A three-time has-been of sorts, Neal Brennan finds new life as a stand-up

A three-time has-been of sorts, Neal Brennan finds new life as a stand-up

Neal Brennan likes to say that everyone in Hollywood is a future has-been, and he should know: He’s been a has-been three times. As Dave Chappelle’s longtime writing partner, he experienced a few low points by his mid-30s: in 1998 when the film they wrote, Half Baked, flopped, then again following Chappelle’s Show’s dramatic end in 2005. Worse, the second one ended his relationship with the mercurial comedian, at least temporarily. Finally, his first big project post-Chappelle’s Show, a film he directed called The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, received poor reviews and weak box-office sales. At that point, Brennan had been harboring an interest in stand-up comedy for a few years, so he decided to place his focus there. His credits helped get him into clubs, but as he says, that goodwill only goes so far. That means his upcoming hour special for Comedy Central, Women And Black Dudes—airing Saturday at midnight Eastern/Pacific—isn’t the network doing a favor for one of its former stars, but a reflection of the work Brennan’s put in over the past few years. It coincides with a busy time for the comedian, who has a sketch-comedy pilot in the works for the network and a script deal with Fox. The A.V. Club talked to him about the mixed blessing of Chappelle’s Show, saying the N-word in his act, and why Chappelle is a wishing well.

The A.V. Club: How much did you feel like you were starting over after Chappelle’s Show?

Neal Brennan: Pretty completely. I think the thing I had going for me is a good pedigree and joke-writing ability. But a good pedigree, for the audience, doesn’t matter past the first 90 seconds. They’re not like, “Bleh, we still like him!” It’s not like I get recognized. People that are big fans know who I am, but most people, you say you co-created Chappelle’s Show, and it’s like saying you invented Skittles. It’s like, “Do you have any Skittles?” “No, I don’t have any on me, but I invented them.” Then it helped me get spots in L.A. like at The Laugh Factory. Then some people, I think, felt like they needed to teach me a lesson, like, “Oh no, you ain’t in Hollywood no more, pretty boy! Where’s your friend? Your friend’s not around, so we’re gonna show you!” It’s some fucking comedy justice.

AVC: Do you mean other comics were that way?

NB: No, I think clubs in some ways, and then I think there are comics who don’t like me strictly because they think I was getting over on my own credits. I know specific people that feel that way. Hopefully it’s less so now. I haven’t checked in with the haters recently. [Laughs.]

AVC: How long after Chappelle’s Show was it until you start getting involved with the production for The Goods?

NB: Not that long. Two years. I wrote a movie in the middle, and I actually made a movie for VH1, like this tiny, made-for-TV movie, because I wanted something low pressure. Tracy Morgan was in it. It’s called Totally Awesome. It’s fucking funny. I did that stuff and then did The Goods and then around that period is when I started doing stand-up. I didn’t do it while we were shooting, obviously, which was two and a half months.

AVC: Were you thinking about stand-up after Chappelle’s Show, or were you more planning on continuing to write?

NB: Even a little bit during Chappelle’s Show and then when Dave left, I just thought if I go on stage people are going to be like, “Where is he?” which, it turns out, they didn’t. They didn’t do that, and it was sort of silly. I felt like I didn’t want to be around comedy for a little bit. I’d rather be in my apartment, thinking it over.

AVC: It’s tough, because as much as the Chappelle association helps, you’re also sort of in its shadow. It’s one thing to start doing stand-up; it’s another thing to start doing it after being best known as the partner of one of the best comedians of the past 20 years.

NB: Yeah, exactly. It’s a good problem to have, I guess, but it’s still a problem. There’s that big blank. There was a bigger blank for a long time where people were like, “You write really good jokes,” and there’s that implicit, “Can’t perform them for shit, but you write really good jokes.” And slowly but surely, the pause has gotten shorter after “You write really good jokes.” I have got friends that say stand-up gave you shit that it doesn’t normally give people—meaning, usually stand-up makes you wait longer for certain skills, and it didn’t make me wait quite as long. But I also was fucking 33, so it was like I didn’t really have time. I’m also not saying, “I’m fucking amazing, you gotta see me.” Being able to write jokes is great, but you still have to get used to performing them and being on stage—and enjoying being on stage, not just like tolerating it. That’s the thing. Chris D’Elia is not tolerating being on stage—he’s fucking reveling in it. Dave revels in it. So it’s getting to the point, I can’t say I revel in it, but I definitely… Also, a lot of writers have this shame to them, meaning, like, we’re the help. I know writers that sort of will shame me for not being more ashamed, if that makes sense. They’re like, “Man, you’re really milking this, huh?” And it’s like, “Yeah! You’re allowed to also!” It’s like, we’re fucking people.

