Neal Brennan on ‘Nerd Chic,’ Selfies & ‘Chappelle’s Show’

Comedian Neal Brennan has a new talk show on Sundance Channel called The Approval Matrix. He is taking the 4×4 grid from the back of New York Magazine and ranking pop culture on scales from lowbrow to highbrow, despicable to brilliant, along with a panel of guest and celebrity interviews that include Jon Stewart and Amy Poehler.

In the episodes I saw, Brennan applies The Approval Matrix to today’s Golden Age of Television and to Political Correctness. I got to speak with Brennan about those topics and other upcoming issues on The Approval Matrix. Brennan is no stranger to television, having co-created Chappelle’s Show with Dave Chappelle. Join the discussions on The Approval Matrix Mondays at 11 pm on Sundance Channel, and check out Brennan’s thoughts on social media, nerd culture and the standup world here.

CraveOnline: They sent us the episodes on The Golden Age of Television and Political Correctness. What other topics do you put through The Approval Matrix?

Neal Brennan: We did one on Fame that was good. We did one on sort of Modern Day Morals and we did one on what’s considered cool now. Sort of like nerd is chic type sh*t.

Those are very interesting topics. Certainly nerd chic coming right off of Comic-Con, where do you personally rank the idea that nerds are cool now?

I think I can go both ways. I’m the youngest of 10 kids. I’ve got five brothers so it’s sort of hard to be a real nerd, but I think between nerd and jock, I’d probably be on the 45 yard line of jock.

Hasn’t the idea that nerds became cool revealed that they’re really no better than the jock bullies?

That’s what I would say. Now it’s taste shaming. The thing now is that instead of knocking the books out of your hand, they’re like, “What book are you reading? Ugh.” It’s this thing of they make fun of your music that you like, they make fun of your taste. I call it taste shaming which is just as bad. So they weren’t against bullying. They were just against getting bullied. As soon as it was their turn to bully, they were like, “All right, let’s find a target here. Bang, get ‘em.”

Is there any hope for anybody to actually be a good person?

Not from what I can tell. I mean, there are a few good people out there, but no one is without their sanctimony and their hypocrisy.

I’ve also noticed all the nerd movies, the superhero movies, they’re getting a pass on things that other movies would be ridiculed for. The Marvel movies seem like the same movie over and over again but “nerds” love them.

I mean, the fact that they’re making all these superhero movies over and over, I have a joke with a friend of mine that if The Godfather was remade today, it would be a superhero movie called G-Father2K14 and he’d wear a cape and all that shit. It’s so goofy. The fact that there’s this many and they’re green lighting, but having said that it makes sense because the way movies are now made is mostly for foreign territories. It’s mostly for China and Japan and Russia, places they don’t speak English so things need to be incredibly broad and dialogue can’t be very long.

I’m not against making the movies but I’m surprised that a group with presumably high standards wouldn’t demand better.

They have high standards until it flatters them. Everyone just wants to have their sensibilities flattered. It’s like Fox News and CNN. Everyone gets in their own little echo chamber and just goes, “Feed me what I like.” It’s like rich people can get their food delivered to them every week. They get every meal pre-cooked. It’s kind of like a cultural thing where it’s like, “‘Game of Thrones’ comes on Sunday. Then Monday I’ve got…” Everyone’s got their little schedule.

What are the modern day morals?

That episode is about the fact that weed is legal, gay marriage is legal, atheism is up and yet crime is down. One of the things we say is did we need the 10 commandments? Did we need religion? Do we need a man in the sky telling us not to murder each other in order to not murder each other? Or are human beings basically decent. And then we talk about marriage in general, does it still work? We talk about dating. We talk about women paying on dates. What’s the point of getting married anymore if it’s just sort of a partner, someone you’re legally bound to? There used to be this exchange of the man will go work and the woman will stay at home and make a house. Now it’s just like everybody go work and then go home at night, whatever. I’m kind of unclear what the advantage is but that’s just me.

Does marriage not work because of the institution and social structure, or does it not work because people don’t really commit to it anymore?

Well, you don’t need to. There’s no shame in getting divorced, which there used to be. I think it’s both, honestly. I think there’s no stigma of getting divorced, which I’m not saying there should have been. I’m just saying that’s the thing that made it that pillar. It was like you were shamed if you got pregnant without getting married and then you got shamed if you couldn’t make your marriage last. And black people didn’t have civil rights, etc., so there was a lot of bad also, tons of bad, just as much.

