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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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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