By Will Guess
Photo by Jill Allen
Stand-up comedian Neal Brennan has spent the majority of his career behind the scenes. His resume is an impressive one - with credits including co-creator and writer for Chappelle’s Show, co-writer for the cult classic stoner movie Half Baked, and writing credits for shows like Singled Out, Kenan & Kel, and All That. After years spent creating content for others, Brennan has jumped head-first into the world of stand-up. FPH was honored to speak to one of the most hilarious people around about lazy journalists, why black comedians are funnier than white comedians, and his interest in racial issues, among other things. You can see him perform stand up at Fitzgerald’s on April 23. Buy tickets here. You don’t want to miss this.
Your path to doing stand-up comedy is pretty much the exact opposite of what most comedians take. Would you agree?
Yeah, my buddy Bret Ernst, who’s a comedian, calls me Memento because I’m doing my career backwards. It’s true. I would’ve been better off doing stand-up when I was younger. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any confidence to say it. It took a lot of years. Finally realizing that I’m on my own and I have to do this. Stand-up is the thing I did when I realized I was on my own and I couldn’t worry about writing with somebody or getting a script to somebody. It’s like, no you gotta do this shit now, tonight. Also, stand-up is great because Hollywood is mostly rejection for everybody - except for like Will Smith right now, but Will’s going to be getting rejected soon enough. I recently came to the conclusion that everyone in Hollywood is a future has-been. Stand-up is a good antidote to constant Hollywood rejection when they’re like, “No, you’re not funny,” and you’re like, “I think I am. Let me just go to this club and just make sure. Yep, still funny.” The thing I like about it is that it’s really not very collaborative in the best possible way. It’s not obstructionist. For instance, I did this movie The Goods with Jeremy Piven and we all thought it was funny and it comes out and it’s a dud. That took two years to find out that it was a dud. Now, I just thought of a joke this morning that I’m going to find out if it works in two hours. That’s the great thing about stand-up. When movies work, it’s great, but when they don’t work, it took fucking forever and it turned out [to be] kind of a waste of time. With stand-up, you say, “I think this might be funny, let me go see,” and you’ll know by 9:45. Chappelle used to always say that jokes never work during the day. I’ve never pitched a premise to somebody during the day that ended up working at night so you just have to keep it to yourself and then go up and say it to an audience. I get no notes. There are times when I wish someone would’ve told me that I needed to improve something for it to work. That’s the great thing though, you live and die on your own but it can be lonely because of that.
You said in an interview with Chicago Now that “People don’t like to think that famous people do human things.” Can you expand on that and explain what you mean?
Yeah, that’s 100% true. I think I said that in reference to Dave but I had a thought about this recently. As much as people say “Celebrities think they’re better than us,” well, we do constantly give them awards which may mislead them into thinking that they are indeed better than us. That was the thing about me and Dave. Me and Dave have a disagreement and people, like liberals who don’t know any black people, can’t believe that I’m having a disagreement with a black person. When you’re actually friends with someone, you can have vehement disagreements with them. It’s OK because they’re a person and not a black person. Other people can’t believe that I’m having a disagreement with a famous person. There are people who truly get away with murder. In my line of work, where I deal with some famous people every once in awhile, it’s like I’m impressed, but I’m not that impressed because I know what these people are actually like and what they’re actually like is human beings. People don’t want to know that Dave’s fallible.
Yeah, I was listening to you on Jay Mohr’s podcast and you referred to him as a folk hero. People want to believe he can do no wrong.
Yeah, it’s like I got into a public argument with Paul Bunyan. He’s a myth. For instance, Paul Bunyan came to my house on Sunday and I had to ask him to leave because I had shit I had to do. People are like, “Wait, you told Dave Chappelle he had to leave?” Yeah, I had shit I had to do.
Does being billed as and known for being the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show ever bother you?
