Obama, Twitter and Pokez: The Neal Brennan Sketch Comedy Diet
For the past four years, comedian and director Neal Brennan has been reassembling his life as a performer. After the abrupt cancellation of Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show in 2006, and the unfortunate dissolution of his friendship with Chappelle, Brennan decided to steer clear of comedy clubs.
His self-imposed exile didn’t last long, and in 2007 he made his return to the stage and has been working on new material night after night. He was one of the writers hand-picked to contribute jokes for friend and SNL star Seth Meyer’s appearance at The White House Correspondent’s Dinner in May, and recently directed a series of commercials for the 2011 ESPYS, which began airing this week.
SanDiego.com was fortunate to speak with Brennan from his home in Los Angeles where he’s preparing for a weekend of shows at The La Jolla Comedy Store, and discussed his first time doing stand-up, the D.I.Y. aesthetic of Chappelle’s Show, and the new sketch he just filmed with R & B crooner, John Legend.
Do you remember the first time you did stand-up?
Neal Brennan: Yeah I do, because it was awful. It was 1992 I believe, and I was 18, and it was rough. I got no laughs. I also think that Maron might have been in the room, and Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman. I don’t remember exactly who was there; I mean whatever, I just didn’t know what to do.
And this was at the Boston Comedy Club in New York?
How long did you work there before you went up and did that first set?
NB: Six months. But the thing is, I didn’t do it again for five years. I did stand-up again in 1997, did well in 1997; then me and Chappelle wrote Half Baked, and I got kind of swallowed up into writing and then didn’t do (stand-up) again until 2002. Then did it a little from 2002-2004, but it was during Chappelle’s Show so I couldn’t really focus that much. Then started again in earnest in 2007.
Would you say the name recognition you developed as a writer has helped propel your career as a comedian?
NB: I think it gives me an opportunity. It gives me one opportunity, but I think if you bomb they don’t really care. In 2007 when Chappelle’s Show was a little fresher, people were like, ‘Oh you should headline!’ And I was like, ‘I’m not good enough to headline.’ So now is the first time I actually feel good enough to headline.
So despite your name recognition from Chappelle’s Show, you knew that you weren’t ready to do 40 to 50 minutes.
NB: Yeah, and I didn’t want to rip people off. I didn’t want to go up and end going like, ‘So, any questions about Dave?’
When were you passed at The Comedy Store?
NB: What’s hilarious is I was sort of passed, but not really passed until New Years of 2010, I think.
Did you get to write your name on the wall with everyone else?
NB: Yeah, my name’s on the wall.
What spot did you pick?
NB: You don’t get to pick. And you also don’t get to pick your neighbors.
What’s your take on crowd work?
NB: People say I’m good at crowd work. To me, I’d rather just do my act, but I know the crowd likes crowd work. I’m not going to say it’s cheating, because I know guys that can do crowd work that are incredible, but I would just rather do my act. It just feels like the jokes I’ve written and attempted are supposed to be better than the jokes I just riff on the spot. But you get the upgrade, because it’s written on the spot. I don’t have a section of my act that’s for crowd work, but hopefully maybe I will. I’m not like, ‘Do this Obama junk and then work the crowd.’
Do you get a lot of hecklers that are pissed off at you dating back to Chappelle’s Show?
NB: No, I never have actually. I thought I would and that’s why I stopped in 2004. Once Dave left I was like, people are going to be yelling, ‘Where’s Dave?’ I think the more time goes on and the more that I’m around every day and Dave’s sort of gone, I think they realize, ‘Oh, maybe things are more complicated than I was lead to believe?’
What’s the worst heckle you ever received?
NB: It was this crazy room in New York. The first time I do a room I’m nervous because I don’t know what the rules are at that room. Do people punch you in the face if you’re not good? You don’t know where the stage is, and all of sudden you’re going to fall off. So I walk on stage at this crazy ass sort of ghetto-ish club in New York, and some kid yells out, “Yo, are you scared?” which is like, real prison-y; it’s awfully prison-y. The good news was, I was scared, because I had never done the room before, and it was basically like a high school cafeteria during a blackout. It was like, ‘How did you know I’m scared?’ Yeah I’m scared! Yes! I just ignored him, but I wish I’d gone, ‘Yes as a matter of fact I am scared, any other questions?’ That’s what the French call, ‘the spirit of the staircase.’ It’s a term for when you come up with a good comeback like an hour and a half later.
How would you compare the Original Room at The Hollywood Comedy Store , with the showroom at the La Jolla Store?
NB: Well the O.R. is one of the hardest rooms in the world. It’s just off the charts difficult. Louis C.K. and Chris Rock say they get nervous going on at the O.R. in L.A. The La Jolla room is almost like the nice cousin of the O.R. You want to go, ‘Well you guys look alike. You’re both all black lacquer. But yet O.R. why do you do crime and La Jolla, you’re such a nice young man.’ La Jolla really is my favorite room. I’ve never really headlined before, so this is going to be my first time. I’m really excited to do it there because I feel really comfortable there. The thing with the O.R. is the audience is so anonymous that they actually feel like they can take you somehow. Like, ‘Let’s take him!’ like they can rush the stage, where in La Jolla, it’s like the O.R., but slightly brighter. But I also think the people in La Jolla have better lives than the average person does in the O.R.