Just yesterday somebody wrote on Twitter, “Dude, why don’t you just write?” [Laughs.] It wasn’t a writer. It was just a regular dickhead. There is a thing among writers, “Oh, he’s trying to break free!” It’s because a lot of them 
may want to break free, but it’s like they don’t want to admit it. I think writers get to hide behind, “Oh, I’m not vain like that,” because I used to hide behind it too and then it turned out, “Oh no, I’m vain. I am vain like that. In an identical way.” Writers act like they’re not vain, and it’s like, “All right, we’re going to post this without your name on it.” “Whoa, whoa, whoa...” And then also there’s the shame of being on stage. Again, enjoying the attention, there’s something kind of low about it, but eventually it’s like, “No, I didn’t get enough attention as a child. Maybe these strangers can help.”

AVC: You had nine other siblings.

NB: The other great thing is, the nine-other-children thing, when you first start, there’s nine other people in the audience.

AVC: That’s true. You also have an older brother, Kevin, who’s a comedian.

NB: Yeah, exactly. Who was ready to go on after me—that is correct—to take on the nine people in the audience. It’s just getting over that mental hurdle.

AVC: What does he think of your stand-up?

NB: He doesn’t talk to me about it. Literally.

AVC: Really?

NB: Mostly because I’m doing stand-up. So, I’m guessing he loves it. 

AVC: He’s been doing it forever.

NB: Yeah, he’s not happy about it. [Laughs.] I’m doing a sketch show for Comedy Central that some of the sketches I’ll be in, some of them I won’t, and somebody told my brother and his first thing was, “Neal can’t do characters.” I was like, “All right, thanks for the support!”

AVC: How much older is he?

NB: [Pauses.] I don’t want to say. 

AVC: Oh interesting. Okay.

NB: Did you come into this trying to get trying to get ink on the feud between me and Dave and you end up, it’s all about me versus my brother?

AVC: Yeah, exactly.

NB: Me and Kevin’s feud. Me and Dave are great—he’s here right now. Kevin, on the other hand… Did you see Kevin on Oprah, shitting on me?

AVC: He was saying you didn’t call him. I mean, come on!

NB: [Laughs.] Exactly. That actually would be the same thing. It’s like, “Guess what, Kevin? You didn’t call me, either!” [Laughs.] Much like the other one. But no, if you’re black and famous and someone doesn’t call you, that’s the worst crime you can commit. The worst crime you can commit against a black, famous person is not calling them back. By the way, that is mostly what people think. They couldn’t believe that I had Dave Chappelle’s number and wouldn’t use it. [Laughs.]

AVC: Really?

NB: “He could do fucking Rick James on the phone! What are you doing? You idiot!”

AVC: It was all on your shoulders.

NB: Yeah, I blew it. I blew it for everybody.

AVC: The show’s been off the air for almost 10 years. People who were kids when the show was on are now early twentysomethings. Is that even a frame of reference for them?

NB: I gotta say yeah, just because it’s on still. It still airs. Despite the fact that none of it’s in HD. It must get ratings, because they wouldn’t put it on. They have tons of other shit they could put on. They’re not putting on Exit 57. I’ll say that. They’re not airing as many Battlebots as they were. 

AVC: How much has your material changed since you started concentrating on stand-up?

NB: That’s an interesting question, because what you find is when you first start, the difference between somebody’s half-hour on Comedy Central and someone’s hour is usually… on the half hour I did last year, there’s a joke about British accents, which anyone could do. It’s about how sad the BBC accents are, how they’ll say, instead of Afghanistan, they’ll say Afghanistan and it’s just like, “Ugh.” Again, simple joke, anyone could do it. Then you get into somewhat more personal shit. I mean, obviously a good joke anyone could do for the most part. Anyone could do Seinfeld’s act, anyone could do Dave’s, Chris’, etc. But you get into this more specificity and risk-taking and the level of difficulty on the jokes is higher. Like saying “nigger” eight times, I don’t think I could have said when I started. Do you know what I mean? I wouldn’t have known how. I wouldn’t have known how to do it in a way that black people can get behind and a way that doesn’t just chill the room. But in the same category, you’re probably not friends with any more black guys than you were then. Some of it’s just a matter of perspective. The joke I do about white people being obsessed with the rules, that joke is about me and Dave.

