From Behind the Scenes to In Front of the Camera with Neal Brennan

With his new gig hosting The Approval Matrix on Sundance TV, Neal Brennan has completed his reverse transformation from behind-the-scenes writer-director to on-camera talent.

Brennan co-created Chappelle’s Show, and for years was a go-to film and television writer and director. Then, about 7 years ago he started to focus on standup, and has since reverse engineered (by traditional Hollywood standards) a performing career, including Comedy Central standup specials and voiceover work for Samsung, and culminating in the new panel TV show he’s hosting.

Inspired by the famous back page of New York magazine, the new talk show presents Brennan and his panel guests the opportunity to dissect the latest in pop culture using the Approval Matrix metrics: Brilliant vs. Despicable and Highbrow vs. Lowbrow.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Brennan about his new show, getting typecast as a writer/director and why Charles Barkley is the best guy on TV.

I saw the first episode. Enjoyed it. How are you guys going about deciding topics?

We just needed six episodes and it was like a matter of what our thing was going to be. They needed to be macro topical. It can’t be about today’s news but it can be about this year’s news. And it’s just things that I personally have a take on or an opinion on.

When did you shoot all these?

The end of June.

Watching it, the show feels like it has a very Neal Brennan feel to it. It almost feels like the Approval Matrix is there to serve your ideas and your sensibilities as opposed to the other way around.  

Yeah, well I think we realized early on that whatever the show is they’re all host driven – all the shows whether it’s Maher, Chelsea, or Jon Stewart, or Jimmy. Otherwise it’s going to be me pretending.

Which wouldn’t work.

Yeah, it’ll end up just dry. You know?

Did you look to any of those panel-style shows as a model?  

I think I’ve seen every Bill Maher episode. I honestly think I’ve seen every one, which seems crazy. I’m a really big fan of Bill’s show. Having said that I don’t think we’re anywhere near as serious and the issues don’t have the same gravitas. But I’m definitely a big fan of Bill’s.

Yeah, but…

And in some ways the weird thing, and not consciously, people are like “You say some crazy stuff.” Honestly, I’ve always thought that Charles Barkley is the best guy on TV because he will really tell you what he thinks. But it’s all well thought out. After the Donald Sterling thing I was watching Inside the NBA with Charles and he made a racial joke and everyone was laughing and Barkley goes, “Uh oh, I made a racial joke, don’t take away my property America.” Which is like, he’s on Donald Sterling’s side. You know what I mean? It’s one of those things where it’s so great that he, as a black NBA player, was still like “you can’t take away someone’s stuff because they made a joke (not a joke), because he said something in his house.” That sort of thing where I try to be as honest as I can. I think being honest on TV is pretty rare. So if I can be that, I would like to be.

Are you prepared for the abuse you’re going to get for saying Louie isn’t funny? You know that’s coming.

Yeah, but I think plenty of people will agree with me. Again I’m just one guy, I don’t understand. I’m just one guy with an opinion. I don’t know? I’m just some guy. Who cares? I feel like sometimes the press has a monolithic opinion where it’s like “this is true” and if you don’t share that opinion you feel like a loser. You feel like a real outsider. You feel kind of lonely and this is my response. Yea, I think Louie’s standup is amazing and I think parts of the show are great. I just don’t think it’s a good narrative. Sorry.

I like how you said it’s “the kale of TV” because there probably are a lot of people who share that opinion. But few people want to share an unpopular opinion and put it on TV.  

It’s the same with the SNL thing. I don’t think they should have to hire somebody because the Internet said so. They emailed me asking who they should hire and I gave them a bunch of names. I didn’t stand in the way, I helped. I recommended Leslie [Jones] among other people and I think I helped her get on the show. I just want to make that clear. I’m not against SNL hiring anybody. But at the same time I don’t think they should have had to hire so many people because the Internet got mad.

