Catching Up With Neal Brennan

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On The Approval Matrix, Neal Brennan and his panel of cultural experts—which include the likes of Hannibal Buress, Today’s Willie Geist and Whitney Cummings, among others—debate things like Donald Sterling’s right to privacy and why Louie is “the kale of television shows.” Yes, Brennan is still probably best known as the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show, but don’t get it wrong, he’d be doing big things in comedy whether he had teamed up with Dave Chappelle or not. He’s just too talented.

Recently he’s directed episodes of Inside Amy Schumer, The Mindy Project and even his own stand-up special, Women and Black Dudes. He also writes annually for The ESPY Awards, and in 2011 he worked with Seth Meyers on his White House Correspondents Dinner speech.

We caught up with Brennan on a landline phone (yes, they still exist), coincidentally across the street from the house of one of his favorite people, Mark Twain.

Paste: I know you’ve only taped something like six episodes of The Approval Matrix, but do you have a favorite episode yet?
Neal Brennan: One of my favorite episodes is with Hannibal Buress, Donnell Rawlings, the woman who wrote The Preppy Handbook and this British woman. It was a good combo because you never see like two white women talking to two black dudes on TV. I don’t know, it was just fun.

Paste: What’s the process like of deciding who gets to be a panelist?
Brennan: It’s kind of about who’s available and then we sort of just break it down in terms of who will have the most to say about those particular issues.

Paste: I’ve noticed the panels that you have are definitely mixed in terms of profession. One TV critic and one comedian. Would you ever do a panel of four comedians?
Brennan: Absolutely not. We don’t want it to be Chelsea Lately. The Chelsea Lately panel looks like a bunch of desperate women at a wedding going for the bouquet.

Paste: Is there anyone you’d really like to have on as a panelist?
Brennan: Well, there’s people I’ll never have on the panel like Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle… That would be pretty interesting.

Paste: You think Chappelle would ever do The Approval Matrix or is that a definite no?
Brennan: I honestly have no idea. I had a thought the other day that Mark Twain would be great on the show.

Paste: Funny story, I’m actually visiting family in Hartford, Conn. and I’m across the street from Mark Twain’s house, like right now. Next time you’re in Hartford, you should take a tour of his house.
Brennan: I think the funniest thing you’ve said today is, “Next time you’re in Hartford.”

Paste: Is doing a monologue in front of a studio audience more or less nerve-wracking that doing stand-up?
Brennan: With stand-up, I get to work it out. I get to have some idea of what’s definitely going to work. In my act, I generally know when I’m going to get a laugh where as with the monologue, a lot of the time it’s the first time I’m saying it. On Bill Maher, they’ll do a rehearsal with a crowd. They’ll have a crowd come in on Thursdays and run through the shows and see what works. Unfortunately, we don’t have the money or the time to do that.

Paste: The Approval Matrix was originally a feature in New York Magazine. What made you want to turn it into a show?
Brennan: It actually wasn’t my idea. They did another version of it on Bravo. Someone on Twitter wrote a comparison of the two versions. Michael Hirschor produced both versions. The Bravo version was Bravo-ish, like more Watch What Happens Live and more, “Ooooh!” That version was more about clothing and stuff. This version is about actual issues.

Paste: You’ve added some sketches into this show, yes?
Brennan: Yes, we did two sketches and two remotes. One of the sketches is for the episode about what’s cool where the idea is that nerds are so cool now that Colt 45 asked Eugene Mirman to be their spokesman. So it’s basically like those Billy Dee Williams commercials, except with Eugene Mirman [laughs]. It’s really funny.

Paste: That sounds awesome. Do you plan to do more sketches?
Brennan: Yeah I don’t know if we’re picked up or not but I’d like to do more. In a perfect world, a show gets picked up for a second season. It becomes a weekly, meaning we tape on Thursday to air Friday so that this week we can talk about Ferguson and not TV or fame. And we’d do a sketch and a remote every week. It’s weird, like next week me and Jon Stewart talk about Donald Sterling and it is relevant, but not as relevant as it was three months ago. That’s been a lot of the criticism of the show. I haven’t read the criticisms but that’s what I’ve heard. I don’t blame people about saying that, but how often do you see people talking about fame on television? It’s still interesting.

Paste: It’s definitely interesting. When you started discussing Donald Sterling on the show, it became a little uncomfortable at certain points, but it’s refreshing to hear someone talk about something real.
Brennan: Like Bill Maher talks about serious stuff, but he doesn’t talk about stuff that’s cultural. He talks about politics, so there’s a place for it where you can do cultural stuff in a smart and funny way that isn’t “nip slips.”

