Neal Brennan’s mix-and-match of styles manages to combine deadpan sensibility with shocking poignancy.
By Matt Hanson
Comedy is always a matter of style. A skilled comic can garner laughs in a variety of ways: through shrewdly surreal one-liners, such as Steven Wright, ironically observant humor like Jerry Seinfeld, or soul-bearing testimonies a la Richard Pryor. Many comics spend an entire career exploring just one of these approaches. Sometimes, though, a nimble comic can successfully touch on each one of these bases in the same set. Neal Brennan’s new Netflix special 3 Mics hits this comedy trifecta, and the result is an ambidextrous effusion of wit, insight, and dramatic honesty.
Brennan isn’t known for stand up. He has written for dating shows and teen sitcoms, and directed ten episodes of Comedy Central’s fabulous Inside Amy Schumer. As Dave Chappelle’s close friend and writing partner, Brennan played an instrumental part in the stratospheric rise of Chappelle’s Show, which was wildly popular and nominated for multiple Emmys. To this day, neither Brennan nor Chappelle has ever revealed who wrote which of the show’s brilliantly controversial sketches.
In 3 Mics, Brennan talks about how the Chappelle Show’s unexpected popularity was so surprising (and intimidating) that it almost ruined both of their careers. In an amiable monotone, blinking up a storm behind his glasses, he describes how difficult the decision was to stop hiding behind his success as a writer and director and establish himself on his own as a solo comedian. Brennan’s delivery is laid back and conversational, but there are edgy wisecracks thrown in for good measure. “Being Catholic is like playing the trombone. Once you get out of 12th grade, you’re like ‘thank God I don’t have to do that shit ever again.”
The show opens with Brennan, center stage on the middle microphone, doling out a series of absurdist one-liners worthy of Mitch Hedberg. “I’m a vegan. But I’m a hypocrite about it; I wear leather. And I eat meat.” Eventually the lights darken and Brennan appears on stage left, doing traditional standup on the customary topics: sports, relationship foibles, celebrity culture, and awkward sex positions, among others.
Race, one of America’s perennially hot-button issues, is a predictable fodder for satiric humor. But Brennan takes it on from an unusual perspective. Instead of indulging in playing up to liberal guilt, the comic bravely dares to challenge the moral superiority of his audience:
“I don’t think white people have enough empathy for slavery. Here’s how I know that: when all that Confederate flag stuff was happening last year in South Carolina, people in Boston and New York were being especially smug about it. I was like, look, I’m sure slavery was legal in the North at some point. So I went on Google to find out, and this is where I saw how cold white people are. I typed in ‘was slavery…’ and I swear to God the auto-fill said, ‘…really that bad?’”
After a few minutes, the lights go down again and Brennan reappears on stage right for a round of what he modestly describes as “personal stuff.” The transitions between the different parts of the show flow together naturally, mixing satiric insights with deeply personal anecdotes. But while each segment of the show represents a change in tone, the set somehow manages to feel coherent. Brennan accomplishes the rare feat of bearing his soul while still keeping the audience distanced enough to laugh in the right places.
It’s not off-the-beaten-track for comedians to use embarrassing confessional material in their act, but Brennan does it particularly well, exploring the more difficult parts of his life with disarming frankness, letting the humor come as it will. The effect is compelling and instructive. For instance, Brennan warns the audience not to make the lazy assumption that clinical depression is something you can just shake off or grow out of. Instead, they should understand it for the debilitating disease that it is. “It’s really aggravating when you have a mood problem, because you can feel people’s suspicion. Imagine if you had a cold, and people were like, eh, he doesn’t really have a cold. That stuffiness is a choice.”
We also hear of his difficult upbringing as the youngest of ten children with an abusive alcoholic for a father. In some ways, it’s a grainy snapshot of what parenting meant to Great Depression-born adults: their stoic motto — no matter what the familial horrors — was “we did the best we could.” One of the most heart-wrenching parts of his special comes along when Brennan describes helping to write his dad’s will, along with his dying (and still hostile) father.
Our culture enjoys basking in other people’s traumas; it is a perverse form of entertainment. To his credit, Brennan could have used these painful memories as a cheap ploy to win the audience’s sympathy. But it is a testament to Brennan’s adroit use of honesty that he doesn’t come off as needy or precious, but funny and insightful and devastating — all at once.
Stand up is flourishing right now, and that is medicinal. Comics are valuable because they say things that are not always welcome in public discourse. But honesty does not inevitably guarantee success. Comedy can easily become opportunistically provocative, obnoxiously over-the-top in order to preen itself as edgy and contrarian. Brennan’s mix-and-match of styles manages to combine deadpan sensibility with shocking poignancy: it might provide a new model for the next step in comedy.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.