'Chappelle's Show' Co-Creator Moves Into The Limelight With '3 Mics'
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, comic Neal Brennan, is mostly known for being a behind-the-scenes guy. With Dave Chappelle, he co-created and co-wrote the sketch comedy series "Chappelle's Show," and he co-wrote a sketch for "Saturday Night Live" when Chappelle hosted just after Donald Trump was elected president. Brennan also has directed episodes of "Inside Amy Schumer" and wrote some material for Seth Meyers for his 2011 performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
Earlier this year, Brennan wrote for "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, but Brennan has begun stepping out more as a performer. In February, when Terry spoke with him, he had recently released a comedy special on Netflix, which is still available for streaming. It's called "3 Mics," and he literally works with three different microphones. One mic is for his one-liners. One is for stand-up. And one is for his personal stories about things like depression and his family. Let's hear a clip from the stand-up section.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "3 MICS")
NEAL BRENNAN: I hang out with a lot of black dudes. Yeah, white people are always like - what's it like? It's, like, we don't do anything crazy. We just, like, eat and talk. Like, I don't have to rap.
BRENNAN: Let's play a game called Sounds Racist, Isn't Racist - ready?
BRENNAN: Such a horrible setup for a white person again. No, here it is. There have been a lot of good slave movies lately, right?
BRENNAN: Sounds racist - I just enjoy them as movies. You guys think I'm, like, thinking it's a documentary. I get it.
BRENNAN: Here's what I've learned hanging out with black dudes. When a new slave movie comes out, it can't be your idea as the white person to go see it.
BRENNAN: Can't be like, have I got a movie for us? Follow me.
BRENNAN: Hi. Could I get 14 for "Django," please? Thank you.
BRENNAN: Slavery is such a big deal. It's such a big deal. If I were black, I would talk about it constantly. I really would. And a lot of white people go - well, I think black people talk about slavery too much as it is. First of all, if Italians went through slavery, they'd never shut the [expletive] up about, and you know that.
BRENNAN: You know it. And they'd all have some heroic story of escape, too, like - so finally My Uncle Fabrizio was like [expletive]. He punched the slave master, and he walked from North Carolina straight to Jersey. All right.
BRENNAN: I would talk about it constantly, constantly. Like, if I were black and waiting tables, I'd be like - all right, guys. Here's your check, and don't forget - slavery.
BRENNAN: If a cop stops me and he's like, you know why I pulled you over? I'd be like, to apologize for slavery?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Neal Brennan, welcome to FRESH AIR.
So one of your mics on the "3 Mics" is for, like, autobiographical stories - some of them are, you know, pretty sad - about your life and your family.
BRENNAN: Thank you.
GROSS: Yes, you're welcome.
GROSS: So was that a way of saying to people, look, there's three mics. There's one for stand-up. There's one for, like, one-liners and then there's one for, like, more serious stuff. Don't expect the big laughs in the more serious - like, don't start heckling me because I'm telling you (laughter) - because I'm telling you, like, more personal stories. Like, I'm on that mic. I'm on the mic set aside for that. We'll get back to the one-liners.
BRENNAN: Yeah. It's expressly for serious stuff. And I found a lot of people start liking it more than the stand-up, which is kind of insulting. But - no, but they like it - like, they start to kind of - you build up a - sort of a - you metabolize it in a certain way, and then you're like I can't wait to get to the sad stuff.
GROSS: So in your show, you're the guy onstage. You're the guy behind the mic - or the mics (laughter). But really, you had become best known for being a behind-the-scenes guy - directing Amy Schumer's show, writing for "Chappelle's Show."
GROSS: I want to ask you about writing with him for the show. You co-created the show as well...
GROSS: ...As co-writing it. And so many of the sketches are about - were about race. And so you were, like, the white person writing from a black point of view. Were there times it was uncomfortable to be a white person writing sketches from a black point of view in the sense that there's always comedy you're allowed to do, for instance, about Jews - but only if you're Jewish - or about...
GROSS: ...Gay people - but only if you're gay or about black people - but only if you're black? I could go on.
