Image via AMC Networks.
For years, Neal Brennan was the mostly hidden half of the duo responsible for Chappelle’s Show. After his relationship with Dave Chappelle publicly soured around the time the show’s abrupt end in 2004, Neal kept himself busy by writing screenplays and directing. But his position as an anonymous figure in the world of entertainment began to change when Neal—primarily a writer, producer, and director—began a standup comedy career of his own.
Before long, he’d settled into a standup persona as cutting as his writing one, whether it’s his disdain for his friends who forcefully recommend television shows for him to watch (“It’s six seasons long. It’s 12 episodes a season, it’s an hour long an episode. That’s 72 hours of show to watch. That’s a big commitment. I can either watch Battlestar Galactica or get a helicopter pilot’s licence”) or attacking the way white people treat their black friends differently (“If one of your white friends screws up, you’ll get legitimately pissed and be like, ‘Dude, what the fuck?’ But if one of your black friends screws up you immediately go into human resources mode like, ‘Malik, your behaviour’s made me very uncomfortable”).
In 2011, he began co-hosting the highly listenable podcast The Champs with comedian Moshe Kasher. The show has a mandate to only feature black guests (with exceptions for people like Sasha Grey, Riff Raff, and Action Bronson) and has welcomed guests as varied as Blake Griffin, Chris Rock, and Freddie Gibbs, providing Neal with another testing ground to develop his persona, which is alternatively cantankerous, off-the-cuff hilarious, and almost endearingly bullheaded.
Now he’s taken his role in the public eye to the next logical stage, as the host of the Sundance Channel’s new show, The Approval Matrix, a show based off the backpage of New York Magazine. It’s certainly not Chappelle’s Show, but hey, a TV cheque is a TV cheque.
With Neal’s steadfast reputation for surliness, I was a little apprehensive about talking to him about the hot-button issues that he holds dear, but I called Neal to talk about producingThe Approval Matrix, his views on social media pundits pushing Saturday Night Live into hiring a black woman, and the fallout that occurred after he called Quentin Tarantino “the best black screenwriter.”
VICE: What’s the biggest thing you’ve had to learn from being on camera, versus directing, or being behind the scenes?
Neal Brennan: It’s a whole different amount of cocaine. Uh, no. You know there’s weird stuff like what to do with your head. For instance, when I did the monologue, I had a tendency to lean my head back. It’s all weird shit that you wouldn’t think anything of, and then you watch it on camera and you’re like: “Dude, what are you doing with your head?”
Right. So, The Approval Matrix… it seems like a lot of the show’s controversial topics come from the strong opinions you’ve talked about extensively on The Champs, like how you didn’t agree that Saturday Night Live should have hired a black woman just because the internet told them to. Do you feel like the stakes are higher, now that you’re saying this shit on TV instead of on a podcast?
Yeah, well, I’m starting to realize that it’ll probably have a bigger impact on television. But the other thing is, I actually believe all of the things I’m saying. These aren’t things that I had to be like, “Look, I’m hosting a show so I better drum up some controversy.”
Yeah, that much is clear.
These are things I actually believe in—things I really have considered and thought about. Like the thing with SNL… as much as I don’t think that they should have had to hire somebody [female and black], they emailed me for who I thought they should hire and I gave them a bunch of names.
Well, it’s not like I was going to have them email me and stand in front of the tank, like, “I will not help you.”
But at the same time, I still don’t believe they should have had to because the internet forced them. What about Asian people? I don’t remember anyone getting upset when Amy Poehler played Kim Jong Il.
I think some people see a difference between Amy Poehler playing Kim Jong Il and SNL having a white guy play Barack.
Yeah, but A) He’s mixed, and B) What’s the difference?
What’s the difference? You’re still putting an Asian person out of work, you know what I mean? When Darrell Hammond played Jesse Jackson, no one gave a fuck, because it was hilarious. Again, that’s the thing for anyone who tries to argue with me—I’m pretty well versed in this stuff. Chappelle used to call me “SNL Historian, Neal Brennan.” As much as people pretend that they care, they don’t really care. They just see an opportunity to grandstand, and they take it. I don’t see anyone worrying about Middle Eastern men getting on the show, or Asian men. It’s just somehow people only cared about black women.