Having been through a divorce I know that stigma or not, it’s still expensive and painful. It’s something to be avoided.

Oh yeah, everyone I know that’s gotten divorced says it feels like downward pressure around your soul.

As much as there’ve been improvements, and we’d like gay marriage to be universal, isn’t that still a struggle?

Oh yeah, it’s an oversimplification to say it’s legal but I think it’ll be legal probably everywhere in the next five years.

I think most of us who have any sense of history think it will be legal. Why does every generation have to fight over their civil rights issue? Do the people who grew up in the ‘60s not remember this already happened with Civil Rights?

No, of course they don’t. Again, you’re asking a lot of people. You’re asking people to remember history and have empathy for somebody and also see an oppressed group as similar to another oppressed group. And then that Prop 8 where people voted against it. Again, it goes back to that hypocrisy thing. Like, “Yeah, I think I should have rights. Them, no.”

What aspects of fame do you analyze?

That one is a good episode because we call it Fame is a Nightmare that Everyone’s Dying to Have. It’ll kill you it’ll make you chop your face up, but at the same time, everyone seems to be pursuing it one way or the other. Whether it be in social media, whether it’s selfies, whether it’s starting a blog, whether it’s going on a singing competition, any of these things.

Selfies are a funny thing. Why did we drop the term “self portrait?”

I think it’s too formal. The fame thing is just about, in the monologue I say the famous tell us not to envy them, that fame and wealth won’t make us happy. Well, guess what? Being broke and unknown is not making us happy either so I might as well try it. Let’s try it again, but with money and access and fame. Let’s try life again. And Jason Biggs is on that one. I actually use myself as a guy who had a career as a writer and director and it’s like why am I now pursuing hosting and doing standup and all this stuff. Am I an idiot for pursuing this knowing what we know about fame, that it doesn’t make you happy?

Is it not the fame that makes you happy but the accomplishment of doing something that you love, and the fame is something you have to deal with?

I agree, but at a certain point did Madonna do what she loved or was she just hungry for fame? I think both. I don’t know many people who are just like, “I would love to be unknown. I’d like to accomplish what I want to accomplish but I don’t want to be famous.” I think people see it as a fine benefit of talent and accomplishment.

Sure, but maybe people who’ve had both, who’ve come from obscurity and weren’t happy, then got famous and weren’t happy, might have enough experience to realize those aren’t the places to look for fulfillment.

Oh, I think unequivocally that’s what you end up getting, but it’s another one of those things where no one believes you. When you tell people fame won’t make you happy, people say that in America. You get these conflicted messages of “money won’t make you happy” and everyone goes, “I’ll take my chances. We’ll just see about that. Didn’t make you happy but I’m different.” Everyone thinks they’re the exception and very few people are.

When you talk about chopping your face up, you mean getting plastic surgery?


That baffles me because if you don’t look “good enough” people make fun of you, but then if you get plastic surgery people make fun of you for getting plastic surgery.

Look, man, I gotta say as a guy who was on TV very little up until this show, and editing the show, when I’m watching myself 12 hours a day on a monitor, you start to go, “Ew, if only I could change this.” Thankfully I’m old enough just to be like, “Just shut up,” but I can see it. I can see how it gets you a little crazy having your image up places. Not like my image is up anywhere but it will be in a few weeks. It’ll be on TV and I’ve just been watching it and editing it. I’m not a particularly vain guy and I’m still like “Ugh, look at that face. Just a couple nips and tucks.” It happens. It’s so insidious.

On the television episode you said you were a “Lost” fan.

I actually never watched “Lost.” I do standup at night so I can’t watch as many of these shows as I would like to.

Oh, you seemed to feel it tied together pretty well except for the last episode not being pleasing to some fans.

Well, look, man, the way the last episode was explained to me, I thought it was cool but I remember people being upset. I can’t speak specifically to “Lost” but like I said in the monologue, people can have all the opinions they want but watching a lot of TV doesn’t make you a TV writer any more than having diabetes makes you a pastry chef. These are difficult jobs and these are very smart, creative people doing it. I’m talking about being a writer for television or head writer on a television show. When everybody got mad at the “Seinfeld” ending, it’s like, “Tell you what. Go do standup and drive a cab like Larry David did, and struggle for 15 years. Then do a show for 10, do one of the best sitcoms ever and then you can make your ending.” A buddy of mine who used to write for “Seinfeld” said that back when “Seinfeld” was on, people were always going, “I’ve got an episode idea for you guys. In fact, I wrote it. Here.” It was always people that weren’t writers. They had a joke on the show, Jerry, Larry and everybody where they were just going to take some non-writer’s script and do it verbatim, just to show them how bad they were.

