Remember when The New York Times profiled Eddie Brill into a corner and caused an uproar both within CBS and Late Show with David Letterman — which took away Brill's power to book stand-up comedians on Letterman after almost 11 years — and within the comedy community, which debated whether female comics really do "act like men" to please audiences?
That was six months ago.
Most people focused on the sillier aspects of the NYT piece. The backbiting by other comedians. Women not being feminine onstage. Women being too feminine onstage. That Brill got to perform on Late Show while also booking it. OK. That last one may have been a true conflict of interest — even if it no longer exists, and when it did, Brill maintained that he only performed on camera at Letterman's behest.
No. The one thing that stood out in the January 2012 NYT piece on Brill, and continues to stand out, is a fact: Women (as well as non-white people and gay men) who perform stand-up comedy have very few opportunities to showcase their stand-up comedy on network TV.
First, though, a caveat. The late-night talk shows on ABC, CBS, NBC and TBS often invite comedians to do "panel" — sitting next to the host in a chair or couch, there to plug a TV show, movie, book, CD or DVD. They may recite their bits, but it's not the same when the host is part of the dialogue and setting them up. Also, yes, Chelsea Handler over on E! invites many comedians onto Chelsea Lately, but there again, they're all sitting together in trios behind a counter, riffing on gossip and headlines of the day. It's fundamentally not the same (read: different) from standing alone with a microphone and performing a stand-up routine.
And if you want to look at cable, even Comedy Central's stand-up showcases give short shrift to the ladies. John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show, currently airing its third season, offered two spots to women among the 24 performers (16 of the 22 men are white). Last year's Gabriel Iglesias Presents Stand-Up Revolution may have blazed a trail for Latino stand-ups, but of the 20 performers onscreen, only two were women.
That said, let's see how much the world of late-night TV has changed as a result of the NYT piece on Brill.
In the first six months of 2012:
Conan (TBS) encouraged stand-up comedy most frequently, with 23 performers taking center stage on his Burbank lot. Of those 23, 18 were white men. One woman (Erin Foley) got a chance, as did four other male stand-ups (Hannibal Buress, Kumail Nanjiani, Owen Smith and Dwayne Perkins).
Late Show with David Letterman (CBS), under new booking by a team of "young" staff members, helped produce 11 stand-up comedy segments inside the Ed Sullivan Theater. Of those 11, all were men. Yes, that's correct. No women. And the one male comic who wasn't white was Joe Wong, who has performed on Letterman multiple times previously.
Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (CBS), which pre-tapes the stand-ups and sometimes delays their broadcasts for weeks at a time due to Ferguson's propensity to chat up guests for the full hour, managed to fit six (6) stand-ups into the first half of this year. All were men. Four of the six were white.
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC) also booked six stand-up acts in the first half of 2012, and changed bookers during this year. Now Jeff Singer, who also books Montreal's Just For Laughs festival, selects the comedy talent for Fallon. Which, interestingly enough, led to three acts receiving gigs on both Fallon and Montreal this year. Anyhow. As far as opportunities went, four of the six acts here also were white; the others were the Lucas Brothers, and Wendy Liebman.
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (NBC) only managed to book one stand-up act early in 2012, and that was longtime performer (and Seinfeld touring partner) Mario Joyner. Of course, Leno did book several stand-up acts as "correspondents" on his short-lived excursion into primetime. And he continues to fly in Jim Norton on occasion, though that's for sketches and riffing, not for stand-up.
Jimmy Kimmel Live (ABC) likewise, only booked one stand-up act early in 2012, and that was Dana Gould.
The totals? 48 stand-up performances; 37 white men, nine men who aren't white, and two women.
Does it have to be this way? Should it be this way? Do white men dominate stand-up comedy, and therefore they also should dominate the airtime on late-night TV talk shows? Do lesbian performers have a leg up, so to speak, on gay men in terms of receiving these opportunities? Is it because they're acting like men? And why did Leno and Kimmel scale way back on their stand-up bookings this year?
If you were booking the stand-up comedy segment for a late-night TV talk show, what would be your criteria? Would you worry about diversity — not just in terms of gender or ethnicity, but also in age and experience? Or would you just put any funny person you saw on the show?
Sean L. McCarthy is editor and publisher of The Comic's Comic, the definitive guide to comedy. McCarthy is a former reporter for the New York Daily News, Boston Herald, Arizona Republic and other publications.
This post originally appeared on The Comic's Comic. It was printed with permission.