Neal Brennan is one of the most influential humans in comedy today. He was the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show (ever heard of it?), convinced Jimmy Fallon to hire The Roots as his Late Night band and he’s the guy people like Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers go to for advice. Plus, he’s directed episodes of The Mindy Project, New Girl and Inside Amy Schumer. He’s hosting the new show, The Approval Matrix, which premieres tonight on the SundanceTV. We caught up with Neal about The Hills, Kanye and how he totally called that Tiger Woods thing.
OKMagazine.com: I watched the first episode of The Approval Matrix and one of the things I noticed right from the start was, Oh look at him with the blazer on!
Neal Brennan: I know, it’s weird seeing me in a blazer. I know, people are always like, ‘Wait what are you doing?’ Even I’m like, ‘Who is that?’ I guess you just get used to it. It just gets to the point where it’s weird when I see Seth or Fallon not in a suit. I’m just so used to wearing a hoodie.
OKMagazine.com: In the first episode you mention that you went to a filming of The Hills. I need to know everything about this.
NB: My friend worked on the show and I was a huge fan. I used to ask her, ‘Can I come, can I come?’ It was when Heidi had her fake job working for Brent Bolthouse, and the plot was that Spencer was inviting her to lunch and she couldn’t go because she had work and he was starting to feel like she was working too much at her fake job. But it was fucking riveting to watch a guy ask his girlfriend out to lunch 3 different times! With 3 different line reads and 3 different energies, it was just interesting.
OKMagazine.com: The Approval Matrix is breaking down everything in pop culture. You’re somebody who says what’s on your mind, but if you don’t like a show or a song or something, do you want to not say anything unless it’s nice, are you afraid you’re going to offend anyone?
NB: Here’s the thing, when someone gets so critically lauded and you don’t like it, you start to feel like a lunatic and honestly I hate to be this emo about it, but you start to feel lonely. You’re like, I don’t like this and it’s starting to make me question my entire being the fact that everyone loves this show and is obsessed with it! So there are times where I will say, ‘I don’t like it and here’s why.’ You just start to feel like, am I crazy? Am I out of my mind? Because it’s like you get so inundated with this thing and you go, wait a minute I don’t think that that’s good looking, or I don’t think that tastes good. You start to go, what is the big deal with coconut water or kale or whatever?
OKMagazine.com: On the flip side of that, what is something that is going on in pop culture that you are obsessed with and you don’t get why the world isn’t loving as much as you do?
NB: The PBS show Frontline, I’m such an old man. But that’s the greatest show in the history of television. That show is unbelievable. And it’s the only real news show on television. There was one episode from probably 13 years ago, 12 years ago, called The Run Up To War, it was about how we ended up in Iraq. It’s 2 hours long and it’s one of the saddest episodes of anything I’ve ever seen, to the point where me and Chappelle watched it and when it ended we were both like, alright let’s watch it again. Literally just load it back up. Like a song, like a great song you’re like, I gotta hear that song again. But it’s a 2 hour documentary that’s so good and so riveting and so devastating.
Also, there’s a genre of music called trap, which I think is the best. Yeah like I can’t believe it, and I felt this way about EDM like 10 years ago. There was this one noise and everyone that worked at Chappelle’s Show used to call it the Neal Brennan Noise because I would be like, what is that noise! It’s like an organ that’s got base in it. I can’t even really explain it but it’s heard in a lot of trap music.
OKMagazine.com: How about anything that you feel like you were in it from day 1, an early supporter and now it’s a big deal and you’re like, I told you so!
NB: Yeah there’s a ton of people actually. It’s a lot of comedians, I remember seeing Chris D’Elia, I recommended him to The Laugh Factory and I remember telling his manager, ‘You’re gonna make a zillion dollars off this dude.’ D’Elia I would say is one of my good friends that I’ve never talked to for more than 90 seconds because he just doesn’t have the attention span. Oh you know who’s someone that I was a giant fan of that I didn’t know I was a giant fan of? Sia. Sia was in this band Zero 7 that I used to listen to religiously and then when I heard her I was like, she sounds like the girl from Zero 7 and I was like wait a minute and I wiki’d her. And Kanye! The first time he was on TV was on Chappelle’s Show.
OKMagazine.com: Are you surprised to see where he is now?
NB: No. Did you hear that story that Dave told on Fallon? I was there. That’s a verbatim quote. What Dave cut out of the story was, Kanye goes, ‘I’m in editing with Dave and Neal’ and then there was a pause and he goes, ‘Neal’s his partner!’ So that didn’t really work for the story but yeah, Kanye’s a big one. And then, me and Mike Schur (creator of Parks and Recreation) used to write movies together and we had a movie idea we used to pitch and this was in like 99, 2000. They’d say, ‘Who do you want to be in it?’ And we’d say ‘How about Will Ferrell and Dave Chappelle?’ People would look at us like we were insane. And they kept pitching, ‘How about Tom Green and Orlando Jones?’ I wish I were making this up.