BRENNAN: No, please do. What else? No - yeah, I mean, there was never - it wasn't too awkward because it was just me and him. It was more just, like, pitching jokes. Like, hey, how about this? How about this? You want to do this? You want to do that? It was never - I would never take big swings in terms of racial jokes. Like, you know - well, hey, you know, black people do this. It was never that sort of bald.
It was more like a premise, and then we would sort of know. And a lot of what we did was make fun of white people's perception of black people. So I think, in some ways, I was a benefit that I could sort of not even - not explain, like, you know, white people see this. But there were certain things that I could maybe express - not like Dave wouldn't know but I could maybe verify. So it was never too awkward between...
GROSS: Can you think of an example of that?
BRENNAN: I'm thinking - the ones I'm thinking of are so broad, and they're not even good jokes. Like - and I - again, I don't like to - we had a deal where we wouldn't say who wrote what, but there are some jokes that are just like, who cares? We did a racial draft sketch when Tiger Woods gets drafted.
GROSS: You have to explain the premise.
BRENNAN: Oh, right. OK. So we did a racial draft where different racial groups draft people that are sort of in between. So Tiger Woods is half Asian and half black, so basically, he gets adopted by black people. He gets drafted by black people, and now he's officially black. And we did a bunch of them, like the Wu-Tang Clan got drafted by Asians, a bunch of things like that. I think Colin Powell got drafted by white people...
BRENNAN: ...I think. Yeah, so...
GROSS: But only if they took Condoleezza Rice, too.
BRENNAN: That's correct. So anyway - so I was like - we were just - Chappelle - Dave was like, hey, I need - what should I say as Tiger Woods? And I was like, I don't know - goodbye, fried rice; hello, fried chicken? It's like - and it's a decent joke. But it's not anything I'm especially proud of. But it got the job done. It was like a Band-Aid line.
GROSS: So you were actually on "Chappelle's Show" in a position that a lot of black people are in, which is being the minority person (laughter), I guess...
GROSS: You were the white person working with Chappelle and with a, you know, largely black cast and hanging out with a lot of fellow comics who were largely African-American. And I should mention here, your podcast "Champs" only has on comics of color (laughter).
BRENNAN: Yes, for the most part, yeah. And a few - we - and we had like - yeah, but yeah, we had - it wasn't all black people. But it was no - we had a no-white-people policy.
GROSS: So I've asked a lot of African-Americans over the years what it's like to be, like, the black person who's, like, integrating the school or, you know, the only black person in their class or the only black person on the job or the only black writer on the show. So let me ask you the reverse question - what was it like being, like, the white guy?
BRENNAN: It was very hard. No, it was great.
BRENNAN: It was - there is such a thing as being a minority but not being oppressed. I was a minority with power, I guess. I was a minority, but I was still the No. 2 guy. So I never felt like - I never felt oppressed. I think my whole goal was just to do right by Dave because I was thankful for the opportunity and to do right by black people at large, I think, vis-a-vis Dave.
GROSS: So you also got to be the man directing Amy Schumer's show because you directed - what? - like, 10 episodes?
BRENNAN: Yeah, the first season.
GROSS: And there's so much real, like, girl and feminist stuff on that show. Did you feel like you learned things about women by doing that show?
BRENNAN: Well, yeah. The thing that I would say about Schumer's show is that it - the way that the "Chappelle's Show" was about the horror of being a black man, Schumer's show was about the horror of being a woman, just the day-to-day inconvenience, you know. It's like, what's it like to have a world-class intellect in a world where you're treated like a third-class citizen? And that applies to Amy and Dave.
It's like, Dave's smarter than everyone he talks to and yet has to - and is routinely spoken down to by merit of being black, maybe less so now that he's famous. But as it was, you know, before he was famous, it was always this ongoing condescension, which I think women have to deal with on an hourly basis as well - and Amy being a great example of that. And maybe she - because she's famous now, there's less talking down to, but there's still a ton of it in both their cases.
GROSS: All right. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Neal Brennan. He's a comic, writer and director. He has a Netflix comedy special that's called "3 Mics" - that's as in microphone. And he was the co-creator of "Chappelle's Show." He directed a bunch of episodes of Amy Schumer's show. He's written for "Saturday Night Live." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic, writer and director Neal Brennan. And he has a Netflix comedy special called "3 Mics" - mics as in microphones. One mic is for one-liners. One mic is for stand-up. And one mic is for his autobiographical monologues, which include stories about depression and his family. He also co-created "Chappelle's Show" and directed episodes of "Inside Amy Schumer."