That’s just straight up about me and Dave, because I’m the rules guy. I’ll be on a plane and if someone’s not turning off their phone on takeoff I’m like, “Oh God, oh boy.” I made it about white people in general, because white people are generally fucking rules-ier. The key to our society is our love of the rules and our love of authority and our love of all that fucking pecking order and all that shit. Black people just aren’t as into that shit. Are they only not into it because white people are into it? The forensics are hard to figure out. But I still know for a fact that my black friends don’t give a fuck about rules. Rules, to black dudes, are suggestions. Whereas, with white guys are, like, “Oh, the truth.”

AVC: The part that caught my ear in the special is a phenomenon you’ve previously called “white people nectar”: liberal white people who have no black friends getting offended on black people’s behalf.

NB: Oh yeah, I don’t even think that’s in the show. That’s the thing, I’m talking about it on stage a couple times, but I’ve never been able to write jokes. The thing I always say is, “You know who got rid of blaxsploitation movies is fucking white liberals.” Black people are still fucking talking about how great Shaft was. And Dolemite and Superfly. But white people shamed the makers into thinking they were exploiting black people. Basically, they were saying they were making movies in poor taste. It’s the same thing they tried to do with Tyler Perry, but black people were like, “Fuck you. We’re not doing that again. We’re not going to apply your taste to our taste.” So it’s always white liberals.

White liberals are the ones that freeze up if I say the N-word—they’re the ones who freeze up. If I say it on stage and even if it offends a black guy, which it rarely does, it’s probably about the 40th most offensive thing that’s happened to him that day. Like, they have enough fucking problems. If they’re offended it’s more like, “No, motherfucker, I didn’t think you were going to cause problems. I expect problems from others.” For the most part, black dudes love that joke. And my black comic friends encourage me to talk about how much I get called the N-word. They were the ones that said, “Dude, that shit is interesting.” Because no one’s ever had that point of view of, “What do you do?” The other thing is, I’m like telling other people to say it. Meaning, I worked with Chris Rock this year and I’m telling him to say it or telling Dave to say it as a punchline, or to make the punchline better. It’s just a weird fucking job. It’s a gray area that people don’t think about. It’s like, “You can never say the N-word.” “Okay, what if I’m me and I have to fucking tell Chris that it would be funnier if he said ‘nigger’ at the end of a joke? How about then? Now am I being racist? For suggesting a black guy say it? Is it part of my white conspiracy to get them to say it?” You know what I mean? There’s just a lot people don’t think about, and even I don’t think about it much until people start trying to legislate against it.

AVC: Speaking in generalizations like, “It’s never okay...” That’s easy to say, but it’s not necessarily realistic.

NB: I think Chris had a joke, “It’s never okay for a white person to say it,” yet he had no problem with me saying it to him. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t go, like, “Yeah motherfucker...” If white people were like, “Why can you say it and I can’t?” I haven’t earned it in any way. I don’t know why I can say it. I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem to offend that many people. Having said that, if they want it to, they can. If people want to make this special about the white guy says the N-word on a plate, they can.

AVC: That didn’t occur to me watching it, because of the context of the jokes.

NB: The set-up is, they know the side I’m on. A lot of it’s about white people’s ideas about how to combat racism, and then it becomes about how my brain is scrambled. The rest of the time I’m saying it as other people or quoting a lyric. But if they want the story, they can get it. That’s a nuanced point of view that I defend myself with, but at the same time… Then they’ll go, “It’s fine if Louis [C.K.] says it.” It’s like the way Louis can say rape jokes, and everybody’s cool. 

AVC: Or the way he says “faggot.”

NB: I say “faggot,” too. They can come after me if they want. In the joke that I say “faggot,” I’m the faggot, but again, if they want to make it about that, there’s nothing I can do about it, and I really can’t purely defend myself. It’s a contextual defense. 

AVC: When I saw David Cross do his “Bigger And Blackerer” tour, he has this whole bit about how he was going to get Martin Luther King custom plates that say “NGR LVR.” I saw him do that joke, and the black security personnel at the theater were not into it. Again, it was a contextual, conceptual joke—it wasn’t built up the same way, but it didn’t land with those folks.

NB: Well, yeah, because Cross has no bona fides when it comes to black culture. Whereas with me they go, “Oh, that’s that motherfucker. I remember that motherfucker.”