Paste: You’ve been honest about your feelings about the show Louie. Not the human, the TV show. Have you ever expressed how you feel about the show to him?
Brennan: No, because he doesn’t care. I wouldn’t be like, “Hey man, your show isn’t a comedy.” Also, I’m not talking to Louie C.K., I’m talking to the critics. I’m talking to the people who don’t really know comedy, that are basically slumming in comedy. They’re like, “THIS is comedy” and actually, no, no it’s not. Louie’s stand-up is comedy because it’s kickass funny but the show is more morose and sort of melancholy.  It’s like, how can I get comedy without laughing, without having to have that involuntary physical reaction? How can I keep the whole thing mental? How can I watch comedy without all the clean up? That’s why they like stuff that’s more thinky than funny. To me, the funniest people of all time are Chris Rock, Dave, Eddie, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor…the guys that can get huge fuckin’ laughs. Monster laughs… that’s comedy to me. That thing of like, “Hmm, well observed,” is not comedy to me.

Paste: Would you feel differently about Louie if it were classified as a drama?
Brennan: Absolutely. Again, it would be like comparing Steve Martin playing banjo to The Lonely Island. You know what I mean? Steve Martin playing banjo is a comedian doing something else. That’s what Louie’s doing on the show but everyone’s going like, “Have you seen Steve Martin’s comedy concert?” He does some jokes during the concert, but it’s mostly banjo.

Paste: And most of the people going to see Steve Martin are going because he’s Steve Martin, not because of the banjo part.
Brennan: I mean, look, you’re kind of hoping the banjo will break eventually.

Paste: On the show you talk about shows that people guilt others into watching such as Breaking Bad and Louie. Are there other shows out there that you feel are overhyped?
Brennan: These shows have become like religion. People think I’m a like a jihad against Louie’s show. And honestly, these things aren’t that important. They’re kind of important, but they’re only important because people are so lazy. People don’t read books anymore, so it’s just an easy way to make a show still feel important and intelligent by watching and talking about it like it’s complex art when really it’s just a TV show. The recaps culture is fucking hilarious. I think the New York Times does recaps now. I was just like, “You, YOU’RE doing recaps?!”

Paste: If you did a sitcom, would adding a laugh track be good or bad, given the state of comedy?
Brennan: Here’s the irony of all this with single cam versus multi cam. I have a script, and a cable network would like to make it single camera. In a perfect world I’d do what we did on Chappelle’s Show where it’s single camera, but there’s also a studio audience. The only show that’s done it with a real studio audience is on Little Britain. On the British version, they did pre-tapes, then they would show the tapes to an audience and use the laughter for the show. I would do real laughter, not like Brady Bunch type shit. What it comes down to is the expense. For the show that I’m doing now, they’ll be like, “That’ll be another $10,000 a week and we don’t have that kind of money.”

Paste: What’s the most expensive part of shooting a TV show?
Brennan: The stage and the crew.

Paste: You write sketch and you do stand-up. Do prefer one to another?
Brennan: I’ll always love sketches. They’re my first love. I like sketches mostly because it’s the easiest way to do satire and get a laugh, like really condensed, hard laughs. SNL, Chappelle’s Show or Mr. Show would be a good example. I like stuff that’s sort of short. If you like the premise it goes on for 5 minutes and if you don’t like it, it’s over pretty quickly. The hard part for me at this point is finding the right person to do sketches with. I got along well on Chappelle’s Show for two reasons: one because Dave was in everything and he’s one in a billion. Two, I had a huge say in the show. I did a pilot for Comedy Central and it was a sketch show. I was in some of the sketches and I’m not that good of a sketch actor. I’m not bad, but there are better people. For the Colt 45 sketch, it’s like I think of the idea and I can play a nerd, or I could just get Eugene Mirman. I still think of premises a lot, it’s just a matter of finding the right person. Or I could just write for someone else, for an award show but then I’m pitching sketches to somebody else. Some guy that I’m funnier than can go, “Nah, I don’t like that” and I’m like, “well, I kind of don’t give a shit.”

Paste: Are there any sketch shows currently on the air that you like?
Brennan: I love Inside Amy Schumer. I directed Schumer last year. Kroll Show and Key and Peele are really funny.

Paste: There’s a lot more sketch on television now than there ever has been before. Do you think any particular show put it all in motion?
Brennan: I think maybe Chappelle’s Show. I think comedians realized that with sketch shows, you can do a lot of shit. Chappelle’s Show was a sketch show but we also did like a game show and remotes. There are tons of things you can do there that you can’t do on The Tonight Show.

Paste: When you did Chappelle’s Show, were there any sketches that you didn’t end up shooting?
Brennan: No. The thing with Chappelle’s Show is that we were so hard up for sketches that we were never like, “Yeah let’s put that on the back burner.” There was no back burner. Dave and I were really the only writers. We did an episode that was all sketches that didn’t work, and then we had no more ideas. We did 75 sketches and that’s a whole lot. I don’t know if we did that many, but that’s just a lot of premises.

Paste: I just read Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live and they talk about the process of coming up with sketches and throwing them out.
Brennan: Me and Dave read that book before we started. It was really helpful.

Paste: Have you ever met Lorne Michaels, and if so, was it terrifying?
Brennan: Yeah I’ve met him. It wasn’t terrifying because by the time I met him, this is going to sound awful, but, by the time I met him, it was at the Emmys and I happened to be sitting in front of him, which is a pecking order thing. There weren’t too many circumstances that would be more favorable in which to meet a person.

