Listen to Episode #26 here:
Emotional Stuff with Neal Brennan
I was almost going to interrupt with that when you said, “Actor.”
You’ve done some acting.
I have done some acting, but it’s not anything.
I met you because of your acting. You probably don’t remember this, but it was in 2011 or so. I met you at Just For Laughs at a bar. I recognized you from a scene from Chappelle’s Show from when your head explodes in the white supremacists and we started chatting. You liked Behavioral Economics.
I’m listening to a lecture about it. I’m listening to The Great Courses.
Who’s the guy?
I got it on Audible. I don’t love the guy’s speaking voice but I like the information. It’s interesting. The guy’s name is Scott Huettel. Sorry, Scott, I find you interesting but I find your delivery a bit something. People find me fucking irritating, too. Get in line, Scott.
I read this book, Sapiens.
I’ve literally finished it. It’s fascinating. It could have been boring, and none of it is boring.
It’s beautifully written. I binge-read that book.
I listened to it on tape. I can’t even profess to read anymore.
He didn’t read it.
It’s a Richard Dawkins sounding guy. It was good.
Don’t watch him give a lecture. He’s an Israeli guy. He’s nerdy.
There was something regal about the guy.
He is robust. I underlined sentences in that book and said, “How can I write a sentence like this?” It was incredible. I have a question that I ask everybody right out the gate. What’s fascinating is that most people wait for the question where they say something. What I find is that the more prominent the comedian, the sooner they interrupt.
My reasoning for interrupting, part of it is that I don’t want to be a part of something boring. I’m like, “This is boring. This is just information that’s not entertaining at all.” Inevitably what will happen is, “Put the thing up. Would you mind tweeting?” I tweet about it and then someone who likes me goes to it and say, “I’m bored,” so I got in there and spruced it up a little bit for you.
I have other hypotheses about it.
I’m sure they’re far more insulting than mine.
The issue is that comedy plays on misbehavior. Comedians tend to break the rules. They break social norms, linguistic norms, and so on. The most prominent comedians, the most accomplished ones do that well. They do it better than the less accomplished comedians. It purveys other parts of their life.
I also think that it has to do with the more prominent you are, the more of these you’ve done, the more you’re used to it you are, the more you want to mess up the hair of the interviewer.
It’s class-clowny in some ways. We were chatting about Jimmy Carr and our mutual admiration of him. He starts asking me questions right out of the gate. The thing is this guy is an inquisitive guy. He’s like, “I’ve got a chance to talk to this professor. I’m going to get what I can out of this too,” because he knows what he wants to say.
He knows what his thoughts are. He wants some more information. I find myself doing that a lot. I’ll be on dates or dinner parties with people and go, “I feel like this is an interview. I don’t know what to tell you.” One person got offended, the ring announcer, Michael Buffer, “Let’s get ready to the rumble.” I had a dinner party with him and I had a lot of questions for Michael Buffer. I hit him. I went too far with asking about his first marriage, what happened. He was a bit like, “That guy, Neal, had a lot of questions,” which made me laugh. I’m not shy about asking people questions if I’m curious, but I don’t even know what the premise of this is.
We’re doing it. We’re talking about your life.
I know, and I still don’t know what the premise is. It’s a litmus test and then you tell me I failed.
This is a secondhand story, but basically, someone was saying there was a panel, and these were all people in entertainment. The moderator was like, “What are you up to?” and all the people in the panel are like, “I’m working on this thing,” and then the most accomplished person on the panel was like, “I’m kicking around a few ideas.” Three weeks later, some huge thing drops. It’s the same as when I was a little younger and all this stuff was new, I was eager to show off and be like, “I do these things and all this stuff.” Now, I don’t want to talk about it. Did that happen to you?
I had a moment of those because I noticed myself doing it. Literally, I was in Vancouver and had dinner with a girlfriend of mine and we’re walking past one of those legal weed places. I was like, “I haven’t smoked weed since we were shooting Half Baked.” That’s twenty years ago. We’ve got weed, smoked it, and at no point did I say, “I wrote Half Baked.” I thought I was going to. I thought I’ll go, “I contributed to weed culture.” A year, two or three ago, I’m almost sure I would have said something. As of last Thursday, I’m now officially secure, Peter. I’ve kicked around a few weed ideas. I did see that as a turning point. The other thing you realize about anything self-congratulatory is it will be used against you. Anytime someone compliments me on Twitter, Instagram or DMs me, I say, “Thank you.” There’s a beep and then they ask for a favor. It happens in person also. Now it’s to the point where I’m like, “I don’t want to even bring it up,” because then somebody will.
It has to do a little bit with when it comes to certain careers. Early on in your career, you’re saying yes to everything. You have all this outbound stuff. You’re the one asking favors and you’re the one who’s doing all this stuff. At some point, if you’re lucky, you work hard, that switches.
It shifts pretty quickly though. I thought it shifts pretty quickly. I found that Half Baked and then from that point on, it has been incoming. Anything I would say to people, it’s rude but also true, which is, “I didn’t move out here to do your ideas.”
Do you say that to them?
Yes. I’m like, “I don’t want to do your idea,” because they’ve been told that, “If you get access to somebody, don’t let that go away. People are always looking for ideas.” I was like, “No, I don’t. No, I’m not.”
The thing I always hear is, “Let’s attach some talent to this idea.”
The thing they still try to do with me is they try to Trojan horse it where they’ll go, “You’re going to do it,” and then I go, “Do you think you could get Dave or Chris to do it?” It’s like, “I’m sorry.” I’m like the girl who thinks she’s getting by in her personality and like, “No, I just want to see your boobs,” and Dave and Chris are my boobs or whoever that person connects me to.
For me, it didn’t happen twenty years ago. It’s happening a little bit more now. It’s nice, it’s flattering.
It’s also discomforting because you have to say no to people. I don’t want to be the voice like, “No.” It’s like, “We could have just left this alone,” but now it becomes this ask a thing. I try not to ask people for stuff. I ask as little as I possibly can. There are certain people, like the girl that I smoked weed with was like, “I went and I got my brother tickets to see Trevor Noah.” In the end, I was like, “Don’t buy tickets for Trevor.” There are certain people I’m so close with. The fact that someone I know bought tickets to see them is so insane. It’s like, “You can’t do that.” That’s the only thing that I’ll offer. “If you want to go see Dave.” My sister is not going to pay to see Chappelle or Chris or Schumer. There’s a list of people that are like, “No, you will not pay,” because I am really legitimately close with those.The bigger and more accepted the thing, the more iron-willed you need to be. Click To Tweet
With my friends, I find I ask a lot but I also feel I offer a lot in that way.