It literally never bothers me. That doesn’t bother me at all. That’s what my best credit is. If I’m “famous,” it’s because of that. What’s funny though is I actually get more respect from Twitter than I ever got from Chappelle’s Show. The thing with comedy is that people don’t think you’re funny unless they see you do it. I am the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show, but people have no idea what that means. They think that everything that happened on Chappelle’s Show was just made up on the spot. When Leno comes out or Letterman comes out or Jimmy or any of these people, you don’t think about the writing. You think about that person saying funny shit. That’s the illusion. That’s the way it works. So the fact that I get even a little respect for being the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show is sort of unique because it doesn’t really mean much normally. If the co-creator of Sex and the City was here you’d be like, “Oh yeah? So?” I always say that being the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show is like being like, “Hey, the guy who invented Skittles is here.” Being a comedy writer is like being the guy in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest who throws the ball up in the air. If you’re a nerd, you know that Baron Davis threw the ball up for Blake Griffin to dunk over the car but really you just remember Blake. And I get it - that’s the job. Because of Twitter, because of social media, people are impressed with guys like Joss Whedon or any of these guys who are mostly writers. So, I’m benefiting from that. Having said that, I’m also a decent comic. Twitter has done more to prove that I’m funny because when you say, “I directed the Rick James sketch,” - what does that mean? People don’t know what that means. I mean, they know that Steven Spielberg is a director or Tarantino but that’s pretty much it. Those are the only people that they’re really impressed with. It’s usually people that are on camera. Spielberg, Scorcese, and George Lucas are about the only people that are behind the scenes that get a lot of shine because they’ve created these things that are so massive. So, I’m grateful to Twitter for that. Even Facebook - Chris Rock is my friend on Facebook. I honestly believe he didn’t know if I was funny until he started seeing my Facebook feed because my Twitter links to it and that was proof to him that I’m funny. I’ve known Chris Rock for 15 years but I wasn’t a comic - I was hanging out with Dave. I was quiet. In the last year and a half he’s been like, “Yeah, you’re funny.” You just have to prove to people that you’re funny.
You’ve said before that you’re not the biggest fan of Half Baked - What didn’t you like about it?
It just didn’t look the way that we had envisioned it. That movie, in its creation, in terms of script, was a bit of a fever dream. The entire thing was a dream sequence, if that makes sense. It’s really impossible to explain that. So, I’m not the biggest fan. We got on set and Dave whispered to me, “Is this how you pictured the sets?” and I said “Nope.” Actors would be re-writing stuff and there was just shit we should have made better. We were 23. There are parts of it I like. There’s probably a 10-minute area that I like. I like the Sir Smoka Lot stuff. Dave and I wrote that and it’s the only thing where I’m like, “Yeah, these guys went on to do Chappelle’s Show.” When we did those scenes where Dave is basically talking to himself, the way you shoot it is, you block a camera off, you roll once with Dave as Sir Smoka Lot and me as Thurgood, and then you roll again with Dave as Thurgood and me as Sir Smoka Lot. So we got to improvise and write as we were doing it and that’s close to what Chappelle’s Show was like. Those were the parts that I like.
Why do you think black comedians are funnier than white comedians?
Because being black is harder, on average, than being white. Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor. That’s four of the top five right there. Whatever your barometer is, black dudes are just funnier. I have a theory which is the average black dude on the street is funnier than the average white comedian. I said that to Chris Rock one day and this is how funny Rock is - he goes, ‘I don’t know man, Italians are pretty funny.’ He’s such a funny guy that he can’t even agree with a compliment. Being black in America is harder than being white in America, on average. There are obviously exceptions on both sides, but it’s pretty much like the malign groups of America - Black, Irish, and Italian. The last 150 years, that’s pretty much it. So basically in the next 30 years, Mexicans are going to be running this comedy shit.
Why are you so interested in racial issues?
