Neal Brennan On Explaining Comedy To Non-Comics, And Baring His Soul, In ‘3 Mics’

By the time 3 Mics passes the hour mark, Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan’s new Netflix comedy special has trained the audience to recognize the three different styles of stand-up its titular three microphones represent. The microphone on the right is for traditional stand-up, the middle one for more emotional material, and the leftmost for witty one-liners. Whenever Brennan’s time at one is over, the lights go dark and he moves onto the next one in a sequence only he knows.

That’s when the 43-year-old co-writer of Half Baked and frequent director of Inside Amy Schumer decides to surprise the audience by not changing mics. Having just delivered a heartbreaking, though occasionally humorous story about his estranged father’s death at the middle stand, Brennan is still there when the lights come back on — thereby crushing the assumption of most viewers (including this one) that he’d end on a lighter note with a one-liner. “You didn’t see that coming,” he tells us. “I tricked you!”

Of course Brennan’s decision to stand his ground, despite the show’s format, has little to do with tricking anyone and more to do with explaining himself. That, and offering an insightful, free lesson about how comedy can and should work in the modern world. “Sometimes the world can feel like a room that’s filling up with water, and for me to be able to think of a joke is like an air bubble,” he says in 3 Mics. “I can take the oxygen I get into my lungs and it can carry me forward. Things can be overwhelming and scary and hurtful, but thankfully my brain can de-scramble things and form a joke. Just for one second, things slow down and I can win.”

“Dave Chappelle told me it was a really good way to explain what it feels like to come up with a joke to someone who’s not in comedy,” says Brennan, whose consulted with his old friend about breaking the 3 Mics model at the end to better synthesize the entire show. “Alex Baze, who’s one of the best joke writers in the world, thought it was the perfect way to say it. Especially for trying to say those things in a way that wasn’t maudlin. That’s my whole fucking worry with the special. Is it maudlin? Fred Armisen made fun of that maudlin thing in his Saturday Night Live monologue last year. The typical one-man show: ‘My dad, my old man.'”

Considering how most of Brennan’s visits to the emotional microphone concern his late father, the stand-up worried 3 Mics would slip into one-man show clichés. “That’s why I say I had to do a monologue about my dad or else I wouldn’t have been able to get a ‘one-man show license.’ It’s my biggest worry,” he reveals. “That’s the embarrassing thing about doing a one-man show.’ So what are you going to talk about? What, your old man? How’d you think of that?'” Yet whether the latest addition to Netflix’s expanding comedy library is a one-man show or not doesn’t matter. 3 Mics is less a traditional stand-up special or off-Broadway production (which it was) and more its own category.

With 3 Mics premiering three years after his first stand-up special, Women and Black Dudes, Brennan’s career path hasn’t followed a traditional route. While his first stand-up performance at the Boston Comedy Club in 1992 featured an audience that included Marc Maron, Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman, the then-18-year-old budding comic subsequently followed his friend Chappelle along an alternative route. This ultimately led to the now-beloved Half Baked, Chappelle’s Show and a numerous directing, producing and writing gigs on television.

At one point during 3 Mics, Brennan recalls a friend’s joke about his recent decision to pursue stand-up being akin to the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “It definitely feels that way,” he says when asked about it, adding: “I acted like the impulse to perform was such a low impulse for me, but finally recognized I had it despite pretending otherwise. I’m as hungry as all the people I work with are. Plus, there’s a lot of embarrassment associated with it — embarrassment and risk. The other stuff, the directing and the writing, is way safer for me. I’ve done the work to pave that path, and the truth is I still do a lot of that. But me doing stand up comes with a big risk, and I acknowledge it. That risk is failure. That I’m not as good as the people I write for.”

When pressed about what he thinks he’s risking, Brennan pauses for a moment. “I’m really risking public humiliation, whereas if I direct or write something, I can blame my failures on the team effort,” he jokes. “But if 3 Mics didn’t come together, I would have no one but myself to blame. I always thought I’d have all the power if I were the guy on camera, and that I wouldn’t have anything to fear. Then I did it, and I realized I was suddenly afraid of the audience firing me. Even Rupert Murdoch has shareholders. Once you become a publicly traded company, there’s always someone with a hatchet that you need to worry about.”

Yet he seems to thrive off the risk the potential failure of 3 Mics threatens. It’s something that all performers must contend with, he reminds us, per an example Conan O’Brien gave during a visit to Maron’s WTF podcast. “He said he gets as nervous for a wedding toast as he does for his show,” Brennan says with recognition. “Any time you do any public speaking, there’s an innate human fear.” He should know, as his time behind the camera includes Half Baked‘s dud of an initial run and Chappelle’s retreat to South Africa after refusing a $50 million deal from Comedy Central for more seasons of Chappelle’s Show. Both endeavors came with risks, and many of those risks played out for the worse.

Even so, Brennan relishes the opportunity a project like 3 Mics, which puts him front and center, offers. “I think it’s the same relish as writing a joke for Trevor Noah, Chris Rock, Chappelle or whoever. I want the joke to work. My worry is if it doesn’t, I’ll be fucking my friend over. These people trusted me enough to say what I wrote for them, and then I give them a fucking dud. That, to me, is the same amount of risk, but it definitely feels worse if they say it and it doesn’t work. If I say it and it doesn’t work, then I made my own poisonous recipe. I’m the one who has to sit on the toilet for the rest of the day. But if I give them a joke, I feel terrible. And if you write a joke for Rock that doesn’t work, he’ll never let you forget it. He’ll say, ‘What the fuck Neal?’ He’ll just fucking mock you until the cows come home.”

Whatever his worries, Brennan also has the support of John Legend, who served as an executive producer on both 3 Mics‘ off-Broadway production the Netflix special. “John and his wife, Chrissy Teigen are big comedy fans, and I’ve been friends with them since he did Chappelle’s Show. They’re super into it,” Brennan says. “They go to comedy clubs on their own all the time. John’s a sharp motherfucker. I mean, he went to Penn. People forget that. They think he just sings, but he’s a Renaissance man. Chappelle calls him Nat King Cole 2.0. He’s just a smart, talented dude and he’s got marvelous taste. Once he did Selma, he thought ‘What next? Oh Neal’s doing a special? Okay.’ You know, me — a white emo comedian.”

Brennan especially appreciates his collaboration with Legend, as it led to a hugely popular appearance on Charlamagne Tha God’s Breakfast Club radio show in February. Thanks largely to his work on Chappelle’s Show, the so-called “white emo comedian” has amassed a sizable African American audience, in large part due to the material he covers. Women and Black Dudes features more of Brennan’s Chappelle’s Show-like material, which 3 Mics leaves behind in many ways, though not entirely.

“The theater said they’d never had this many black people in attendance before,” Brennan remembers from 3 Mics‘ off-Broadway run in February. “Having black people vouch for me that way was helpful. It expanded the audience, which was exactly what I would’ve hoped for. Much like I was in high school, I’m in a bunch of different groups. I’m part of a bunch of stuff and prefer not to be easily categorized, though hopefully this doesn’t mean everyone will ignore me. I’d like to bring them all in. It’s a big tent.”

Hence his decision to use, and break the 3 Mics model and offer the theater a final observation about comedy. By switching between different microphones designated for one-liners, emotional confessions and traditional stand-up, Brennan inadvertently gives his audience a lesson in how to approach the worst life has to offer with the best humor available. The immediate example is the strained relationship Brennan had with his father, but3 Mics presents it in a way that anyone sitting under the big tent — fellow stand-ups or not — can understand and apply to their own lives.

Neal Brennan: 3 Mics is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.