Would this be a friend asking, doing this?
I start to feel bad when it gets out of whack. I’ve known you for seven, eight years. I’ve asked you for many more things than you’ve ever asked me. Probably the only ask that I ever had that I feel as bad about is you got me Clipper tickets once from Blake. It was fun. I appreciate it. I can’t remember how it came about, but we’re both NBA guys.
I asked Blake Griffin for tickets twice for myself, one of them being you. I saw Charles Barkley do an interview a long time ago where he said the reason him and Michael Jordan are friends is that he’s never asked him for anything. It’s an understanding. I try to not ask people for stuff, but then there’s also the thing of Blake who had four tickets of the game. It’s a simple text. I don’t like going to games outside of New York. Getting there and parking and all that stuff is not worth it to me. Whereas in New York you can just take the train, so I like going to Knicks games.
I told a buddy about it, he flew in for the game. It was fun. What I did recently was I’ve largely given up watching sports. The NBA is the last one. It’s not even the NBA as much as it is the NBA playoffs and LeBron.
I’ve watched Tiger Woods, I don’t watch golf. I grew up with golf. My brother caddied on the tour. I quit playing because I wasn’t getting any better. It’s not interesting to me at all, but I do find Tiger Woods compelling enough to watch. The NBA, especially the playoffs, I like the league. I like the guys. I like the culture of it.
It’s easy to follow. It’s a soap opera for men. That’s how I feel about it. I’m not going to elevate it as anything special.
It is meaningless. The divisions and the conferences are completely made up. There’s no like, “The Eastern Conference is sharing information,” it’s not like the Axis and the Allies. It’s just a bunch of random cities like, “Who has enough population?” You get it to you. There’s nothing beyond money.
I want to ask you a question about Sapiens.
It’s probably my greatest work. Go ahead.
The major premise in there is that what differentiates Homo sapiens from other animals is their ability to have imagination, to believe fictions. You start thinking about the world as a series of agreed upon fictions.
I lost a lot of them reading the book. That was the final nail in the coffin. A friend of mine, Charlie Murphy, died. Between him dying and Garry Shandling dying, and weirdly Brad Grey, who I did not know but was Garry Shandling’s manager. They ended up suing each other famously. It’s in Judd’s documentary that’s on HBO. It’s quite good. They sued each other for millions of dollars and hired Anthony Pellicano, a private investigator, tapping Garry’s phone. It’s like awful shit. Garry died, and then a year later Brad Grey died. My first thought was, “That was a waste of time,” the fact that these guys were tied up in court for 10% of their adult life. Vitriol and cortisol were flowing through their veins, which is bad for your health. Charlie died and my thought was, “I hope he had fun.” The only thing that matters to me now is the first-person experience. Legacy is hogwash to me, even any religion. I’ve been shaky at best in religion for the last decade. Reading Sapiens was like, “It’s official. It’s nothing.”
He’s judgy about a lot of things. He’s judgy about how we treat other species. My guess is the man’s a vegetarian.
I’m vegan, so I was right there with him.
The language he would use is that we enslave animals.
Dan Cronin, who now writes for Conan, I remember he did a joke probably fifteen years ago. He said, “What did chickens do to us? Making rings out of them, manipulating them and torturing them.” I was like, “I don’t love it that much. It’s not worth whatever award I get for the price that chicken has to pay.” A.) I just don’t like meat that much and then B.) What it does to the environment to me is not close. I like technology more than I like meat. I’m fucking up the environment with flying on airplanes and lithium batteries. I’m picking my poison. You also realize the older you get, it’s mitigating hypocrisy. How much internal hypocrisy can I live with on a day-to-day basis? How much can I accept in myself? In order to live with yourself, how much bullshit can I be conscious of that I’m participating in? More negative outcomes for other people, negative experiences.
My thing often, and this comes up with politics a lot is like, “I want to enjoy my life.” The more I get caught up in these things that I cannot control, clearly the less I’m enjoying my life. I don’t want to walk around pissed off all the time.
That’s the world, particularly the internet world. I had a thought and I’m going to try to write a joke about it. When Twitter started, it was a bunch of people writing about their lunch. Now, every single tweet is a knife fight. I’m thinking like, “I wish people would go back to that lunch. I long for the days of people tweeting about their sandwich.”
I’m losing interest because it’s become a dark place. Twitter used to be a fun, playful place. I get it. People think you’ve got to pick a side. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” I want to ask you about your process a little bit. You’re a big joke writer.
I tried. That to me is the job. The most successful comedians ever were all the most prolific. It’s an absolute direct correlation.
How much do you cultivate this as a practice? How much of it is part of your life?
I have a show that I do every Tuesday in Santa Monica that you’ve come to. I don’t have a minimum, but I feel guilty if I don’t have new jokes. I have to do new jokes.
Will you try this knife fight joke?
If I can formulate it. If I can get it into shape.
What does that mean?
I need to make it fun and put in things that will cue laughter. I already had a joke about how we’re so overstimulated. I’ll find myself with my computer open, my TV on, looking at my phone and the joke is, “I’m not quite stimulated enough. I think need to bring in someone to tickle my feet.” How much more input could I have? The idea of torture, I have that, that I didn’t have enough to go with it. I had a tickle on my face, tickle my feet.
Some other stimulating things that might be punchier.
Tickle my feet’s funny though, because it is about the same level. Also the tickle is funny too. Bringing someone in to tickle my feet. It’s like I called the company. There are enough things to go on that. Tying it to that, so much of it’s so toxic. It’s having such a detrimental effect on the country. It’s the first time I’ve gone, “I might have to get out of here.” I’m not like, “It’s not my country anymore.” It’s like, “It is. It’s just a bad scene,” and it’s not going to get better. Michelle Wolf’s the host of the Correspondents’ Dinner and she’d sent me her jokes in it. We were talking about all that stuff. Part of what happened was we were fed Cold War propaganda for 30 years or 40 years or whatever. That basically ended in the early ‘90s, then Fox News starts in the mid-‘90s. Republicans officially trust Russians more than they trust Democrats. It’s like, “It’s because you just changed your diet. You just changed to constantly railing against that side instead of this other thing.” It was like, “I just need a new enemy.”