AVC: It was also a much shorter joke, so it didn’t have quite the same build-up.

NB: It’s also—that type of joke just isn’t going to be funny to black people. Another advantage I have is I kind of know black rooms, whereas Cross probably doesn’t do black rooms very much.

AVC: When did you start working on this hour?

NB: Like a year ago. I did the half-hour and then, I feel bad talking to the press, because I think people expected it to be like an album, where it’s like, “This special I wanted...” I’m still on that Carlin/Rock/Dave thing where it’s just like, “This is the hour I wrote.” I’m going after those hacks. [Laughs.] I don’t enter into these things with an overall theme. It’s just kind of what comes out. 

AVC: You came up as a joke-writer, so you’re not coming from the one-man-show tradition.

NB: Exactly. Somebody asked me why I was doing, “Why are you directing TV and doing pilots and shit?” and it’s like, “Because if I think of something, I’d like to be able to do it.” I’m not like, “No, brain. We’re not accepting those right now.” If I think of a sketch, I have an outlet to do it, or if I think of a movie, or I decide to write a movie and can write sketches or whatever. I don’t think of one type of idea, and I honestly don’t think of one kind of joke. I’ll think of jokes like, “Aw, I can’t do that joke, but so-and-so can.” 

AVC: Right now you have a sketch show and a Fox pilot, Neal And His Girl? The sketch show is for Comedy Central?

NB: It’s called Neal Can’t Do Characters. I’m kidding. I think it’s going to be called Is It Funny. A couple years ago I wrote a joke on Twitter and I said, “I’m going to do this joke on stage later tonight. Do you think this will work?” The joke ended up on Conan, and I did it in my half-hour for Comedy Central. So I did it on stage that night, and in the afternoon I said, “Do you think this joke will work on stage later? I’m just curious.” Some comedy writers like Mike Schur, I remember wrote, like, “Yeah, that’s good. That should work.” But some kid with like eight followers wrote, “100 percent bomb.” It stuck with me. The way people are authorities on comedy has always struck me. So the idea of the show is I’m going to make sketches, put them on an iPad, and go out on the street and ask random people if they think they’re funny. If they do and someone else doesn’t, I’ll have them argue. If they don’t think it’s funny, I’ll argue with them. I’ll also say, “What do you think I should have done to make it funnier?” If they say, “Put somebody else in it,” I will reshoot the sketch and then show it to them again. 

AVC: So the show itself won’t have a lot of sketches?

NB: It actually will. It’ll be mostly sketches, it’s just a different way to do wraparounds. That’s the mystery. That’s the thing that people can’t seem to crack, is how to do wraparounds on a sketch show in a way that’s better than Chappelle’s Show, because we kind of hit the magic formula on how to do sketches with the wraparound thing, [where] Dave set them up—which is a fucking great formula, but it wasn’t, “Oh, we’ve cracked it here.” It just turned out that everyone since then has set their sketches up that way. 

I also want to show what UCB people think is genius, if I take it to a black barbershop, I’m fucking eating shit, and vice versa. What makes black dudes run around the barbershop is going to make white UCB level-two students be like, “Hmmm… kind of obvious.” So who’s right? Also, I want to do the thing where I tell someone the premise. I’ll tell an airline pilot, a nurse, and Chris Rock a premise and then show that Rock goes, “That’s funny,” and the airline pilot goes, “Not funny.” No one says, “I don’t find that funny” for the most part. They just go, “That, inherently, is not funny.” No one ever says, “I don’t find rape jokes funny.” They just go, “You can never do them.” You can’t? Are you sure it’s not personal? It’s universal. Clearly it’s made me a little crazy, so that should also be funny. Clearly it makes me lose my mind a little bit, because I’m the youngest of 10, and I’m very naturally defensive. I’ve been defending my ideas since I was 5.

AVC: Your podcast, The Champs, primarily has black guests. Why do you think there are so few black podcasters?

NB: I literally don’t think any black dudes listen to podcasts. There are not many black guys who listen, in the world, to podcasts. I’ve sent texts to DeRay Davis, who’s a relatively famous black comedian from Chicago, and I’m friends with him. I’ll say, “Dude, come do my podcast,” and I have a text from DeRay saying, “What the fuck is a podcast?” [Laughs.] It’s like that sketch in that Chappelle’s Show, the trading spouses sketch, where it’s like, “Who the fuck is Renée Zellweger?” There’s no way a black guy would know who Renée Zellweger is. How would he know?! Where would he have even seen her? He’s not going to read People! He’s not going to read fucking US Weekly! But it’s just these matters of fact that like, “Yeah, it’s a podcast, everyone listens.” No! Nobody listens to podcasts, relative to most people.

