Neal Brennan, by his own admission, is not a household name.
But if you’ve watch some of the seminal comedies of the 21st century, you’ve likely seen him name fly by during the opening credits. Early in his career, Brennan was writing for Kenan Thompson and Amanda Bynes on All That, then he penned the cult cinema favorite Half Baked and later co-created the Comedy Central landmark sketch series Chappelle’s Show. Since the show’s abrupt ending in 2006, the respected writer has dropped into the writing rooms of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Saturday Night Live and written for Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
That’s a resume most would be satisfied with (or more likely kill for), but the 44-year-old Brennan is far from content – and has elected to push himself down the hardest avenue available: stand-up comedy.
“I’ve done everything I can do and remain this not very famous,” the comic deadpans more seriously than you might expect. “Stand-up is the absolute hardest; joke writing is the hardest! I was talking to a friend of mine Kenya Barris, who created Black-ish. We were having a meeting and he said something about having a visual style and directing – and I said: Kenya, NOTHING is harder than writing comedy. I have friends that go from writing comedy to directing and they’re like, am I gonna be OK? YEAH – YOU ALREADY DID THE HARDEST THING. It’s the hardest because you get NO help. You’re completely on your own, and you’re starting from scratch. You have to have the idea, you have to have the cap, you have to do everything by yourself, every step of logic. And it’s just an instinct, its not really… you can go to NYU film school, but you can’t go to NYU joke writing school. There is no NYU School of Funny!”
Fair enough, but even Brennan acknowledges his career is more backward. His debut stand-up hour 3
Mics dropped on Netflix just last year, but offered something ground-breaking to the all-too-familiar special formula. 3 Mics featured Brennan oscillating between three different forms of stand-up comedy, the first traditional, the second for one-liners only and the third was what he titled “emotional stuff.” With big laughs and big silences, the special was a risk that paid off, creating a calling card for Brennan to reinvent himself as a headliner.
Yet, the comic’s stop at the House of Blues will only feature one microphone. “I’m sorry, but the innovation is over!” he laughs. “It's not innovative, but it’s just like good stand-up. I don’t have any more sad stuff, I’m all out it. The kernel of 3 Mics was having jokes left over from Twitter. I was like, I would like to use these jokes. There was the need to use these jokes – don’t want to waste 'em. People in Africa are starving for good jokes! And then I would listen to The Moth and shows like that, storytelling shows, and I was like, I think I can do this. And figuring out exactly what I would do on one of those kind of shows and that became 3 Mics.”
While he’s not swearing off anything (“It’s not like, NEVER AGAIN WITH THE SKETCHES”), Brennan is happy to point out the benefits to being a stand-up first. “You do a movie, right? It takes a year and a half to even hear if the joke works! You do stand-up, I could write a joke tonight and do it. I write a joke at 9 and I have a spot tonight at the Comedy Store, I’ll know if that’s a good joke or not by 10. With a movie, so-and-so has got to read it, then we got to get him to commit, and we scout locations and just a bunch of stuff that impedes an otherwise natural reaction.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard for Brennan to deny the fun of popping in on a landmark writer’s room for a spell. “SNL is a very glamorous – it’s a horrible and at-the-same-time glamorous week. It’s more glamorous than The Daily Show or any of these other shows because it's once a week; there’s music; it's 45 years old. It feels like Show Biz with a capital S. I think I’m one of those guys [who can just show up], and I’m like: hey, do this!”
While perhaps not as “glamorous,” many people probably first saw Neal’s face when he started making occasional desk stops at the revamped Comedy Central talk show under the low-key billing as ‘Trevor Noah’s Friend’ in 2016. “The Daily Show is hard, man!” he exclaims. “I’ll write a draft, then I’ll write a draft with two writers, usually my friend Devin [Delliquanti], a writer there. The thing that’s hard about it is: you rehearse at 3, then a re-write, then a taping at 6:30, often when it’s the first time you’ve heard the joke out loud in public. It’s not optimal, there’s no dress rehearsal. That can be treacherous, we’ll say.”
One interesting gift TV has over stand-up? Manpower! “When you write on TV, it’s 14 people helping you,” the Emmy-nominee elaborates. “On SNL or The Daily Show, you can get like: hey, we need a metaphor here. And they’ll send like a mass call to all the writers, and everyone will go through what is called a gang. Everybody jumps in and throws in a metaphor or whatever. The thing with stand-up is I’ll just try it out. But with stand-up, you get no support. Nobody is helping you.”
Nobody is helping with your stand-up, unless you yourself on a high profile stand-up tour. What does Brennan think about the possibility of touring with his old boss, Dave Chappelle – who just headlined a monster show in Houston with former Daily Show host Jon Stewart? “My dream with Dave is I need to get more famous. Otherwise it’s too much like he’s doing me a big favor. Him and Jon are at least in the same hemisphere of fame. For me it’d be like Dave Chappelle! … plus, Neal Brennan.”
Brennan’s performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, October 19 at 1204 Caroline. For information, call 888-402-5837 or visit houseofblues.com/houston. $29-62.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.