I imagine it’s because of the racial history of black people in America. North Koreans and Middle Eastern people don't necessariy have the same historical implications.
Yeah, OK. That’s not a very good point, but OK. So people aren’t against racism, they’re just against racism against black people? They’re not against discrimination; they’re just against discrimination against black women on SNL.
OK, Neal, let’s move on. On The Champs, you’re really great at cutting to the core of what’s wrong with someone’s career or persona. Are there any parts of yourself or your career that you’ve had trouble reconciling?
No. My personality fucking stinks.
I’m not the easiest dude to work with. I’m a pain in the ass. I’m obsessive, I’m a control freak, I get snappy with people. I’m not… I’m not a picnic. I act superior half the time. I don’t know where I got these personality traits from, but I’m working on ‘em.
You’re also spectacularly un-PC on The Champs. You often say the N-Word in front of black guests with impunity. Has anyone ever gotten upset with you for saying it or saying something where that they perceive as a little across the line racially?
No, I’m friends with most of the black people who have been on the show. Black guys like calling me the N-Word. I can’t explain it. They think it’s funny. And I think they understand that I’ve written it so much and that I’m also a comedian. I’ve also said it in my act. I said it eight times in my special. There are some episodes where I don’t say it because if I don’t know somebody [and their comfort level with me], I’m not gonna say it. And if you think about it, most of the time I say it I’m paraphrasing somebody else. It’ll be like, “Mooney said…” or “Eddie said…”
A while back when you were doing press for your special Women and Black Dudes, you said: “I think the best black screenwriter is Quentin Tarantino,” and shortly afterwards Ta-Nehisi Coates went after you for it. How did you feel about that? I know you’re a fan of his.
I’m a huge fan. What was funny is that I emailed him. And I think at first he literally wrote back, “Dude, you write these things and never expect the person who you’re writing about to read it.”
We went back and forth over a long email. We had at least three back and forths. They’re private, but we had an interesting discussion.
Was there anything that he said that made you feel differently about your comments?
It was definitely interesting but it didn’t resolve itself in a way that I’m happy with, I’ll say that. But it was definitely interesting.
Sometimes in The Champs you’ll reference hanging out with folks or being at a party that sounds like a who’s who of black Hollywood. Has there ever been a time when you’re some place and you’re looking around and you’re like “Wow, this is crazy. There is some legendary talent in this room.”
There was one a few months ago where me and Dave went up to Eddie Murphy’s house and we sat on his patio. It was just me, Dave, and Eddie talking about comedy. It was just one of these things where Eddie said something to Dave about comedy or life that would just leave me like, I can’t believe I saw that.
Whenever I see Eddie, I browbeat him with questions about comedy. The last time we were at his house, me and Dave were straight up annoying him about stand-up like two eight-year-olds who wanted candy. We’re like, “Why don’t you do it? You should do it.” At one point, Eddie goes, “Neal, how long you been doing standup?” And I say, “seven years.” And he goes, “Oh, that’s why you’re asking me all these fucking stupid questions.”
I’m friendly with people like Eddie and Chris Rock, but every time I hang around them, it’s hard not to act like a fan, too.
You’re a producer on The Approval Matrix. What’s been the hardest thing about putting this show together for you?
I have a low tolerance for inanity, so the big thing was making sure everything on the show was insightful.
Amy Schumer watched the show and she’s like, “Thank you for making a show where it’s not like embarrassing to comedians, or a show where comedians are just going for stupid jokes the whole time.”
The thing about comedians is we’re generally pretty smart. So, if we can be smart and funny, that is the victory. That’s what I like about the show—that we can be both insightful and fun.
You’ve worn a lot of different hats in the business: writer, director, standup, television host. Is there anything left that you’d really like to do?
Journalist. I would love it if for one day we could switch places, so I could be in a conference room on speakerphone.
[Laughs] Thanks, Neal.
Thank you, man.