AVC: On your IMDB page, there’s a quote attributed to you saying that you’ll never match the success that you had being around Chappelle’s Show, that you’ll never be famous. But, presumably, you want to be playing bigger rooms. Is it more of that degree of fame? At what level would you feel most comfortable?

NB: First of all, I’m sure I’ll guess wrong what comfort level I would like. No one ever knows. “You know what level I’d be comfortable with?” and then they get to that level and either think, “This is not enough,” or, “This is way too much.” A Prime example is Dave. I think for a long time he felt ignored, because everyone’s focus was on Chris. It’s like Dave puts out Killin’ Them Softly and literally his agent, that Monday, was like, “No one’s calling, man.” I would like to do theaters. That’s always been a dream. I think that would be a good way to tour. But for the most part, in terms of, do I want to get recognized on the street? No. There’s not much I want about fame. Dave, at this point in his life, is a wishing well. The amount of people that will just come and stand next to him for 10 minutes and not say anything… We’ll be at Starbucks and people will just stand at the table like he’s a fucking wishing well. It’s like, “This is a fucking nightmare.” This would be a nightmare to be the object of. He handles it really well, and he’s used to it, but it’s not pleasant to be around. So I think the level would be, if I made more of those lists. [Laughs.] Be on more lists and if people came to my shows. It’s like Rock said: He knew he was doing well when people got in fights before his shows. I want people to get into fights to get in to see me. [Laughs.] I think that’s what you want.

AVC: You had another really good quote, too: “Everyone in Hollywood is a future has-been.” Do you feel like you’ve already experienced that a couple times, first when Half Baked didn’t do well, and then with Chappelle’s Show?

NB: Yeah, that’s the other thing: I know the cycles. I had people think I was brilliant, then Half Baked bricked. They literally look at me like a homeless person. Then Chappelle’s Show comes out, and I’m brilliant again, and they’re looking at me like I’m brilliant, and I’m supposed to forget the way they looked at me when I was homeless? Do you know what I mean? I’m just supposed to be like, “Yeah, we’re back on, baby!” I don’t even hold them accountable. It’s not even their fault. It’s just the system’s fault. It could be worse. I could be them. I could be constantly chasing hot people. I call them lizards. They’re just looking for a heat lamp to stand underneath. Then they get cold and if they don’t get to another heat lamp, they can’t produce their own heat. They can’t generate their own heat, so they just look for people and think, “Okay, cool man.” So it’s hard not to be cynical about it, but it also makes me see things clearly, in a good way. It just makes me not go to parties, ever. The thing about L.A. is you can tell how you’re doing career-wise by who texts you. 

AVC: By who texts you?

NB: Meaning, I remember when Dave’s phone would ring a lot and he goes, “Oh Nutty Professor must be on TV.” Where you just get used to the rhythms of, “Oh, you’re hot right now,” and people go, “Just thinking of you…” No you weren’t! You were reminded of me. You saw my name in the trailer or whatever the thing is. You saw that I sold something or you saw me, but you’re not thinking of me. The people that I’m friends with are actually decent people, but it’s hard. I’ve been dumped. When The Goods didn’t do well, a number of people dumped me. [Laughs.] It’s like, “All right.” I don’t even hold them accountable. It’s just like, “Okay man. I get it.”

AVC: Well, and that was two or three years after Chappelle’s Show, so you probably learned a lot of lessons in the space of a few years.

NB: Yeah, you just sort of don’t put so much of your self-worth into each project. Chappelle’s Show’s great and everything, but you also just get lucky culturally. But you’ve got to catch a break. It’s like “Rick James” airs, and on the following Tuesday the first season DVD comes out. Then it becomes the highest-selling DVD ever or whatever. It’s because, literally, of some weird fluke. So you try to take the personal out of it. But again, it’s really easier said than done—like far easier said than done. You aspire to it. It’s a standard but it’s a really hard one to meet. But the thing I like about stand-up is just how immediate it is, relative to everything else. The Goods I didn’t know was going to brick for a year and a half. Then it comes out and bricks, and you’re like, “Fuck, was that a waste of time? That might have been a total waste of time!” [Laughs.] Whereas a joke, writing a joke today, I’ll know if it was a waste of time by 8. 

Filed Under: Comedy

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