Neal Brennan on 3 Mics, Comedy in the Age of Trump, and Enjoying Life

Neal Brennan headlines the Oriental Theater on Saturday, December 1.
Neal Brennan headlines the Oriental Theater on Saturday, December 1. Courtesy of Loshak PR
Before he ever picked up a microphone, Neal Brennan had a hand in creating some of the best comedy of the past twenty years. Co-creator of the groundbreaking and eminently quotable sketch series Chapelle's Show, Brennan has written for Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner and the Academy Awards. His behind-the-scenes career has also included directing several episodes of Inside Amy Schumer, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard and his own standup specials, along with the latest hours from Michelle Wolf and Al Madrigal.

These days, however, Brennan is being celebrated for emerging from the writer's room and moving onto the stage. His latest special, 3 Mics, won particular acclaim for its innovative format, emotional honesty, and steady supply of perfectly crafted jokes. Brennan is winging his way through Denver on his Here We Go tour, which stops by the Oriental Theater on Saturday, December 1. In advance of that show, Westword caught up with Brennan to discuss his new material, the challenges of doing comedy in the Trump era, and figuring out how to enjoy his life.

Westword: How would you characterize the hour you’re currently developing on the Here We Go tour?

Neal Brennan: I think it's mostly about —I mean, it's certainly not like the emotional romp of the last one. It's more traditional standup. I really do talk about a lot of the same things: you know, politics, race, technology and gender stuff.

Always relevant.

Yeah, and it just so happens that it's what I care about. I was just talking to my friend on the other line and he was sort of wondering out loud, "What should my next hour be about?" And we realized that they're never really about anything. I mean, 3 Mics was about something. And this show came about because I have a lot of #MeToo material, and I was planning to make a whole show about it, but then I realized that I couldn't, so now I only have about 25 minutes on MeToo and consent and, you know, all that fun stuff to do with communication between men and women. I solved it.

You cracked the code?

I solved the problem of communications between males and females about sex. And it's only the beginning.

A lot of the most acclaimed standup specials from recent years experiment with novel formats and shifting emotional tones; were you conscious of your role in the paradigm shift when you created 3 Mics?

I wasn't. I'd seen [Mike] Birbiglia's shows and really liked them. I liked that he did more than just standup. And people talk about standup like it's this low-culture thing; meanwhile, some of the greatest art from the past twenty, even forty years came from standup comedy. [Richard] Pryor, [George] Carlin, Dave [Chappelle], [Chris] Rock, [Bill] Hicks — these are people who just did standup. Or even like Bill Burr now. They are the greatest thing in the world.

High and low culture be damned.

Exactly. But my problem was that I did an hour for Comedy Central and nobody seemed to care. So I felt like I couldn't just go and talk for an hour, because that doesn't really help anyone's understanding of me. I probably just seemed like some rich guy who has maybe had an argument with Dave Chappelle, so they were predisposed to not like me. So I thought, "Let me explain who I am a little bit." And that's what 3 Mics is, in some ways. It was a lot of things, but I definitely didn't feel like I was a part of some kind of movement. None of us met — although I did rent my theater from Birbiglia. He was doing Thank God for Jokes, and he would be on at 7:30 and then I would be on at 9:30.

That's quite a double feature.

Quite a freakin' double feature. But I hadn't seen Hasan Minhaj's show. I saw Nannette in the spring and really liked it, but never felt like "There is a movement happening in this country!"

I do think that there has been a shift and now audiences like authenticity, that audiences want a sense of who you are as much as they want jokes.

I don't know if that's borne out by anything, though. It's fashionable. If you want to talk about audiences, the only thing that we know for sure they want is Kevin Hart. So you can't really say, "Well, the audience has spoken." There were empty seats when I saw Nannette — and I mean, not a lot, but this idea that somehow because the literati wants this richer cultural experience, comedy is different doesn't really hold up when you're talking about the biggest acts in the world.

I don't know; I do think you get a good sense of who Kevin Hart is as a person from his shows.

Yeah, but he didn't tell me that his dad being a crackhead hurt him. He just told me that his dad would say stuff like, "All right, all right, all right," you know what I mean?  I'm not saying you don't get any biography in his hour, but I am saying that there's a big chasm between what Kevin Hart is doing and what Hannah Gadsby did with Nannette. And that's why even though people talk about standup like it's this lowdown art form, it really is the greatest thing in the world because it can mean so many different things. And it sells out arenas; Sebastian Maniscalco sold out Madison Square Garden four times. That's amazing.

Allow me to pivot back to a prepared question: How did you balance the demands of shooting and performing when you self-directed 3 Mics?

Well, I had support. Akiva [Schaffer] from Lonely Island was there to handle light cues and the other stuff that you don't think about — because I had never performed in that theater before. I do have weird habits when I'm directing, or even think as a director, like when I move a cup, I make sure to put it back in the exact right place. There's stuff that I know because I've done so much editing, where I can think in the moment, "Do yourself a favor and put the cup back." So you do have to function in both modes, but thinking in the long-term doesn't really help you with the performance.

Standups are always balancing between multiple trains of thought, but that's a whole extra element.

I've been through a lot worse behind the camera. Here's the thing about standup directing: not that hard. As I said on Twitter one day, or maybe it was Instagram — sorry, I want to keep my platforms straight — it's essentially the same five shots over and over again. Seven if you're ambitious. So it is largely a self-driving car, so to speak. I always tell people: The hardest part of comedy is writing the jokes, and the second-hardest part is telling the jokes. To me, everything else is significantly easier.

You were hinting at this earlier, but what do you think it takes for an hour of comedy to stand out in an era when people have a half-dozen new specials to choose from each week?

