I met Neal Brennan interning at New Line Cinema when I was asked to photocopy pictures of men in bear suits for a project he was pitching. I knew right away this was a hilarious individual. I ended up working on the pilot for Chappelle's Show on Comedy Central where Neal is co-writer, sometimes director, and an Executive Producer. He learned how to be funny from his comedian brother, working at clubs, and studying the art-form.
*This interview contains explicit language.*
CCB: When did you first realize you enjoyed comedy? How soon did you start writing jokes?
NB: I realized at a very young age, maybe eight or nine, that I liked comedy and was funny. I could always make the older kids laugh. Not so much the kids my age, because I was shy and they knew me too well. I remember doing pre-planned bits a few years later to one of my classmates I trusted, telling it in a Richard Lewisy/Seinfeld/David Brenner cadence that was all the rage at the time, probably '83, '84.
CCB: How did you go about learning how to write and make people laugh? Were there people who influenced you along the way?
NB: I used to watch a shitload of comedy in high school. I’d stay up and watch Arsenio, then Letterman. Since my brother was a comic, I got a lot of access to great comics. I've known Ray Romano and Dave Attel since I was fourteen. Hanging out with comics like that when I was in high school showed me different ways of being funny. My brother, Attel, Mike Royce (who writes for Everybody Loves Raymond), and Dave Juskow used to all hang out a lot. The way they were funny was so incredible to me. It was like a Simpsons episode, before the Simpsons was on the air. I have to say those guys would be my biggest influences especially Juskow.
CCB: Can you give a quick overview of how you pursued your writing career?
NB: I went to NYU film school. My brother is a comedian, so I started hanging out with him at the Boston Comedy Club in NYC. I liked the environment of comedy clubs, much more than school. I hate(d) film students. They're pretentious almost without exception. After a while, I started pitching jokes to some comics... Elon Gold, Jay Mohr, and Dave Chappelle. We were all around the same age. Elon let me write sketches with him for a show on MTV. It was a positive experience.
I dropped out of school after a year. Eventually I moved to LA and through people I met while working at the club, I got some writing jobs out there. My first professional writing job was for the Jenny McCarthy dating show, Singled Out. I was twenty. It seems really young now, but back then I felt way overdue for a job. I was ashamed I was writing for a game show. My next job was the Nickelodeon sketch show, All That.
CCB: Was dropping out of film school the impetus for you to seek out your career in comedy?
NB: Not really. I was always pretty good at comedy. It wasn't like, "This film thing stinks. I got to find something else." I always thought I'd end up in comedy in one form or another.
CCB: How does one write for Jenny McCarthy on Singled Out?
NB: It was more writing the categories for Chris Hardwick... finding ways to say small, medium and large. All the writers were really funny, went on to write for some big shows like South Park. One time, a guy named Greg Bennetts wrote a height category (short, medium, tall) that went: Cake, Wedding Cake, Super-Nitro Funny Cake. That shit still makes me laugh sometimes. It was probably the most fun I've ever had at a job. Six other comedy writers and me in a bullpen eight hours a day. I was getting paid to write for something that had incredibly low standards, but was funny in it's own way. Super-Nitro funny cake. Need I say more?
CCB: What was it like working with kids on All That?
NB: That was right after Singled Out and was a bit of a rude awakening. I went from a bullpen to being in Orlando by myself in an office with much higher expectations. They had an actual show that was run professionally. I didn't really get anything on the show. I wasn't any good at writing for little kids. I did learn to follow my instincts. I'd be in the re-write room with the other writers and I'd want to pitch a joke, but would wimp out. A lot of times, one of the other writers would pitch the joke I was thinking of and it would get on. It built my confidence up in some ways.
CCB: You meet Dave Chappelle at the Boston Comedy Club in New York City. How long before you start working on Half Baked? Is this your first collaboration or simply the one that gets greenlight?
NB: We met in '91/'92 and didn't write Half Baked until '97. It was our first collaboration and the one that got greenlighted. Dave and I haven't really done anything that wasn't decent. We've done stuff separately that wasn't so great, but together we're generally pretty good. In fact, the Half Baked script was pretty good. Better than the movie.
CCB: Why don’t you like Half Baked as a movie? Did it become diluted from what you and Dave had written originally?
NB: It just wasn't as funny as the script. The script could have used a little re-write too. Once the ball starts rolling it's impossible to stop. Particularly when you're twenty-three and happy to get a movie made. Any movie.
CCB: Why does Half Baked take off on video?
