Neal Brennan Thinks Auteurs Can Still Make Chipotle Commercials
A few years ago, Neal Brennan went to see the illusionist Derek DelGaudio’s hit show “In & Of Itself” and selected a card that said “comedian” to describe himself, out of the hundreds on offer. The show ends with DelGaudio guessing what every audience member has chosen. When Brennan’s turn came, DelGaudio said, “You’re a very good comedian.” “I was like, ‘OK, that’s cute,’” Brennan said.
The pair became friends, and DelGaudio ended up directing Brennan’s latest show, “Unacceptable,” which has just been extended through Nov. 21 at the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan.
Because as it turns out, Brennan, 48, is indeed a very good comedian. He cocreated “Chappelle’s Show” with Dave Chappelle, with whom he wrote the cult movie “Half Baked” (1998), and directs as well (including such comedy specials as Seth Meyers’s “Lobby Baby” and Michelle Wolf’s “Nice Lady”).
His own shows have gotten more formally ambitious and introspective, so his collaboration with DelGaudio is not all that surprising, as both of them use familiar genres — magic and standup — to narratively explore identity, especially as it relates to family. In “Unacceptable,” Brennan starts off with a regular joke format before turning toward introspection as he exposes his doubts, neuroses and vulnerabilities. And he remains very funny as he does so.
Brennan, who lives in Los Angeles, spoke on Zoom, from the “corporate housing” where he’s been staying while in New York, about his top 10 cultural picks. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. RedditYou can curate your own interests and just get the top stories or the top posts about them. There are probably people who think it’s too edited, but I believe in editing. [He scrolls down the categories he follows.] “Black People Twitter,” which is funny tweets from Black people, a lot of time mostly just friends of mine. “Change My View.” “EarthPorn,” which is just nature. There’s one called “Childfree” where people without children talk about how great it is — near and dear to my heart, obviously. “Codependency,” even nearer and dearer to my heart.
2. Billy Wilder Arguably the greatest writer-director of all time because he’s got the best movies in different genres: “Double Indemnity” is one of the best film noirs; “The Apartment” is the greatest romantic comedy; “Ace in the Hole,” one of the most cynical movies ever. And by the way, I think “Some Like It Hot” stinks. It’s too broad. Some would say, “What about so and so?” Most of the so and so’s didn’t write their own movies. Spielberg? He didn’t write it, sorry. You can say Christopher Nolan or Tarantino, but those guys don’t work in multiple genres.
3. Mike Myers One of the best living comedy creators. The guy had two comedy franchises based on characters and worlds he created. That’s unbelievable. When I was in film school, I walked out of “Wayne’s World” and said — and I still kind of believe this — “that’s the best movie I’ve ever seen.” It’s incredibly hard to take the spirit of sketch comedy and make narratives like he did in both “Wayne’s Worlds.” He’s the kind of guy that it would be hard for me to be around because I respect him so much. The guy’s a titan.
4. Sweetgreen Mike Schur [the creator of “The Good Place”] and I used to write together. I’d gotten a scale, and we weighed ourselves and it was not a good number for either of us. We were like, “We’ve got to start eating healthy.” This is probably around 1999, when salad places started, and I’ve kind of had salad for lunch every day since. Sweetgreen entered the picture, and they have a spicy cashew dressing that’s a showstopper. It is not for the faint of heart, and you’re going to need help. You’re going to have to call in for backup, and that backup is sugar-free Juicy Fruit. I don’t know what fruit they’re speaking of, but I like that they keep it vague.
5. Ayahuasca A friend texted me a story in The New York Times and said, “We should do this.” I’m at the age now where I get my drug ideas from The New York Times. It’s been transformative psychologically. It’s changed my mental outlook and my emotional disposition. It took me from being an atheist to a believer in a spiritual center of the universe that I’m a sliver of. And for a couple hundred bucks a session. If you’re talking about R.O.I., return on investment, it’s pretty good.
6. iPhone editing apps I went to film school in 1991, and there were still reels. I remember getting a digital camera in 2000, and even then it was a giant contraption. Everything was a giant pain. On “Chappelle’s Show,” I used to have to run physical videotapes from the editing office to the taping. You tell someone that now, they’d be like, “What are you talking about?” So the idea that I can edit a thing on the same machine where I can check the internet, it’s such a miracle. I’ve missed flights because I was just editing videos on my phone.
7. Bill Burr We all talk about him in somewhat hushed tones, but I don’t think people who aren’t in comedy know how good he is. He’s so good at stand-up, it’s breathtaking. He’s made some of the best comedy specials of the last 15 years. I don’t even think he likes me as a person, and I don’t care.
8. Kanye West No one has contributed more to culture in the last 15 years. The guy made what I consider one of the best albums of all time, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and the best sneakers. “Yeah, but he also said that slavery was a choice.” OK, and then what happened? Nothing happened. It’s not like the Slavery Was a Choice Act was passed. He just said something stupid because he’s mentally ill. And I like that he’s open about being mentally ill — he had “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome” on the cover of “Ye.” He’s made seven good albums in a row. Eric Clapton says dumb [expletive], but his music sucks. Corporations are ruining our environment, but they’re held to a lower standard than Kanye.
9. Grand Theft Auto It’s arguably the greatest cultural achievement of my lifetime, if not ever. I don’t think you can be too hyperbolic with it. It’s a joke, and it’s true. I was in a car in Miami one time, and I was like, “When was I here before?” And it was in the video game. The worlds are massive, and you can drive around in different neighborhoods. It’s like being on a morphine drip. A beautiful, catatonic morphine drip.
10. Errol Morris He’s made zero bad movies. He’s reinvented the [documentary] genre with the re-enactments and the new way to interview people with the Interrotron. He made other people just steal Philip Glass music for their own documentaries. And the funny thing is, he makes commercials for Chipotle. I direct commercials sometimes, and whenever I get, like, “Am I not an artist?” I’m like, “Errol Morris does Chipotle commercials, what are we talking about?”