It is interesting to have predicted that the narrative would be that the Russians aren’t so bad and the FBI is to be distrusted. That’s a fascinating place to be.
I’ve always hated conspiracy theories. I thought they were so dumb and they’re based on scant information, at best, unreliable information and hearsay rumor. You go, “There’s something anti-authoritarian about it because I got it from not the mainstream source.” It’s like, “That’s a mainstream faucet. That’s where life is, in the mainstream.” If you know about news organizations, they have editorial boards, they have a triple source. They have systems in place to self-regulate. They’re not perfect, but people are using their imperfections as the ad homonym knockout punch. Everything’s aligned. It’s like, “No, they were manipulated by the Bush administration.” Whatever your belief is.
Until pretty recently there were decent checks on this stuff too. I want to get back to this writing joke idea. I’m interested in a particular part of joke writing. You had mentioned Chris Rock. I watched his special. This is terrible for me because I enjoy stand-up comedy less now as an emotional experience. The fun part of it is to see what someone’s doing.
I exec produced the special.
I didn’t know that.
I gave input and a bit of shape to it.
Clearly, I didn’t do my homework.
How could you?Dopamine only spikes when something exceeds your expectations, so you have to lower your expectations. Click To Tweet
He uses reversals a lot in that thing. One of my favorite bits is he talks about taking his daughter to school and they have a strict anti-bullying policy. He said, “I immediately want to take my kid out of this school.” His point is we need both bullies. It’s a reversal of what everybody says, “Bullies are bad.” He said, “Bullies are good,” he gets laughs, makes an interesting point. It’s a great bit in that way. That’s comedy 101. If you were to take a class, they must tell you to work on it.
It’s hard. The bigger and more accepted the thing, the more iron-willed you need to be.
Do you have jokes that play on that?
I don’t really have. I guess I would be more like solutions and or my thing about we got to fuck our way out of racism.
Do you pick a big problem?
That’s not even something I think about. Solutions and/or illuminating things via metaphor, like the thing about someone having the Confederate flag and the American flag on their truck or having two tattoos that say, “This is how much I love Jeff and this is the time I tried to leave Jeff.” That’s more my thing if I had to pick. Reversals, there are a few guys who do that really well. They’re all great comedians. Chris is one, Bill is one and Carlin is one, Jim Jefferies maybe the best at it. Jim is so god damn good.
I saw him at JFL a few years ago and I was like, “This is amazing.”
He’s an amazing comedian. Mulaney doesn’t really do reversals, but he’s great. Louis, a little bit, Dave a little bit, less so. Dave and Louis tend to go more absurdist. The prototypical Chappelle joke is the thing about defending the joke he did about the AIDS monkey twenty years ago or eighteen years ago, where he was like, “He didn’t get it from a monkey. No one fucks monkeys and people.” He’s basically defending the monkey’s honor against white people. He’ll take on anyone white people are assailing. There’s an old bumper sticker that I always said that applied to him, which is like, “I’m a fan of UCLA and anyone who’s playing USC.” Dave’s like that. He’s a fan of black people and anyone who’s playing white people. That’s a gross oversimplification. Bill Burr is more of a status quo guy. He doesn’t like anything accepted by the status quo.
Chris believes in jungle rules. He believes we’re close to absolute incivility at every moment. I’ve sent him the Thomas Hobbes quote, I’m like, “You’re Thomas Hobbes. Life is brutish and short.” He’s the modern Thomas Hobbes because living in a horrible neighborhood makes you see the horrible behavior. Seeing the way white people treat black people, you go, “This is crazy. This is a crazy world and white people treat black people, in general, with such brutal incivility,” and it’s just based on, “I don’t like your skin color. Your skin color inherently scares me.” I’m working backward from that trend to justify that behavior and trying to say it’s all these other things. It’s basically this jungle thing of, “Your skin color scares me. It’s so different than mine. I’m finding it impossible to overcome.”
Whenever I’m trying to explain human behavior, I always try to think about it in terms of associations. That’s what we’re good at. We don’t have that much knowledge but we’re good at making associations, sometimes too good at it.
I just call it pattern recognition. It’s the same thing. I did Comedians In Cars and I was talking to Jerry about pattern recognition. I go, “There are about 50 kinds of people and at a certain age you’ve met all of them.” He goes, “50? Try five.”
That’s not a bad impression.
I didn’t even really put anything into it. I was flatfooted. Comedians are especially good at pattern recognition, I find.
I’ve been using reversals as a case study. You talked about other ways to do it, things like exaggeration or being defensive. Bill Burr defends a lot of things that seem indefensible.
It’s because he hates the status quo. He yelled at me one time in public because I used my frequent flyer miles and he’s like, “They’re trying to spy on you. Don’t you know? I pay first class and I don’t get the points.” He was screaming because he hates civilization. It’s the Groucho thing of whatever it is, I’m against it. Groucho Marx has a song, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” It’s on my iPod. It is the comedy ethos of, “That’s just what we do. We don’t like the agreed to the thing.”Why do you care what people say when you're gone? Click To Tweet
People naturally do this. You pick these things up, and then others will try to cultivate it. I’ve talked to comedians who go, “Whenever I find a fact, I try to see if I can mislead the audience with a fact,” and does it in an almost routine way versus someone who finds a premise, thinks that it’s funny, has some potential, and then works it through but doesn’t have a system by which they would describe that.
What I was going to say about that joke earlier, the thing about going on Twitter and it used to be about people’s lunch, what I need to do is a long run. The ad hoc structure in my head will be a long run of chaos and then followed by, “I wish someone posts a picture of their lunch. I miss lunch.” That seems it could be an effective structure. That might happen more in terms of my process. That probably happens more than anything else where I’ll have a thought and I’ll figure out the best joke structure for that thought.
You decided, “This is likely to be the punch. How can I get to that?” The thing that used to be so annoying about Twitter becomes the thing that you missed.
Jon Stewart, I saw him do a joke about the LA riots. Literally, this is how old I am. There were marches in other cities. He was marching in New York and they started in Times Square and they were like, “Fuck the police, fuck the police,” and it just got crazier and crazier. Jon was at a certain point like, “Where the fuck is the police?” That’s the formula. I have a good brain for remembering jokes I’ve heard.