What’s funny is, I don’t know. Here’s a theory and I can’t confirm this: I grew up Catholic and I had to go to church and shit all the time. I went to Catholic school and most of the lessons are just about social justice. The teachings of Jesus are basically just social justice. I lived in Chicago and my brother, who worked downtown at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Stadium, and Comiskey Park, worked with all black dudes. You go in those neighborhoods and it’s mostly black dudes. I think maybe I was just struck by me living in a rich white neighborhood surrounded by people who are constantly talking about social justice and they’re not doing shit about this. There are people living in abject poverty a half an hour away and while they’re talking about all of this shit, they’re not doing anything. I think maybe the disparity struck me. Also, when I grew up, I was a teenager in the late ’80s and the late ’80s was Michael Jordan, the birth of hip hop, the birth of Spike Lee black cinema - those are giant cultural influences on the entire culture, let alone a kid. Spike Lee is the reason I went to film school. I saw Do The Right Thing and I was like “What the fuck is this? Who made this?” Then I started reading up on Spike and I was like, “There’s a film school? I gotta go to that.” After Michael Jordan started playing ball in ’85-’86, it was no longer even close - black dudes were the coolest people in America. Before that, it was like Michael Jackson and Prince, androgynous black dude. Once Jordan, Spike Lee, and hip hope came, it was like, that’s a wrap. It had a huge influence.
Are you strictly going to do stand-up now instead of writing?
No, no. I’m taping an hour stand-up special for Comedy Central in two days on Friday in New Orleans. I directed Amy Schumer’s show for Comedy Central last month so that starts on April 30th. I directed an episode of The New Girl. Chris Rock, because of social media, seeing him around in LA and pitching him jokes, asked me if I wanted to write these sort of commercial, viral video things for him for Beats by Dre. Beats by Dre has this thing called The Pill which is this small speaker that’s awesome. I’ve been writing that and the Beats by Dre people call me and said, “Actually, it’s not just Chris - It’s Chris and Eminem.” I thought it was the best comedian, turns out it’s the best rapper too. I’ve been writing these pieces for them that they’re doing voiceover for. I’ve been doing that for the past month and I always have a show I’m pitching. I did a pilot this year for Fox that didn’t get picked up and I’ll probably go out and pitch another show in a couple of weeks.
You’ve talked before about topics such as why you think journalists are lazy and the moment you realized people have publicists. Where does that perceived disdain for journalists come from?
Well, it’s not a disdain for journalists. There’s a couple of things. I think that there are a lot of great journalists, but I think it’s like anything else. I think that most journalists are lazy. You find it to be true when you get an article written about you and there’s shit that’s just wrong that could be really easily fact-checked. You know who confirmed my suspicions that journalists are lazy? Michael Moore, but I won’t get to that one yet. First thing: Iraq. Nobody does shit. Nobody does any investigative journalism. Everyone now just wants to be in the club. The best illustration of this is [when] Helen Thomas asked George Bush a hard question and gets put in the back of the room. So, that sends a message to everybody, “Well, I better not ruffle any feathers because if I do, I’m gonna get put in the back of the room and therefore, I’ll lose my job because I won’t have access, I won’t get sources, etc.” Having said that, I don’t think you say “Well, blame George Bush.” I think people are lazy to begin with. I think human beings are naturally lazy. So, Iraq is a pretty good illustration that journalists are lazy. Secondly, the White House correspondence dinner. I’m there with Seth Myers who I wrote a bunch of jokes with for it and then afterward we go to all the parties and everything. Terry Moran, the host of Nightline comes up and he’s like, “You know what’s great about tonight is that in any other country, a comedian makes fun of the King or the Chancellor or the President, then he’d be put in jail or killed.” And I go, “Well, Terry, somebody’s got to say this stuff and God knows you’re not going to.” And you know what he said? “You’re right.” What’s happened with corporate journalism is you’ve got Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left. You know who the most reliable people are now?Comedians. Comedians and Michael Moore. So, people now rely on Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Doug Stanhope, it used to be Bill Hicks, to get a sort of humanistic, really objective take on what’s happening in the world. There’s no editor, there’s no head of the news division pulling them in a direction.
