Comedians are literally paid to say provocative things, but typically even their most shocking material has been massaged down for maximum digestibility. But after two and a half seasons working on one of the most incisive and incendiary comedy shows in the last decade, “The Chappelle Show,” Neal Brennan is bold even by normal standards of button-pushing. Even when he was offering his email address, whose slightly older portal I observed that we share, his response was, “yeah, fuck everybody!” Of course, that was at the end of a long interview in which he’d already offered quite a few observations and opinions some readers – much less colleagues – might find objectionable.
In this epic conversation with IFC, Brennan held nothing back as he discussed his comedic upbringing, his background as a writer and performer of race-sensitive (and let’s face it, sometimes insensitive) material, the state of contemporary comedy, and how it relates to our history and our culture as a whole.
How did you get into comedy? You mentioned your brother was in comedy – were you already a funny kid and got into it because of him?
Yeah, I think I was a funny kid, and then once I saw that he started doing it, I realized, oh, this could be a profession – and that just made it seem that much more real to me. And Bill Murray and his brothers, I caddied where they caddied, so it all seemed sort of realistic, like you do a thing, and then you could make a movie about the place that you worked? That was outside of Chicago in a town called Wilmette; I wasn’t there when they were there, the Murrays. But also, his sister, Bill’s sister taught my sister, so it all just seemed like, oh, alright! It wasn’t like, “who are those people on TV?” I mean, it was that as well, but it wasn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility.
Was there anybody you based the structure of the style of your early material on? Be it in terms of organizing or constructing jokes, or just sort of being influenced in general.
I think the biggest influence on my stand-up would be Chris Rock, in that I love that Chris is basically an essayist, in that he’ll take a subject and just try and attack it from as many different angles as he can. And Chris will take a subject before he even has a joke about it; he’ll say, “I want to talk about prison,” or whatever he wants to talk about, and then he’ll just go from there. Whereas with most people, you kind of run into a joke, and then you go – including me, like I’ll think of something funny – and then I’ll want to build something around it for the sake of having time, like I don’t just want to do one-liners. Like I had a one-liner about being raised Catholic for like a year and a half, and I just never had anything to go with it, so I never did it, and then a week ago I came up with something to go with it.
The thing I like about Chris is that he is an essayist and also a social critic; there aren’t that many guys doing that at this point. There’s basically Chris, Doug Stanhope, and a little bit Bill Burr, but for the most part it’s personal or observational in terms of comedy. And I’m like the biggest Bill Hicks fan; I met Bill Hicks, I saw him once – actually I think me and Dave Chappelle met him together in ’92 or ’93, and Chappelle said he had never seen me that nervous before (laughs).
I like sort of activist comedy, I like sort of making a point, not because I’m being too heavy-handed about it, but because – and George Carlin is obviously the same thing – nothing contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, but being contrarian because to base your life and your worldview on the assumption that this is all working fine, I think is silly and naïve. And it’s also not working fine. And Mort Sahl was a huge influence. I had always heard that, “Oh, Mort Sahl is the guy who reads the paper on stage,” and then in 1989, Bob Weide, the guy who directs “Curb Your Enthusiasm” a lot, made an “American Masters” for PBS about Mort Sahl, and it’s just great. It’s just a great documentary, and I watched it four or five times.
