'Chappelle's Show' Co-Creator Neal Brennan Faces His Demons '3 Mics' At A Time
Originally published on Slant.
Neal Brennan probably wouldn't blame you if you didn't immediately recognize his name.
While Brennan has been one of the most influential figures in comedy of the past 25 years, his hasn't been featured all that often on marquees, with a good chunk of his resumé happening behind the scenes.
With his friend Dave Chappelle, Brennan wrote Half Baked, a stoner comedy that tanked at the box office, but gained cult status and kickstarted Chappelle's career in front of the camera. After Half Baked, Brennan and Chappelle would co-createChappelle's Show, one of the most acclaimed and successful sketch comedy shows ever. Since then, he's worked with everyone from Seth Meyers to Amy Schumer to Will Ferrell to Chris Rock, and developed one of the most popular podcasts out there, The Champs.
That Brennan's success is so connected to people more famous than he is functions as one of the central themes of his brilliant one-man-show, 3 Mics, which is currently running at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in New York City and just so happens to be produced by another famous person, John Legend.
The conceit is quite simple: bored with traditional stand-up, Brennan transitions between three separate microphones on stage, telling one-liners at one, traditional stand-up at another, and serious, personal monologues at the third. While all three microphone personae could suffice individually, it's the combination of the three that allows us to understand Brennan a little bit better.
At the one-liner mic, he's wry and sarcastic. At the stand-up mic, he's glib. But at the personal monologue mic, we learn more about the funnyman with serious clinical depression, low self-esteem (or as he confesses in the show, no self-esteem), and issues with personal relationships. Tragedy accentuates comedy, and comedy accentuates tragedy, leaving the audience with an emotionally complex, but technically straightforward one-man show.
I had a chance to talk with Brennan about getting his start, finding catharsis through comedy, and how 3 Mics is the one-man show equivalent of the clam-tomato juice hybrid, Clamato.
SD: How did you first get into comedy?
NB: I got into it because my brother’s a comedian, so I was able to when I was in high school. I used to come up here in the '80s and '90s. Ray Romano was around, Jon Stewart was around, Louie was around. I remember somebody saying, "How old is that guy Louie?" And someone saying, "Oh, he’s 21."
So I got to come up here and have access to all this stuff, which is invaluable. My brother worked at an improv theater, so I used to go to improv a lot. I think the first person I saw in a show that I recall was Brian Regan in 1988. And when I say he murdered, he fucking murdered. I still remember the jokes he did. Dave Chappelle saw Brian Reegan at one of his first live shows, too, and he was like, "This is like magic, what this guy’s doing."
SD: What about his show killed?
NB: He was Brian Regan, but he just wasn’t famous. He did a joke about dogs barking and just going, "That would be like a person standing in front of their house just going 'Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.'" Like that’s a fucking hilarious joke. That was 28 years ago and I still remember it.
SD: What was the first time you actually got up and did stand-up?
NB: I did stand-up once in 1992, which was atrocious. I did it once again in 1997, which was good. And then I started again a little bit during Chappelle's Show, but really in earnest in 2007.
SD: How did the idea for 'Three Mics' come together?
NB: When you’re doing a show of any kind, you want to make what I refer to as "the secret show." Meaning what’s a show that no one’s done that would be the secret version of what I would like to do? I have stand-up obviously. Then I have one-liners just from Twitter and laying around, so like what the fuck am I gonna do?
The reason comedians are popular podcasters is because we can talk about shit in a forceful, evocative way. When I do a podcast and I talk about depression, or I talk about my dad, or any of that stuff, people would respond to that as much as they respond to funny shit.
When you do stand-up, even at its best it’s only kind of glib. So it’s figuring out a way to not be glib on stage. I come across as bored or superior, and has a comedian I come off as glib. I know that I’m not the most charismatic guy on the planet. So let me be real with the audience and see if that works. Do the show you want to do.
We did a show where it was all garbage on Chappelle’s Show. We did a show that was literally sketches that didn’t work, and Dave kept saying it’s a remix of the Indians using the entire buffalo. He kept saying, "Black people, we eat the entire pig. We eat the snout." So it went to a commercial and came back and he’s like, "We eat the snout." I think I’m kind of eating a snout in some ways. Everything I can write, I’m using. Like if I could rap, I would rap.
SD: How difficult was it to workshop the transitions between microphones?
NB: Look man, public speaking is public speaking. The cool thing that’s happened, and it sounds corny to say, is that a lot of people have said, "I cried from laughing and cried from crying." They’re both crying, you know what I mean? So, I’m not too into "the impulse to laugh is neighbors with the impulse to cry," but I know there’s something to that.
SD: Is it difficult for you dredge up these really heavy things or is it more cathartic?
NB: You know what’s interesting is like the dad stuff, I keep waiting for it to not bother me and it’s bothered me pretty much every time. It’s still upsetting to me. And you can hear it in that last joke. That last joke kills so hard because of the tension. In a weird way, I’m limping. It’s like when a basketball player or a football player gets injured and it’s like, "He’s coming back out on the field!" So I’m upset, you know I’m upset, a lot of people in the audience are upset. So when I explain the function of jokes in my life and then say here’s one last one, it feels like "Get 'em, Rocky."
So in terms of the transitions, I don’t know why it works, but I can tell you from the inside out, I’m pretty sure it works.
You know what a buddy once said? This is a comedy show my wife would like because comedy shows are fucking exhausting. You laugh too much! Like you literally laugh too much to the point where you’re exhausted.
Remember, there used to a be a juice called Clamato? Richard Jeni did a joke about it. It was literally a mass-market product that was clam juice and tomato juice and it was called Clamato and it was like, what? And I feel like this show is a successful version of Clamato.
SD: One thing that really resonated with me was when you talked about the necessity to do this on your own, to do this for yourself. How liberating is that feeling?
NB: It's very satisfying. I was explaining to my girlfriend. She’s in Bali. I’m basically on the road and she is in L.A. and she was like, "I just moved in and you’re not here." I was trying to explain to her this is a culmination of a long time.
Chris Rock said something incredibly mean to me the other day that’s so fucking funny. When we were all getting our picture taken afterward, I was getting a picture with Dave and Chris and Chrissy and everybody and then we’re walking away and then the publicists goes, "Neal, we want a picture of you by yourself." And Rock goes, "For the first time in your life!" It’s so fucking mean and so fucking funny, but it’s true. It’s basically true.
Other than Chappelle Show’s, I’d say this would be my second place. I’ve done a lot on Comedy Central, I’ve directed a lot of commercials, I directed Schumer’s first season. I've done a lot of good stuff, but I’ve done stuff that didn’t work and I was trying to explain to my girlfriend this is connected to the guy in 1990. I saw a headline of a review that calls this stand-up "memoir" and I was like, yeah this is a good way to say it. You look back and you go, "What was I getting at? What did I mean?"
SD: Having that connection between that kid in 1990 to now, would you have changed anything over the course of your career? Is there anything that you would’ve done differently?
NB: I would have started stand-up sooner. That’s the bottom line.
In '92, I was probably too young. I didn’t have anything to say. But you know, in '97 I kept judging my impulse to want to do it. I did it in '97 and then we wrote Half Baked and I was like, "Oh, I’ll just do that. I’ll just be a writer."
I could’ve done stand-up and done Chappelle's Show at the same time. I was always like, "Ah, no you guys go ahead. I’m just doing this as a hobby or whatever." I would have completely, totally committed to it.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo: Christian Frarey