Brett Eidman is successful. He’s got a nice house in the suburbs, a pristine Jeep Grand Cherokee, a family insurance business, and a wife and kids who seem to love him quite a bit. He’s also a hell of a guy one-on-one. In my four years of sporadic dealings with Brett, he’s never been anything but a consummate gentleman–considerate, kind, and genuine beyond all earthly measure. But Brett Eidman has a secret. Despite all he has, he’s not satisfied.
See, my insurance policies are fine, so Brett and I didn’t meet at Eidman Agency, Inc. We met on the set of a music video in 2012. I’d written a piece for Above Average, and he was cast (for $50) to play a bit part as the office manager in a scene where a possessive woman (Elaine Carroll) attacks her ex (Mike Antonucci) at work. The day we shot, I remember being struck by how involved Brett was, how unflappably attentive to the work. Here was a guy who was probably 45, hanging around a bunch of early twenty-somethings who could barely scrounge together enough cash for a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee order. He had on a nice shirt. A wedding band. Why was he up with us at 7:00am on a Saturday, in an office space I eBay’d a game-worn Allen Iverson jersey to rent? When Brett wrapped for the day, he passed me a manilla envelope with his headshot and resume and said “I loved being here. Please use me for anything you think I’d be right for.” I remember thinking, “Is this guy crazy?” Sure, bit parts on Funny or Die, CollegeHumor, and even SNL blanketed the crisp 8.5” x 11”, but none seemed significant enough to sustain the kind of drive Brett so clearly had.
About a year and a half later, Brett reached out to me asking if I’d direct and produce a music video for him. Again, I wondered “Why is he doing this? He doesn’t need to do this.” He was determined. So, my buddy Zack Bornstein and I cobbled together the best shoot we could afford on the budget and gave our most honest shot at Brett’s self-proclaimed, tongue-in-cheek (?) “party anthem” Party All The Time, Let’s Celebrate. Again, Brett brought it. Full tilt. He had the energy of a man with something to prove. What was that thing, though? Did he want to be a standup comedian? A sketch actor? A DJ? Was he just really bored with his day job, and in search of a non-golf hobby? I still wasn’t sure and, again, I remember thinking “Is this guy just kidding around, or is he totally delusional? Why isn’t he on his boat?” I couldn’t take not knowing, so I Googled him. That’s when I saw the video.
The second thing that comes up when you search Brett’s name is this seething Gawker article calling him a racist for creating one of the dumbest, most offensive pieces I’ve seen a “comedian” make. (Brett’s taken it down from his channel, but someone else posted and re-titled it here.) In it, Eidman reprises a shockingly unfunny character he says is based on infomercial personality Tom Vu , and goads an Asian couple until they attack him. The whole thing is staged, very bad, and it’s probably what Brett is best known for. After discovering this, I remember thinking two things: First, “How could the nice guy that’s been e-mailing me make something so fucking awful?” and “How, after all this, is he not crawling into a hole and giving up?”
This month, after nearly a year of work, Brett came out with In The Name of Comedy, an autobiographical documentary short that begins to answer some of those questions, and addresses what he was thinking when he made the Tom Vu piece. Unlike any of Brett’s other work, the doc is a raw, self-aware piece of grounded introspection, all conducted by someone whose sense of reality I often questioned. Brett presents as a man who knows he may never be a star, but is woefully unashamed of dreaming to be.
Still, I needed to know more. I needed to make more sense of Brett. Is he a misunderstood anti-hero with a heart of gold, doing his best to fulfill his dream in the face of an industry that doesn’t seem to give a shit, or is he just severely misguided? We spoke on the phone this week and, even in that aftermath, I’m not really sure.
When were you first bit by the comedy bug?
