Chappelle’s Show Cocreator Neal Brennan Says Stand-Up Is More Relevant Than Ever

The comedian brings his new act to Portland, promising all the deadpan hilarity he’s known for.

By Sam Pape August 15, 2018

Image: Neal Brennan

Neal Brennan is probably one of your favorite comedians. You just don’t know it yet. Behind the scenes, he is the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show, co-writer of Half Baked (also alongside Chappelle), and creative consultant for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, to name only a few of his credits. On screen, you may have seen him in his 2017 Netflix special, 3 Mics, where his material is divvied up between … well … three mics—one for one-liners, one for classic stand-up, and another for some legitimately tear-jerking meanderings into his lifelong mental health struggles. His new act, Here We Go, comes to Portland on Saturday, August 18, and it promises all the deadpan hilarity he’s known for, with less of the fun-night-out-ruining therapy couch confessions. (It's also already sold out, so read on for your Brennan fix.)

What are your honest thoughts on Portland?

Can I be honest…? I really like it! I always feel like I’m not woke enough when I’m there, like I don’t ride a unicycle so I’m somehow failing at whatever the game is—organic wokeness? And I don’t like the rain. But I do like the people!

Have you performed in Portland before? What’s your take on the comedy scene here?

I did a funeral home there about six years ago, where Ron Funches opened for me. I don’t remember how the show ended up there, but it was in the middle of nowhere and poorly attended. I also did the Bridgetown Comedy Festival. The scene seems really robust. I mean, what you need for a scene is just a bunch of dedicated clubs that are willing to put people on, and a receptive community. The Portland I’m aware of is young people who like to watch free or cheap shows and supports artists that are trying to find a voice. I mean, six or seven years ago, I literally just walked into some arcade downtown that used to do standup (editor's note: he's referring to Ground Kontrol). Ron Funches was doing an open mic there and I was like, “He’s pretty good for an open mic’r. If all your open mics are as good as Ron, you guys are in good shape!” Now, it turns out they weren’t … But some of them are good! Ian Karmel is one that stands out in my head. (Both Funches and Karmel now live in LA.)

Do you like all the traveling that comes with your work?

I don’t mind it. I’m not married, I don’t have kids, I don’t even have a girlfriend, for god’s sake. So I have no reason to feel bad when I leave town. I always try to stay in decent hotels. I don’t really buy a lot of shit, but that’s one of the few things I’ll spend money on. It’s a really good feeling to be in a town and know that you’re doing one or two sold-out shows that night, and you like your act. I don’t feel like I’m out there grinding on some garbage trying to drum up some money. I try to keep ticket prices reasonable and I don’t sell merch. I’m not trying to bill people. I just want to have a fun time for all. Aren’t I really embodying the Portland spirit?!

How does the material in Here We Go compare to stuff you’ve done in the past?

Some of it’s the usual suspects: politics, technology, race, and gender. Then there’s a ton of stuff about the #MeToo movement. The first line is, “So, how do you guys like the new sex norms and rules where we have to treat women like people?” That sort of sets the tone. Like, what women are asking for is pretty bare minimum. They’re not even asking for new laws, they’re just going, “Hey, do you mind enforcing the laws that we already have?” But I don’t pander. I’m not trying to get claps, and I’m not trying to get “woos!” I’m trying to make people laugh and consider points of view and think about things in a slightly different way.

You hear a lot of people complaining about “PC culture” and the effect it’s having on comedy. Do you agree with the sentiment that it’s making comedians' jobs harder?

There are very few things people like more than feeling sorry for themselves. The idea that comedy’s under attack is like … really? Because comedy has never been more popular or relevant than it is today. So what’s this based on? It’s nonsense. Without pushback there’s no tension, and without any tension there’s no jokes. It’s a higher level of difficulty to talk about the #MeToo movement, or sexual harassment, or sexual assault, or any of that stuff. It’s just people feeling sorry for themselves, and going, “I’m under attack!” Nope. Not even a little bit.

In your Netflix special, Three Mics, you delve into some pretty heavy, personal stuff. What led you to take that leap and start incorporating more serious themes into your act?

A large part of it was necessity. I did an hour on Comedy Central, and people thought it was fine, but it didn’t move the needle as much as I would’ve liked. I didn’t want to do a regular standup set again because people didn’t know me well enough to care about me. So Three Mics was me saying, “Let me explain myself and then maybe you guys will have a different read on me.” I also listen to The Moth and all those other storytelling shows, and I was like, “I can do that.”

Was it hard getting on stage and revealing so much about yourself?

Honestly, I didn’t mind it at all. I didn’t mind talking about depression; I didn’t mind talking about stuff with my dad. It didn’t feel like I was airing dirty laundry or opening up the kimono. But I wasn’t in the audience, so that’s easy for me to say. Maybe people were uncomfortable, maybe they weren’t. But what I’ve found is that everybody’s got something—whether it’s a secret or just an emotional burden—that they carry. I was just like, “All right, I’ll go first. Here’s my stuff.” Now people DM me every day—sometimes multiple times a day—telling me how much it helped them and how much it meant to them. There was only one person that I’m aware of that didn’t like it. I did a show in Chicago three years ago and I got a message on Facebook from a woman who was at the show going like, “You can’t do this man, you gotta stop. I got family with me. We just came to laugh!” So I’m sure she was disappointed, but everybody else seemed to enjoy it.

Do you continue touching on those themes in Here We Go?

I really don’t, unfortunately. It’s a little harder when I’m doing live standup. I can’t just slam on the brakes and be like, “Now we’re going to talk some real shit.” I mean, I suppose I could, but the truth is, I’m out of sad stories. Three Mics was theatrical. Here We Go is not theatrical at all.

How have you seen the comedy world change and evolve over recent years? How has it been affected by social media and technology?

I think it’s broader now, in a good way. And I don’t mean broader like lowest common denominator. I mean broader in that there are more people being served by it. I know it sounds strange to say, but I think people are realizing that there’s nothing like a great comedian. It’s the best of an author, it’s the best of a preacher, it’s the best of an actor, and it’s the best of a director. All these things combined into this really great, synthesized thing. There are so many great comedians now it’s insane. And I don’t mean kind of great: they’re great in any era. Like, in terms of the greatest of all time, there are more greatest-of-all-timers in the prime now than even in the history of comedy. There are so many people working on a daily basis who are amazing and have such different styles: you’ve got Hannah Gadsby, Maria Bamford, me, Dave Attell, Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Ali Wong… I could go on.

As strange as it is to say, do you think the general fucked-up-ness of our current era is having a positive effect on the world of comedy?

Like, is there a net effect? I don’t know, man. All the people I just talked about were great before Trump was elected. Honestly, I don’t buy the whole causation argument. I think these things start long before they even come to the surface. But I think the demand for it and the need for it is definitely increased by the political climate, for sure.

I’m sure you’ve gotten this question a millions times, but …

Yeah, yeah, Chappelle’s Show reunion any second.

… what's your worst stand-up horror story?

I did a room in New York about nine years ago. I walked on stage and it was super dark. It was late on a Friday, which is always a tough show anyway. There was this kid sitting in the front. If this were a movie about an inner-city high school, this would have been the bad kid. Out of nowhere, he whispered, almost so only I could hear him, “Yo, are you scared?” Which is a really, really chilling thing to hear … especially when you are scared and you’re trying to pretend you’re not.

Neal Brennan

7:30 p.m. Sat, Aladdin Theater, SOLD OUT

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