Mort Sahl was kind of the Jon Stewart of his day – like he was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1960, and he was writing jokes for JFK’s campaign, for JFK to do on the road, and stump speeches. And he told JFK, “Yo man, if you win, just know I’m going to keep making fun of you,” and JFK was like, “Of course.” And then JFK wins, Mort keeps making fun of him in his act, and Joe Kennedy goes, “Who’s this Mort Sahl who’s making fun of you?” And JFK was like, “He wrote for the campaign.” So Joe Kennedy was like, “No, I’m going to take care of this guy for you,” [and he] shuts down “The Hungry Eye,” where Mort Sahl basically worked. Then JFK gets assassinated, and so Jim Garrison, the guy who was [the subject] of the movie “JFK,” he starts doing an investigation, and Mort Sahl basically goes down there and volunteers to help him with the investigation on his own dime. And I’m not saying everybody’s got to be Dick Gregory, or everybody has to be Mort Sahl, but those are the guys I admire, you know? There’s an element of, I don’t know if it was because I was raised Catholic and all of that shit, but I’m a bit of a lefty, and I just believe in
I got into an argument with a woman not long ago at Occupy LA. I went down and did stand-up down there, probably like the first week; I regret not protesting more, like in my life. I wish I’d protested the World Trade Organization and Iraq and NAFTA, but anyway I went down there and I got into an argument with this woman who I’m pretty sure was a lesbian, and I made a joke about these rallies will be more popular with people if women will start sleeping with the guys that are down there. Because no one ever says that, but that was one of the key components of the ’60s, that there was some action. So she came up to me afterward and was like, “You know, you’re being really hetero-normative in that kind of thinking, and I don’t know if you really understand about comedy and activism and social change.” And I was like, “As a matter of fact, I worked on this show…” and it was like she stepped into a bear trap. And then as soon as I told her my credits, she wanted to end the argument.
I’m sort of all for putting some vitamins in the shit. I’m of the Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Mort Sahl, Chris, Bill Hicks, Doug Stanhope ethos – and again, it’s not like I’m super popular or anything, I’d like to think I will be, the more people get to know my stand-up, but that’s kind of where I’m coming from.
And Bill Maher, too – I think Bill Maher is great. And Jon Stewart and Colbert and Seth on “Update,” and I was able to write with Seth for the White House thing, which was awesome. My favorite part of that was like, oh, I get to tell the president what I think – and I know he’s going to hear it! And he did. And then I got to meet him before the thing, and that was awesome as well – that was like sort of incredible, as a matter of fact. But the fun is speaking truth to power, because sometimes I think me and Seth are the only guys under 40 who give a shit about politics, in comedy at least. Because I think most people are like, “Wait – what? No, I’m blogging, and I’m doing an interview.”
I think people are more interested in branding in a lot of ways, which is great – actually, no it’s not. I’m ambivalent. I think there’s a higher premium on access in the world, period; I remember a buddy of mine, Michael Schur, who created “Parks and Rec,” he and I used to write together, and his roommate like ten or 12 years ago was in George Bush’s press pool. And I didn’t even know there was such a thing, and the minute he told me I was like, “Oh! You want him to win! Whatever your political persuasion, you want him to win, because if he wins, you know the president – which is good professionally, and it flatters your ego.” And this guy’s like a good dude – he’s not a scumbag, the guy I’m talking about – and then you see stuff like Helen Thomas, she asks the tough questions and gets bumped to the back. So what you end up with is just people who want to be in the club, instead of actual journalists.
I feel like the only guy who’s doing real journalism who doesn’t give a shit about being in the White House is [Matt] Taibbi. Taibbi is the only guy actually doing good journalism, because I think he’s enough of a misanthrope that I think he just doesn’t give a shit. So I guess it’s like, the thing I always say about Dave was, when he went to Africa, “Well, yeah – but you always got the sense that this guy could go to Africa.” Like as crazy and awful as it was, it’s like, yeah, that’s part of his appeal. So there’s guys like that, like [Doug] Stanhope is such a fucking dirtbag. I describe Stanhope as if you marry a chick, Stanhope is your worst nightmare as a stepson, because he’s just such a fucking smart – he’s so fucking smart! And he’s such an iconoclast, a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope. But I don’t know if more guys are going to come to it, because I don’t feel anachronistic in terms of, like I’m from the ’80s, jack! I’ve been around comedy since the ’80s, so Hicks isn’t like an “idea” to me, like I met the guy. Mort Sahl, me and Dave pursued and asked him to be in a sketch, and he didn’t want to be in it because he didn’t like it – and he was right, because we ended up cutting it.
But these guys are not just lighthouses, they’re actual people who made the decision, and Chris did the same thing, Dave, he cares about politics too, not in a specific sense, but he definitely is like a humanist, and these guys aren’t unattainable, they’re guys I eat with. And Jon Stewart I fucking knew before he was on MTV, like I’ve known Jon for 20 years, and he was always nice to me.