NB: I think the movie took off on video because we opened in the theatres against 007 Golden Eye, Good Will Hunting, and a little movie called Titanic, all of which were in their first months of release. It's not the most cinematic movie ever. Not a big heroic story with a lot of beautiful photography. Also, weed-heads don't like to go anywhere, so they waited until one of their buddies could bring the movie right over to their rooms. I'm not a huge fan of the movie, but there are some good jokes in it. A few glimpses of Chappelle's Show.
CCB: What did you do after Half Baked?
NB: Half Baked came out in January of '98. It was probably the worst year of my life, creatively and personally. It messed me up pretty bad. I was spinning. We were sort of flavors of the month the year before and when the movie kind of bricked I didn't know what the hell was going on. I was tied to a bunch of projects I didn’t want to be involved in all that much. I got fired from one of them. I wrote another script that was crappy. I was floundering. In '99, started going to therapy and got it together. I had a really good idea for a movie that I was able to pitch with a buddy of mine (Michael Schur -formerly writer/producer of SNL, now writing on The Office) that we sold to Paramount. Then we sold another movie pitch/script in 2000. We did a re-write for Todd Philips in 2001. Dave and me started Chappelle's Show in 2002. I pretty much grew up in that time. I couldn't have done Chappelle's Show in '98. It requires too much responsibility and consistency, which I didn't have back then.
CCB: Dave worked on a lot of pilots that did not air, what is it about Chappelle’s Show that made it stick?
NB: It's just a matter of figuring out where you fit in. Dave kept trying to do these sitcoms. It's the thing you do when you're a good comedian. But, they're not for everybody. In fact, they're not for many people. Dave and I have always loved sketch comedy. When we call each other and say, "did you watch this or that?" It’s never about sitcoms. It's usually a sketch/variety show. SNL, Conan, or whatever and Dave's act/style is really visual. We always talk about the best way to illustrate a joke. That's pretty much what a sketch show is. Illustrating points, parodies of stuff, making observations in the process.
CCB: Why do you think Chappelle’s Show has been so successful?
NB: I guess it was just Dave's time. He's been plugging away for so long and is really funny. Also, we're two dudes with pretty strong sensibilities and we've been around long enough to be able to bring our ideas to fruition. The show's really funny and is made for actual people, not Hollywood's idea of people.
CCB: Why do you have a handle on what people find funny?
NB: I don't know if I have a handle on what people think is funny. I have a handle on what I think is funny and most of the time the audience agrees. That's the only way to do it. Otherwise it doesn't work.
CCB: What is your writing process? Do your ideas evolve in a different way when you are writing a sketch or a screenplay?
NB: The writing process for sketches is somewhat different from movies. With movies, everything has to come out of character and plot. The guy has to raise money to save the senior center, solve the murder of his partner or whatever. It's pretty limited in terms of what you can do. You always have to keep progressing the plot and can't go on a tangent for more than a scene, if that. In sketches, you don't have to advance the plot very much. You can just do jokes strung together with a little structure.
Take The Niggar Family sketch we did. Nothing much happens. We introduce the premise, and then do a pile of Niggar jokes: one lazy niggar, niggar please, etc. We establish that the son is going on a date that night, as is Dave's character, the milkman. They then meet up at the restaurant and we do more niggar jokes, this time more as fish out of water/mix-up jokes. Then we tag the sketch with a slight twist, a Mexican family the Wetbacks. It was satisfying because we got to do a ton of jokes in five minutes. We got to switch locations, which a show like SNL can't do because all of their sketches have to take place in the studio.
CCB: Does you writing approach differ when you aren’t writing specifically for Dave?
NB: Not really. It's easier for me to write for Dave though. I have a pretty unique understanding of his personality, the type of stuff that he does well and he likes to talk about. When I'm writing for him, I'm writing with him, so it's easier and better. Invariably, two writers are better than one. Plus, he's an awesome writer. Everybody thinks that one of us is the dominant writer. It just isn't the case. The material breakdown is 50/50. I'm talking literally line for line. It always ends up that way. If I come up with a premise he'll invariably fill it out with jokes I wouldn't have thought of and vice versa.
CCB: Most writers take material from their lives and include it in their work. Are there parts of you in the characters you create?
NB: It's not so much in the characters. Neither me nor Dave have very much in common with Bigsby, Tron, Samuel Jackson, Tyrone Biggums, Chuck Taylor the white newscaster, Tiger Woods, Rick James, Black Gallagher, R. Kelly or Lil Jon. Our personalities are all over the premises though. Pretty much every sketch we do is based on an observation from one of us. That Popcopy sketch from last year came from a bad experience I had at a Kinko's. Bigsby came from Dave's grandfather, a blind black dude. Lil Jon came being a musical guest and Dave and I thinking the dichotomy of his personality was funny. He went to Moorehouse, yet communicates only with what's, yeahs, and okays. The John Mayer sketch came from an observation we had about white people loving electric guitar for some reason and on and on.
