by Andrew Wantuck
At first glance you might not recognize his name, but the comic I spoke to this week was the executive producer/writer/ emmy winning director of the immensely popular Chappelle Show. After Neal Brennan and Dave Chappelle had a highly publicized, and rather mysterious dispute, taping of the shows were interrupted during season 3. In this interview we discussed the new movie he directed starring Will Ferrell, why after making millions he still does stand-up, and what happened between himself and Chappelle.
Andrew: How long have you been doing stand-up comedy?
Neal: I haven't even been doing it that long is the thing. I kind of did it on and off during The Chappelle Show, and I stopped and then I started back up again like three years ago, and even then I was directing a movie half the time. So it's sort of start and stop, but this is the most concentrated amount I've ever done it.
Andrew: Why would somebody who's already directing films, who's already written films, has had a success in sketch comedy like you've had, continue to be drawn back to the stand-up comedy stage?
Neal: Well, that's the thing, because people ask me "what are you doing here" when I'm at a club at 12:30 at night.
The thing I would always say is "I didn't get into comedy to get out of comedy".
Neal: I like comedy, and people are like, "You're directing movies". It's like well, I can't direct a movie at 11 at night. I need something to do, so why not build my night up? I don't have to worry about where we going to eat, because I'm eating at The Comedy & Magic Club, you know what I mean? The pasta's free if you do stand-up.
Andrew: So, it's in the blood, it's just what you do?
Neal: Yeah, I just like doing it. My brother is a comic. So when I was a kid, like when I was in high school, I used to hang out at comedy
clubs. I guess I'm like a gym rat or something, like I'm one of those guys who just likes comedy clubs. So, yeah, that's kind of my feeling about it. I like movie sets, as well, and I like sketch shows. I all types of comedy as corny as it sounds.
Andrew: What was the name of the movie that you just directed?
Neal: It's called "The Goods," and it comes out August 14th. It stars Jeremy Piven, Ving Rhames, and Will Ferrell. Will Ferrell produced it with Adam McKay, and those guys do, you know, Talladega Nights, Anchor Man, Step Brothers. They do the Eastbound & Down show on HBO, like they're producing a lot of stuff now, too, so this is their first movie from the ground up. So, it was awesome to be considered, and it was great working with those guys. Like as a fan of comedy movies, those guys make the kind of comedy movies that are my favorite. Talladega Nights is a masterpiece to me.
Andrew: Can you tell me about the process about how you got considered for directing this film?
Neal: I directed a lot of The Chappelle Show stuff, and then I got an Emmy nomination for directing Rick James. Once you're sort of a well-known comedy person or whatever, not famous, but like you do well on TV, they consider that college and they're like "we're going to recruit this kid". The thing people don't realize about directing is you have to go in and kind of sell yourself and sell your ideas about how you would shoot the movie. People think you just like go in and are like "so I'm directing this, right?" You kind of have to audition in a certain respect, you know, so I went in and did it 'cause I pitched something to Adam a couple months earlier that he thought was funny and he liked The Chappelle Show and I've known Will for a long time so they were like, "yeah, let's get Neal in here."
Andrew: Where are you guys in that particular project now?
Neal: We're done. We got a release date; it's locked, nothing left to do. And it's funny, it's really funny. And Jeremy's great, and Will's great, and Ving's great. Everybody's great in it, everybody contributed. Kathryn Hahn's great. David Koechner's great. Like everyone in it really is great. Alan Thicke is in the movie; you're welcome. He's great.
Neal: Yeah, and more than anything, it's just funny. Like it's sloppy. I'm sure it's not perfect, you know, narrative-wise or anything. But
like there's a lot of jokes in it, you know what I mean?
Andrew: Were you nervous working with that level of acting performer?
Neal: No, because, you know, Dave Chappelle is a pretty high level actor. Dave's an incredible performer. Also, Jeremy was a fan of "The Chappelle Show", so that made it a little easier to sort of trust each other. I wasn't some total stranger like "so what have you done? Didn't you... do some short film in Europe?"
Neal: I've done stuff that he liked so, and Will was awesome. People always say "what is Will Ferrell like?" Will Ferrell is way
nicer than me. Like he's really nice. He's generally pretty quiet, a really nice, unassuming guy, like not funnier than anyone else you know, and then you call action, and he's funnier than everyone you know.
Andrew: Let's talk about "The Chappelle Show" for a moment.
Andrew: [laughs] Do you have a favorite sketch from that time that you wrote / produced on "The Chapelle Show?" Is there a particular sketch that stands out in your mind that you're like that was the funniest scene?
Neal: This going to be disappointing, but you know the sketch I really liked? "Rick James".