Let's get back to "3 Mics." You talk about depression in your show. At what age did you become aware that other people weren't feeling what you were feeling, that you were sadder than other people, you had a problem most people did not?
BRENNAN: That's a good question. You know, when I was a kid, I used to cry every day, like, when I was like, you know, 7 through 11 or 6 through 11, to the point where my brother and sisters would like - there was an ongoing joke where they would make me cry to keep my streak alive of crying every day.
BRENNAN: You know, pretty great. And so I think that's probably an indicator. It never occurred to me, like, you know, this is clinical depression. And I don't even know if it was. I maybe just was a sensitive little kid. But I think probably once I was, like, an adult, then you sort of realize like - oh, this isn't just like an attitude. This is actual - there may be something clinically happening here. And I think I started taking medication when I was 24.
GROSS: You describe depression as being like a virus that attacks your brain with negative thoughts. And you also say, like, to say I had low self-esteem isn't true. I had no self-esteem. So it must be hard to decide to get onstage when you feel like you have no self-esteem.
BRENNAN: Yeah. It's - it is hard. But it's also like a Hail Mary. It's a bit of a, like, well, screw it. Let me see if this works. Let me see if, like, you know, gale force approval works. And a lot of times it does, you know. I mean, that's the truth. It doesn't last long. It doesn't - it is a bit of a sieve, where the - it's hard to bank good feelings or approval. But it certainly is a short-term fix, getting approval from an audience.
GROSS: Does it feel better when you're onstage delivering it yourself than when you've written it for somebody else and they're getting a laugh?
BRENNAN: Yeah. It's definitely more direct. You know, I liken it to - when you write a joke for somebody else, it's like you - you know, like the Wile E. Coyote dynamite plunger, where he pushes the plunger down and then you see the fuse go then there's an explosion in the distance? That's like writing a joke for somebody. When you tell the joke, you're in the explosion. And you get all that approval for yourself, Terry.
GROSS: (Laughter) You know a lot of comics. And a lot of comics have depression. So do you have a theory of why that's so?
BRENNAN: Comedy is almost like the valve, you know. So you can - you're, like, desperately trying to feel better. And I think you'll, like, think in different ways. You'll think in unique ways, and that will beget comedy because it's this desperation to feel a little bit better. There's also the theory, which Chris Rock has mentioned when he was talking about Robin Williams. He said, you know, if ignorance is bliss, you know, then consciousness can be miserable. You know, like, real paying attention and real observation and deep thought and deep consideration can be a bit, you know, miserable-making.
GROSS: Well, that's the thing about really good comics is, like, you guys see beneath the surface of things and have the verbal facility and irony and comedy to kind of turn that into something that everybody gets and can - or at least a lot of people get...
GROSS: ...And can identify with. And plus, you can make it funny, so there's a moment of relief for everybody listening.
BRENNAN: Yeah. It's like I've gone to the netherworld, and I brought back this, you know.
BRENNAN: I brought back this nugget of thought or comedy or whatever.
GROSS: So you're the youngest of 10 siblings, and you talk about this in your show "3 Mics." Your father was abusive. He was violent. He was an alcoholic. What kind of drunk was he?
BRENNAN: He wasn't like a 10-drink guy. He was a three-drink guy every day. And it would sort of give him the - he - and then he would feel deputized to kind of rage or be vitriolic. I think it gave him the confidence to sort of let out his true self, which was kind of nasty and competitive and petty. I think that's more - it was never like fall-down, stumbling, slurring drunk. It was just more like a bullying drunk.
GROSS: Did watching your father be a mean drunk affect how you felt about starting to drink, you know, when you became of age?
BRENNAN: Yeah. I drank a lot in high school.
BRENNAN: Yeah. No, I drank a lot in high school, mostly just to, like - I guess just to, like, fit in. But I've maybe gotten drunk three times in my adult life, twice maybe. Like, I can count - I just don't - it just doesn't do anything for me. Like I, A, like my personality. And B, I need energy. I don't need a depressant. So, yeah.
