One man. One stage. Three separate microphones—one for Twitter-curated one-liners, one for traditional stand-up, and one in the middle for devastatingly vulnerable, emotionally-charged confessions. If you think Neal Brennan’s new hour-long Netflix comedy special 3 Mics sounds like a gimmick, then you’d be missing the point. The Chappelle’s Show co-creator uses this unique format to tap into the universality of storytelling—that the silly one-liners, the well-crafted jokes, and the painful experiences are all interdependent. That the good, the sad, the funny and the tragic are symbiotic and inform one another. That everything matters.
Brennan’s 3 Mics feels like a giant leap forward in the evolutionary cycle of stand-up comedy: Part The Moth podcast, part one-man show, part comedy-club performance. It will make you laugh and reflect on things we typically tend to keep buried inside in equal measure. It’s the hilariously poignant therapy session that the comedy game needs right now.
Over the weekend, Brennan took some time from writing jokes for Aziz Ansari’s SNL episode (Brennan now has an “open-door” relationship with SNL after writing sketches for Chappelle’s episode after the election) to chop it up with The Hundreds about 3 Mics, mental health, directing commercials for Nike and the future of comedy in the Trump era.
ERIK ABRISS: I’ve never seen a stand-up special quite like 3 Mics. From its format, to its subject matter, even down to its direction and rhythm, I felt like I was watching something—dare I say—avant garde. What made you take this experimental approach?
NEAL BRENNAN: Basically, I had done a regular stand-up hour and I felt like I didn’t want to just talk for an hour this time. I felt like I wanted this to be more of a narrative or something. When I would do podcasts, I would talk about real shit and people would tell me how much they’d like it. I tried that sort of thing, and I had all these one liners from Twitter I could repurpose. So that’s basically it. Then it was just about honing it and making it what I want to talk about. It became about stuff that is very serious that people don’t talk about enough, or stuff that I’m genuinely embarrassed by. The thing I like about the middle mic is there’s tension. I’ve had people, when I did the show live in Chicago, and a woman while I was doing the show went on my Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and was like, “You’ve got to stop doing this, man. Stop talking like this. I’m with my family right now!” If you think it’s going to be a regular stand-up show, you’re in for a potential rude awakening. But in my experience, people end up liking the middle mic as much as the stand-up mic, if not more.
The middle mic is you confronting very uncomfortable, hard-hitting topics that aren’t meant to be funny, and the crazy part is that some of those stories got the biggest laughs.
It is partly because the expectations are low, but there’s also good jokes layered within it. The thing about black dudes saying, “Neal, you don’t give a fuck!” because I’m sad—that’s a fucking funny joke! In my other stand-ups I wouldn’t even know how to even approach that. You can’t usually even talk about emotion in your stand-up. It’s mostly information used for the joke. Pryor could pull it off, but the only emotion that works is based on, “Oh, you’re in trouble.” Or the Chris Rock bit: “She found a pack of condoms, there were two condoms but it was a pack of three!” and everyone would laugh. I talked to Chris about this recently. That’s one of the main reasons why Bring the Pain works, is because you really relate to him in that moment. These jokes of mine are more observational.
“If you think it’s going to be a regular stand-up show, you’re in for a potential rude awakening.”
You crack a few jokes about abandoning Catholicism after high school, but I couldn’t help but feel that the middle mic was a church confessional. Was that intentional?
Dude, honestly, it’s more like twelve-step group. The kind of stuff that you see in twelve-step groups is people being truly vulnerable, and it’s some of the most arresting shit I’ve ever seen. Just all these people really acknowledging things and being honest. The idea that you can’t or shouldn’t acknowledge these embarrassingly personal things… Look. There’s this saying in twelve-step groups that says, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I may not necessarily agree with that, but that’s kind of the overall rule. And I thought about that a lot when I was deciding what to talk about in the special. I had to confront what is worth talking about and what are these things I’m embarrassed by because they are also formative experiences.
As someone who often struggles with bouts of depression, I was moved to tears during some of your middle mic stories. I haven’t seen a comedian speak about the stigma and struggles of depression so candidly before.
Oh, man. I appreciate it, bro. Honestly, if you search my name or the special on Twitter there’s a lot of people saying exactly that, and the best thing is it’s a lot of fucking dudes. It’s like 80% dudes! They feel like they can’t talk about it openly. It’s just a lot of people saying, “I’m depressed,” and how the special connected with them because no one talks about it and no one explains it. No one’s ever been able to say, “Here it is. I’m not fucking lazy and I’m not feeling sorry for myself and depression isn’t a fucking choice.”
You mention in 3 Mics that you went to a week-long silent meditation retreat in hopes of experiencing some sort of breakthrough or enlightenment. Can you talk about your time there?
Well, the silent retreat was great. The first night I straight up cried because I was panicking. You can’t talk. There’s no talking. There’s no T.V. There’s no phones, no computer, no reading, no writing. So it’s you and you. There’s literally no escape. So the first night I cried because you really feel like you’re dead. It’s just people walking around truly like zombies that can’t speak. What I realized is the amount of ways I overstimulate myself so it was cool to just have no stimulation. It made me realize how much I rely on this shit, that narcotic of technology and hitting refresh.