It’s similar to the criticism Jerry Seinfeld got for not having more black guests on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Yeah, it’s America, it’s a tasteocracy. These aren’t government jobs. It should be Lorne’s taste, or Jerry can book whoever he wants and Lorne can book whoever he wants. All the people worried about a black woman being on SNL, why aren’t they worried about Asian women or Latin women or Asian men or Latin men? It’s so dumb and so obviously hypocritical. They just have an opportunity and take it with a huge blind spot to their own hypocrisy I literally can’t deal with it.

Is it important for your show to take on weightier topics where people can have some varying opinions?  

Yeah! I think so. That’s what will be interesting about the show. I am confident enough in my own opinion that I’m willing to counter what everybody else is saying. And it really is coming from a place of feeling left out. If that makes sense? Where everybody is like “this is amazing” and I’m like “I don’t know if it is amazing.” I’m just saying, “I don’t think it’s that good” and everyone’s like “What?”

How dare you.

How dare you have a different opinion about art. How dare you.

Going back to TV, do you feel like it’s getting harder and harder for sitcoms to hold viewers’ attention? Obviously people get behind Game of Thrones where there’s more of are narrative arc, but… 

No I don’t man because look at the ratings. Big Bang Theory is killing everyone. That’s one of those things where some critics don’t pay attention and are like “that doesn’t count.” No, it counts. They’re killing everyone. They’re doubling Game of Thrones numbers if not tripling. Are they getting the number of blog pieces? No. But again it’s – who cares?

What about non-CBS shows though – the shows that appeal more to the bloggers, the people in New York and LA, the industry people?

Do I think that’s getting harder?

Yeah, it seems like they’re all competing for the same audience and it’s almost to the point where…

I was watching something last night, I think I was watching The Daily Show and then Colbert, and as I was watching Colbert I was thinking “So I’m not watching Fallon right now.” There’s too much good stuff on. There is literally too much good stuff. I always tell people I hope to get some horrible illness that makes me bedridden for a year so I can watch all these shows. I do standup almost every night and I work during the day so it’s like I can’t watch most of this stuff. I truly don’t have the time. But having said that people do go online or watch TV ten hours a day so I think we still do have a surplus of time relative to value. I don’t think there is 70 good hours of TV in a week.

Does The Approval Matrix mark a shift for you in terms of your career? Prior to standup you were primarily a behind the scenes guy – writer/director.

I think absolutely. Other than doing an hour, hosting a TV show is the real… well that’s assuming people watch it. I almost feel that people shouldn’t do press for a show until it’s been on for three weeks. So people can even know if you’re good or not. It’s where I’ll see directors talking about their movies and it’s like “dude, your movie stinks.” But yes, I think it’s a giant opportunity and giant pulpit for me.  Hosting these shows is a big deal.

Do you prefer this now?

Yeah, you know I said it on an episode, “You know in comedy if you’re not on camera then you’re generally not in charge.” So I can use my writing ability to make somebody else famous or I can use it to make myself famous. It’s not even famous. I’m not ugly and I’m pretty good on camera. So why should I stay off to the sidelines forever? In a weird way there is almost a bias against me because I can do other stuff. I’ll do shows in LA or New York and casting directors will want to cast the person before me and after me but don’t even consider me just because I can write and direct. It’s like, “Well you’re not really that” and it’s like “Yeah I am. Fuck you man. I’m fuckin’ doing voiceovers, I don’t give a shit.” So I tell people this is like a craps table where I’m just like “Can I put $5 on voiceover, $5 on standup, $5 on directing, and $5 on writing” and just see what comes in. [Laughs.]

Congrats on this special by the way. I thought it was great. Were you pretty happy with how it turned out?

Yeah I really liked it. It got really good ratings, which I was gratified by and people have been very nice and complimentary about it. There was nothing negative about it for me other than I wish it were on Netflix. Well the thing with Comedy Central is it has a great first week and then it’s just their website, where they sell the things, but doesn’t have the traffic that Netflix has. Netflix truly is the longer tail thing where you don’t get that first week ad bump and promo bump, but it has a longer shelf life. Now my special is almost locked up with Comedy Central because you know with specials it’s hard for them to repeat them because it’s not a guaranteed rating.

