Sure, Neal Brennan’s latest stand-up special will make you laugh as much as any other hour from the guy behind such classics as Chappelle’s Show and Half Baked, but it also will make you feel things you probably weren’t expecting. After all, only one-third of 3 Mics is Brennan’s traditional stand-up, with equal parts quick one-liners and heartfelt emotional stories.
“It’s basically just three mics on a stage seven feet apart,” Brennan says. “I alternate between them, so I do like 10 minutes of stand-up, then five one-liners, and then 10 minutes of emotional stuff that’s also kind of funny but not in a joke-y way. It’s a fuller picture of myself.”
Brennan’s main inspiration for 3 Mics was simply wanting to bring something new and different into the world of stand-up. While watching Mike Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend special on Netflix, Brennan appreciated Birbiglia’s concept of doing an hourlong narrative. Rather than try his own hand at an honest narrative, Brennan committed to finding a way to turn a stand-up hour into something more than a truthful setup followed by a series of jokes.
“I feel like we’ve reached peak stand-up in that there are so many hours — I think Netflix is releasing four or five hours in January alone — and a lot of funny people,” Brennan says. “I was looking for a way to do something that stood out a little more and wasn’t just me talking. When I’d do podcasts, people would say how much they appreciated when I’d talk about depression or personal stuff, and I had so many one-liners just from being on Twitter for so long that I wished I could repurpose. It basically comes down to that I didn’t want to be another comic being a glib know-it-all onstage.”
Sharing some of his more personal stories also was important to the 43-year-old New York native because – as he points out in 3 Mics – he can come across as cold, bored and smug to those who don’t know him. In the past, a lot of his material focused on race and sex (so much so that his 2014 Comedy Central special was simply called Women and Black Dudes), but 3 Mics gets away from some of those topics to stay a little more introspective. It wasn’t necessarily an intentional switch for Brennan, it was just what he happened to feel like talking about this time around.
“I don’t know what people expect from me, because I think black people were kind of split on me talking about race,” Brennan says. “Some people thought it was presumptuous. This wasn’t a response to that. Some people, like [Chris] Rock, will say they want to talk about six things and then do that, but I’m much more haphazard than that. These were just the jokes I thought of [for 3 Mics], and whatever comes out comes out. Hopefully they’re just as good as the last batch.”
Of course, before he became known in the stand-up world, Brennan had already been making folks of all races laugh with films like Half Baked, which he co-wrote with Dave Chappelle, and then as co-creator of the legendary Chappelle’s Show (as the comedian recounts in Women and Black Dudes, even the Obamas are big fans of his). But not everyone realized just how much the writer contributed to his former projects. Even if he created just as much of it, Chappelle’s Show was never Chappelle & Brennan’s Show.
“With a [stand-up] show, it’s more direct,” Brennan says. “People look at it and say, ‘He did that.’ With a TV show, as a writer and producer, people say, ‘Neal helped Dave [Chappelle] with Saturday Night Live and Chappelle’s Show.’ Well, yes, I helped out, but I was also the fucking creator of the show. People don’t understand what a writer is, but people understand what a comedian is. Even for me, the thought that the star didn’t think of everything is hard to fathom, but that just means you’re being a good writer if you can figure out a person’s voice.”
As Brennan’s learning with each time his name is the one on the marquee, starring in your own show comes with its cons as well. It may seem like a much greener comedic pasture when you’re the one offstage, but there’s always someone potentially causing a problem either way.
“You’re never free,” Brennan says. “When you’re a writer, you think, ‘If I was in charge, I wouldn’t have to worry about the performer killing my jokes or getting mad at me.’ Then when you are the performer, you’re just worried about the audience getting mad at you. There’s no salvation. There’s always a trial to all of it.”
Beyond 3 Mics, Brennan’s also working on a couple of pilots and still handling his weekly live show every Tuesday at the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. But if you’re expecting to see the comedian experiment with some more 3 Mics–style performances, you already missed out. That’s not to say Brennan isn’t down for another 3 Mics, it just won’t be him on the microphone.
“I’m not going to do [3 Mics] anymore at all,” Brennan says. “I would let other people do it if they want. I assume somebody will steal some version of it, but I wouldn’t mind having other people doing it, like opening up franchises. I couldn’t do it anymore because I don’t have any other secrets, but I know so many comedians who have personal stories they don’t share because they’re not funny enough. If they had a venue where they could share that, they could be open and honest while still being entertaining. That’s why a lot of great podcasts are hosted by comedians.”
Aside from not having any more secrets to divulge, Brennan realizes his one foray into alternating between spilling his guts and telling jokes could have been a total dud. Thankfully, Brennan managed to keep 3 Mics both entertaining and honest enough to give his fans the best of both worlds rather than some awkward and horrible combination of the two.
“It could’ve gone terribly wrong, but so far it seems like it worked out,” Brennan says. “It could’ve turned out like Clamato juice. Clamato’s a popular product, but the thought of it is just horrifying.”