If you didn’t get a chance to see Neal Brennan’s live solo show 3 Mics last year, thanks to Netflix there’s now a way to find out what you missed out on. In the special, the Chappelle’s Show co-creator performs onstage alongside three different mics – one for one-liners, one for traditional standup, and one for “emotional stuff.” Ahead of the special’s Netflix debut, I spoke with Brennan about how the idea for 3 Mics originated, writing sketches with Dave Chappelle for his SNL debut in November, why he highly recommends weeklong silent retreats, and more.
I watched your special last night. I hadn’t seen the live show, but watching the special came just at the right time for me. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s wonderful. So congrats!
Thank you very much! It sounds like it helped you in some way, so I really appreciate that it helped.
What gave you the idea to split up a show this way?
Well, I had jokes from Twitter that were just sitting there, and then I’d listen to The Moth a lot, and when I’d do podcasts I’d talk about serious stuff and people were always responsive. So I thought I should figure out a way to do Mothy-esque middle mic stuff, and then the Twitter stuff – they’re not all from Twitter, but just one-liners – and then regular standup. Because when you do standup, it just gets a little one-note in terms of, like, “Here’s another well-thought-out, perfectly surmised point of view!” Which is the great thing about standup, but when you’re doing it, there are points about 30 minutes in where the tone just gets really monotonous as a comedian and also as a viewer; there are very few standup hours that I think are good all the way through. So I figured, let’s just pare down the standup to the most potent parts, and then do a more honest or earnest middle mic thing, and then have the one-liners.
Did you learn anything, about yourself or your act, by splitting it up that way?
The standup part is pretty much who I am as a comedian – the stuff I like talking about, the stuff I’m decent at – so with that there’s not much I’m going to be able to alter. I’d have to go about it in a completely different, premeditated approach, which I don’t feel like I need to do. The thing I learned was more about the middle mic stuff. I guess I was able to surmise what comedy means to me, if that makes sense. Which is a really fucking corny thing to say, but I hope I said it in a way that wasn’t maudlin or something.
When it comes to the middle mic and being honest like that, was that a challenge for you, or have you always been open like that?
Well, I’m used to it. Like with 12-step programs, in some ways those are just shares. The hard part is being vulnerable – especially in the third one when I’m talking about my dad and how my fucking feelings are hurt, probably. And I think admitting, like, “Hey, I’m a fucking starfucker!” – it’s such a bald character flaw. That’s the only thing in the show where it’s like…I’m embarrassed about it, but that’s kind of the point. I mean, I’ve come a long way with that stuff, but I’m basically like “I was hiding, and now I’m trying not to hide. What do you think?!” You know? And, by the way, the audience hasn’t even accepted it yet. We’ll find out Tuesday what people think when the special comes out. People in New York were cool about it, and people might accept me as the 3 Mics guy, but it’s a matter of: Will you accept me as a comedian, writ large?
When did you know you were ready to turn the live show into a special?
I think I did it like 40 times in New York, and I feel like that’s a pretty good number to know what’s what. The only thing I really changed was the standup mic – I’d just add parts and omit other ones and replace and stuff. But with the middle mic, those things evolve, but after a certain point I was saying what I wanted to say in a succinct way.
It made me think of comedy specials that have that extra-self-awareness that they’re comedy specials, in different ways. Like Bo Burnham, or Reggie Watts’s new special too.
I watched Bo’s last special and it was great. It was more Birbiglia’s Girlfriend’s Boyfriend thing. I watched Birbiglia’s special, and it made me want to do something more narrative. It felt evolved, you know? And I couldn’t just do another hour, because there are so many hours now that it’s like “Why me? What would make my hour any different than someone else’s hour?” I mean, obviously I can write jokes, but it was more like: “What can I do to differentiate myself from the herd?”
Sure, there’s the narrative aspect, but it has the visual component too. With a lot of standup specials, you can just listen and get the same effect. With ones like yours, it’s definitely better to see than just hear.
Yeah, Chelsea Peretti’s special is a great example of that. And look, I mean, I don’t think Dave [Chappelle]’s gonna do anything crazy in his specials – the one I saw is just standup. I don’t think Chris [Rock] is gonna do anything crazy. [Amy] Schumer’s I’ve seen – there’s nothing, it’s just standup. So I guess I’m not well-known enough to just stand there and talk. [laughs] I don’t have that luxury. But also, as a writer and producer and all the other jobs, I would like it to be something, you know? I guess it was just a matter of trying to improve and make myself more…I don’t know, more noticeable, or more palatable, or more unique.