That’s probably helpful. It keeps you out of trouble too.
I still get into trouble but I’m almost never wrong where I’m like, “I feel like I’ve heard that joke,” and I’m almost always right.
I’m a big fan of Chris Rock and he’s on top of my mind because I just watched the special that you executive produced. I came across something on YouTube. I thought it was fascinating where he got bussed to this white school. He didn’t fit in there, but he also didn’t seem to fit in at home. He was too much of a nerd and so on. He has some funny joke about how bad his neighborhood was. They have a burned down McDonald’s.
He said that to me one time. It’s not they burned it down, it couldn’t stay open. It was too poor of a neighborhood to sustain a McDonald’s, which is unthinkable. He has stories like that where I’m like, “You have to talk about that,” and he’ll be like, “Maybe in an interview or something.” He tried to open with it on the special but it wasn’t formatted. It also seems impossible.
When I heard that joke, I was alone and it was a classically mixed emotion. I laughed out loud and I felt terrible.
Did it get a laugh? He did it on a talk show.
He did it in an interview.
He said things to me on the phone. This is a classic. This is my point of view versus his suspicious of everything point of view. We talk a lot. He’s the only person who calls me on the phone and he likes talking bits out. I’ve got to admit, I find it helpful too for a talk show. We were talking about race one time and he said something amazing and I go, “I wish I could record these conversations,” and he goes, “Why, so you can sell them?” I’m like, “No, you fucking paranoid maniac.” I don’t even know if that’s black paranoia, famous paranoia, I don’t know what, but it’s this fucking paranoia of like “No, so I can help white people understand fucking racism. You fucking maniac.”
As an aside, I love making phone calls. I still talk on the phone.
Chris’ thing is like, “You’ve got to talk to women on the phone because the voice is a big part of the attraction,” and he’s right. I’d like FaceTime. FaceTime’s are good especially if you meet someone on Tinder, one of the apps, just to see what’s there, how’s their energy, what are they actually like? It’s not like being in person, but it’s way closer than texting.
I have five friends. I call them all the time. When I hop in the car, I call the first one. If he can’t talk, I call this other one. When I have girlfriends, even if they’re not big into the phone, I can get them into it.
It’s pretty easy to get women into it because it is direct.
You are much more present on the phone.
They’re into that thing.
I want to talk to you briefly about 3 Mics. That felt fresh to me. It was different. You talk about being a joke writer, but that wasn’t all about jokes.
3 Mics had a lot of origins, but one of the origins was explaining to people why I’m not more likable. That’s the truth.What I’ve been able to do is see what I value because the culture values are all about work, make money, buy things. Click To Tweet
Is that where it came from?
It was just like, “I wish it’s because I read so cold and harsh,” and it’s like, “Do you want to know why? Here’s why.” Here’s my emotional life laid out for you in a relatively organized way, the same way my sociological observations are laid out in my stand-up. I’m saying, “Here’s what I’m like.” I also know that there are certain guys, the guys that I’ve listed earlier, who are faster than me. Literally, if we’re in a sprint, they’re faster. I’ve written jokes with Chris. The best example of Chris being like, “You can run really fast,” I had a joke that I was doing in my act, a throwaway line that Biggie and Tupac were alive. They would both be playing detectives on Law And Order. It’s a good observation, it was funny.
Chris had a joke in Top Five and he’d never seen mine where he said, “If Tupac was alive, he’d be in a Tyler Perry movie kicking Jill Scott down the steps.” That is so much funnier. My jokes are 80% there. He just got the extra 20%. That’s one of the things I’m like, “What am I going to do?” LeBron’s the best and then there are guys like KD who is close, there are guys that are close, then it’s like, “I’m not going to be the highest scorer, so I need to play defense and set good picks.” Chris D’Elia had said something nice about 3 Mics where he was like, “Only you could have done it, directing it.” I’ve also seen friends of mine produced their ways into better careers. They’re decent performance, but they find an angle and they drill the shit out of that angle.
Seth Meyers is the best example. He wasn’t the best in performing. On his cast, he was the fifth most likable person behind Wiig and Poehler, these real hall of famers. Sudeikis, Hader, Fred, and Keenan are fucking really good people. He was like, “I can write my ass off. Let me become the head writer.” He leveraged head writing into being Update and doing Update really well, and then the Correspondents’ Dinner. When he did the Correspondents’ Dinner, he got me, Mulaney, Baze and got the best team and produced his way into success, which doesn’t say like, “Me, Mulaney and Baze did that,” that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying he figured out what his scale was and did it hard. I have a different thing. Let me do the thing that I’m most afraid of doing, which is saying I’m a star, saying these things on stage, or saying I was hiding behind it. What are you going to say? In some ways, it’s the Eminem, Roxanne taking your criticism and doing it myself. Chris is funnier than me. There are guys that are funnier than man and it’s like, “You can’t think about comedy in a more dimensional way than me.”
This happens in academia too. I had to do this dinner at this conference. I’d look around the table and everybody at this table is at a better school and had a better upbringing. I’m not supposed to be at that table.
I don’t think anyone thinks they’re supposed to be where they are. It’s like LeBron always says, “I’m not even supposed to be here.” Your 6’10”, 260 pounds, where else should you be, washing dishes? I know what he means, but you’re a one-in-a-billion physical freak.
I go, “I need to find a different way to do this.” If I tried to replicate what you guys do, I’m going to do this well.
I’m sure the ghost of Malcolm Gladwell hangs over every academic book in the world in terms of popularity, writing, ideas, simplification and mass market storytelling. You’ve got to figure out what’s your version of that.
In 3 Mics, you were really quite vulnerable in that. That was really honest. On mic three you’re telling jokes.
