Neal Brennan Doesn’t Know Why You Need Ellen to Be Nice

In his new Netlfix special ‘Crazy Good,’ Brennan asks why we want comedians to be more than just funny
Neal Brennan Doesn’t Know Why You Need Ellen to Be Nice

I’m used to having publicists connect me to comedians, so it took me a moment when Neal Brennan answered his own phone, you know, like a person. “I don’t have a lot of shame, Matt,” he explains. “I don’t like involving other people in my business.”  

We’re talking about Crazy Good, the shameless comic’s newest Netflix special that drops today. How did the three-time Emmy nominee for Chappelle’s Show come up with the name for his latest? “Basically what I’m saying is, crazy is good,” he replies. The reasoning: “I want my rappers to be derelict. I don’t want the head of Homeland Security to have any kind of work-life balance.” For comedians, in other words, crazy is good.

A star-studded lineup of comics has joined Brennan on his popular podcast Blocks to discuss the mental health (and other) issues that get in their way. So it was somewhat surprising to watch the very funny Crazy Good and learn that the comedian’s emotional life is currently in decent working order.

You start out Crazy Good by confessing that you’re actually feeling pretty good. 

Yeah. I did that material about a year ago in D.C., and a guy DMed me afterward and was like, “I kept waiting for you to show up.” Basically, a guy DMed me to say, “You weren’t sad enough,” which I was afraid would happen. But once I did that announcement at the beginning of the show (in which Brennan “warns” everyone he’s doing well), it alleviated anyone’s expectations of I’m gonna be emo or depressed or sad. And it made the show better.

My first thought was, that’s great for you, but is it bad for comedy? 

Apparently not. I don’t think I’ve made a special with more laughs in it. It’s as good as all of my other specials, and there’s more jokes in it. So that seems like it’s good for comedy? And also, if it’s bad for comedy, then guess what? I’m gonna quit comedy. 

I’ve heard comics talk about being hesitant to work on their issues because they’re afraid that whatever makes them angsty or anxious, that’s the key to their comedy.

You know what that is? It’s an incredibly convenient excuse not to be a better human being in relationships with people. “I would, but I can't.” 

The other thing I’ve realized is that comedy is a reflex at this point. I’ve been in showbiz for like 30 years so I can figure out an angle almost unconsciously. And it’s not based on this core sadness or belief that I’m bad. It may have been at one point, but at this point, the synapses are trained to find a premise and write it. 

Maybe because I’ve written jokes for other people. I didn’t have to be a lesbian to write for Ellen (DeGeneres). I didn’t have to be Black to write for Dave. So I don’t see it as predicated on a mental or emotional disorder. I can write an observational thing about a kid, like I’m dealing with my girlfriend’s kid, and that’s fun and funny. Or I can write a pitch-black joke about Ukraine. I can do it, and it’s not predicated on any sort of underlying emotional problem.

People dealing with their mental health — it feels like we’re in a moment right now.

Yeah, it’s an ongoing TikTok challenge. It’s a dance craze. It’s the lambada.

Do you feel like comedy had any role in making people feel like, “Hey, this is okay to talk about”? People like Maria Bamford and Gary Gulman and your podcast giving people permission to talk.

I don’t know. It’s like when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show. He said, “It didn’t work. Fox News is more popular than ever.” It’s like the question, “Did Chappelle's Show make people less racist?” I don’t know, maybe. It’s impossible to know what the lasting effects of any of these things are. Does misogynistic comedy make people more sexist? I just don’t know what the actual impact of this stuff is long-term. I’m not discounting it, I just have no idea.

So when you talk to comics on your Blocks podcast, maybe it’s doing some greater good or maybe it’s just good conversation.

I’m also just nosey. I think that they’re worthwhile conversations, don’t get me wrong. And there is an audience for it, I can sell ads and all that stuff. But I think what happens, I’m afraid, is “wisdom theater.” Meaning, if someone goes, “Of course I’m righteous, I watched a Ted Talk about righteousness!” “Of course I’m working on my emotions. I listen to Neal Brennan’s Blocks podcast with the guy from Queens of the Stone Age or David Letterman or whoever.” So it becomes this thing like watching sports. I think guys think they’re athletic because they watch sports. And there may be a thing in play where it’s like, “My consumption is my character.” I think people used to buy DVDs for that reason. “How can I be racist? I own Chappelle's Show.” Or “I own the Sex and the City DVD box set, of course I have good female friends.” People use consumption as a substitute for action. 

Having said all that, I also get a lot of DMs from people saying it helps them. The truth is, I don’t know.

You do a bit in Crazy Good about comedians like Kevin Hart and Ellen DeGeneres where it’s not enough to be a transcendent comic, you’ve got to be this great humanitarian as well. Maybe this is a fame thing and not exclusively a comedy thing, but do comedians have a harder path to walk? Because you’ve got to not only excel at your craft but be everyone’s idol as well? 