Well, my background in comedy started with my dad, just being a really funny guy and turning me onto SNL back in 1975. He was up on that show from day one. Before it won any Emmy awards or had any reputation, he told me I needed to watch that show. I became a huge Belushi fan and then that kind of transformed into it being what I wanted to do. I wanted to do comedy, I wanted to be like John Belushi. I didn’t know anything about the comedy industry, just that I wanted to be a part of it. I tried standup for a little bit and then took improv classes and eventually went and auditioned for classes at The Second City in Chicago. It’s funny because I went to Second City because I knew that’s where Belushi had started and, believe it or not, the first people I actually met were Tim Meadows and Chris Farley. I started talking to them, asking them “What do I have to do in order to get on to stage?” and they told me “You have to audition and take classes,” so I auditioned and started taking classes.
I just loved it there. You had to audition for every level and, for me, that was just such a cakewalk because it felt so comfortable there. Unfortunately, after I had finished all of the classes, I had to stay in New York because I had my DJ business and had a lot of family in New York. In hindsight, I should’ve stayed in Chicago to keep doing everything that I could to get on their touring company and then onto a stage, but I stayed in New York City, on the advice of my family, and started doing standup more and taking different classes in the city.
When I was doing standup, I did a more character-based act. One night on TV, I saw this guy Tom Vu and he was presenting this real get rich quick scheme, and it was obvious he was a scam artist. I just thought to myself, “My God, this guy is a real character – I can use him in my standup act and use some of my improv skills to make it a bit where I ask people what kind of job they have, and no matter what they say I tell them it’s a ‘loser job’ and they need to ‘come to my seminar.’” Everything they do is dumb and they will become rich with my advice. When I was doing the character at the time, it was a parody of the guy who would appear on television late at night. As time went on, it wasn’t really a parody anymore because people didn’t remember who this guy Tom Vu was, so it just me doing a character. One time, I was working in the Comedy Store and there were like four people in the entire audience, and I started doing my Tom Vu character, but then I realized I’m doing an impersonation of an Asian person because Tom Vu is Asian, so I decided to address that in the video sketch I made about it where I’m being beaten up.
Before we get to that video, I want to ask: Are any of your contemporaries at Second City still around and doing comedy?
A few. One of them is one of the original Funny or Die people. Then some are still teaching improv, but a lot of the other guys I don’t think they ever really hit, or they moved on.
And your family business, the one your father started, is an insurance and financial services business?
Yes, but I’m not involved in that anymore.
Did you ever work there?
I worked there after I was married because the person I married already had children. I needed a stable paycheck and things like that. It was nice to work there because I could leave and go and do auditions and stuff like that and then come back and make up the time, no problem.
When did you leave the company?
Pretty recently, in December of 2015.
Okay, so now it’s just full-time comedy?
Yeah, now working full-time on comedy and the documentary.
Let’s get back to the Tom Vu video, which got a lot of attention on the internet, most of it not very positive. That’s the thing you’re kind of best known for, yeah?
Yeah, I mean I’ve done other things that have been popular, but that is the first thing you see when you Google me. Managers or agents wouldn’t return my calls because the first thing that comes up when you Google my name is that I’m racist or an asshole and they don’t want to deal with that kind of stuff. When Andy Kaufman did bits it would be like you didn’t know if he was being serious or not, and that’s kind of what I was going for, but when this video came out I didn’t think it would become such a huge thing.
We’ve worked together in the past and you’ve never come off as a racist, in any way. It begs the question: Do you feel that this was an ill-timed bit? Like, in your mind, if you had done this 25 years before, would it have been successful?
I definitely think so, even just in the sense that there was no internet 25 years ago, so when I was doing different bits in nightclubs and stuff like that, no one would ever come up to me and tell me something was racist or something like that. I didn’t even think of it that way, I just thought of it as an improvisational exercise. I was just doing a parody of someone who also happens to be Asian, not doing a racist bit.
Well, the glasses and all that does make it seem less like parody and more like plain racism.