OKMagazine.com: Are any of those scripts still unmade, could they be revived?
NB: Oh yeah, they’re completely unmade. Potentially, they’re such weird ideas though. The one I’m thinking of is such a weird idea. Oh I’ve been into Diplo for a long time. And the “Harlem Shake“, he put it on one of his mix tapes like 6 months before all those videos and I was like, this is the fucking best song. Oh, this is one of the greatest things if you wanna know about me calling something, this is embarrassing and illuminating. Dave did a piece for the Today show with Tiger Woods in 2001 or 2002. And Tiger Woods, just from him walking past me, I said to Dave, ‘That’s a real sexual dude right there.’ Which I gotta say is so crazy, but I was right.
OKMagazine.com: Did he believe you?
NB: No one knew what I was talking about and I was like, I can’t explain it, it’s just a real sexual dude. Now everybody knows, now the whole world knows.
OKMagazine.com: You have something to do with almost everything in late night these days. Do you like that, do you like to be the go-to guy, do you like having your peers come to you for advice?
NB: Yeah I mean, it’s great, it’s a sign of respect and I’m a know-it-all so I like having an influence on people. There’s no downside to it. I’m flattered that people care. But in some ways, in terms of my class, I was always the first person. Like, me and Dave wrote Half Baked when we were 23. So none of our peers had written movies or made movies. One of the funniest conversations ever, when (Andy) Samberg and Akiva and Jorma got hot a few years after Chappelle’s Show, I think “Lazy Sunday” had come out. Me and Andy went to a Knicks game and he was saying, ‘Yeah everyone in Hollywood wants me to do stuff with them, and I met with this person, I met with this person’ and I go, ‘Andy don’t do anything unless you know you can kill with it, because these people will flatter the shit out of you and get you to do something that you don’t want to do.’ And Samberg looked at me and he goes, ‘I don’t know man, they’re really flattering,’ like he admitted, I don’t know if I can withstand this. But I look to Seth in terms of advice for on-camera stuff. There’s tons of stuff that I’ve never done before that I’m doing now, so now I’m behind a lot of my peers. I’ve never hosted a show before. I didn’t feel like I was completely out of my depth, there’s just shit that you don’t know. Like what do you do with your hands during a monologue? It took Seth 2 weeks to figure it out and I only had 6 episodes, so I didn’t figure it all out. And you’ll be able to see it if you watch the show. I’m not sitting in the chair properly. Simple boots on the ground experience.
OKMagazine.com: You also have some of your comedy pals appear on the show.
NB: The reason Jon Stewart is on the show is because I knew him 22 years ago when I worked the door at a comedy club. We were cool and he was in Half Baked and we’re friendly. He was like not a mentor exactly but he took a shine to me a long time ago which is really nice. And from Jim Brewer being in Half Baked, I met a bunch of people from SNL. I met Mike Schur, and I became friends with Seth and Poehler, and then I’m friends with Jimmy, and I’m friends with The Roots through Dave, and James Poyser who does Thank You Notes with Jimmy did the theme song for The Approval Matrix. It is a relatively small group of people. I always call it the Winners’ Circle. I am an outsider in the Winners’ Circle, but I will never go to the Chateau (Marmont, in Los Angeles). People are like ‘Let’s hang at the Chateau’ and I’m like fucking kill me. You know that’s where villains would hang out if it were a movie. I love working with these people, like my relationship with Poehler and Seth is like, I’ll meet Seth at this bar on 8th Avenue or I’ll meet Poehler at the bar or Ill see (Chris) Rock at the Comedy Cellar. I’ll see them in worky situations but I don’t subscribe to the lifestyle, so to speak. I’ve been to Soho House once and I’m like, I’m never coming here again! I said to somebody the other day, I don’t think going to the Emmys makes you any funnier or going to an Emmy pre-party. That’s the opposite of comedy. Again, I understand you have to, it’s a part of the job but it makes my skin crawl honestly.
OKMagazine.com: I know people ask you about working on Chappelle’s Show a lot, but what was it like getting your start on All That, you had to be pretty young at the time?
NB: Yeah I was really young I think I was like 21 I wasn’t good at it. Meaning like I wasn’t a good writer on that show. They used to call me ‘the boy’ and they would throw food at me in the rewrite room, they would throw shit at me the whole time. But (executive producer) Brian Robbins said, ‘I should’ve fired you when I had the chance’ which is a really funny thing to say and I laughed when he said it. Because I wasn’t good at it, but it was helpful and a weird confidence booster and good for learning politically how to deal with people, how to be around other people and stuff.
The Approval Matrix airs tonight on the SundanceTV at 11 p.m. ET.
Which of Neal’s projects is your favorite? Tell us in the comments below or on Twitter @OKMagazine.