Do you have any desire to record an album?
NB: Not much. Here’s the thing; I’ve been talking to Jeselnik and guys that are doing albums that are like, ‘Yeah my album did really well.’ I’m like, ‘How many did it sell?’ They’re like, ‘5,000 copies.’ And my first thought is, ‘Why did you even bother making one?’ 5,000 copies, why go through the manufacturing? First of all, I haven’t bought a CD in probably five years. I would rather do an hour on television.
When you come down to San Diego, do you have any favorite hangout spots?
NB: I’m vegan, so I like to go to Pokez. I love the spirit of the dudes who work there. They really are terrible waiters, and they act like they may fight you, and I don’t think it’s an act - I think they'll fight you. They have neck tattoos. There’s a place called Spread that friends of friends run, that I’m supposed to go to this trip. It’s a really good vegan place, like world-class good.
Do you have any projects coming up?
NB: I did some commercials for the ESPYS with Carmelo Anthony, Lindsay Vonn; in fact, I think Lindsay’s sister lives in San Diego, so if you’re reading this come on out. Serena Williams, John Wall; just a lot of athletes and we did four spots in a day. I’ve been shooting some sketches. I feel like my brain had been strip mined by Chappelle’s Show, and now it’s finally coming back. So I’ve had a lot of sketch ideas and have been shooting them myself. The great thing about Twitter is, I can just go, ‘Hey, can someone help me on Thursday?’ and I get a crew. The thing is, I know enough famous people to put in sketches and I have the ideas myself. Here’s the thing; I want to do a lot of stand-up, so I want to use these sketches to promote stand-up bits. Does that make sense? Brett Ernst called me “Memento” because I ‘m doing my career backwards. I also wrote on the correspondent’s dinner and met Obama, which was awesome.
Did you write any of the material that Obama did at the press dinner?
NB: I didn’t write any of his jokes, I wrote Seth’s jokes. Judd Apatow wrote that thing about the difference between Obama’s day and Trump’s day. The videos were done by his speech writers. One of the speech writers, Jon Lovett, actually was an open-micer in New York. As soon as someone tells me they’re an open-micer, I just want to moosh their face.
Are you going to shop the sketches you've been shooting around once you’ve compiled them together?
NB: I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, but I’m trying to get around the paradigm of corporate approval. This idea of like, ‘Did Viacom say it was ok?’ I had a sketch idea for this girl named Chrissy Teigen who’s a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and her boyfriend is John Legend. So we shot it at John and Chrissy’s house, John ended up being in the sketch. It cost me $197.00 to make because I paid the two camera guys, and I didn’t even have to.
So you’ve become a very D.I.Y guy.
NB: That’s the thing - when Dave asked me to do Chappelle’s Show with him, I was like, ‘Ok, I’ll do it but just so you know, I want to do this sketch’ and it was that Pop Copy sketch. I’d already scouted the location and was going to shoot it myself. Chappelle’s Show, for all its’ popularity and scope, was about the most D.I.Y show in the history of television. Meaning that it was just me and Dave writing, and then me and Dave and Bijan editing. I was on Rogan’s podcast the other day, and I was talking about how I worked at least 12 hours a day for 35 days in a row, at one point just to get the show on the air, and Dave probably did the same. Any good show is D.I.Y. Jimmy Fallon wanted me to work on his show, and I was like, ‘Dude, too hard.’ When I saw him later, once the show had started he looked at me and goes, ‘I can’t believe how many meetings I have to go to.’ Alan Thicke, who had a talk show in 1986; he was in The Goods, and he still couldn’t believe how hard it was. You sleep in the studio. People have no idea. Like me and Dov did the pilot for Showtime, its funny, doesn’t get picked up and I can’t show it to anybody. That’s the thing that sort of sucks about getting paid. The other thing I find is that doing these shows, in terms of making decisions, is they cost so much money. Me and Dov’s pilot cost $800,000. I’m the director and one of the stars. I have no idea where the money went. It cost $800,000 and I have no idea why? Whereas the thing I shot with Chrissy and John, it’ll be five minutes of content and cost me $197.
Is that online yet or is it still in post-production?
NB: No, I’m having a hard time finding somebody to edit it for free.
Would you say that you prefer the life of a comedian as opposed to writer or director?
NB: Even when I was on the set of a movie, I still think doing a theatre is the coolest thing you can do as a stand-up. I would rather be Jim Gaffigan then Todd Phillips; if that makes sense. Will I get there? Who knows, but I’m going to try.
Neal Brennan headlines The La Jolla Comedy Store June 24-25.