Neal Brennan puts his ego on the line each Sunday for his residency showcase
By Tyler Davidson
Neal Brennan is well-traveled in the world of comedy.
Among dozens of other acting and writing projects, Brennan co-created the pop culture phenomenon “Chappelle’s Show,” directed a string of “Inside Amy Schumer” episodes and co-wrote “Half Baked.”
The desire to keep pushing the boundaries of his art — and to do it a little closer to his Venice home — compelled Brennan to take up a Sunday night showcase residency at M.i.’s Westside Comedy Theater.
Nearly four years later, Neal Brennan and Friends is one of the local laugh scene’s biggest draws.
Developed as a proving ground for new material that would give him instant feedback, Brennan still takes risks and learns the hard way that even a veteran can sometimes overreach.
“You can only be so smart in comedy to get a disparate group of people to laugh,” he concedes. “Maybe three weeks ago, I started a joke by saying, ‘So, are you guys familiar with the Milgram Experiment?’ And halfway into it, I’m like, ‘What did I think was gonna happen?’ Like, ‘You’re not familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment?’ They don’t have too many rooms where that joke would work.”
While it still stings when a punchline doesn’t land, the atmosphere on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade is a refreshing change from Tinseltown.
“You know what’s funny? Hollywood kind of hurts my feelings,” says a wry Brennan, who can nonetheless be downright acerbic sometimes. “You’re always getting appraised in Hollywood. I can even tell by the way people drive. The way people stop at the stop sign, I can hear their ambition.”
Inspired by Hannibal Buress’ weekly engagement at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory, Brennan began his local comedy showcase in September 2011.
“There was one night a week I would just not have to drive to Hollywood, so that became [the show],” he says. “And it’s also that I kind of feel like I need pressure to do stuff, so it provides both things.”
The pressure of coming up with new material on a weekly basis isn’t motivating Brennan only; the self-imposed grind extends to friend and fellow comic Kevin Christy, who emcees the show each week.
While the pressure can be uniquely nerve-wracking, says Christy, the weekly deadline has its benefits.
“You don’t have the same amount of time to kind of labor over what you’re writing,” says Christy. “You have to get to the meat of it quickly. So it forces me to be a better editor, knowing that I have to say it really soon.”
Brennan and Christy met six years ago, when Christy’s ex-wife was running comedy shows at the Unknown Theater in Hollywood. She met Brennan after he performed during one of these shows, and seeing in Brennan the same cynical impulses she saw in Christy, an introduction was in order.
“[Neal] found out I was a working actor who didn’t have a day job, and he was like: ‘You have as much free time as me, why don’t we hate things together during the day?’” Christy said.
According to Christy, however, the type of crowd that Neal Brennan and Friends attracts each week is cause for celebration, even for the most curmudgeonly of comics.
“They’re a perfect mix of an alternative show crowd and a Comedy Store crowd,” he says. “They’re a really intelligent crowd, I find, but they’re also fun. They’re not uptight at all. Honestly, our crowds are ideal, especially for trying new stuff.”
The show regularly packs the intimate M.i.’s Westside Comedy Theater, drawing around 75 people at a time. Audiences can anticipate the occasional drop-in performance by one of Brennan’s famous friends, which in the past have included Damon Wayans and Pete Holmes. One Sunday in March, Dave Chappelle took the stage and performed for two hours — a pleasant surprise to say the least for an $8 show.
As crowds have steadily grown over the years, so too have the ego-threatening risks that come with performing brand new content, something Brennan considers the only downside to the show, if he had to name one.
“[When the show started], it would only be 15 or 20 people, which was perfect, because when you bomb with a new joke it doesn’t hurt,” he says. “But now it’s starting to be, like, regularly 50, 60, 70 people, and when a joke doesn’t work, it really stings. You really feel it in your bones.”
The pain of a failed punchline notwithstanding, Brennan maintains that he sees no end to the weekly showcase, at least not for the foreseeable future. Between the convenience of a local show and the quality of the fans it attracts, there’s simply no reason to stop. More than anything, though, it’s a show he can genuinely believe in.
“There aren’t that many shows on the Westside for comedy, and it’s a legitimately good show. And it’s cheap,” he says.
Brennan’s response to success, however, is to dig even deeper.
On Sept. 9, Brennan heads to Lago at the Coronet to perform an experimental three-microphone show that’s already tested well on the road.
Brennan will man all three mics: one for regular standup material; another for one-liners that play well on Twitter but don’t match up with longer bits (for example, “When NWA named themselves, they didn’t need the WA. The N does all the heavy lifting.”); and the third for more serious and intensely personal dialogue about important things.
“Comedians can be pretty astute and entertaining when it comes to things that aren’t funny,” he says. “I found that when I was doing podcasts, people responded to me talking about having depression. … The thing of it is just being vulnerable in a place where you’re supposed to be glib. Chappelle used to say ‘There’s nothing more arresting than watching a person be themselves in public.’”
But punchlines will always have their place.
“The great thing about being a comedian,” says Brennan, “is that for a split second of inspiration, you’re beating life.”
Neal Brennan and Friends continues at 9 p.m. Sundays at M.i.’s Westside Comedy Theater, 323-A Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. $8. Call (310) 451-0850 or visit westsidecomedy.com.
Brennan’s “3 Mics” is at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 9 at Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West L.A. $30. Call (310) 855-0350 or visit largo-la.com for tickets.
Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.