GROSS: So if your father became very insulting when he got drunk - and he got drunk a lot - did he insult you a lot? And did he insult you colorfully? Like, were they interesting insults or just mean ones?
BRENNAN: My father was sort of - a lot of what he - I think a lot of his - the things he said were sort of stolen from, like, Frank Sinatra records.
GROSS: (Laughter) Are you kidding?
BRENNAN: Like, just sort of - I remember hearing a, like, a live, like, Frank "Sinatra Live From The Mirage" or some Vegas show. And I'm like, oh, this sound - this was like where my dad - this is like where my dad's sort of style came from. You see it actually with Donald Trump, too. Like, where he - you can see, like, he believes in that, like, sort of Rat Pack-y (ph) - he - Donald Trump, like, you look at his press conference. He's just emceeing. Like - he's kind of doing, like, a Rat Pack thing, where he's kind of insulting people and a bit like Don Rickles-y (ph). So I think generationally, like, my father - were he alive, he'd be 80 - my dad would be 87 now, so he's older than Donald Trump. But, yeah. Like, that was the - that was sort of their paradigm of cool and funny was that kind of like Rat Pack-y thing.
He would get in on that crying thing. I remember him saying I'd be on the Olympic crying team, which is not a great joke. But he - I think he thought it was funny. So it was just, like, you know, kind of a cool little snap. But, you know, I was the - because I was the youngest, I was kind of, like, the mascot of the family. I was precocious. I was kind of cute. I had a bob haircut. And so I think my father - there was, like, a grudging respect he had for me because my brothers and sisters were all nice to me. And I think I was sort of considered wise and intelligent from a fairly young age. So I think I was a bit of like the opposition leader. Like, he knew I was against him. He knew I didn't approve of him. But I think he had to kind of respect me because he knew I was fairly intelligent.
GROSS: In your autobiographical monologues in your show "3 Mics," you describe your father as a narcissist. Was that your diagnosis?
BRENNAN: No, that was a doctor's diagnosis. In true, narcissistic fashion, when my father was diagnosed as a narcissist, he called us all up individually to tell us, and he did it with true pride. Like, he was like, - I have some - are you sitting down? I have some news. I'm a narcissist.
BRENNAN: So it was like - it was incredibly ironic. But yeah, he was a proud narcissist. I think he liked it. I think it made him feel, like, confident in himself. Like, I think he was like - it was somehow affirming to him that, like, I knew it. I knew I thought I was great...
BRENNAN: ...If that makes sense.
GROSS: So what does it mean in the official lexicon of psychiatry that you're a narcissist - when you're a narcissist?
BRENNAN: I think he - you know, my understanding is no empathy and every single thing is about how it affects you. And every single situation is about you.
GROSS: OK. So your father was the father of 10 children, you being the youngest.
BRENNAN: Yes, 10 people who were not him. Yes, go ahead.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, that must be a challenge. Like, you're supposed to have empathy with your children. You're supposed to really care about them, even put them before you many times.
BRENNAN: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: So it sounds like your father would not be...
BRENNAN: That's what I've heard, yes.
GROSS: (Laughter) Sounds like your father was not doing that when he was raising you.
BRENNAN: Yeah. He was not - he was not an empathetic guy. And he was not - he didn't want to have kids. I think ultimately, like, he just didn't want to have kids. I think that that's another thing that you weren't even allowed to really admit or acknowledge or live a life based on. Like, you couldn't say, I don't want kids, I don't think. Like, I think most of their - my mother and father's - life was just like, what's everybody else doing? I guess that's what we have to do. I think my mother was happy to do it. I think my mom loved having 10 kids. But I think my dad hated it. Really - I really think he just didn't like it. And he was kind of stuck, you know, which, you know, is - he - that's how he behaved.
GROSS: How did that leave you feeling about having children yourself?
BRENNAN: Well, Terry, I don't have any.
BRENNAN: So I think it's pretty clear how it left me feeling. My brother Kevin used to do a joke where he said like, yeah, I'm from a big family. I know how that ends. Like, he didn't want to have kids. He now has two kids. But yeah, like, it doesn't - it's not - I don't know. I'm not curious. It wasn't - yeah, I don't know. I think it's - the same way alcohol affected me, I think I'm having a similar - I had a similar response to children, even though I was the youngest, so I can't say like, oh, it was awful. And it was fun in a lot of ways. But I never had, like, a little - I never got to see, like, a baby grow up or anything like that. It's never occurred to me to have children or to want children.
