Neal Brennan’s new Netflix special 3 Mics begins with a silent explanation. The stage will have three microphones on it. The one all the way to the left is for one-liners. The one in the middle is for “emotional stuff.” And the one on the right is for straight stand-up comedy.
He starts with a one-liner: “I’m vegan, but I’m a hypocrite about it. Like I wear leather and I eat meat.”
Over the course of the next hour, Brennan, best known as the co-creator with Dave Chappelle of the wildly influential and tragically short-lived Chappelle’s Show, uses the three mics to deliver three very different styles of comedy, including material about his father’s death that somehow manages to be equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious.
It’s an idea that he first tried out a few years ago onstage at The Meltdown, an alt-comedy space in the back of a Los Angeles comic-book store, and later turned into what can only be described as a one-man show that ran Off-Broadway early last year.
But Brennan prefers to characterize the Netflix version of 3 Mics, which begins streaming today, as a comedy special, because, as he puts it, “the term ‘one-man show’ is embarrassing.”
Calling The Daily Beast from his home in Los Angeles, Brennan talks about finding the balance between laughter and depression, helping Trevor Noah make The Daily Show his own, and Chappelle’s big comeback—including the possibility of a Chappelle’s Show revival.
How did you come up with the idea for the three mics and the three different areas of the stage? How did that all start?
It started with Twitter. Because I would have these one-liners and you couldn’t really build a joke around them. So I thought two mics would be cool and then I would do podcasts and I would talk about real stuff and people who go, ‘Man, that stuff was amazing.’ And then I would listen to the Moth podcast and I felt like there was a way to do all of them in one thing. I tried it on that show The Meltdown on Comedy Central, a very truncated version of it, and got the feeling like this could work in a larger way. The worry is—obviously, mic one and three are pretty similar. But if the middle mic, if the emotional mic was too crazy for people—if it’s too schizophrenic—then it wouldn’t work. And it got to the point that during the show, people would tell me, you’d be on one mic and I’d be looking forward to another mic. People could use a little more joking, and then when I was joking they’d be like, this joke is a little glib, do you have anything a little more heartfelt?
There’s maybe not pressure to make some of the more emotional stuff funny, but do you find yourself, when you’re tackling these darker moments, whether it’s depression or the stuff with your father, thinking about what’s funny about it while it’s happening? Or does that really not come until later?
The biggest laugh with depression is probably the joke about black dudes saying, “You don’t give a fuck” and me saying it’s because I’m sad. And I literally remember the moment when someone said that and wanting say, well, that’s because I have clinical depression. As it was happening, it was just a regular interaction with a dude, but when you look back on it, it’s like, well I know why he said that, because my affect is so bizarre.
I assume that after taping this special, you’ve continued to do shorter sets in smaller venues. Has doing this special changed how you approach that stuff?
Well, now I worry—what’s my next move? My jokes manifest in the same way, which is just making an observation and then building it up. So, I want people to like this, but I don’t have a sequel. In terms of writing, I still am basically a comedian. I’m still the stand-up mic guy. If there’s anything to take advantage of after this, I won’t know how to do it.
I also want to ask you about your role on The Daily Show. It’s obviously very behind-the-scenes, but how did that come about and what is your role there?
Trevor [Noah] is a buddy of mine and has been a friend of mine for four or five years. He had me on to promote 3 Mics when I was doing it live and I really appreciated that. Then he had me do a correspondent piece, which was fun. He was like, do you think you would ever come and consult every once in a while? And I was like, yeah, because, if I like people, I like working with them. I know how hard it is to do a show. So like a week a month, I’ll go in and write. It’s also a macro thing of helping Trevor make it into the show he wants, where I can help him with a) telling him what I think works and doesn’t, and b) if he wants to do a certain kind of piece, telling him the best way to build an infrastructure to do that kind of piece, from a production point of view.
Were there any big observations or advice that you gave him when you first came in as a consultant?