So, Michael Moore. We meet about a month ago. I go, “How did you get footage of George Bush sitting there for eight or 11 minutes or whatever it was during the September 11 attacks? Did everyone just pass on it?” And he goes “No, I just called the teacher. No one had called the teacher.” Then you just go well, of course they didn’t because they were too geeked out and also, I believe that even if they had seen the footage some people would’ve been like, ‘No, we can’t air that. That’s not a good look for the President.’ But the fact that Michael was the only one to call the teacher, that says everything you need to know about journalists. Michael said the thing about the Bin Laden family all flying out on the 12th, he said he just saw it buried in the Washington Post. The Washington Post didn’t think it was a big deal. It’s a fucking embarrassment. You know what was instrumental too in all of this? There’s a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death that I probably read 15 years ago, but goddamn is it good. Everything is entertainment news now. Everyone is like, “Isn’t it great that Brian Williams is hosting Saturday Night Live?” No, it’s not. It’s fucking not. It’s not a fucking game, dude.
The other thing is, when you get in these halls of power, you lose objectivity because it becomes this cocktail party thing. It becomes about what’s going to advance my career instead of what’s going to advance the national discourse of public interest. Last week, everyone was lamenting on Twitter the cancellation of Enlightened, meanwhile the assault weapons ban basically got cancelled - on the same day. No one says shit because they’re all so caught up in their own asshole about how great their taste is in TV shows. That’s all people are anymore - just their taste in TV shows.
You’ve also talked a lot in the past about the way that Hollywood operates. What’s your biggest problem with the way things work there?
I almost want to be contrarian and say that it does work. Here’s the thing, I think, for the most part, it has gotten better in that the guys making most of the comic decisions now are guys that know what the fuck they’re talking about. By that, I mean Judd Apatow and Adam Mckay. They’re making a ton of comedy decisions and they should because they actually are comedians. They know how to write, direct, produce, they’ve done stand up and improv. They’ve been in the field. It’s less so on a TV network level because what happens is, someone gets hot in Hollywood in clubs. Comedian X gets hot and then Hollywood is like, let’s develop a show. So then that persons gets a show developed for them and they won’t let it happen organically. If someone’s hot, they should just sign them up for 5 development deals in a row with the assumption that they’re going to make some shows and some of them are going to fail, but just keep making them because there is a finite number of people that are funny and just figure out who’s funny and just make stuff with them. Too much of it becomes about who is hot and not about who is just funny. I always daydream about becoming super popular as a comedian and hearing someone go, “You know who’s really funny? Neal Brennan.” And someone goes, “Oh, you mean the guy that’s been a professional comedian for 17 years? The guy who has BEEN funny?” I’ve fucking been funny forever, but it takes them so long. I go in and out of being hot. I’ve been hot in three different decades. I was hot in ’97, ’04, and ’13, but it’s a surprise every time. Hollywood overreacts. When you’re hot, you’re super hot, and when you’re cold, they literally don’t even want to be seen near you. They think you’re going to get whatever your cold germ is on them. Everyone that does anything really great in comedy was cold before. Chris Rock was ice cold before Bring The Pain. Dave was ice cold before Chappelle’s Show. Fucking ice cold. I cannot say that enough. We pitched to HBO and they looked at us like we were lepers. Richard Pryor quit doing stand up in one style and had to go away for two years to find what he really wanted to say. Same with George Carlin. Whenever someone gets hot and has a great career and someone says, “You know who’s amazing? This person,” and I’m like, “Dude, they haven’t even had a breakdown yet.” It’s almost without fail. You have to have some sort of fall off so that you can just be like, fuck it, I’m coming back and I’m not going to be denied and I’m not going to be denied my true voice. People get too caught up in hot and cold and not enough in just flat-out funny. And that, my friend, is why journalism stinks.