BIANCULLI: Comedian and writer Neal Brennan speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year. After a break, he'll talk about working with Dave Chappelle to create and write "Chappelle's Show" and what it was like when Dave Chappelle abruptly left that comedy series. And film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Berlin Syndrome." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY OWENS' "BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from February with comic, writer and director Neal Brennan. With Dave Chappelle, he co-founded and co-wrote the sketch comedy series "Chappelle's Show." He's directed episodes of "Inside Amy Schumer." And earlier this year, he worked on the "The Daily Show" and released a solo comedy special on Netflix, which is still available to view. It's called "3 Mics" because onstage in the show, he uses three different microphones - one for one-liners, one for stand-up and one for stories about his life, including stories about dealing with clinical depression and growing up with a father who was an abusive alcoholic.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: In your show, you talk about how you say to your father - when he was sick, before he died you say to him, I feel like you didn't love us, your children. And your father thinks about it and says, yeah, I didn't. What do you do with that? What do you do with your father actually telling you that what you suspected is true - that he didn't really love his children?
BRENNAN: It felt good because it was clarifying. It was like finding the solution to the mystery. Everyone would always say - I would say, like, I don't think my dad loves me. And people would go like, of course your dad loves you. He's your dad, of course he does. And I'd be like, no, I'm pretty sure he doesn't. And so for him to say, like, I didn't love you guys was liberating because I was like, OK, great, I'm not crazy because you always feel like you're crazy when you have a parent like that.
And what I've found from talking about it in the show is there's a lot of that going around that - where people don't feel loved by their parents, and they're like - it's not just not feeling it. It's - you don't feel it because it's not there. I cut - or I - actually, it's a line I forgot to do in the show, which is like - I said, like, love is, like, elemental. Like, it's, you know, it's like wind or heat or something, where you can just feel it, you know? Like, you can feel when someone loves you. And that's a thing - a feeling, I just never got from my father. And people have been super grateful that I just said it in public because a lot of people feel that way, and no one ever really says it. So yeah, so it was - while it was painful, it was way more illuminating than it was painful.
GROSS: So when your father told you, yeah, I didn't love you, was that, like, past tense - like, I didn't love you then; I wasn't really prepared to be the father of 10, but now I really appreciate you and love you?
BRENNAN: No, Terry, there was no addendum.
BRENNAN: It was just - it was a full sentence. (Laughter) It was, I didn't love you, period. Now, where were we? And then we just - you know what I mean? Like, there was no...
BRENNAN: Now about this weather. Yeah, there was no - there was no - it wasn't a paragraph. It was a full sentence, and then it was on to the next thing.
GROSS: I'm assuming you're OK with me laughing about this.
BRENNAN: No, yeah, I - of course.
GROSS: Easy for me to laugh at your jokes about your father not loving you.
BRENNAN: Yeah, no, it is funny. It's funny. Like, I mean, it's awful. But it's funny.
GROSS: OK. So early when you were - I don't know - in your teens or 20s - I assume this was after you dropped out of film school - you worked the door at a club - at a comedy club in Greenwich Village.
GROSS: So you must have met a lot of comics doing that. I think that's how you met Chappelle, right?
BRENNAN: Yeah, that is how I met Dave. But yeah, the average - I mean, this is in the early '90s, so the average - you know, Jon Stewart was around. Ray Romano was around. Louis was around. Dave Attell was around, Chappelle. That was, like, an average show back then, but none of them were famous.
GROSS: So how - when you met Chappelle, what clicked and got you working together?
BRENNAN: He - well, we were the only young guys. We were, like, both 17 or 18. So I think we had a shared sensibility in terms of, like - whereas I'd gone to film school, he sort of - we just had similar tastes in movies and, like, what we liked or what we didn't or things that we thought were hacky or things that we thought were, like, done to death or whatever. And we would just talk, and we'd, like, walk around for hours.
GROSS: And you did a movie together that didn't do well. And then...
