedians. As we move forward, I hope the lesson isn’t “be careful what you say to the New York Times,” but rather: confront your beliefs, learn from them, and move towards a world where sexism, and any other form of oppression, will not fly.

Picture via Authentic Female Comic.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted January 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    CORRECTION: I have been informed by Larry Getlen that Drew Grant, author of the two New York Observer pieces, is a woman. My mistake and my apologies.

  2. Posted January 18, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Great coverage and articles, Molly. One piece that I recently read on this subject on Gawker (http://gawker.com/5876850/letterman-fires-scout-for-blabbing-about-sexist-bookings) made a good point of Letterman being held accountable as well. Most of the coverage has neglected to mention Letterman’s own personal history with regards to the opposite sex.

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