Neal: I mean, I know it's disappointing. That's everybody's favorite sketch, but like all the hits are my favorite. Like I love "The Blind White-Supremacist". I love "Rick James". I love, "The Real World", the "Trading Spouses", the "R. Kelly" like the hits - I like the hits. There are some that are more personal to me, for example, one came from when Dave and I had a huge argument. That one holds a special place in my heart, because it was like, "oh, we're doing this as a sketch!" And then there's like little sketches like where Dave says like his ancestors were all anti-authoritarian and they show them throughout history. I like that. There's little sketches that you go I don't even remember that sketch, but I like those little gems that were in the show from time to time, but that's the thing, before "Rick James" was a like big deal, a big, popular thing, we had the sketch for like a month before anyone else saw it, and it was cool. It was an interesting sketch. It was like a documentary; it was like a lot of things that me and Dave were into in one thing, which is like we're both like really into documentaries like Fog of War and like Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control and sort of obscure documentaries. We're really into Eddie Murphy and Rick James and the 80's and Charlie. It was just a perfect storm of interests. Dave was literally channeling Rick. He was like possessed in a weird way. He was so great in sketch that to say that I'm the director had way more to do with editing, because at some point, I'm just pointing a camera at Dave. I could've pointed it any old way, and he still would've said, you know, all the crazy stuff he said like, most of it's too dirty to say.
Neal: It was more like being on a basketball team with Michael Jordan where you're just like, "oh, yeah; we're a great team, aren't we?but meanwhile, you know, he just dominates, especially in "Rick James."
Andrew: I've read in a past interview that you said that the writing was truly 50/50 from your side to Dave's.
Neal: Yeah, absolutely. I would agree with that.
Andrew: So does his level of fame upset you in some way, even though it was a 50/50 collaboration.
Neal: No, I don't care, man. I like the feeling of doing something great better than I like the feeling of getting recognized at The Coffee Bean.
Neal: That means nothing to me. I remember one time I got recognized by somebody because of The Chappelle Show and I go, "it's so embarrassing when people recognize me" and he (Dave) goes, "I've got news for you. It's embarrassing when people recognize me, too." Like it's kind of embarrassing when these people like come at you like they know you. It's just a weird thing. The stuff that filled me up was like the partnership, the show, obviously the show being successful, popular, and respected. That means a
lot to me, but getting recognized, that means nothing to me.
Andrew: Can you tell me a little bit about what happened? Obviously, that was a huge, huge story at the time. Why did it end, and what is your relationship like with Dave now?
Neal: I mean, how it ended is too sort of complicated and confusing to even tell, but today I've seen Dave a couple times in the past couple months and it was friendly. I brought him up on stage actually a couple times. He was seeing a show at The Laugh Factory and I was the MC, and I was like "here he is, we talk all the time. Here's your answer, ladies and gentlemen, Dave Chappelle."
Neal: At this point, we both think it's funny how awkward it is. We both know it's really awkward between us and that's funny. Here's the thing, I could have massive disagreements with Dave, but ultimately, I'll have more in common with him. I like him more than ninety-eight percent of the people I'll meet. Does that make sense?
Andrew: Almost like a brother kind of thing?
Neal: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it's like he's my brother and whatever happened and whatever happens, I have a joke I used to do which was neither of us will be happy unless, when the other one dies he goes, like Dave on his deathbed goes "Neal was right" and I die and he won't be happy unless I go "Dave was right!"
Neal: So, yeah. It is awkward, but we still know we did something pretty awesome.
Andrew: Would you be willing to collaborate with Chappelle in the future?
Neal: People have asked me that before, and I said like "absolutely not" and whatever, but it's just impossible. It's hard to explain, but It'll just never happen. It's just impossible. It doesn't even matter if I would or wouldn't. There has been lots of time where I wished he would come out to Hollywood to do some movies, but it seems like he has zero interest so it's sort of irrelevant for me to levy an opinion either way.
Andrew: Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences with The Comedy & Magic Club?
Neal: It seems like, you know, because you have to mostly be clean, the level of difficulty is higher, which is cool. I like that like if you do well there, you really FEEL like you do well. And when you're on a show with somebody you grew up watching, it's really cool. And talking to guys backstage that you grew up watching, and having them, legends, say that they loved your act, that's awesome. Whether it's Franklin Ajaye, Jeff Cesario, or Larry Miller or any of those guys. It's pretty cool.
Neal Brennan will be one of the 20 comics appearing on Friday, March 13th & Saturday, March 14th 2009. Reservations Required. (310) 372-1193 or comedyandmagicclub.com.