GROSS: ...Went your own separate ways. And then got back together for "Chappelle's Show." You co-created it with him. What does that mean, came up with the premise together?
BRENNAN: Yeah. Basically, we pitched a pilot to HBO and Comedy Central. HBO looked at us like we were, like, out of our minds. And then we pitched to Comedy Central. They bought it. And - but we basically just pitched, like, it was sort of - the idea was, like, a joke book come to life. So we would do any sort of idea either one of us had. Dave always called it a joke dispenser.
So it's figuring out - just, like, we had a point. What's the best way to illustrate that point? And we - when we did the pilot, there was no audience. And we did the bloopers from "Roots." That was in the pilot.
BRENNAN: We did the Kinko's/PopCopy training video. And I think we did reparations, the reparations news thing. And when we went to series, we decided to do it in front of the - in front of an audience - and which was a great, great way to do it.
GROSS: My guest is Neal Brennan, who co-created "Chappelle's Show." Let's hear a clip from "Chappelle's Show." This is a sketch in which Dave Chappelle hosts a game show called "I Know Black People" in which the contestants are drawn from different groups - white, Asian, black. Each contestant claims to know a lot about black people. We'll hear Chappelle introduce the panelists and then ask each of them a question.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHAPELLE'S SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: I Know Black People.
DAVE CHAPPELLE: (As Host) Welcome to the show "I Know Black People." We take contestants who claim to know black people and put their knowledge of African-American culture to the test. The contestant who answers the most questions, of course, wins our grand prize. Let's bring them out one at a time - now.
Our first contestant is a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University - the New York City police officer. He's a writer for such black television shows as "The Chris Rock Show" and "Chappelle's Show." OK, our next contestant works in a Korean grocery store, is a DJ and claims to have many black friends. A social worker in Wilmington, Del. - the barber in Brooklyn who claims that 100 percent of his clients are black. Let's play the game.
How can black people rise up and overcome?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As contestant) How can they rise up and overcome? Well, can they overcome? No.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
CHAPPELLE: (As Host) That is correct.
MARK D. NAISON: (As contestant) Reparations.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
CHAPPELLE: (As Host) That is acceptable.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As contestant) This is a rap lyric?
CHAPPELLE: (As Host) No. This - I'm sorry.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As contestant) Oh, this is a general question.
CHAPPELLE: (As Host) This is an actual question.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As contestant) All right. That's a - there's a complex answer there.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
CHAPPELLE: (As Host) That is correct.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As contestant) Staying alive.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
CHAPPELLE: (As Host) That is correct. That is correct.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (As contestant) Well, stop cutting each other's throat.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
CHAPPELLE: (As Host) That also is correct.
How can black people rise up and overcome?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As contestant) Get out and vote?
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)
CHAPPELLE: (As Host) That is incorrect.
GROSS: I'll talk more about "Chappelle's Show" as well as other things with comic, writer and director Neal Brennan after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS', "GROOVE HOLMES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic, writer and director Neal Brennan. He has a new Netflix comedy special called "3 Mics." With Dave Chappelle, he co-created and co-wrote the sketch comedy series "Chappelle's Show."
You had an agreement with Chappelle not to divulge who wrote what.
GROSS: Why was that important to you?
BRENNAN: Except for the goodbye - hello-fried-chicken joke...
GROSS: (Laughter) Right. Yeah.
BRENNAN: ...That masterpiece. It was important. I knew from writing the movie that didn't do well called "Half Baked" that didn't do well in the box office but, like, it's still popular. I knew when we wrote together that he would get all the credit in comedy, and I would get all the credit in showbiz.
So like in comedy clubs, it would be - like, someone's referred to me as Dave's typist in the past. Like, that he would get all the credit because he was a really well-known comedian. And I would get all the credit in showbiz because I was the - white had to with it. I was a white person, so therefore, they're predisposed to give me credit over a black guy. And I was also, like, the writer. And the - in LA, the writer is, like, the sort of organized taskmaster and the one who organizes the talent's voice, Dave being the talent.