Not everybody’s funny but there are a lot of good comedians, legitimately from the guys I named, and I didn’t even mention Gaffigan, Tom Papa, Dave Attell, Gary Gulman. Everyone’s funny now. Now what? What else are you? I know you’re funny. I can get a good 45 minutes of stand-up from anybody. Not anybody but 30 people. How many people can produce a show and be vulnerable? It’s also using the bug as a feature. I swift boated myself. What are you going to say? That I’m a flat performer? That I’m not dynamic? That I don’t seem that happy or explosive on stage? I’m not Kevin Hart. Kevin Hart’s a fucking amazing performer and a really funny dude but he doesn’t get enough credit for being funny. Let me explain why and let me let you in. As Chappelle says, “The fans you’ve been on 3 Mics will literally be your fans forever because they know you. They know you in a way that they did not know you before.” It was able to get Seinfeld and I was sure Jerry wouldn’t like it, positive, because it’s not really stand-up. He was like, “No one had ever done anything else.” I was like, “I know and that’s what’s great about it.” I don’t think you asked the question before I big time you.
Was it good for you? You were saying how it was good for you for an audience. Was it good for you for you?
It was good. I’ll tell you how it was good for me. It was good for me in that it gave me a level of success, a type of success, the solo success that I’d never had before. You’re going to like this, I have good news. I have a funny Chris Rock story for you and it involves me. It’s very insulting, and it’s funny. The Off-Broadway opening of 3 Mics, the audience that night was Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, John Legend, and a few other famous people I’m probably forgetting. The big ones were Dave and Chris.If you're not talented, the only thing you can succeed at is manual labor. Click To Tweet
Does that make you nervous?
Yes and no. Dave reads warm in our relationship. Chris is like in Shine, the guy who’s telling me to play the Rach 3 over and over. He’s the hard-driving like, “Again.” Afterward, there’s a photo line and me, Dave, and Chris got our picture taken together. We walked away and somebody comes over and goes, “Neal, the photographers would want a picture of you by yourself.” Rock goes, “For the first time in your life,” which is so goddamn funny. Like many things Chris says, it’s also very true. It gave me solo success, that and writing for Saturday Night Live the week Dave hosted. My knock on myself was that I could write single-camera sketches but not multi-cameras sketches. That’s how thin I was slicing myself.
It’s all single-cam. How many cameras? We need a sketch writer. How many cameras have we got? I pop the sketch where they’re all watching the election results come in and Dave and Chris are in it. I and Colin Jost wrote it, a great sketch. I was like, “I can’t write multi-cam.” I can write multi-cam and I am a viable contributor to comedy. I was still worried about that in 2016, be that as it may, I was. Having the success with 3 Mics and successfully writing on Saturday Night Live my first week ever, Lorne was super gracious about it. We produced the show together that week. I picked sketches, I arranged sketches. In the end, it came down to 1250 and I was like, “What’s next?” and he’s like, “What do you think?” It’s pretty great.
It filled me up in a way that the voice in my head lost credibility. The negative voice lost credibility. The single-camera people lost credibility and it also made me realize the dumbest thing in the world, that external success is largely hollow. I shouldn’t say it didn’t have any change because it did, but it changed my interior. It was clarifying for my interior life. It wasn’t like, “Now I ride in limos.” I’m less insecure and that has a good bearing on my day-to-day life. What do I value? It allowed me to go, “Now I’ve done three things in comedy that I really wanted to do, which is a great special. I did a great sketch show before, and then whatever the SNL part was fortifying.” Now I can go, “What do I want my life to be?” If that makes sense, like, “Now, what do I want?”
Is this interacting with Charlie Murphy’s death and everything?
Yes, hugely. The thing I said to Dave on the way to the funeral, it’s so macabre but I go, “Charlie’s mud now. Shakespeare is mud. George Washington is mud. Before I become mud, what do I want this form of me to experience?” Ultimately, all I want to experience is serotonin. Honestly, that’s the truth. I just want good experiences and without being a libertine and like, “I fucked different girls,” it’s not one of those things. I want to have good feelings in my body, which speaks to the Sapiens thing, “That’s the only thing that matters.”
He makes a compelling case that we overvalue evolutionary fitness because it’s designed to create quantity, not quality. He rightfully makes the argument.
The idea French peasants might have been happier minute-to-minute because their expectations were so low. I don’t know if he talks about it, it might have been in the behavioral economics thing, the idea you can only move dopamine. Dopamine only spikes when something exceeds your expectations, so you have to lower your expectations. If you want more dopamine, it becomes the hedonic treadmill or chases the dragon.
You have to find a way to fight adaptation. He does a decent job with the well-being stuff, but his point is a strong one about the physiology. He knows biology. It works. We respond to pleasurable things in predictable ways and pleasure, to some degree, makes our lives better. What he misses, and is related to your world and to my world, is the enjoyment from creative tasks.
I’ve recently been like, “I don’t think I want to do a TV show because it’s too hard. The quality of life is awful.” You’re working 70 hours a week. Now, the returns are so diminished because there are so many networks. There are so many shows where I’m like, “You don’t need to make that. I’m never going to see that.” I’m happy you got insurance and you’ve got money and all that stuff but in terms of having a real impact, the impact is so diminished now. I do love writing jokes. I really love writing jokes. That’s the thing that I cannot question. I love being lazy. My dad retired probably in his 60s. He used to sit and watch the stock channel. He said to me at the point, he goes, “I’m a closet-lazy person.” I’ve acted like I wasn’t, but I am and I think I have that.
My thing is now is let’s say hypothetically I had enough money. Now, what do I want to do with my time? I don’t want to be stressed. I want minimal stress. I don’t want to live in Bali and run a surf shack, that doesn’t interest me. I like being mentally-stimulated and I’m trying to be less competitive in terms of less jealous and less petty because it doesn’t mean anything. The other thing that I liked about Sapiens that I pointed out, and I keep not letting you get to a point, it’s my gift. If you’re a five out of ten on the happiness scale, whether you win a lottery or being a paraplegic, set point thing, you’re going to go back to a five more or less.
Where are you?
I’m probably around five.
I feel that’s something you’ve said to me before. You’re like, “I’m not that happy a person.”
No, and also accepting that about myself. Accepting that about myself in some ways playing defense against it. I said to my therapist, “What if I don’t get married? I don’t think that’s for me. I’m too much of a crank.” I don’t like it that much. The rewards aren’t great enough. I’m not especially lonely and the rewards are not that great for the price that I end up paying in a relationship, independence and all that stuff. I am a crank. Rock calls me, “What a crank,” and I go, “Crank.” That’s our life.
He’s like your bullshit detector friend.
The black male bullshit detector is the harshest.
Comedians are already bullshit detectors.
Of white people, he’s already got his knives out.