In terms of your standup are you getting closer to where you want to be? When we spoke a couple years ago in Montreal and you said that you were still playing catch up because you had been writing for so long.

I think my reputation is certainly building and my ability is building as well. Now I’m at seven years. It’s not forever but it’s not two years.

I saw your were doing a lot of standup in New York while you were shooting Approval Matrix.

Yeah, I was at the [Comedy] Cellar mostly. The Cellar is great. The problem with the Cellar is it’s too many comics. You get bumped a lot. It’s good, but it’s like “shit man, I’m just trying to get on.” If I were an audience member it’s the best.

It’s a hacky question but I’d love to hear your opinion about doing standup in LA versus New York.

I don’t see that much of a difference. The audiences in LA feel younger. Meaning I feel like during the week at the Cellar it more like people in their 30s and 40s. I feel like younger people in New York go to Hannibal’s show or they go to Whiplash. Where as in LA I feel like young people go to the Comedy Store or The Factory or The Improv. I believe that. That would be about my only observation. There isn’t any joke that only works here – I mean if your jokes only work in one city than it’s probably not a good joke.

And you’re still doing your show in Santa Monica?

Yeah. I do my show in Santa Monica. Every Sunday. And that’s actually been getting too popular. I know that sounds like a douche thing to say, but it was set up so I could try new material and now it’s sold out a lot. So I’m like here’s a quarter of a premise and not because people pay – it’s $5 – they deserve good, but it’s more pressure. It’s definitely positive. It’s just one of those things where it’s like “oh that was unintended.” But I’m happy that it’s doing well and I can actually start paying comics now which is nice.

I saw that (former Daily Show Executive Producer) Rory Albanese is an executive producer of Approval Matrix as well.  What does he bring to the show?  Obviously he has a wealth of experience and knowledge.

Just knowing how to pick material and craft material. And running interference with the network and stuff like that. He’s been very great.

Do you have a big writing staff?

Not really. It was me, Rory, and Kurt Metzger who did the lion’s share of the writing and this girl Delaney Yeager who writes for The Daily Show who ended up getting hired at The Daily Show when we were doing the show.

How about the panel? It was interesting you had a TV critic on the first episode. Is that something you’re looking to do more of?  

I think so. I mean we got a guy from Entertainment Weekly on an episode. We don’t have one on every episode but if you’re talking about something like that and you write about entertainment then we’ll have you on. What I like about the show is it’s not Chelsea Lately where it’s four people talking around a desk. It’s trying to have a reasoned argument or a reason everyone gets to state a point of view and if they’re funny – great, and if they’re smart – great. It’s not like, “You better get a laugh.” It’s not like “you’ve got eight seconds get a laugh.” So that’s the thing you can be more nuanced. Like I’ve told people on the show “If you don’t have anything funny to say just say something interesting or true or considerate.”  That’s the thing, we’re never going to be four comics.

Do you look for people who might have different views than you? Does that add to the show?  

Yeah for sure but we didn’t really look for those people. We didn’t go “Hey, you know who disagrees with me?” I think I just have – I’m a polarizing individual. [Laughs.] I’m a real lightning rod. So it’s not hard to find people who disagree with me because it seems like the entire world disagrees with me. I’m at least honest enough to say what I actually think.

It makes for good TV for sure.  

It really makes for good TV but at the same time it’s not like I have to say something antagonistic to have a segment, but luckily I’m antagonistic. Lucky for me and lucky for everyone involved that I have a horrible personality. [Laughs.] Another journalist asked me if I hate America and I’m like “I don’t think so.” I wouldn’t go that far. I just think if you’re doing comedy you should get laughs. If that makes me hate America then I hate America.

The Approval Matrix premieres tonight on SundanceTV.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.

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