It’s what I call the secret show. In a perfect world, no parameters, what is the show? Chappelle’s Show was basically a joke dispenser or a voice dispenser. We built the show to be able to execute ideas that Dave or I had. We built this really good machine, so it’s basically encouraging [Noah] to do the same thing. I think the show is getting better, for sure. Look, he was in a really difficult position, which was make a show with a writing staff that was hired for another person.
Yeah, that’s really hard.
I know! Which no one appreciates. It’s an amazing staff for Jon [Stewart]. Then making it an amazing staff that can write the sorts of jokes that [Noah] is good at telling and that feel right coming out of his voice is really hard. They’re all amazing. It’s a fucking hilarious group of people. It’s like songwriters. Just because someone can write for Justin Timberlake doesn’t mean they can write for The Weeknd.
You mentioned Dave Chappelle, and I want to know from you what it’s been like to watch his return back into the public eye that he’s had over this past year, whether it’s hosting SNL or playing games with first lady Michelle Obama on Jimmy Fallon’s show?
I’m happy for him. You know, I worked on SNL with him and I’ve always been an advocate for like, dude, you’ve got to get out and let it rip. There’s truly no bigger Dave Chappelle fan than me. I think a world in which Dave is a voice—he’s a really great addition to the culture. He’s a hilarious guy and a one-in-a-billion comedian.
There was definitely a hunger for him to return around when he hosted SNL, especially since it was right after the election.
Yeah, it was that week, and what was funny was when he came out for his monologue I was watching the monitor with Chris Rock and Dave gets a standing ovation. Rock goes, “Been here 30 years, never seen that.” We shot that Walking Dead sketch in the same studio where we shot all the sketches for Chappelle’s Show and it was like no time had passed. It was like it might as well have been the next day. It was the same exact feeling, the same exact level of exhaustion, the same exact level of bickering. It was an identical experience.
Yeah, that’s the thing with the internet now. Comedians are literally working out points of view in the same way that someone who makes ceramics is working out how to make a cup or a bowl. You’re gonna have some duds. There’s no outlet mall for comedians. We’re going to make an irregular shirt every once in a while. Sometimes something will come out and you go, ‘Did I even mean that? I meant it in that millisecond, but do I actually mean that?’ But because of the gossip culture, you’ll get clicks with a story about Dave saying that he didn’t like Hillary. In a weird way, the thing about giving Trump a chance, on SNL, was just as controversial. He was basically slamming Hillary as a career politician, which, to me, there’s nothing so out of bounds about that. So what? That’s his point of view on Hillary Clinton. But it’s this liberal media thing of like, “And… he… said…” Yeah, that’s what he said. But the idea of giving Trump a chance, I don’t agree with that at all. But that’s the great thing about Earth, is we all get to have our individual point of view. He didn’t follow the prescribed script, so therefore he gets written up. He got cultural demerits.
Did returning to that stage make you want to bring Chappelle’s Show back? What do you think the chances are of some kind of revival?
Incredibly slim. First of all, I’m one of those people—I don’t even believe in revivals. I don’t go to see reunion tours. Emotionally, what the show meant is sort of done. I’m not saying Dave shouldn’t do a sketch show again, but the people we were back then are… I don’t feel a burning desire to do a show like that with him. And it’s so hard that you need a burning desire. But it was a perfect amount of time; it was really fun, working in the SNL framework. As a longtime fan of the show, it was fun to work with Lorne [Michaels] and it was fun to work with Michael Che and Colin Jost and Chris [Rock]. You always wonder, could I write an SNL sketch? Could I write a sketch where people are just like entering and exiting? So it was fun to write that Election Night sketch. You wonder, because we did so many pre-taped sketches so it was fun to answer the question: I can do that, but can I do that?
Well, I’m sure the fans of Chappelle’s Show would be more into the revival than you guys are, but that’s probably how it always is.
Yeah. I would say, like, if there was a desperate need for money, it would be likely. But you saw the deal Dave made with Netflix? I think money is good. It’s funny, he turned down $50 million, but it all came back around, didn’t it?