When the comedy industry looks at Neal Brennan, it sees a guy who co-wrote Half Baked and was nominated for three Emmys for writing, directing and producing Chappelle's Show. He can pop in to direct New Girl or The Mindy Project or Inside Amy Schumer, oversee a series of Funny or Die Presents segments for HBO, contribute a few barbs to a Comedy Central Roast or White House Correspondents' Dinner, even consult on the latest Chris Rock movie. A dependable, multi-skilled, behind-the-scenes workhorse with a talent for making funny projects funnier. But does his resumè translate to the stand-up stage?
"I'm like a model trying to break into acting," posits Brennan, whose debut hour special premieres January 18 on Comedy Central. "People are almost prejudiced against you, like, 'Well, you don't really want it.' Dude, I do it every night! I love doing stand-up!
"They don't want to give me the benefit of the doubt," he continues between bites at Real Food Daily, four blocks up from Santa Monica's Westside Comedy Theater, where he closes the Neal Brennan and Friends show every Sunday night. "It's frustrating. I'm allergic to being discounted."
With the new special, titled Women and Black Dudes, Brennan proves he's just as capable in front of the camera. Filmed in April at the New Orleans Civic Center, the show provides measured analyses on the role race, religion, politics and yes, females have played in shaping his sociological outlook. Far more piercing than the average stale "White folks and black folks/men and women are different" premises, Brennan takes an almost philosophical approach in conveying deeply personal observations.
"I think about race all the time. Solutions? Eh, I dunno... " he shrugs a third of the way through. "White peoples' big plan is they want to get rid of all the n-words in Huckleberry Finn. Like some white statistician is like, 'I've been looking at the numbers. Black people have shorter lifespans, can't get loans, don't have access to fair education. But I think I have the solution... '"
Brennan's not a gimmicky, high-energy ham. Nor a counterfeit tough who passes volume or f-bombs off as hard-hitting punchlines. There's adult material aplenty, sure, but it's in the service of frank, unhurried discourse. Alternating between blunt and confessional, he admits "Me and every guy in here are pretty much dick salesmen," and "Guys get rejected constantly. That's why we can't have feelings," in nearly the same breath.
The youngest of 10 Irish Catholic siblings, Brennan dabbled in stand-up from 2002 to 2004 before committing himself in earnest in 2007. Most recently the Conan and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon vet completed the script for a hip-hop version of The Apartment starring Kevin Hart, appeared on TBS' The Pete Holmes Show and Comedy Central's @Midnight, and is developing both a sitcom pilot for Fox and a sketch pilot for Comedy Central. Brennan regularly performs at the Melrose Improv, the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory; his The Champs podcast with Moshe Kasher has racked up three million downloads.
And yes, he's currently talking to his Chappelle's Show co-creator, who in 2005 infamously left the hit Comedy Central series without telling his collaborators. Brennan and Dave Chappelle text and FaceTime, and they performed together at July's Just for Laughs Montreal festival. "We're cool," he confirms of the twenty-year association. "We were friends for a reason, you know? There aren't too many people like him. He knows me well; I know him well. It may never be resolved, our squabble. I have my point of view; he has his point of view. But it's not worth not talking to him."
Brennan names Chappelle - along with Rock, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Doug Stanhope, Dave Attell and Louis C.K. - among his comedy heroes, praising their timelessness and ability to "write really great, intelligent, funny jokes, and work a lot of different rooms."
As someone constantly creating and updating numerous sketch/sitcom/stand-up idea lists on his iPhone, Brennan's definition of lasting success is less about capitalizing on one primary comedy format over others than commanding the necessary power required to see his visions through, whatever the format each requires. It's a matter of freedom, not convenience.
"If I have an idea, I just want to be able to do it," he says pragmatically. "And I'd like to be happy and have a nice life. That's my bigger goal. Which, I've got to say, is way harder for me than coming up with a sketch idea.
"I'm trying to be happier; I'm trying to be funnier. I'm trying. Mostly failing. As Patton Oswalt said, 'I'm never going to be as funny as Richard Pryor. But I can have fun trying to be.'"
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