Because they don't - people don't want to believe that you're both talented. They want to believe that there's a simple explanation of, like, Neal's Dave's typist, or Dave's this crazy genius that Neal types for, or Neal is this puppet master who is telling Dave what to say and how to say it and where to say it. And both are insulting. So I was like, let's just keep it anonymous so that people can't, you know, kind of divide and conquer. And it's just a respect thing. It's like, how do I keep my respect? And how do I keep it so that Dave gets respect?
GROSS: So since so many sketches were about race, did you and Chappelle have a lot of, like, deep discussions about race?
BRENNAN: Yeah. And - but the thing is, we'd been having them. We'd been having them since 1992, you know. Like, I knew him when the Rodney King verdict came out. I knew him when the O.J. verdict came out. Like, I think I'd spent the - I think I had dinner with him the night the O.J. verdict came out. I remember when Rodney King happened - he was in LA. I remember talking to him, like, that day or the next day.
So we'd been having long, deep discussions and - that were kind of ongoing. Like, there were sketches we did - like, we did a "Real World" sketch. And that's a discussion we'd been having for eight years by that point, how black people are portrayed on certain reality shows. So, yeah - so these were no - it wasn't like, oh, we have a show; we better talk about race. Dave's wife, at one point, said all you - and said to Dave - all you and Neal talk about is girls and work, work being race in this case. Like, that's kind of all we would ever talk about, was sort of gender and race, so it was a natural extension of an ongoing conversation.
GROSS: Now, my impression from things I read was that Chappelle, at some point, thought that white people were misinterpreting the sketches and maybe sometimes, like, laughing at him instead of with him on certain things. Can you clarify that?
BRENNAN: Yeah. I think, you know, it's hard when something goes out to that broad an audience. You can't control what people make of it. The most troublesome example of this was we were in - me and Dave were in Tempe, Ariz., and we were at a nightclub. And some sort of dusty, white dude came up and was like, hey, man, I like that sketch about the blind white supremacist who leaves his wife because she's a [expletive] lover. And it was just, ugh - like, literally - like, even just saying it just now, my, like - I get the chills. It's so - it makes me so uncomfortable. And it's one of those things where it's like, so what do you do? Do you stop? You can't control how people interpret things.
GROSS: Right. And the sketch that you're talking about was about a blind white supremacist who, because he's blind, doesn't realize he's actually black (laughter).
BRENNAN: Yes. It's like an eviscerating...
GROSS: So he's insulting his - himself without realizing it.
BRENNAN: Yes, exactly. He's black and then leaves his wife because she likes black people.
BRENNAN: It's like they really...
GROSS: And the larger thing here is that, like, people who are racist are stupid, they're not seeing.
BRENNAN: Yeah, exactly. And sure enough, that's what happened. So there were a few things like that where it's like, you know, what do you do if you're a black artist? And I think a lot of black artists reckon with this. It's like what do you do? Do you just keep doing your thing and accept that there's going to be a certain amount of the audience that has - doesn't understand what you're doing at all? Or do you kind of fold it up and go, if you don't - this is too important for you to misinterpret, so I can't risk it? - you know, which in some ways is, I think, the path that Dave took, which is like I can't deal with this misinterpretation. It's too - it means too much to me, and it's too painful that there are...
GROSS: Do you think that's why he kind of left the show and went to South Africa?
BRENNAN: Yeah, I think so. I think it's - that's - I think it was like a - it was a lot of stuff, but I think that was one of them, yeah.
BRENNAN: And that was - and the - because he went to South Africa - because he went to Africa and there was a white person, I think I got labeled as that white person. And it was like, no, we were writing sketches the day before. We were fine. Like, we were getting along fine. There was no racial tension between us. But that was a tough situation for me emotionally, too - him - like, me doing a - co-creating a show and then the show just dissolving in a day.
GROSS: Well, he didn't tell you he was leaving, right?
BRENNAN: No, he didn't. And he - I was on set waiting for him when I found out he was in Africa. I didn't know he was gone until he was gone.
GROSS: That must have been very strange for you to have something so abrupt and so important - I mean, it was a long friendship.
BRENNAN: Yeah, it was a - it was painful on a lot of levels. It was painful in that this thing that I'd made with him was now - I knew when he was gone that the show was over. It wasn't like, oh, he'll come back, then - I just knew, like, OK, that's like - that - I know what that means. And yeah, it was painful on a personal level.