Yeah, I can see that. But, in my mind, even the glasses are just so comical looking that it’s like I don’t know how people can watch it and not see I’m doing a joke. Like, I’m putting on the glasses and doing the bit right in front of an Asian couple. I thought it was pretty clear that it was just a joke. I also thought that because I made myself the victim in the video people wouldn’t have a problem with it. 9/11 jokes are not funny unless you’re going after the bad guy, that type of thing. I just thought that people wouldn’t take it as seriously as they did. The setup I think could’ve been done differently. Like I used to perform a song called “Don’t Marry The Jew” and if people didn’t know that I was Jewish, they could also think that was being anti-Semitic.
I think it’s very interesting how this event kind of forms the backbone of your documentary. Is it safe to say that if you were given the opportunity to make this video again, you probably would not?
That is absolutely true. I don’t want to be known as a guy who only does stuff for shock or to get a reaction. I want to be known as someone who does good stuff or who is known for doing stuff that has a little bit of thought behind it.
Some of the more interesting parts of the doc were your wife’s interviews, both in terms of how she perceives that Tom Vu video and just in terms of how she speaks about your relationship. How has your pursuit of comedic fame affected your marriage and your relationship with your kids? Have they been supportive or have they not always been?
My mom and dad have always been supportive of my comedy endeavors. For a long time I thought my brother and sister were, but they are no longer. My wife is supportive in a lot of the stuff that I do. She doesn’t find humor in a lot of it, but she saw the [doc] and I asked her for her honest opinion and she said, “I was intrigued.” That was the first time. She’s enjoyed my other stuff, but not like this.
How do your kids feel about it?
Well, I haven’t shown them the full movie yet; they will probably all see it in full when it plays at the film festival in September. My son is a little bit more into this comedy world than my daughter, who is kind of wrapped up in her own stuff. They’re as supportive as kids can be, when it comes to their parent’s work.
Sure, but it’s a little unusual for someone to have a dad in comedy and have them pursue it with the rigor that you have. You’ve had varying degrees of success and have kept up with it, have you ever been asked by your kids, “Dad, why are you still doing this?”
They haven’t asked me that. I think they’re more proud that their dad is out there plugging away. I’ve always been able to provide for them, both of them are working really nice jobs right now and are doing really well, so I think they’re aware of it but they also don’t know all the things I have to do that they don’t see. My wife does because she sees all of it. You go on a dozen auditions and still don’t land anything, and then your frustration level gets way out of control. She feels that part of it and doesn’t understand how I can subject myself to this over and over again in an industry where people aren’t ethical or are dishonest. I just told her, “Well, I just love to perform and write and be in the entertainment industry. I just keep doing it and swimming through the garbage so that I can get to what I want to do.”
Is there a day where you’ll say, “I’m not famous. Enough is enough.” or is the pursuit at this point the thing that keeps you going?
I do go to auditions sometimes and see people in their 60s or 70s doing auditions and I just think to myself, “There’s no way that’s gonna be me.” The only way I’ll be in the business still at that age is if I’m working on something, I can’t see myself doing auditions or stuff like that at that age. Do you know Kate Flannery? I was doing a movie two summers ago with her, I knew her from my Second City days, and I was talking to her about my frustrations with auditions and stuff like that and she told me just to hang in there a few more years because they’re always going to need dads or older characters, people our age – and there’s not gonna be as many people competing for that job as there were when we were younger because most people are smart and got out of the business by now. There are still so many things I’m working on right now that keep me excited and keep me wanting to be in the industry. I think I’m in a better position now than I have been the last 20-25 years. Things seem to be coming together.
*Note: Brett would only allow us to show the doc’s trailer, because the full film is running the festival circuit. E-mail him if you’re curious and he may give you a sneak peek, or check it out September 10th at the Northeast Film Festival where it’s been nominated for Best Documentary. He tells us it will be available on iTunes later this year.
h/t to @MattVisconage for transcribing.
Luke is an executive producer at CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.