In the special you mention going on a seven-day silent meditation retreat, so I have to ask: What did you get out of it?
I’ll tell you what I got out of it. First of all, on day 1 I cried, just straight-up cried, from desperation. Because there was no talking, no phone, no email, no computer, and – the hard part – no television, no reading, no writing. So it was like death. You can’t talk to people, so you’re walking around like a bunch of apparitions, and it was mostly women, so it was just me and a bunch of women who look like they have the flu because we’re all in pajamas. It was like the part in Survivor where everyone’s hungry. It was like the least sexy orgy on Earth. But day 3 and day 4 were two of the best days of my life, and I’m not even kidding.
Yeah. So there were two things I did. I would meditate – you meditate like eight hours a day – and when I was meditating I would smile, because no one could say “Hey, why are you smiling?” If you know anything about this guy Paul Ekman, who wrote this book about “facial coding,” what you do with your face can work backward and affect your mood. So if you literally google “smile therapy,” there are things like if you smile for 15 minutes, your brain will go “I guess we’re happy!” and it releases endorphins. So I did that and it felt amazing, and then I also realized when I got home, and while I was still doing it, that I flood myself with information and technology. It’s just: wake up, tweet, Facebook, television, blah blah, all this shit. And it’s not making me happy, it’s just making me feel overwhelmed. So that was the big takeaway. And I think I’ve meditated pretty much every day since, and that’s been since April.
Do you remember the first words you said after the retreat was over?
Well, I should say that we could talk for three minutes. By day 3 we would have these little circles and we would talk. And the funny thing was that by that part I didn’t even want to talk. I was like, “I don’t want to break this streak!” But I would talk a little bit.
I was wondering if you might’ve snuck a little whispering to yourself at night or something. Gotta get that fix.
You know, it’s funny – I caught a dude smoking weed, I caught a couple hugging, one woman’s phone vibrated one day at lunch. So there were people cheating, but whatever.
But you’d still recommend it to others?
I’d highly recommend it. It was amazing.
You talk in the special about working with Dave Chappelle and struggling with that idea of living in someone’s else’s shadow to the point where it even made you doubt your own talent. How has that struggle evolved for you over the years?
I think it’s an ongoing thing. Thankfully I was kind of forced to acknowledge or work with my own talent, you know what I mean? But it’s an ongoing thing. There are weeks where I’m like “I’m not good!” Comedy’s the only job I say where you wake up and you’re like “Can’t do it!” Pilots don’t wake up and go “I don’t know how to fly a plane!” But the cool thing was to know I was like “Ugh, I’m not good at this,” then I did SNL with Dave and was like “Oh, I am good at this!” And it wasn’t because I had Dave, per se – it was just because I wrote a good sketch and they did it and it was good. So it’s an ongoing thing of up, down, talented, not, talented, not, talented, not. And I think the special’s good, but the thing is, now I have ten minutes of material. That’s what I have now in my arsenal.
Insecurity can really suck, but in some ways, do you think it helps you keep your drive?
Yeah, but the problem is when you realize “Oh, I can do the thing, but I’m not gonna be able to hold this feeling, so why even bother doing the thing?” That’s the worst-case scenario – where you see where things are headed. But having said that, today I feel pretty talented.
A couple years ago I interviewed Wayne White, an artist who used to work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse…
Is that the guy they made a documentary about? Beauty Is Embarrassing?
Yeah! We were talking about that idea with anything art-related where, if it’s something that’s funny, it’s not seen as “important” or valuable as the more serious, “suffering” art. And your special really encapsulates the argument that every part is important: a silly SNL sketch could save your life, just as much or better, as some serious or sad movie.
Yeah! And that’s the thing: I thought of a sketch, and I still feel good for it! Lorne Michaels actually said something to me about this. That week we were going from the after-party of the show to the after-after-party that Dave had, and Lorne gave me a ride. And he was saying when he was a comedy writer in 1968 or whatever, he and his partner wrote jokes for Woody Allen, and there was a joke that Lorne wrote and Woody said “That’s a really good joke,” and Lorne said “And that carried me for like six months.” That’s kind of the thing: No, these jokes can literally carry you. They can be your self-esteem for weeks, months…I wouldn’t say years, but weeks and months, and they can be a real life preserver. And that’s what’s great about doing it.
3 Mics is now available on Netflix.