You could tell the guy cares about you because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t say these things.
We’ve had that argument too. I basically said, “You’re a mean person,” and he was saying, “You’ve got to be mean to people at work. It doesn’t do well to coddle people,” because he cited some Bill Maher joke.The fun part of comedy is that there is a high failure rate. When it's successful, it’s a miracle. Click To Tweet
He does this with his kids.
I hear him with his kids. He’s like, “Hey, beautiful,” everything’s beautiful. He cited some Bill Maher joke about how kids are coddled and then I go, “You act like you did experiments about what the best way to be with people is. The truth is you’re an emotionally stingy motherfucker and you’re working backward from that and acting like it’s the system. No, it embarrasses you to be nice. You have to come out of yourself. You’re leaving yourself vulnerable to attack and you don’t want to do that.” That’s the real reason. It’s not because he’s thought it through and so and so did it to him. Eddie Murphy was nice to Chris. It didn’t make him the worst comedian. I don’t want this to be a referendum on Chris’s personality.
I’m a five. I saw that Mulaney was hosting Saturday Night Live. John’s a close friend of mine and a genuinely great guy, just a really good guy. He’s funny as shit, mean as shit, but also a good person. I was happy in the same way that I was happy I didn’t bring up Half Baked at the weed place, that I wasn’t jealous. That’s great because I thought about what that experience would be like for me, and it felt stressful. Not like I’m trying to minimize my career so I never experienced stress, but I would like to keep my stress level low.
Some of this is about minimizing downsides. The universe is maximizing the upside. I’m going to do a quick lesson for the audience about well-being because it’s relevant to what we’re talking about. The best Theory of Well-Being is called the PERMA Theory. It’s pleasure in the Sapiens way, like nap, sex, good food and alcohol. Engagement, which is what we’ve been alluding to, this flow state comes from being creative. Relationships are connections to family and friends. Meaning is having some purpose in life, curing cancer, whatever that thing might be, raising children. Achievement is succeeding in some challenging way, that might be fame, fortune, building a business, getting a PhD, those kinds of things. The interesting thing about this model, it basically says is that there are multiple ways to live a good life, to live the life that you find to be good for you.
Some people are more achievement-focused and it costs them relationships. Some people are more artistic and are willing to forego pleasures, live in squalor in order to do this. I find that the key ends up being if you’re lucky, you’ll figure out the right path for you. You just keep doing that thing because that’s the right thing for you. What I’ve noticed later in my life is that the engagement part of that PERMA model, the creative part of it. Pleasure, I like too. I enjoy a good nap.
I blanked on it within seconds. The rest of them I can remember.
It’s pleasure, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. In some cases like in our world, the engagement and the achievement are closely connected. The better the jokes you write, the more the audience is happy.
My process is more enjoyable for me that I’m back. It processes for them, which I don’t assume.
It can turn into more success.
I know people that are not funny that love writing jokes and they’re horrible at it.
The big step can be, can I get to the place where I can write for the sake of writing? Not because I have to publish this paper. You can be retired and you might still do it.
Is that place hypothetical or that’s a place that you have been and would like to get back to?
I’ve never been there, but I’d like to get there. Tenure can afford that or having enough success.
You know what else can afford it which is underrated? It’s anger. Can you believe I think anger is in the writers? That’s largely what I do. I’m hunting what I eat, but I got good money. It’s largely elective. I am doing it to feed the monster, the audience, but I’m writing because I get to talk back to the world. I get to this and go like, “No, that’s bullshit. That’s bullshit,” and it comes from a place of anger and it comes from a place of, “You’re insulting my intelligence by saying this repeatedly.” It’s a personal challenge. We’re still saying that it’s like, “Just shut up.” I guess that joke that I did of shooting on college and debt and all that stuff. I opened 3 Mics with it, that’s a good reversal where it’s like, “College is fucking not totally worthless, but pretty close.” Mulaney finished the job in his new special. He has a long bit about giving money to college and what a waste it was in the first place.
Certainly, I feel that that tide turning with the cost of college and then the benefit of it. This issue of anger is an interesting one and it’s related to you talking about the success of 3 Mics. I know as a younger man, not even that long ago, I was highly motivated by anger. I think of it as the Michael Jordan method of success. I’ll show you. I had a good therapist who talked me out of it. I remember crying in his office because I was so scared. I was scared to give it up because I thought I’d lose my edge. I was like, “If I stop using anger, what do I use?” He said, “You do it because you think it’s important to do.” What he helped me realize was that, yes, it may lead to A, achievement, but it’s making my life worse along the way if you fuel yourself with rage. The other thing about it is, and maybe your world is different because you get much more clear feedback. Once I succeeded in life, no one ever came to me and went, “Pete, I always thought you didn’t have what it takes and you showed me.” No one does that because no one gives a shit of.
I’ve had a few people do that. I also did it to somebody else. I said to Donald Glover at the Emmy’s. I go, “I’ve got to be honest with you. I was dead wrong about you.”
That doesn’t happen to my world.
It doesn’t happen in my world either because everyone goes, “What did he say?” He thanked me. It’s because no one ever says I was wrong. I really said, “I thought you were shallow and vain.” Literally, I told him what I thought and he completely dispelled all of it. In the last three years, he’s completely dispelled it. No one ever says, “I was dead wrong,” and I’m not going to sit here and fucking Don King you and go, “I always knew it.” I did not know it. I completely underestimated and I wish more people would do that.
Have people done that with you?
Yes, this guy, Barry Katz, who was a manager and he owned the Boston Comedy Club. I worked the door for him when I was eighteen, nineteen. He was like, “I was sure you weren’t going to succeed.”
That’s a good bet. You could be right 99% of the time betting against everyone.
Rock has a little bit recently, my nemesis, my tutor.
We’ve gone long, which I’m happy to do.
We can keep talking if there’s stuff you feel you want to get.
I have questions I actually prepared. Do you meditate? Tell me about that.
I meditate. I did some Vedic once a day, twenty minutes, for a couple of years. Recently I switched to TM. Most of the studies of what it does for your brainwaves and all that stuff is done on TM. Most of the scientific proof is about TM, so I was like, “Let me do it.” Now I do it twice a day for twenty minutes each. I’ve been doing it for three months or something.
Are you starting to feel the effects?