CCB: Do you think certain things have worked better in the second season as a result of having done the first?
NB: Obviously, you get better at stuff as you do it. I think we got certain sketches out of our system the first season...i.e. the sketches about boobs, girls. It never really clicked with us that this stuff was actually going to be on television. I know that sounds nuts, but we were making sketches pretty much for ourselves. Once you go out into the world and people start repeating back sketches to you, you start to understand the power of TV. The second season we were probably a little more aware that everybody was looking and I think we rose to the occasion.
CCB: You try different things visually with the show from the video game sketch in the first season to the puppets public service announcement in the second. Will we ever see an animated sketch?
NB: You probably won't see an animated sketch only because Robert Smigel pretty much has that on lock-down. Dave had always wanted to do a puppet sketch, but I never really understood exactly how he wanted to do it. I had an animated idea, a Toy Story parody, which was STDs. Again Smigel has that so thoroughly in hand, that I thought, how else can we do this? I remembered Dave wanted to do a puppet thing. So the sketch ended up being a combination of the STD idea mixed with Dave's idea, which was fully fleshed out, but he had never explained to me. The heroin addict puppet, the garbage can grouch, etc. That's why it's good to have a partner. It's literally twice as good, if not three times.
CCB: You aren’t afraid to tackle taboo subjects on the show like the R. Kelly sex tape. Is anything simply off limits?
NB: Not really. We've done 9/11 jokes without a problem. Maybe AIDS is still too rough, but you never know.
CCB: The show allows the audience to learn about people they might not recognize like Charlie Murphy. Whom do you find funny that people should look out for?
NB: Obviously Charlie, Donnell Rawlings (Ashy Larry), Paul Mooney, Bill Burr (the red haired guy from the racial draft sketch). A couple of comics... Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, my brother Kevin Brennan is real funny. It's nice to give people a platform to be funny on the show. There aren't too many places where you can be funny on TV and I'm glad our show's one of them.
PB: When you aren’t working on the show is writing a part of your daily routine?
N: Nope, I don't like writing. It's hard. But, I'm always thinking of bits in one way or another. I was able to direct this year, Rick James and some other stuff. Now I think about that too.
CCB: What is it you enjoy about directing? Does it use different parts of the brain than say, writing?
NB: I like directing because it's endlessly interesting. There's so many ways to shoot every single scene. It's not a different part of the brain necessarily, it's figuring out how to illustrate each little moment/joke in the script in the funniest possible way. Writing is figuring out the funniest way to illustrate a dynamic or an idea. Directing is a continuation of the same process, to me.
CCB: Does standup provide you with a different reward than television perhaps because of the immediacy of the audience?
NB: Yeah, that's the biggest difference. You tell a joke on stage and it gets a laugh. On the show we write a sketch, we'll get a few laughs at read-through a week after that. We'll shoot it and it'll get laughs again at the show taping. It's obviously diffused. The laughs at our tapings are pretty satisfying because we work so hard on the sketches and we take some pretty massive gambles. For instance, the heroin puppet nodding off for fifteen seconds could have bombed massively. It's just dead air. When it works, it's a pretty sweet
CCB: Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue a career in writing for television or film?
NB: I would say go someplace and work there for free, whether it be a comedy club, or an improv place like Second City or The Groundlings. Hang out there. You'll meet kindred spirits. If you write something, shoot it yourself. Cameras are cheap. You can edit on a computer. Don't write shitty things for shitty shows. Don't do it for the money. There's no way to write something good if you're doing it for the money.
CCB: Why do you think comedy receives a bad rap critically?
NB: I don't know. I don't really care either. Awards and all that shit are the opposite of comedy. I'm not saying I wouldn't like to win an Emmy for the stuff me and Dave did this year. At the same time, comedy is like a fungus. It grows best in dank, dark spaces. Awards tend to make things glossier and more corporate. We went to one award show and it was pretty gross and nerve-racking.
CCB: What can we expect from the third season of Chappelles Show?
NB: Honestly, I have nearly no ideas. Pray for me. I might be fucked.
CCB: One day Chappelle’s Show will come to an end. What is your next challenge? Have you ever imagined being in front of the camera?
NB: I've imagined it, but even in my imagination I'm not successful at it. I'm a funny guy. You have to be funny, plus about ten other different things to have a successful acting career. I might have two of those ten things. I'm much more interested in writing and directing. That feels like the way for me to go. I'm really excited about it and curious to see what I can pull off.
CCB: When your career is over and they publish your comedy obituary, what does it say?
NB: I'm going to pass. Let somebody else come up with something witty for once. It's that kind of pressure that probably killed me anyway.