Paste: I worked on a telethon once, it was right after Hurricane Sandy at 30 Rock. People were rushing around setting up for this thing and in comes Lorne Michaels. He was dressed all in white, watching the monitor, not talking to anyone. He had a very God-like presence.
Brennan: I saw him at the Emmy’s and I know people that have worked with him. We’ve met a couple other times, he’s wanted me to do some things with him, none of which worked out but we’re cool. I saw him at Jimmy’s Show five or six years ago. I like that dude. I hear funny shit that he says now and I saw him at Andy Samberg’s wedding and Seth’s wedding. I see him at social events.

Paste: So you’re saying he’s a human being?
Brennan:  He’s just a human boy, yes.

Paste: How many writers do you have on The Approval Matrix?
Brennan: This time it was just Rory Albanese and Kurt Metzger.

Paste: Do you guys come up with a huge list of topics and whittle it down from there?
Brennan: Not really. It’s gotta be something you can talk about for more than a half an hour. It’s gotta be faceted and it also has to be something people will disagree about. There are plenty of things we can talk about that everyone basically agrees with, but it can’t be too serious like Israel versus Palestine. It can’t be deathly, it’s gotta remain cultural and lighter than…

Paste: Bill Maher?
Brennan: Exactly.

Paste: Tell me if the following things are low brow, high brow, despicable or brilliant. First topic: Is there any specific news outlet doing brilliant coverage of the Ferguson case?
Brennan: Well, my jury is still out on VICE, but I think they did well. They did a live stream. I feel like VICE is gonna have to come to a decision at some point. Are they about news or are they about tits? Maybe I’m being old fashioned.

Paste: No I think you’re right. Sometimes I make bets to myself about whether the cover of their website will be of a war torn country…or just butts.
Brennan: I fucked with VICE for a long time and one of their feet is definitely in tits. They’ve got one foot in tits and another foot in breaking news. I’ll be honest with you, I genuinely enjoy tits and I do enjoy the news, but not the way they cover tits.

Paste: I’m going to quote you on that. Neal Brennan enjoys tits and the news. Next topic: The ice bucket challenge… despicable or brilliant?
Brennan: We had a term for the ice bucket challenge back in my day, which is extortion. I’m pretty sure it’s extortion. You’re trying to get a person to dump ice on their head or give money. Then people go like, “Well you dump ice and give people money.” And I say, no I’m not doing that. You can pick one, but don’t pick ice, because I’m not doing that one. It’s basically just like the Macarena or planking. It’s like a social movement.

Paste: Or the Harlem Shake.
Brennan: The Harlem Shake is a dope song so I can’t associate it with the ice bucket challenge.

Paste: If you could start your own trend in the name of charity, what would it be?
Brennan: Volunteerism.

Paste: Whoa.
Brennan: I know, weird right?

Paste: Third topic: Twitter activism, despicable or brilliant?
Brennan: Talib Kweli said on CNN recently, “All this Twitter activism doesn’t mean anything.” You’ve got to get boots on the ground. I’ve been talking about this a lot lately on a The Approval Matrix. This shit’s kind of worthless. But in Ferguson, the links to the live feeds were invaluable. I was talking a black friend and we were saying if in the ‘50s and ‘60s Twitter existed, people would’ve been like, “Nice hoses, George Wallace. Let me guess, it’s because you have a tiny dick. I get it.” You gotta get out there and march, man.

Paste: Fourth topic: Tributes to Robin Williams, despicable or brilliant?
Brennan: That “Genie, you’re free” tweet from Disney is how you define suicide. Technically it is true, and he is free of his crippling depression. I’d say it’s maybe lowbrow/brilliant. David Letterman’s tribute I would put in highbrow/ brilliant. He actually knew Robin Williams. He really knew him. It’s so hard to know with this Internet shit what is grandstanding and people doing it for their own means and the “I met him once” people. There’s a lot of that. There’s something about the Internet that makes everyone kind of adolescent meaning there’s something about it that makes people go, “Dear Diary…” There’s this acceptable feeling of, “This is my journal that I share.” Everyone’s a blogger and not everyone’s created equally in terms of depth and quality. I retweeted a clip of Dave Attell on “Opie and Anthony” the day after Patrice O’Neal died. He made fucking hilarious jokes about Patrice that were at his expense and everyone was dying laughing. It was like, Jesus Attell, but it was so goddamn funny. That to me is a tribute, like a Viking funeral or something. It was a guy who understands Patrice. Letterman and Robin Williams are in a club of about 5 people. Letterman, Leno, Robin and a few more. It’s guys that became Comedy Store comics that became international celebrities. Those are the people’s tributes who I really pay attention to. I could listen to those guys talk endlessly. The people who stood in line with Robin and the look he gave them and stuff, it’s hard to not roll my eyes a little bit.

Paste: Well, I have no stories about him, because we never met.
Brennan: Thank god.

The Approval Matrix airs Mondays on SundanceTV.