There’s nothing quantifiable. I will say I need less sleep, which is cool because it does take 40 minutes a day. I also really look forward to it. Seinfeld is a big TM person, he was like, “Nobody’s good. It just works. Don’t worry about it. It’s like gravity. You don’t need to know why.”
The research on this stuff is pretty compelling. I’d let my practice lapse, but I was doing the loving-kindness as a result you.
I felt it, Peter.
Some of it is a matter of knowing where your weaknesses are.
Loving-kindness is one that I need to do. There are people that do TM and then augment it with other practices. Loving-kindness is one of those, it’s like, “Nothing bad is coming from it.”
If you care enough about the animals that you don’t want to eat them, this is how crazy things are with chickens. There’s a famous Harvard Business Review case about how you price goods. Basically, what happens is these pens that you put the chickens in is nothing like their natural environment. These chickens will basically murder each other, peck each other to death. At one point in time, the solution for this was to basically cut their beaks off, which is incredibly painful and it’s debilitating to the chicken. Some smart person, I don’t know how he came up with this, figured out how to create contact lenses for chickens. What it does essentially is it makes it difficult for the chickens to see each other. The entire case is how do you price these contact lenses for chickens? Nowhere in the case is like, “Maybe we should just treat these chickens more in the free range.”
That’s impossible. That’s not even on the table. Maybe if we just stopped doing this.Procrastination is basically a continuation of the basic human need of going away from danger and toward pleasure. Click To Tweet
I didn’t mean to digress, but I thought about you talking about chickens earlier.
I’m vegan mostly because of the human impact. I don’t love animals especially.
The loving-kindness stuff is pretty mind-blowing. It’s empowering if you can do it right because you start with yourself thinking loving, compassionate thoughts about yourself, about the people you care about then people you don’t like and don’t like you, then all beings. This is the progression. You could probably switch all beings and then put the people you don’t like last. Because we’re associative beings, if for twenty minutes a day you think compassionate thoughts about yourself and all those other things, eventually it sticks.
I don’t know what impact the TM is having because it is mantra-based. I literally just sit there and think of a mantra. I think of a mantra over and over and repeat it in my head over and over. I don’t know what that does in terms of brain training. I’m assuming it does something. You find your mind wandering and then you come back to the mantra. I assume that it must have some positive effect on that mechanism in the brain. Watching your thoughts, being aware of your thoughts, and catching yourself and going like, “You don’t have to think about that. You’re not a hostage to your thoughts.”
I don’t know why it works and I’m a psychologist. I should probably read up on what the theory is. I know why loving-kindness works and that’s why I chose it. I also saw it as a better solution for me. There are these three classes of negative emotions that humans deal with, anxiety, anger, and depression. In order, anxiety is the one that gets me. Now that I’ve read Sapiens, I used to call it the monkey mind, now I call it the farmer’s mind. Being vigilant and worried about these things, these threats that may or may not happen, planning all the time, that stuff leads to some success but it also leads to waking 4:30 in the morning.
You can’t control the weather and that’s probably the number one thing that a farmer needs to worry about.
I’ve worked with anger. I’m not a young man anymore. I don’t have as much to be angry about, which is nice.
The idea of a young man having a lot to be angry about is laughable. You’re so far away from death, you stupid motherfucker. What are you mad about?
You’re not getting yours is that right there.
There’s evil, there’s also that we’re addicted to a finite commodity which is sex with women, and it makes you angry. You’re an addict and these people control the flow.
The supply, I guess. That’s interesting. The third one is depression. I am so lucky I do not get depressed. What’s interesting about this set point thing is I never dropped that low. There are its ups and downs, but you eventually go back to wherever it is.
Where do you think you are, six, seven?
Yes, I’m a pretty energetic, pretty feel-good person in that way. I never get down into the threes. Some of that’s genetic. It’s the way I’m wired.
I got to say a lot of it is genetic. My brother, sisters and I all have similar temperaments. There are variations on anger. Somebody will have certain characteristics more, but they’re all the same. It’s all the same deck. Like our parents, my mom is quiet and tries to be happy and my dad was just an angry, cranky dickhead. He didn’t want to have kids and he’s constantly irritated.
Joel Warner and I wrote an article. We did an interview with your background, The Humor Code. We refer to you as a polymath. Do you think that’s true? Do you feel you do enough things well to be called a polymath?
I didn’t know you had to do them well. Based on your question, I’m hearing some suspicion.
It’s hard to be a polymath.
I’m good at standup, I’m good at writing, and I’m good at directing.
Neal, you’re great at writing. I’m being serious.
I agree. I’ve also worked with great people.
When I first met you, I didn’t think you were very good at writing and then you convinced me otherwise.
Thank you. I don’t know how many things I need to be good at?
Five. I’m just guessing.
I don’t know what you need from me.
Can you speak another language?
Can you do math?
This is the whole point earlier is that tends to be overrated.
Where I’ve gotten to thanks to Charlie and Sapiens and all this confluence of things is to the PERMA thing, what difference does it make if I’m good at stand-up, great at stand-up or bad at stand-up? How is that the gauge? It’s all external. Shakespeare didn’t have a better life than someone who couldn’t write like him. If he wasn’t happy, it doesn’t fucking matter.
Being good at stand-up or great at stand-up, it only matters to the degree that your particular path in life coincides with that. If you do care much about achievement, being Top Five or whatever this thing is, then your goodness or greatness matters a lot. If you’re more of an artist type who enjoys the process, then goodness or greatness matters less.
This gets to the next point. The question I’ve been asking myself is, “Why, and then what?” Let’s say I hosted Saturday Night Live, would I get past to five forever? The incriminating thing is doing 3 Mics helped raise my overall mood because I realized the futility of achievement and all that. What does it really mean? I have a joke with a buddy of mine. He’s in a band and he’s like, “I want to be remembered when we’re gone.” The joke I have is, “Amir, that assumes that even in death you’re going to be insecure.” Why do you care what people say when you’re gone?
I understand a genre comedy means a lot to me. I’d like to advance it. I’d like to raise the bar. That is worthwhile, but I’m not going to make my life miserable. It’s like Chris and Dave, as an example, are funnier than me. I can say that empirically. I know that’s true. Therefore, do I have to fucking ruin my life? Does my life suck? They’re not happier than me. Dave is, but Chris isn’t happier than me. That doesn’t mean that their experience of life is better than mine. That’s the thing that I’ve come to which is like, “What are my values in terms of my standards and my ideas about what’s fun and what’s worthwhile?” External ones, I’m a little bit suspect.
Could you have been experimenting with it? It’s not a rigorous experiment but you were like, “If I get here, it will be like this.” You get there and you go, “It’s not as changing as I thought it would be.” Suppose you didn’t get into comedy. Imagine a world where perhaps that you didn’t get the exposure, didn’t end up working at that club, meeting these people and so on and you were doing something else more normal. Do you have the same problems?
When I was fourteen, they used to say I was a little philosopher. I was a kid.
You could have become an academic.
I could have. My thought process is my job. I’ve turned my thought process into my job. You have too. Could I have done something else? There aren’t that many jobs that you can turn your thought process and sell it.
It’s a bit of a boondoggle in some ways. You can get away with sitting, thinking, reading, observing, writing, and puzzling over things and someone will pay you to do that.
That’s what Chris was saying about stand-up. I was like, “We get to walk around like Aristotle.” The fact that people then go, “I need to do that. I need to make my life awful. I’m going to do 22 episodes of the show.” It’s like, “For what?” The thing is to the joke that I have with Amir which is being insecure even in death, no one remembers Pryor and Carlin. Comedians do but it’s as these pillars of, “I should watch him.” Carlin, I lived through largely, so I got to experience it firsthand. The legacy, with this culture, it’s over. The legacy now is three months. I’m not saying everyone quit their job. What I’ve been able to do is see what I value and not take on the culture’s values because the culture values are all about work, make money, buy things.
I’ve been trying to be focused not on adding but on subtracting. Can I make my life better by removing things, not by doing more things?
How is it?
It’s a slow process, but I’m starting to feel the benefits of it because it gives me space.
Is it largely material things, books, packages?I don't want to be a part of something boring. Click To Tweet
Certainly not books, because I have more space I’m reading more books than I ever had before. I’ve never kept books. I don’t have a big shelf of books.
How do you signal people your intelligence level? What are you doing?
I wear my gown around. It’s a slow process, saying no to things. You don’t get the benefit right away. It takes a year because you have fewer obligations and you have to focus more on that stuff. Last two quick questions. What are you reading, watching, or listening to that you think is superb?
Sapiens is great. I watched the Wild Wild Country on Netflix, which was a really good documentary. Frontline on PBS is always in documentaries. I don’t quite listen to as much stuff as I used to. It’s because of podcasts, my music diet is minimal at best. I like music a lot. It’s one of those things I’m like, “I don’t know.” When I get in the car, I would rather fill my brain with ideas in that intervening moment. There are times where I need to not think and I’ll put music on.
If I lived in LA I would listen to more podcasts. You spend more time in the car for longer periods. The last question is what is the secret to success everybody knows, but can’t seem to do?
It’s like diet and exercise, it’s the key to weight loss and the key to success is hard work and persistence. It’s unfortunate because it sucks.
The last interview that I did, this idea of perseverance came up. We were quoting someone we had coffee with who said, “There are no failures in Hollywood, only quitters.” That’s taking that to an extreme.
What’s wrong with Hollywood? There’s a Jerry Seinfeld quote which is, “In Hollywood, the losers never go home.” It’s the argument against your friend’s observation and far more cutting and probably truer. The thing with Hollywood is most people are not talented and no one ever says, “You’re not talented.” A buddy of mine, Nick Stoller, who wrote and directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him To The Greek, and a bunch of stuff. He used to say, “Every day in Hollywood is Christmas Eve because tomorrow is the big day.” Tomorrow, everyone’s going to get the big prize. People drink juice out here, a performance-enhancing drug, they’re trying to optimize their output and like, “If I do the right juice and I’m going to cleanse right now,” it’s like, “You’re not talented. You can do any diet, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to look at your face and you’re not interesting.” There’s nothing you can do about it.
That’s the point about the hard work and perseverance, that it’s conditioned on some level of talent.
If you’re not talented, the only thing you can succeed at is manual labor. Honestly, if you don’t have a talent, then success will be minimal. It’s pretty proportionate talent to success level. I don’t know many, especially in comedy. There are a few people that kill every night and can’t get it going because they have drug or alcohol issues or they missed their window or whatever. I remember Sebastian Maniscalco would be like, “I can’t. All I can do is book birthday parties in the Middle East.” I told him, “You’re going to be the Italian Brian Regan, trust me.” He kept killing and he sold out Radio City five times. There are people that can’t get a show on there. If you’re great at comedy, you’re great at comedy.
The way I think about these things are not, this is a little bit geeky, but these things are not additive. They’re multiplicative. The three inputs to success are talent, how fast you are; hard work, how hard you train; luck, right place, right time, right coach, whatever that thing is. The idea essentially is that it’s not an additive thing. It’s not 1+1+1=3. It’s multiplicative. That’s where that perseverance thing comes in because it assumes that if you have that talent, then you can get the multiplicative effect.
A comedy writer friend of mine, Mike Gibbons, who’s had a very successful career. The book he was reading posited that procrastination is basically a continuation of the basic human need of going away from danger and toward pleasure. You’re procrastinating because writing requires facing your limitations and with a high likelihood of failure. It hurts to do, so you put it off as long as you can. The night before, the pain overtakes the fear. The pain of not doing this is going to be greater than the pain of doing this, so then you do it.
The nice thing about getting experience is that thing that was once painful becomes less painful.
You at least know your way around the pain. You can ignore it.
You can handle it. I don’t think a lot of people know that that comes and it takes a long time. It may take years. It can take years before it’s not completely painful to write.
I have new jokes and I might try tonight or definitely tomorrow. I’m not afraid of them bombing. I really don’t want them to bomb. The fear never leaves absolutely. The fun part of comedy is that there is a high failure rate. When it’s successful, it’s a miracle. It makes people involuntarily respond, which is impossible.
It’s an amazing world. It’s why I’m doing this podcast. We went super long, which was fun to do. Thanks a lot, Neal.
- Neal Brennan
- Chappelle’s Show
- Behavioral Economics
- Jimmy Carr
- Colin Jost
- The Humor Code
About Neal Brennan
Neal Brennan is a stand-up, writer, director, actor, and co-creator of Chappelle’s Show.