How to get a spot on Letterman

Meet Eddie Brill. You want to get on The Late Show with David Letterman as a stand-up comedian? Well, you’re going to have to impress Brill first.

Eddie Brill is the comedy booker and audience warm-up comic for Letterman. On the weekends, Brill also tours the country as a club headliner, sometimes often scheduling a Letterman audition showcase around his travels.
On Tuesday night, however, he didn’t have to travel far. Gotham Comedy Club put 10 comics on for him as part of the New York Underground Comedy Festival. Two of the performers — Jeff Caldwell and Ted Alexandro — didn’t have as much to worry about. They’d already done Letterman once already. For the other comics, this was their big opportunity to let Brill know they’re ready for network TV.
So…how’d they do?
We went straight to Brill for answers, and guidance on how any comedian can make their way onto Letterman.

Brill said Caldwell is booked for Oct. 19. He wanted to see what Caldwell hoped to do onstage “so we can pick and choose” what’ll make it on-air. For Alexandro, Brill said he hadn’t seen him in a while, and “I wanted to see how he put it together.”
As for the others?
Joe DeRosa did a nice job. He was very good. I liked Pat Dixon. He has some work to do, though…Some of them I’ve seen for the first time,” Brill said. “I thought Bobby Kelly’s bit was hilarious, and I’m sure I can find other material from him to work around.”

Most comics you see are pros who’ve been performing for years. But are there any common mistakes you see them make in auditioning for you?
“People get nervous, obviously, and it shows in their act. You can’t be nervous on our show. What we’re looking for is poise.”

Are there some topics that work better than others in impressing you? Things you cannot say on Letterman?
“It’s pretty hard to tell someone what we’re looking for. If they wanted to they could easily call me and text me but a lot of them don’t.”

More than a few of the comics brought up religion. Is that a big no-no for TV?
“I’ve been talking about it a lot onstage myself…It’s a very uptight time, and comedians tend to hit those taboos.”
But isn’t it too taboo for Letterman?
“No. It’s not true at all. We’ve had Sam Kinison on Letterman, Bill Hicks on Letterman. Of course, there’s the history with Bill Hicks…”
Um, yeah.
“You have to be responsible and have a pespective that’s funny…as long as it’s an original perspective, it’s smart and it’s funny.”

What are the big mistakes you hear comics make in choosing material for you?
“Some people just talk a lot about drinking and getting high. That’s easy comedy. We try to stay away from that. Also, when a person comes out to do a set for television, they need to get the audience in the first 20 seconds. They have to establish that yes, they can do the job, they can make people laugh. Some people are too wordy, they take too long to get to the joke.”

How do the newbies tend to fare in your eyes?
“For a newbie, it depends. You can knock it out of the park, but most times they don’t. I’ll talk to them afterward…if they get what I’m talking about right away, that’s great. Sometimes they come back a few years later…It’s not something you can get right away. They may be funny comics…but they just don’t have the wherewithall yet. They don’t have their stage legs yet. Dave Chappelle hit a grand-slam home-run right out of the park, but most comics don’t do that.”

So how long then before they can come back and show you how much they’ve learned and improved?
“Probably six months to a year. Here’s the thing. I don’t have to see them live every time. I can see them on a tape or DVD. If they think they can get it two months later and send me a tape, great, we can work on it.
“I audition thousands of people all over the world. Next week, I’m going to London, Ontario, having an audition for Letterman. Two weeks after that, I’m going to do an audition in San Francisco. The week before I had an audition in Vancouver.”

And, of course, all of these comedians are competing for slots with the regular comedians Letterman has on every year.
“Sometimes it can take a year and a half. Again, it matters how many spots I get a year. Anytime one of the regulars has an HBO special or some kind of TV deal or movie coming out, we’d be more than happy to get them back on the program…This year, I think I had three new spots already. Last year, I had three new comics on. I always try to break somebody new.
“We had Nick Griffin. He signed with the company. Caldwell had one of the best sets ever. Roy Wood, Jr., had a great spot. We’re shooting for another one in the next month or two…”

The last time we talked in Montreal, you talked about trying to convince the show to add more slots for comedians. (He told me then that it was somewhere around one per week, maybe less.) How is that going?
“It’s always a struggle, but it’s worth the fight.”

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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