Well, I think format helps. Like 3 Mics, like Nannette, even like Drew Michaels's HBO special.

The one with no audience?

It stood out, you know what I mean? For better or worse, for numerous reasons, it stood out, for sure. It's on the list of notable specials now, and it stood out in a way that Drew's standup might not have. And I actually love Drew's standup, and in some ways I wish he had done it with an audience. But who knows if it would have stood out if he did? It's a very crowded marketplace; I think now that I'm in the bloodstream, so to speak, I don't have to do much else besides standup. Once you get that initial propulsion — and this is true of a lot of people's careers — you can just kind of ride that booster rocket. Like, Eddie Murphy still has momentum from Saturday Night Live.

Oh, if he put out a new special, people would lose their shit and never find it again.

Well, yeah. And Chris Rock still has propulsion from Bring the Pain, Dave still has propulsion from Chappelle's Show. If you do something like that — these were from a long time ago, and again, I'm not even trying to put myself on the same level as these guys — but I have got more propulsion from 3 Mics, for myself, than anything I've ever done. You also don't want to ghettoize yourself in...

You don't want to be the sad-dad-stories guy.

Well, I don't want to be the sad-stories guy, but I also don't want to have to have a narrative every time. I don't want to have to have a format; I don't want to paint myself into that corner. I should probably come up with a better term than "ghettoize," but who knows? I mean, format matters, but you can also just be [John] Mulaney and be hilarious. You can do quote unquote "standard standup" and if you do good-enough jokes for long enough, it'll hold up. Mulaney has two or three jokes per special that make you say, "Well, all right. That's the best Trump joke. And that's the best joke about college debt. No one will ever write a better joke about gazebos." So there are various ways to stand out.

Experiment or be freakishly good at comedy.

Yeah. Or, you know, have a podcast. There are people whose standup has gotten popular because of their podcast or their podcasts have gotten popular because of their standup; there are a lot of ways to break in. Even Michelle Wolf, and I directed her HBO special, but what is she best known for? She's best known for the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I wouldn't have guessed that. In some ways, people have to be predisposed to like you. You can come up with any format you want, but if they don't like you, they're just going to say "Meh" and move on.

So, speaking of the Correspondents' Dinner, Trump has proved to be like a sort of comedy-resistant virus...

I don't know if he has. I don't think he's comedy-resistant. What are you basing that on? Policy isn't affected by comedy, so the idea that somehow Obama was more affected by comedy than Trump is just not true. Now, is he shameless?

That's more along the lines of what I mean. You can't humiliate a guy who's always been a cartoon.

But there are people who say he ran for president because we humiliated him at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. So I don't think he is impervious to shame. He's a walking setup. I could write ten jokes just based off of the crazy shit he's done today. He's the most joked-about person in the history of late night; there's not a single person in the history of television who's been the subject of more jokes than he has.

Do you think political comedy can really achieve anything other than momentary catharsis, though?

No! Comedy is a release valve; it's not a change agent. I'm always unclear on the question of "What did comedy do?" Did The Great Dictator take down Hitler? I don't know. What takes leaders like these down is voting — or in Hitler's case, murder-suicide. I don't think he was worried about Chaplin when he pulled the trigger, I think he was more concerned with encroaching troops. There's this question about whether or not words matter — and I'm not one of these anti-political-correctness people at all; I think being PC is the least you can do — but I often wonder, "What is the correlation between comedy and action?" Like, I know that referring to people as animals can have a direct causality with violence. But maybe I made that up! I don't know what comedy's powers are. But I don't think that comedy is this feckless, wobbly thing. Like, you say — and I didn't know I'd have this much to say about this — that Trump is impervious to comedy, but do you really think that the relentlessness of late-night talk shows didn't have an effect on the midterms? It's incalculable, but something tells me the jokes had a positive impact. 

Comedians are definitely capable of coming up with a definitive take on something, and maybe shape the cultural conversation in that way.

I think so, too, but I can't think of any examples right now.

I was thinking of Mulaney's "Horse Loose in a Hospital" bit.

That's a great bit, but I don't know if anyone's thinking about that when they vote. Trump voters like the chaos. "You know what? Every once in a while you do gotta send a horse into that dang hospital." As nonsensical as that is, they're like, "Yeah, go ahead and buck, horse! We need to shake up the industry!" And I'm like: No, we don't! Not the health-care industry. Does your well-being really need a shake-up?

Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap up the interview?

Is there a Mrs. Neal Brennan at home? No. Honestly, I'm just trying to have a good life. I just stepped away from a show I had in progress and thought, "What am I going to do now?" The only answer I have is just "Try to have fun, I guess?" I'll direct commercials and do standup until something strikes my fancy. That's kind of where I am. I'm luckily cheap enough to be able to work selectively. So I'm just trying to have a good life. Like, if you look at [Adam] Sandler's latest special, which is excellent to me and almost everyone I know, it shows you how some people are so good at just talking. And I'd rather do something which I think I'm really good at doing — and I think I'm really good at talking — than something I'm only pretty good at doing, like being on a sitcom. It doesn't mean that much to me, and that's not how I want to spend my time. Why be caged into a sitcom plot?

Fly, pelican, fly! Like, when I met [Jerry] Seinfeld, I said, "Every episode was about where you left the jacket." All right, cool. I don't care! When I told Seinfeld that I'd never really watched Seinfeld, he made it clear that he'd rather have me watch his act, which I do. That's the part of him I relate to, the part that makes me want to spend my time as wisely as I can. Like I said, I'm just trying to enjoy my life.

Neal Brennan takes the stage at the Oriental Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 1. To buy tickets, $25, and learn more, visit the Oriental Theater events calendar.
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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham