"We get to walk around like Socrates. It's an amazing job... it's a great thing, man! You're a philosopher, you're a sociologist, you're a preacher, you're a mentor, and you're a fool. All in one. And you get to showcase your humanity. It's a cool thing."
– Neal Brennan
Guy MacPherson: How are you? Where are you?
Neal Brennan: I'm well, in one piece. I'm in Montreal.
GM: How's the festival going?
NB: It's fun, man. It's a really fun time. It's like living in camp. It's like a dorm.
GM: 2005 was the last time I was there.
NB: I don't know what it's like for journalists, but as a comedian it's fun to like... me and Jimmy Carr get lunch every day. It's fun.
GM: You guys don't often get to hang together.
NB: Exactly. Like me and Jimmy have literally gotten lunch three days in a row. It's just fun.
GM: But then you gotta work to, don't forget that part.
NB: I do have to work but the good news is my shows are sold out so I don't have to worry. And my shows are at 10 so I can go see other people's shows. No complaints. Don't ruin this for me; I'm having fun.
GM: It's funny that you still worry about people showing up. Or enough people showing up.
NB: That's all I worry about. I made a video about it a few months ago where it's like, is this just Chinatown? Like, I'm I always just going to worry about it? Because what happens is, you sell out a show. You're worried and it sells out and you're relieved and they go, 'You want to add a show?' And you're like, Do I want to add a show? And then you add a show and you're just worried again.
GM: And you added a show in Vancouver, I know.
NB: Yeah, I talked to Sebastian Maniscalco who does arenas and he was like, 'I worry about it all the time.' He sold out Radio City six times and he's still worried about it all the time. I don't think it goes away.
GM: Seinfeld probably doesn't worry about it.
NB: Yeah, I guess Jerry probably doesn't worry. He doesn't worry about much other than, like, how clean his cars are. He's not much of a worrywart. I think the thing of it is is you don't want to look bad in front of the people who book you, in front of parameters. You don't want to go, 'I can lift 4000 pounds.' Then they go, 'Okay, do it.' You're like, 'Grrraaw, eerrrrgh, aargh.' So that's sort of the worry.
GM: I saw you in Vancouver years ago. What year was that?
NB: Oh yeah, I don’t even know what year that was. Do you have any idea? Maybe six years ago.
GM: I could check but it seems like it's longer. It was out at Lafflines I remember.
NB: Yeah. I vaguely remember. The only thing I remember is sitting in a room with a bunch of comics and we had a worst-song-on-our-ipod contest, which is really fun. That's literally all I remember about that festival.
GM: Well, I'm glad you're coming back so you can create new memories.
NB: I come back fairly often. I cast a commercial up there. I direct commercials sometimes so I had to do casting for three or four days up there. And my friend Lucy lives up there. I really like Vancouver.
GM: Where do you live?
NB: I live in L.A.
GM: I watched you with Seinfeld the other day.
NB: With my very good friend Jerry Seinfeld?
GM: (laughs) Not any more after you told him you didn't like his sitcom.
NB: He took it like a champ, though. He got it.
GM: And he kept it in the edit.
NB: Yeah! Exactly. That's the thing about Jerry. The thing I've learned about Jerry going in – we are at the beginning stages of a friendship – he loves comedy and he loves funny things of all stripes. He likes all kinds of different jokes. He came out and met me maybe two or three weeks ago at the Improv in L.A. I went n before him. By the way, neither of us did well. It was hilarious. But I was like, should I do my clean material only? Just do your act, just do the jokes you want to do. I have a bit about porn that he thought was hilarious and pitched jokes on it. People think he's the airplane humour guy. He came up with as many premises... The thing I've noticed with people watching Comedians in Cars is that they're like, 'Jerry seems like a cynical guy.' And it's like, did you ever see his sitcom?! The whole show was based on cynicism. I don't understand why people are surprised. You people thought he was going to make a show based on cynicism, be given a billion dollars, and be less cynical? You encouraged him!
GM: You said you just don't like sitcoms. I don't like sitcoms – although I did like Seinfeld, I gotta say. If you were to have a show called Brennan, would you do it and how would you try to make it different?
NB: I don't think I would do it. My thing is short. I like short stuff. I'm good at sketches. I'm good at commercials. I like short, compressed things. I'm not that good at pilots I just wouldn't be right to do a sitcom. I'm not even going to answer the question. I refuse to answer it. No one wants to admit, like, yeah, that's not really my thing. I would not be good at that. You're not supposed to say that in life, but I don't think I would be good at sitcoms.
GM: That was always the holy grail to get a sitcom. Now standup is the holy grail.
NB: Yeah, standup's the holy grail and I think a podcast where you get to be yourself is the holy grail. If you can figure out podcasts where you get to be yourself, like Bill Burr or Joe Rogan or Tom Segura or these guys, that's it, man. Even Theo Vaughn has been really growing a lot in popularity based on his podcast. He's got a very popular podcast and he's just a funny dude.
GM: For you, standup is it, right? That's what you love the most? Because you're a director, you're a writer.
NB: Yeah. I did a couple pilots toward the end of last year and as I was doing them I was like, this is not fun. Like I said, it used to be that that's where you made money, doing sitcoms. But take Sebastian and Mulaney, they sold respectively 35,000 tickets at Radio City and 42,000 tickets at Radio City. You can do back-of-the-napkin math on that. If they did a sitcom, they'd have to take a paycut.
GM: Mulaney did a sitcom and it was the worst thing I've ever seen in my life.
NB: I can't get with you on that because he's my friend, but I at a certain point just turned it off like a snuff film. It was like an ISIS video – I don't need to watch my friend like this.
GM: Exactly. But we can compartmentalize and go he's a great standup. It has nothing to do with him.
NB: As Jerry said in his intro for Mulaney, 'He did a sitcom; it didn't work; I don't care.' I told Mulaney it was watching a guy marry the wrong woman. You go, it'll last a little while and then we'll just go back to normal.
GM: Do you prefer standup over your other pursuits?
NB: Endeavours? Yeah, I do. I just like how direct it is and I like that I've been able to kinda grow in it in a very tangible way with popularity and ticket sales and Netflix, where with movies, I did a movie, it didn't do well, with Jeremy Piven, and they put me on the bench. It was like, okay, I don't really care. And I feel like TV, I don't especially want to do that with my life. It's too hard. So I'll just do standup and direct commercials, and that's really fun and short-term and it's good money. I don't have to write it; I don't feel like so invested. I'm invested in my act. I was just talking with a buddy of mine, a comedian, and we were talking about how we get to walk around like Socrates. It's an amazing job. Mulaney and Sebastian made so much money last year. Like Mulaney says, it's like the life of a king. So the era of 'you gotta do a sitcom' is, I think, just over.
GM: Out of all your endeavour, or pursuits – directing, writing, standup, all that – which are you best at? I know you prefer standup, but what are you best at?
NB: Uh... I mean, that's kind of not up to me to say, is it? It just depends. I don't know. It's really a matter of I write sketches for Saturday Night Live every once in a while so is that sketch I wrote with Dave [Chappelle] and Chris [Rock], that election night sketch when Dave hosted, is that better than 3 Mics? I don't know. They seem to be in the same neighbourhood of quality. I don't know. I don't put them on a scale and measure. I feel like you probably have an opinion, but that's none of my business. But I just like to do good stuff and I want to have a fun life and a good life and I don't want to be stuck doing something for years and years and years for money that I don't specially need because my lifestyle's pretty low key.
GM: You're living like a king.
NB: No. Living like a king, he's not talking about money; he's talking about lifestyles. The idea of going from place to place and like, where shall I speak? What time is my speech tonight? That's what Mulaney was talking about.
GM: I love your comparison to Socrates because he's my favourite. And maybe that's why I like standup so much.
NB: Yeah, it's a great thing, man! You're a philosopher, you're a sociologist, you're a preacher, you're a mentor, and you're a fool. All in one. And you get to showcase your humanity. It's a cool thing.
GM: I take it you're a standup purist. Now Jeremy Piven is doing standup. Do you think anyone can do it, or should do it?
NB: The thing about Jeremy or whoever, for a long time nobody wanted me to do standup because I was quote-unquote a 'writer and director' and there are rules. I don't see it like that. I just see it like if you want to do it, do it. You know, I knew Greg Giraldo when he was a lawyer. I remember when he first started doing open mics and he was technically a lawyer. I've known people when they did another thing. I've known plenty of comics when they were waiting tables. Sebastian used to wait tables at the Four Seasons. When Sebastian first started doing well, I asked Chappelle, I go, 'Have you heard of this guy Sebastian?' He goes, 'I've been hearing about Sebastian since he was waiting tables at the Four Seasons because my friend used to do it with him and she's prouder of him than she is of me.' So I don't hold someone's current job against them. If Jeremy becomes a great comedian, God bless.
GM: In show business, that seems to be a thing – people don't like you moving out of what they know you for.
NB: Yeah. I've been, I wouldn't say a victim of that, but that was certainly something I had to play defense against. And I had to just fight it and ignore the haters. But you kinda can't let it bug you. Like you said, people want you to do the thing you've been doing. Okay, cool. I'm not going to keep doing that but I know where you're coming from. It's just an insecurity thing.
GM: Seinfeld said in his intro to you that you're reinventing the way standup is performed. Is that conscious, for one? Do you agree?
NB: I think 3 Mics was a different way to do it. I'm not doing it with this hour. Even as a performer you get tired of standup being a thing of, like, 'You guys ready for another glib opinion?' That kinda feels what it's like. Two nights ago I'm on stage, and I just watched Jim Jefferies special a week ago and it was great, and Jim has a chair on stage. And then this special he just sat Indian-style on the floor for five or ten minutes. So I was on stage the other night and was like, man, I wish I could do something besides just stand here. It was kind of a small stage. And I thought, I wish I could sit down like Jim. So yesterday I texted him and I was like, 'Hey, do you consciously plan to sit down or is it kind of spontaneous?' And he's like, 'It's lame but I plan it.' And I'm thinking, it's not lame. As a director, I think of how to change up the visual style to keep people on their toes. And standing there for an hour can get a little tiring for people to watch. Eddie Murphy once famously said to Chris Rock, it's really important to move on stage because if you don't move, the audience can take their eye off you and they'll know where you're going to be. And Chris really clearly took that to heart and really owns the pacing back and forth thing. So I think 3 Mics was a different way to do standup that really nobody else has done since because I think it would seem derivative and they don't want to get a side-by-side video on YouTube. You see a little bit more autobiography. I think Chris's special, Tamborine, which I exec-produced for him and gave him notes and stuff, I think he changed his style up a little bit to be a little more confessional and to be a little more personal. I think if I had an influence – because I got influenced by Berbiglia and people like that – but I don't think I changed anything but maybe I altered it a little bit.
GM: If somebody did the 3 Mics thing, of course that would be derivative. Sitting down – Cosby sat down, Paula Poundstone sits down...
NB: Yeah, I know, that's the thing. Because I just saw Jim do it, I see it as Jim's style but it's not Jim's style. There's just different ways to do it. Cosby stayed seated. Again, there's so many ways to do it. What looks natural to the eye can often be very conscious. That's why Jim said it's lame but it's not lame; it's a visual medium.
GM: You've been doing standup for a long time. Is it easier or harder now to do it – there are more comics, there's more opportunity with Netflix, for instance, yet in our politicized environment, you have to be more circumspect maybe sometimes.
NB: I don't mind the parameters. I do a lot of stuff about #metoo and the New Rules – they've been in place; they're just being applied. I like the higher level of tension. If I can say something about #metoo that makes men and women both see it in a new light, then I'm doing stuff. If I say it when men see it in a new light, or I'm just pandering to women, that to me is not interesting and it's not very funny and it's not very creative.
GM: That's a great point. You want both sides to see something new.
NB: Yeah, otherwise you're just pandering.
GM: You say it's about half the show, right?
NB: More or less, yeah.
GM: Do people get upset?
NB: Nobody's gotten upset at all.
GM: To the larger point, is it easier now than, say, five years into your career to do standup, what do you think?
NB: Well, five years into my career was probably when you saw me because I've only been doing it like eleven years. The good news is I think that my ability is growing so I guess my ability is growing as the parameters are narrowing. I think the difficulty is in the glut of specials, but I also think there are more good comedians right now than there have ever been in the history of comedy. I guess it's harder to stand out but it's a genre and a world with a lot of eyeballs on it and rightly so because it's really interesting and it's the only place where people are thinking publicly. Or talking publicly in a way that's not circumscribed or cautious.
GM: I guess there's the danger of over-saturation. As you say, it's somebody on a stage and there's only so much you can do visually. People might just go, 'Oh, I've seen enough. I don't need to see more standup.'
NB: I know people keep waiting for that, and there was a boom in the eighties. The difference between the boom in the eighties and the boom now is that there were a lot of hacks in the eighties. And now comedians are kind of controlling the discourse. It's kind of self-selecting. Chris and Dave and Jerry and Ellen and Jim Jefferies and Anthony Jeselnik and John Mulaney and Ali Wong and Amy Schumer, these are all people that if comics voted, they would vote – and Kevin Hart... The people that are the biggest draws also happen to be the best. It's more democratic and it's more almost like sports where the highest-grossing team in the NFL is probably the Patriots. Or the NBA, it's probably the Golden State Warriors. It's fair. Or Gaffigan or Tom Papa. And I'm forgetting probably ten great comedians, like Doug Stanhope or Bill Burr or Joe Rogan or Tom Segura or Theo Vaughn. There are so many great comedians now. None of these people suck; they're all original.
GM: As you're rattling off those names, we could go on and on.
NB: I'm already regretting people I didn't say and I don't even know who I didn't say. Or Maria Bamford or Paul F. Tompkins or Demetri [Martin]. I didn't even say Aziz [Ansari] and Louis [C.K.] and the guys that are disqualified right now. There are so many great comedians it's like film-making in the seventies. Was there a film bust? Did films go bust? The film boom in the seventies. Did it go bust in the forties and fifties? The idea that it's somehow going to go bust... I'm not going to jinx it and say people have an endless appetite, but people have a real appetite for original thought presented in a funny way. I think it's a truism.
GM: I was around in the eighties and a big comedy fan, and that list that you started to make would have been much shorter. You probably could have named ten people and that wouldn't have been about it.
NB: Dude, ten is a lot. Ten is stretching it. The thing I was talking to somebody about last night was Jerry was a great comedian in a time when there were no other great comedians. Carlin owned the seventies, right? This is my recollection, or my understanding. Carlin and Prior owned the seventies, and then, like, Jerry and Rodney [Dangerfield] and [Jay] Leno owned the eighties. And Kinison. That seems to be about the list. And then you're into the second tier broader people like Dennis Wolfberg.
GM: There was Robin Williams.
NB: Yeah, Robin I wuld put in the upper, too. But the lower-tiered people were like Dennis Wolfberg and Joe Bolster and the New Yorky… Rosie [O'Donnell], Bobby Slayton, Bobby Collins. I guess Ellen would be eighties. Ellen's probably more nineties, but yeah.
GM: What other topics are you talking about?
NB: President Donald J. Trump for about eight minutes, and then racial stuff. Race, technology, social media, men and women, and of course dogs.
GM: You anger dog lovers but you are also a dog lover.
NB: I have a dog. I like my dog. I don't know if it's crossed to loving but I like him and I take care of him.
GM: Kawhi Leonard to Toronto – pro or con?
NB: I don't know because those injuries, man. You just don't know. It was funny that they seemed to trade one clinically depressed person for another, that was a first. As someone with depression, I'm like, 'Kawhi, is there something happening?' I recognize that thousand-yard stare. 'Is something the matter, buddy?' But yeah, I cannot say. I have to wait and see.
GM: I like the trade.
NB: Again, I just don't know. Kawhi is great. Kawhi's an eye-test guy. The numbers aren't overwhelming because so much of it is defensive.