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Neal Brennan on the Best Joke He Wrote With Dave Chappelle

Neal Brennan recently released the Netflix version of his fantastic, heartfelt one-man show, 3 Mics. He is also consulting on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, and is best known for co-creating Chappelle’s Show. But when invited as a guest on Vulture’s Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, he wanted to talk about an admittedly dumb joke from Half Baked, the movie he co-wrote with Chappelle — a movie they’ve said they don’t even like.

Though silly and simple, the joke resulted in a conversation about the white Brennan pitching black comedians’ jokes with the N-word in it, as well as a deep dive into Chappelle and Brennan’s conflict-based writing process.

Listen to the episode and read an excerpt of our discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You once joked that people just assumed you wrote the structure of Half Baked and then Dave would come in and make it funny. But on a practical level, how did you actually write the movie?
He pitched a weed movie without telling me, and then we had to work backward from there. There was a book called The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, based on Joseph Campbell’s classic mythic structure. I was like, “Dude, read this.” He read it, and when you read it, it’s really simple. It’s very clear. Then we had the pitch on Monday and we were screwing around for a month before, so Sunday — all day — I brought in index cards and we laid it out. I remember when he saw the index cards something in him was like, “Oh!”

We laid out the structure together and then when we wrote that, we would sit in a room, I’d type, turn the computer to him, he’d type, turn the computer … You basically try to make the other person laugh and/or improve on what they wrote. That was similar on Chappelle’s Show. I had an index card that I would write premises down on or he would go, “Hey, put that on the card.” When we had a block where we would have to write like ten sketches, we’d just take the card out and go like, “Alright let’s write that, that, that, that.”

Are you talking it out?
We are, for sure. It’s not like dead silence. Like, “Ssshh, no, no, no, on the page.” We would definitely pitch jokes and the specific writing of it.

Were you constantly rewriting? Especially when you started directing on Chappelle’s Show?
We would never really rewrite. We would do a read-through and then we’d get on set and just go. That was the challenge of doing SNL with Dave. The Walking Dead sketch we did the Chappelle’s Show way. Me, him, and Tucker wrote it. We got on set and improvised. On Chappelle’s Show, we’d just go like, “Yeah, say this,” “Say this,” “Say this.” You can see it on the DVD — us pitching jokes.

I’ve heard that you guys would screen things a few times and then reedit it?
Yeah, we would go to Caroline’s. It was like a trick. The audience would actually get mad before the show was popular. Dave would go, “I’m doing stand-up at Caroline’s.” Sell tickets and then do ten minutes and be like, “You guys want to watch some videos?” You could get a sense of how they would play there, and then we’d shave them down.

When Dave hosted SNL, you wrote both the Walking Dead sketch and the Election Night one. On a practical level, they’re different feeling sketches. Compared to your past experiences, how different is it writing an SNL-style sketch?
When we first started Chappelle Show, people thought the blind white supremacist was too long. They were like, “You know, we don’t want to be like SNL, where the sketches are too long.” The difference between these sketches and those sketches is when you’re shooting a pretaped short film, you can go from location to location. The thing with the SNL Election Night is it’s in a room. We did do time-elapse — where we would just cut to an exterior, change the time, cut back — but it’s just dialogue. If you want somebody else in the sketch, Ding dong! I’m a huge fan of Saturday Night Live, so I always wondered, Could I write a multi-cam sketch?

Did you go through the same pitch like a regular writer on the show does?
I didn’t. I was there for the pitch, but I stood outside and let them all pitch.

Two got on the air. I heard you wrote a Rick James thing. Did you try anything else at the table read?
No, Rick James was at table. Election Night was at table. Walking Dead, we didn’t table it. The cool thing was I was in the sketch pick. Lorne really trusted me that week; he kind of let me pick a sketch on the air. As a fan of the show, it was great. Life can be really amazing sometimes in that way. When I was like 8 or something, when Eddie Murphy was on Saturday Night Live, I would watch it. I would stay up and watch it, and then my parents would pull into the driveway, and I’d hear them, and I would have to run up like two flights of stairs and hide in bed. Finally, I said to my mom, “Hey, can you let me watch Saturday Night Live? It’s important.”

And both sketches were hits.
Yeah, that was great, too. Election Night wasn’t even that good. Chris fucked a line up and Dave screwed a line up. It certainly wasn’t flawless, but it was a good idea.

That’s part of doing an SNL sketch — it isn’t perfect, but still hits.
Yeah, that’s the fun of it. The fun live part.

As an audience you’re thinking, Oh yeah, they must’ve only read that line maybe once before or They must’ve changed it between dress rehearsal and the show.
For sure. Chris added a couple jokes. That’s the thing, I was like, “Dude, you can’t screw up your own joke. You can’t force us to write this joke and then you screw it up.”

To jump back to Half Baked — Dave had the initial pitch for the movie. At that point, did you feel like your job was partly in service of Dave?
That’s always my first priority. Whoever is saying the joke is my biggest priority. It’s like Seth said, from writing on Saturday Night Live, “If a host doesn’t want to do it, don’t. You can’t force ‘em.” I know from doing stand-up, I don’t want to do a joke that I don’t trust. So, I’m grateful. I texted Dave two days ago because I’m getting a lot of praise for 3 Mics: “Thank you for believing in me literally 25 years ago.” He was like, “You were always funny!” “ALWAYS” was in all caps because I wrote “LITERALLY 25 YEARS AGO” in all caps. I wanted the show to be good. I wanted him to do well. They’re tandem worries.

Like in the Walking Dead sketch thing, the ending was Tyrone gets his head knocked off, and I was like, “I don’t know.” I kept saying, “I don’t think that’s good. We need a coda.” It was a little tense between us. I was like, “Dude, I’m telling you. That’s not a good enough ending.” He had a line and I was like, “We could do a whole speech based around that.” It was a little tense between us, so I told Tucker to write it. I was like, “Tucker has a great ending.” So, it all worked out. It’s not even that funny an ending. It’s just rounder.

It’s been over ten years since you first started working on Chappelle’s Show together. Was that conflict the same conflict?
Yeah, a lot of sketches came from arguments. In some ways, it’s like I’ll put the straitjacket on him, and then he’ll be like, “Blah!” [try to get out]. I’ll be like the counterargument. The best example, and this is our favorite sketch now, is this sketch we did on Chappelle’s Show, which was Jury Selection — where he’s on all these juries. There was a Vanity Fair Michael Jackson article in like ’04. I was like, “Well, here you go! Fucking case closed. It’s all here.” Then we argued. Shadow of a doubt for black people is so huge that you can’t convict anyone. I was like, “Alright, we’ve gotta do this.” Then it became that sketch, and it was awesome.

Neal Brennan on His Writing Process With Dave Chappelle