The comedians Neal Brennan has written for is insane: Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Ellen DeGeneres, the list goes on and on. Even more insane (in the best way), is the material Brennan writes for himself. His terrific 3 Mics premiered at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in 2016 and now lives comfortably in semi-retirement on Netflix, and his vulnerable new show, Unacceptable, is currently on stage at the Cherry Lane Theatre (with Derek DelGaudio of In and of Itself fame directing). Here, Brennan discusses the piece, and tells us what it's like to put together a narrative comedy show with help from some famous pals.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about Unacceptable.
It's basically about the ways I feel that there's something wrong with me. It's about the differences I have with the world, where everyone has come to a consensus opinion and I don't agree. I'm not married, I don't have kids, I don't eat meat, I don't really drink or smoke weed. I remember talking to my therapist one time and saying that when I itemize all the things that I am, the field just gets narrower and narrower. There's just a lot of areas where I don't line up with people.
How did Derek DelGaudio, who I tend to think of as a magician, become your director?
I've always gone to see these kinds of shows. I like a show like this. I saw In and Of Itself and I grabbed the card at the beginning, and I chose "I'm a comedian." At the end, he's going through it and he got to me, and he goes "You're a very good comedian." It was cute. We hung out afterward and we went to lunch, and we've just been friends. About two years ago, I was looking at what my comedy material was about, and I realized that it was about feeling kind of isolated. I texted Derek, about what became part of the show: is there a way to have something that looks like one thing become another thing? He, being one of the best magicians in the world, showed me a few references and he incorporated those in the show in a way that is interesting.
How do you get from 3 Mics to this? Is there a line that you can see?
A comedian I know said "How are you gonna follow that?" I don't know. I just looked at what I was getting at and was able to figure out this idea. And Derek, who was doing In and Of Itself, was pivotal in developing this show. There are not a lot of people who have done narrative shows like this. I just got notes from Hasan Minaj. Birbiglia's giving me notes. That has been very helpful, because the things they know to look for and do are not the conventional things. Chris Rock has been very helpful. He called me twice in 20 minutes last night, because he sees it as a thing he doesn't do, but he does understand how comedy and narrative works.
What kind of notes are they?
They're narrative notes. They're not joke notes. It's "You're at the table because of vulnerability." The more vulnerable I can be, that isn't necessarily jokey or laughy, the better in terms of framing the isolation and loneliness I feel. Finding the right anecdote that can illustrate that. Comics talk about narratives like "My daughter threw up on a roller coaster." These have to be richer or more impactful than that. The thing I've had to yell at Chris a little bit about, in talking about my work…I've had to yell at him, like, "If it were sports, I need you to be a third base coach. I don't need you to be a Lou Gossett Jr. in Officer and a Gentleman. I don't need a drill sergeant, I need help getting to second base."
How does writing jokes for people like Chris Rock or Ellen or Dave Chappelle impact the work that you do when you write for yourself?
Dave was more developing the shows from top to bottom. With Chris and Ellen, it's teasing out their best parts. That's what me and Chris were talking about last night. He was giving me a note and I said "When have you ever done that?" And he said "I'm not doing this. I'm trying to get you to be your best self." That's what I would do with Ellen. Chappelle's Show was like a joke dispensary. Even on The Daily Show, I would tell the writers, "Trevor's act-outs are so good and potent for the audience, the sooner you can get him to them, the better." It's noticing a thing that the audience responds to with the other artist. I know that part of my appeal is vulnerability. It's just a matter of finding the right moments and anecdotes from my life and where to put them.