The thing I said around it which I hope people notice is this is a failure of politicians, religious figures, corporate figures and media. So now it’s our responsibility? Walk me through that calculation. All of these people were supposed to be the actual moral pillars and they couldn’t do it so now it’s like, all right, who else is up? Jon Stewart seems moral. George Carlin was moral. Yeah, but George Carlin also had a lot of really antisocial bits. He was very sympathetic in some ways and very unsympathetic in others. 

Comedians because we’re speaking in public, it comes across as some form of expertise but the first priority of every comedian I know or have ever met is being funny. I don’t think Jon Stewart starts The Daily Show now and goes, “Here, let’s start this ethics class.” He’s trying to be funny. 

It’s an old reference but it’s Charles Barkley saying “I’m not a role model. I’m focused on rebounds, and you should be parenting your kid.” 

It’s not even parenting per se. I guess it’s cultural parenting. Why does anyone care what Dave says about trans people other than, “Is it funny or not?” I understand the counterargument is that it’s a big megaphone. But he got a big megaphone by being funny. He didn’t get it by being quote unquote responsible. But every other category of leader is so corrupt that we’ve literally said, “What do the clowns think?” 

You construct an argument in the special about people like Chappelle, for example. To reach a Chappelle level of success, you’ve got to be a sociopath. The best athlete is the craziest or most obsessed athlete. They’re all psychopaths and drug addicts.

It’s not a coincidence, and it’s happened by my rough estimate a thousand times in a row. Even people that you don’t suspect, like Bill Cosby who seemed like the squarest, most upright moral pillar is actually — spoiler alert — the least. George Carlin was a drug addict. Richard Pryor was a drug addict. And just on and on and on. 

This expectation from the audience is just childish. It’s overly simplistic, and there’s also a part of it that is jealousy. I remember in the late ’90s when Titanic was successful, people were like, “DiCaprio’s gay.” And I was like, “What?” And then it became “No, he’s too straight!” It’s just a way to get him. “Ellen’s hilarious and rich — let’s look for something bad about her.” It’s a bit of vengeance on the part of the audience, which I understand, but let’s not pretend that these are legit criticisms. Like, “Is Kevin Hart nice?” What? “Does Michael Jordan smell good?” What does one thing have to do with the other? “How are his table manners?”

Kevin, for instance, gets an A in so many categories. He’s winning in so many categories of life that people go, “What about niceness?” Okay, this is just your own pettiness that you want him to be brought down to earth. 

Flip side of that: Is it a requirement to be some kind of a sociopath or psychopath or a drug addict to get to that level of success?

I don’t know since there are some counterexamples. Steph Curry sure seems like a decent person. He doesn’t seem like he’s sociopathically competitive. But maybe he does it for branding reasons. Kevin Durant is covered in tattoos, but he wears a body sleeve so you can’t see them. I think there are ways to wear cultural body sleeves when you’re in public so that people don’t see the part of you that you don’t want them to see. But in my experience, they are these world-class engines and you know what world-class engines create? World-class exhaust.

It’s really an argument to look at famous, ultra-successful people as human beings.

It’s either look at them as human beings or look at them as extra-extra-special human beings and lower your expectations for them. But if people just had normal expectations for somebody like Ellen, then they wouldn’t have to worry about “Is she nice?” all the time. “Is she demanding? Can her tone be sharp?” Like yeah, you ever be a person? My tone can get sharp picking up a coffee. The thing about these people and these jobs is these are really high-stress jobs. You know, no one would mind if a fighter pilot was a little snippy.  

Muhammad Ali is a good example. He was totally marginalized in society, he’s not allowed to box for three or four years. So America punishes him, and then when they’re done punishing him, they’re like, “Better smile, Muhammed!”

Having said that, I expect Ellen and Dave and Mulaney and all the people that I mentioned in the special to be decent. They are all decent people. And also (Bill) Burr is a decent person and he yells at me. But Bill Burr will yell at me and then he’ll do a joke that I cannot believe how funny it is, and it’s like, well, that's a pretty even trade-off to me. If somebody like Ellen is snotty backstage and then she goes on stage and is pure charisma for an hour and it’s fun and funny and she dances, I would say that’s a pretty good exchange rate.

Kind is easy. There are a lot of people who are just kind. But as funny as Ellen? Keep looking. 

I’m not excusing any of the behavior of people who do offensive things, but I will not sit by and watch the audience act like they’re incensed by the fact that these people are at the least complicated and at worst sometimes criminal. I’m not saying it takes a criminal to be any of these people. But these are not normal people doing a normal job. So stop this immature thing of, “Yeah but is she also nice?” 

She’s nice to you! Turn on your TV. The way you’re gonna see her, she’s nice.


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