You briefly mentioned your relationship with Dave Chappelle and some of the difficulties you had balancing the friendship, the working relationship, and the celebrity aspect. Can you a recall a time you specifically locked antlers and fought while writing Chappelle’s Show? You joke about being the Pippen to his Jordan, but how do you tell Michael Jordan he’s wrong?
Oh man that’s the definition of a partnership. A hundred times we fought! And there were plenty of times I won. There were plenty of ideas and pitches he didn’t like that I was adamant about, and vice versa. That’s a partnership. That’s the thing—as much as there is an amount of fear [of bumping heads with Dave], most of the time I’m a bickering know-it-all more than I am a sycophant.
While we’re talking about Chappelle Show, I have to ask you: Were you a fan of Mr. Show?
Oh, I used to go tapings, dude. I fucking love that show.
Well, there’s an on-going tally of all the present-day things that Mr. Show predicted back in the ’90s, from baby massages to the last American Indian sketch. Is there a Chappelle’s Show sketch that shocked you by how prophetic it ended up being?
The one that comes to mind first is in that jury selection sketch where Dave pleads in defense of R. Kelly because the piss may be digital. R. Kelly’s lawyer in real life really fucking plead that! That’s how he got off. His lawyer basically said that pee in the tape could be digital [Laughs].
“You can’t usually even talk about emotion in your stand-up. It’s mostly information used for the joke.”
Switching gears a bit, you directed one of my favorite Nike ads ever with “So Fast.” How did you get involved with Nike?
Oh man, that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. That fell in my lap in a weird way. I did a thing for Jordan brand with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. We did a bunch of sketches. There’s an especially funny one where it’s Scared Straight with little kids and Blake and Chris are yelling at them. So I was friends with people at Jordan and then someone from Nike wanted to do jokes about like, “I’m so fast, I’m already done.” You know, the Muhammad Ali “I’m so fast I hit the light switch and I hit the bed before it gets dark” type of thing. So they wanted me to write a bunch of those, and I said I’d write them but only if I can direct the spot too because I’m just not trying to write fucking ad copy [Laughs].They thought it was just gonna be a little internet thing so they let me direct it.
Then it just kind of kept snowballing. First Kobe signed on and then Serena signed on then Rafael Nada then Richard Sherman, and it ended up being eight-day shoot; five in LA and three in Europe. My DP was Jeff Cronenweth who does David Fincher’s movies.
It was the fucking best. It was so goddamn fun because I would ask for something and Jeff would always be down. He wouldn’t ever be like, “Look, I did Se7en and did Fight Club let me handle it.” I would ask for something and he would do it. It was so cool.
The whole premise was trying to visualize the notion of speed. We wanted to get as close as we could to doing fast things with the music and editing. The Kobe and David Blaine bit, the Road Runner bit. It was cool to just be like, “Oh, the Road Runner comes and Serena will be like ‘psh’ at the end!” Nike had to take it down because the music rights were running out, but it’s one of their most popular spots.
Would you consider yourself a sneakerhead?
Well, I have my Nike hookups now and my Jordan hookups, so that helps. Once I was like, “Hey can I just get some socks?” and they literally sent me forty pairs of socks. It almost felt passive-aggressive. “You want some socks, motherfucker?” [Laughs]. I still have Jordan socks that I haven’t even worn. I’m buddies with Blake Griffin and he gets a certain amount of merch per year. So he will sometimes give me the password and I get to run free. But I try not to overdo it because he has a finite amount.
“…The idea that comedy is really killing authority might feel good to say but it’s clearly not getting out of that echo chamber.”
I just have one last question to wrap things up. What do you think comedy’s responsibility will be in the Trump era?
I think that in some ways Trump is the Teflon Don. It literally doesn’t make a difference what you say about this man. His supporters do not care. I did a joke on the Daily Show where I was saying Trump voters are like when a bad boy moves into town and your 16-year-old daughter wants to date him. You’re like, “Do not date him. He’s a bad guy,” and she’s like, “You don’t understand my Donny!” It just makes them like him more.
The thing about speaking truth to power is that the powerful can now insulate themselves via their own echo chamber. It was easier before when Walter Cronkite said something and 60 million people heard it. Now everyone is like, “Who the fuck is Walter Cronkite?” There is no Walter Cronkite. There is no “us against them.” There is no Trump versus a moral authority. So the idea that comedy is really killing authority might feel good to say but it’s clearly not getting out of that echo chamber. It’s great everyone thinks Sam Bee and Trevor Noah and Seth Meyers and John Oliver are doing great stuff, but how’d that go? How’d that go for ya? You’d be better off marching or petitioning than making jokes.
Wow. I was not expecting that response.
It’s the truth. What we’re doing is better than nothing, but it might not be that much better than nothing for the Trump era. I don’t think he’s gonna give a fuck about anything we say. I really don’t. I don’t think our activism’s gonna hurt him. It’s truly uncharted territory and it’s pretty fucking bleak.
Follow Neal Brennan on Twitter @nealbrennan.