DID YOU READ

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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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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