It had been painful before then, but it wasn't, like, racially painful. It was just painful. It was kind of personally painful in that when we had to renegotiate with Comedy Central, it was basically a divide-and-conquer thing. And we were divided and conquered. I think I was conquered, I think. There was some contractual stuff that was really painful, and that was more - that was - the going to Africa thing was just, like, the final nail in the coffin.
GROSS: You have said for a long time that you might become friends again, but you'd probably never work together again. But right after the election when Chappelle hosted "Saturday Night Live," you wrote one of the sketches. So how did you get to work with him again on "Saturday Night Live"?
BRENNAN: Well, we've been friends. And, you know, when I did "3 Mics," he was very supportive. He came when I did it in Montreal. He came when I did it in LA, and then he came to the opening in New York. And I was grateful because it's, you know - I think because of the way "Chappelle's Show" ended, I get branded as kind of either racist or I'm a jerk to Dave or all this stuff. And it's like, no, me and Dave - like, so the - like, Dave's fans would be sort of - had sort of a bad feeling about me.
And I think by him coming to the show and getting his picture taken with me and all this stuff and sort of endorsing it, it was sort of like - hey, just so you know, me and Neal are cool, and we've been cool. So I was grateful for that. And then when he was hosting "Saturday Night Live," he, you know, asked me to help. And I was - I - you know, I want to see him do well. And the way that that sketch came about was - it was the week of the election. So on Wednesday, I came in to write a sketch with Colin Jost. And we wrote - at, like, noon we wrote the election night sketch that Chris Rock ended up being in. And it was a - it turned out to be a good sketch.
GROSS: This is a sketch where everybody's watching TV on election night. And they're rooting for Hillary, and she's losing state by state. And they keep thinking - well, if she just wins Pennsylvania, all she has to do is win Ohio. And (laughter)...
BRENNAN: Yeah, which was kind of what we were all doing.
GROSS: ...Their hopes keep getting dashed, yeah.
BRENNAN: Yeah, which was - I literally said the line - 'cause me and Jost were on some kind of conference call at 5:30 on Tuesday of Election Day. It's 5:30 in the afternoon, and Frank Luntz said that Hillary was going to win by 5. So we were like, OK. So we get off the call, and I go, yeah, you know, there may never be another Republican president based on - like, literally just saying things I'd read in The Atlantic, you know, and just being, like, a liberal, white stereotype. And then - so then the next day, we put all that sort of stupidity into the sketch. Or the naivete, I'd say is what it was.
GROSS: And you gave it a really interesting racial edge, too. Would you explain?
BRENNAN: Oh, yeah. Well, that actually came from Dave. So we - in the first draft that we read at read-through, that me and Jost wrote that afternoon, it was kind of Dave just being - kind of playing devil's advocate. Like, really? That's your worst-case scenario, just sort of like - and then he - after read-through, Dave was like, just make it a little bit, like, blacker. And then Chris signed on. I think, like, on Thursday or Friday, he said he'd do it. So then we added some lines for him when he got there Saturday. And so yeah - so it turned out - it worked out well.
GROSS: And the kind of bottom line of the sketch, in a way, is - if you think that Donald Trump winning and Hillary losing is the worst thing that's ever happened to this country...
BRENNAN: Yeah. It's the - this is the most shameful...
GROSS: The implicit in that was, like, let's remember...
GROSS: Let's remember slavery for a moment.
BRENNAN: Yeah. There's a few slavery references, like where - there's a thing where Dave says, like, yeah, I remember my grandfather telling me that. He was a slave. You know, like, sort of, like, reminding white people like - no, no, no. This is like the - this is - there's this thing of, like, this isn't America. It's like, I don't know. I think this is America. Like, we counted the votes, and this is America.
GROSS: Well, Neal Brennan, thank you so much for talking with us. I really enjoyed it.
BRENNAN: Terry, like I said, couldn't be a bigger fan. This is like a dream come true. So I really, really appreciate you having me on.
BIANCULLI: Comic and writer Neal Brennan speaking to Terry Gross in February. His stand-up comedy special, "3 Mics," is available on Netflix. That's mics, spelled M-I-C-S, as in microphones. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Australian film "Berlin Syndrome." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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