On the Couch with Neal Brennan

Arielle Gordon

The patient seems defensive, almost as if he has something to prove. He responds to questions in a headstrong manner, suggesting what one could have already guessed from his comedy: the man refuses to be pigeonholed or talked down to. He self-admittedly needs more “probing” before he can address the heart of many of his deep-seated beliefs, but seems eager to stir up controversy and veer away from the norm. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever experienced the boundary-pushing, genre-bending comedy of the patient, from his work on Chappelle’s Show to his new show The Approval Matrix. I am slow to diagnose the patient as anything but a bit paranoid and headstrong, but I am open to interpretation of his obstinate demeanor and cynical outlook on the world.

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Early on in your career, you wrote for a variety of children’s shows, like All That and Kenan and Kel.

That is correct.

Do you think that was a subconscious attempt to revisit your childhood?

No, I don’t, doctor. I do think it was…I just needed a job, and those were the best jobs I could get. So I don’t think it was an attempt to do anything other than I just needed work.

Do you think that anything from your childhood inspired your career as a comedian?

Oh yeah, I mean, youngest of ten kids, not a ton of attention, not a ton of warmth, et cetera.

So do you think you were looking for that warmth in the audience’s laughter?

I’m looking every single night.

Wow, okay.

There you go, that’s right on target.

Yeah, that’s perfect. Very despondent. You have an older brother Kevin who is also a writer and comedian? Have you ever felt a sense of sibling rivalry, or that you were following in his footsteps in any way?

Definitely following in his footsteps, for sure. I mean like, straight up. Like, almost directly in his footsteps. That’s kind of how I got involved with all of this stuff.

There’s no competition between you two? You never feel under his shadow or anything?

Not really.

Your new show The Approval Matrix seems to feature a lot of anger towards conventional, mainstream pop culture. Do you just hate the American public? Like, the common American person?

No, I don’t think I hate the common American person. Actually, in the first episode, I defend populism. Like, I’m straight up a populist. In comedy, I believe that if you’re doing comedy, you should get laughs. So I don’t think that’s hateful towards the American people. I think, if anything, I’m hateful of elitist culture.

Having worked on Chappelle’s Show which is seen by many as the cream of the crop comedy shows, do you feel pressured that you have to produce comedy for an elitist audience?

No, because again, Chappelle’s Show not an elitist show. We would make a sketch and show it to the audience, and if they laughed, then we kept it, and if they didn’t laugh, then we threw it away. I think comedy is like, super democratic, and comedy is so in its nature populist. If it doesn’t get a laugh, then it’s not comedy, like I said on the first episode. I’m very much a populist.

The Approval Matrix

The Approval Matrix

On your first episode, you spoke about Louis C.K. and Louie, the show, and you seem to have had some disdain, calling it “not comedy.” What exactly do you think you don’t like about the humorless, high-brow comedy of Louie?

I think the answer is contained in your question; its humorlessness. It’s not comedy.

Do you see yourself as better than Louis C.K.?

I would not see myself as better than Louis C.K. I don’t see myself as, “I am better than Louie” at all.

You went to NYU for one year, but then you dropped out. Do you think this reflects any commitment issues you may have?

This is again, one of those issues of feeling like I just didn’t want to keep throwing away money. So, yeah, it wasn’t really a commitment issue per say.

You latest special on Comedy Central is titled Women and Black Dudes. Being neither a woman, nor a black dude, what expertise do you think you bring to these subjects?

Just observation and interaction.

Do you think these subjects have had such an impact on your mental state that you felt the need to dedicate an entire comedy special to them?

What happened was I found myself writing jokes about it. I never really went, like, “Ah, yes.” I wasn’t like, looking through a telescope, it was just like, I write jokes, and again, now I’m writing another hour, or at least attempting to, and it’s kind of the same. Like, Jim Gaffigan writes a lot of jokes about food, and women and black dudes may be my burritos.

Writing a new special, do you try to analyze yourself and look inward to write jokes, or does it come from what you see around you?

Yeah, I mean, I’ll write jokes about anything, so I’m not like no, no, never look at yourself. Like, if I could make it all about myself I would. It’s another one of those things where Mike Birbiglia has a lot of personal anecdotes. I just don’t have many personal anecdotes, and like, my day is the same length as Mike’s, I just think Mike’s like a magnet for things like that.

