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Neal Brennan talks about his influences, writing race-sensitive material and the state of contemporary comedy

Neal Brennan talks about his influences, writing race-sensitive material and the state of contemporary comedy (photo)

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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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