Neal Brennan interview: ‘It's too smart for Chelsea Handler, but too dumb for Bill Maher’

The co-creator of Chappelle’s Show talks his new comedy program and why “Jon Hamm can eat a dick”

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Neal Brennan

Neal Brennan Photograph: courtesy Sundance Channel


Neal Brennan is back on the small screen with his new show, The Approval Matrix, which, yes, is based on the popular New York Magazine feature (boo, hiss, etc.). Every week, the NYC-based show dissects popular culture in handy graph form, with a rotating panel of experts that include the likes of Rob Delaney, Judah Friedlander, Chris Rock and Jon Stewart.
 
You have some pretty opinionated guests on the show. Do some of the debates get heated?
Well, we’re trying to occupy the space between stuff that’s too smart for Chelsea Handler, but too dumb for Bill Maher. There’s always two comedians on every show, so it never got too serious.
 
The first episode debates the current state of TV—do you think it’s the new golden age, or a sludge of scripted reality awfulness?
I think it’s like a high/low thing. Shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, they’re amazing, but there’s something to the popularity of shows like Survivor or Top Chef—it’s riveting to watch real people become TV stars overnight. Someone like Bethany Frankel goes from being, like, “some lady” to a star with arguably as much charisma as anybody else on TV. I personally find that riveting.
 
There’s definitely something fascinating, especially with shows like American Idol, when you see people lining up for autographs, and you think, “You didn’t even know who this person was last week.”
It’s like watching someone buy a lottery ticket and then, as the numbers are being read, realizing, oh wait, they might win the lottery right in front of me. There’s something cool about it. But it’s certainly reaching its peak. Every year that a bachelorette can say, “I’m looking for love” and have a straight face—that’s some of the greatest acting on television! Like, John Hamm can eat a dick. The bachelor saying, “I’m looking to find my wife”—no one else should even be nominated!
 
What other topics can people expect to see debated on the show?
We do one about fame, we do one about privacy and the rise of, like, America’s hall monitors. We had John Stewart on the show and we got into a fairly significant argument about it—he’s of the mind that the end justifies the means, which I was really surprised by. I was troubled by the way that, say, the Donald Sterling thing came out. As disgusting as it was, you can’t record people in their house.
 
Right—in a regular trial, there are certain standards of permissible evidence, but in the court of public opinion, those standards are non-existent.
It’s funny when someone says the wrong thing and we go, “It’s not like they’re gonna go to jail or anything…” But they go to cultural jail. Kramer might as well be in jail, I mean, for real. Technically you’re free, but you’re a pariah. Everyone admits that if they were recorded all day, they make comments to their friends. Everyone’s sexist, everyone’s racist, everyone’s everything. And then we hold these people up. It’s like, well, you were stupid enough to do it in public, man. You got struck by lightning. Sorry.
 
One of your guests says that shows like Honey Boo Boo have replaced traditional sitcoms. As someone who makes comedy, how do you feel about that?
I don’t think it’s taking the place of other shows—I’ve never been like, look out Kelsey Grammar, you’re not gonna work anymore! I think it’s just another way to do comedy, the sort of comedy people have on while they’re doing housework and not actually watching. But then, Jersey Shore was a hilarious, original show. Gym-Tan-Laundry! That’s so Goddam funny, and if The Situation didn’t write it and he’s an actor, then he’s a hilarious actor. I actually have a weird amount of respect for those shows—Jersey Shore is a really funny show, unequivocally.
 
Chappelle’s Show fans will be delighted to see Donnell Rawlings in one episode—any chance of an appearance by Dave himself?
The short answer is no. There’s a chapter on why not, but no one’s mad at anyone. We’re fine, America! We text regularly. It’s fine. Your long national nightmare is over, me and Dave are speaking.
 
How often are you recognized by fans? I spoke to Charlie Murphy recently and he said he still gets approached multiple times a day by fans quoting the show.
Oh, Charlie’s recognizable. Dave’s recognizable. I can always tell the demographic that will probably recognize me—white dudes, sort of skater-y hip hop white dudes, and working class black dudes. Like the other day I rented a car, and the dude was like, “Where do I know you from?” So it’s not inconvenient— I’m not late to places because I had to stop and talk to the fans.
 
Chappelle’s Show has become such an indelible part of pop culture, did anyone working on that show have any idea of the legacy they were leaving?
No. Honestly, it was just us trying to survive. I don’t say that lightly, all of those sketches were just us trying to write what we needed. One time I asked Eddy Murphy, when he was on SNL, did he feel like he was dominating? And he was just like, “No man, I felt like I was in the trenches.” We had to do 13 shows to air 13 weeks in a row, so we never got a chance to like look at the lay of the land, it was just constantly busy. Once we came up for air and realized how popular it was, it was sort of over. But I love the show and I think if I hadn’t worked on it, I would have loved the show. It’s nice to come up with a lot of the stuff that I love.
 
You also wrote Half Baked with Dave, which is one of those movies that seems to get more appreciation over time.
I know, I know. It gets less appreciation from me. I haven’t watched Half Baked in 17 years, since I was editing it. It’s like looking at an old picture where you have bad bangs or something. I mean, look, Dave is an incredibly charismatic guy, one of the funniest dudes in the history of the Earth, so at this point, I think people will just take him where they can get him. It’s like, you could have a bad old video of Dave and it’s like, yeah, but it’s Dave!
 
The Approval Matrix premieres on the Sundance Channel at 11PM, Mon 11.


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