So a lot of people say that stand up comedians are narcissistic because they talk about themselves all day. Do you see that to be true in your experience as a comedian?

Yeah, I think there’s obviously a certain area, some are more narcissistic than others. I think I’m on the low end. I think everyone is narcissistic to a point. Every song is about someone’s experience, every TV show, all these things are about [someone’s experience], but I think comedians are the only ones who just talk, and also we don’t have anything to hide behind, so the narcissism is very bald, very out there. But for sure, some of the most narcissistic people I’ve ever met are comedians.

What do you think your parents think of your career in stand up? Were they supportive throughout your career? Are they supportive now?

Yeah, they’re supportive. My dad’s dead, but my mom’s supportive.

So you famously worked on Chappelle’s Show before Dave Chappelle disembarked spontaneously in 2005. Do you have any residual abandonment issues?

I don’t think so, but it might take more probing.

Were you at all hurt at the time?

Oh, absolutely. Completely.

Have you since had a heart to heart with him and talked about it at all?

We’ve had many heart to hearts.

Do you think that from that your friendship has grown stronger with him? Do you see yourself working with him in the future?

When people ask me that, it’s like, “What should we work on?” We already had the best show, so anything else will just be a reduced version of it. So that’s how I feel.

Do you see him as a future guest on The Approval Matrix? Have you guys talked about that at all?

Look, the door’s wide open.

Do you ever get anxious that the work that you’ve done is the best work that you’ll do?

Well, the thing with that is, do I get anxious? No. I think it’s just different work. As much as I haven’t been able to live up to Chappelle’s Show sine, neither has anyone else. So that’s the best work all of us has done. So, at least I did it. I’m assuming that people like it. I’m not assuming it’s like, “Unequivocally the best show.” It’s like, people really liked the show and speak highly of it. So I would assume people like it.

Women and black dudes may be my burritos.

The Approval Matrix is based on a feature from New York Magazine. Was it your idea to turn it into a TV show?

It wasn’t my idea, actually. First of all, they did a pilot for Bravo a couple years ago that didn’t turn out the way they wanted. And then, they had the idea, and I was asked to host, and it’s great. It suits me, I’ll say that. So I’m lucky to have been asked.

Why do you think it suits you so well?

Because I’m argumentative.

Why do you think you’re argumentative?

Because I’m the youngest of ten, and I’ve been arguing with adults since I was five.

So do you think you’re pretty good at it, then?

I mean, whether I’m good or bad, I like it. It makes me feel at home. I feel comfortable doing it, whether I’m good at it or bad at it.

Do you think that something in your childhood creates that sense of combativeness that we see on the show sometimes?

Yeah, for sure. And also, the thing with the combativeness is that you just get sick of hearing…the press has this monolithic opinion, and no one will disagree. I just get sick of it. I’m not disagreeing because of it; it makes you feel lonely. If you disagree, you feel like a real outsider, like, “I don’t feel this is good.” So, this is me talking back, I guess. This is my response. But again, because I’m just a guy, to you it comes off as angry, but if I wrote for the New Yorker, it would be this reasoned, well thought-out critique, but because I’m just a guy sitting there talking, it’s like, “You seem angry and hate America!”

Are you upset that comedians are often taken less seriously than other professions or art careers?

No, I think comedians are starting to get too much attention. Comedians, I think comedy is a fungus that grows in a dark, dank place. And when it gets too lauded, on the one hand, I think everyone wants approbation, but at the same time, it feels like, “No one gets funnier when they go to the Emmys.”

How has being a comedian affected your mental health?

That’s a very good question. I think it’s had a positive effect, in that I get to talk back. The world says all of this stuff, and I’m supposed to just take it as gospel, and then I get a chance to respond. I think it probably makes me obsessive; it makes me think about stand up too much, and all that stuff. But at the same time, I think it’s good in the long run. Like I think, ultimately, that it’s a net positive. It’s hard to bomb and the travel’s hard, all that stuff. But it’s worth it. It’s not even worth it for when I have a good set, because they’re mostly good. But it’s worth it, just having some sort of ecosystem of thought. Ideas come in from the world, and then I process them, and then they come out as jokes.

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