Neal Brennan isn’t angry anymore (or so he says)

Neal Brennan thinks comedy is just anger in a tuxedo.

Neal Brennan
Neal Brennan

It’s pretty boring that someone as funny as Neal Brennan is only known to some as “the guy who co-created Chappelle’s Show,” but okay, sure, whatever. Yes, Brennan co-created that extremely popular show (that aired its last episode over 12 years ago).

What’s way more interesting is that after that show ended, Neal Brennan stepped out of the writers’ room and onto the stage, and how, for a long while, your enjoyment of his stand-up really depended on which guy you saw: the intense, cerebral guy channeling his anger into something productive or the guy who — in the words of a humourist friend — would have been “a successful serial killer” if he weren’t a successful writer and comedian.

I recently chatted with Brennan about 3 Mics, double standards, and how comedy is really just rage in formal wear.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dave Jaffer: You do not appeal to everybody. Some people love you and others think you’re another mean guy doing comedy. If you had to define what you do onstage, what’s your thing? What’s your comedy about?

Neal Brennan: My comedy is about one standard for behaviour. I would like there to be one standard for behaviour. I guess I believe in one standard for race and gender, if that makes sense.

DJ: I think I know what you mean?

NB: What I mean is I think white people have double standards about behaviour towards black people and brown people, and I think men have double standards towards women, and women have double standards towards men. And I like to poke holes in that. Again, if I had to name my thing.

DJ: A lot of people respond to that, and I think a lot of people, similarly, might find that problematic. And then a bunch of people — on the internet, especially — just complain and say, “I can’t say such-and-such anymore.”

NB: Well, yeah. It’s like the n-word, where white people are like, “I really want to say it.” Why? Why would you want to say that? And this is coming from a guy who has said it. I believe in the proper context. I’ve said it onstage. Now, there are people who would argue that there is no proper context for a white person to say it and I can’t argue that aggressively against that, because they’re probably right.

DJ: I’m one of the people who think that white people shouldn’t say it. But I also think that when we as a society, or the intelligentsia, or whatever, says that you can’t do something, there’s a whole bunch of people who maybe didn’t want to do it in the first place, but who don’t like to be told what they can and can’t do.

NB: I don’t necessarily have that. I know what you’re talking about. That’s just like, “What are you rebelling against? Whaddaya got?” I think that’s that impulse. My impulse was I was talking to a black comedian friend of mine and I said there was a period where I got called the n-word more than many slaves in the 1800s.

DJ: Wait, what? Why? How does that even work?

NB: Because my comedy writing partner was Mr. N-Word. So I was writing it every sketch, I was being called it, and [you know] how you and your friends talk alike? That’s what I was kind of talking about. And he was like, “you should talk about that onstage.” So I did a joke about being called the n-word.

DJ: You seem like a guy who’s got some pain going on inside and comedy is your venue for not releasing it but transforming it into something else. Transmogrifying it.

NB: The world speaks to you. You turn on the internet, the world is constantly shouting at you, right? Whether it’s advertising, or cultural messaging or whatever. And after a while I am just disagreeable. I just don’t agree with most of what’s said to me, or most of what is promoted. Stand-up is the best way to go, like, “I disagree, here’s how and here’s why.” Am I angry? I think I’m probably less angry than I’ve ever been, just as a person. Now I’m more the sad guy.

DJ: I think my favourite comics have always pointed at a certain issue and maybe they didn’t say, “let’s fuckin’ talk about this!” as much as they’ve said, “this is absurd, and this is why this is absurd, and we live in a crazy place.”

NB: [George] Carlin is one of the best, Chris [Rock] is one of the best, Dave [Chappelle] is one of the best, [Bill] Hicks is one of the best. Anger, to me, as much as you were cautious in saying it, that’s the lingua franca of comedy, to me. Comedy is anger with a tuxedo on. I’ve gotten better at putting a tuxedo on. The anger that this hypothetical person you were talking to was sensing in me, some of that was just discomfort being in public, onstage, [and] not being that good of a performer. Now I’m smoother, I’m just a more seasoned performer. I’ve been doing it like, ten, eleven years now so I have a better idea of what I’m doing.

DJ: When you said I kind of edged my way up to the line, it’s because I was the angry guy for a long time.

NB: It’s embarrassing! Ultimately, being angry, particularly in the way the world is now, being just sort of generally angry, and not angry about specific [things]? You might think Hannah Gadsby is angry, but you probably wouldn’t say that in an interview, because it’s like, she has a right to be angry! Whereas it didn’t seem like I had a right to be angry, per se. I don’t know what I seem like, but my guess is that you’d call her “passionate.” But to be an angry white man, it’s like, “what?”

DJ: What’s the new show like, the one you’re doing at Just for Laughs?

NB: We talk about what’s wrong with me.

DJ: Fair enough.

NB: Did you find [his 2017 Netflix special] 3 Mics angry?

DJ: No, I found 3 Mics very vulnerable. I’m not trying to blow your ego here, but I liked the fact that you were doing something that felt like it was scary to you. I liked the idea that you were trying to do something that felt like it might not work.

NB: I mean, I didn’t think that anyone was going to reject it. It was just something I wanted to do. I didn’t think anyone was gonna not like it. You know what it was in some ways? I wanted to explain the hard edge. I wanted to explain to people, “you know how I seem a little harsh and cold and bored and superior? Here’s why.”

DJ: Is the show you’re bringing to Just for Laughs more like 3 Mics?

NB: No, it’s just like talking for an hour. ■

Here We Go with Neal Brennan continues through July 27. See our review of the show here.

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