I wish they had done that.

It would’ve been hilarious. It would’ve been the greatest piece of passive-aggression in the history of passive-aggression. Thankfully, “Chappelle’s Show” wasn’t on during the internet because it would’ve made me a little insane. The fact that people think they can just go, “I don’t like it.” Stop.

Did you pick the “Family Ties” therapy episode as your favorite hour of TV ever, or just of “Family Ties?”

Look, that’s such an impossible thing to say, but that one. I could’ve also said the “Pine Barrens” episode of “The Sopranos” that Steve Buscemi directed, where they had the hostage that got away. That episode was great. The one where Tony takes Meadow to look at schools and he ends up killing that guy, that was an amazing one. The “Chappelle’s Show” Rick James episode I put up there.

I do a column called Best Episode Ever and I picked that for Chappelle’s Show.

Oh, did you really? Thank you. I think you’re right. I think top to bottom it was pretty God damn good.

But if I did a mega mashup of the best skits, my ultimate Chappelle’s Show episode would include “Piss on You,” “Jedi Sex Scandal,” “Ask a Black Dude.”

Oh, so you don’t like the hits. You like the obscure ones.

Are those obscure ones?

Those are pretty obscure. The Star Wars sex, no one’s ever even brought that up to me. Me and Dave didn’t even really write that sketch. Kurt Metzger wrote it. “Piss On You” obviously, it’s funny.

I would put Clayton Bigsby on that too. Obviously, that’s the big one.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

When you talk about political correctness and privacy, what do you think of the comedy club incidents where people start tweeting “controversial” jokes and shaming the comedian?

I think it’s pitiful. Here’s what I think. Now, I had a disagreement with John Stewart about this on the show. I think that every industry, every creative field, even every company, there are outlet malls for a reason, because sometimes they will f*** up a pair of pants. But they still sell ‘em. Now in comedy clubs, the difference between something that is offensive and something that is incredibly smart and incisive is about a quarter of an inch. The fact that comedians aren’t given that leeway is I think silly and I think it just goes to people love grandstanding. People love flopping. People love going, “He hurt my feelings!” But everyone needs their pound of flesh, so if they feel like, “What did you say? Tracy Morgan said what? Daniel Tosh said what?” Then you have to walk the plank and apologize and it’s silly. It means nothing and I don’t think blacks were better off the day that Kramer got pilloried for saying the N word. Black people don’t get houses when you go after Kramer. Again, people do it in lieu of doing something that’s actually difficult, like volunteering. Or mailing letters. Or petitioning your congressman. They go after Tracy or Tosh or Kramer or any of these people, Dane, I think, got in trouble, because it’s the lowest of the low hanging fruit. Now, Jon Stewart was of the mind that as a live performer, it’s an exchange. It’s a discourse. You say something, they say something back and you have to live with the consequences. I’m with Jon on that in terms of if you put it on an HBO special, yeah, you should live with all that. My thing was always it wasn’t like Kramer had an N word bit, like he was like, “Oh, I guess that bit doesn’t work anymore.” He wasn’t trying to do it every night, or Tosh. Also, Daniel Tosh has some excellent rape jokes. I’m not even kidding. He has my favorite rape joke of all time.

Which is that if we want to look it up?

He likes to play pranks with his sister. It’s aired on Comedy Central dozens of times and you can see it, it’s been out there and yet rape continues to go down statistically. People think it’s wrong to make fun of rape but they’ll make fun of death until the cows come home. Meanwhile, it’s like hey, I have some news for you. Death is worse than rape. But yet, no one ever makes that point of wait, death is way worse. Why is that okay to make fun of? I know tons of people that have died, but yet that doesn’t bother anyway. Put it on the hypocrisy pile.

What about the “Duck Dynasty” guy? Is that different because he went on an interview and volunteered his stance?

I mean, that guy’s speaking a real belief, a real core belief. I think that’s different from a standup. I think Paula Deen is different from the “Duck Dynasty” guys. Having said that, again, I don’t think black people are better off now because Paula Deen got in trouble. Dozens of kids are still dying every week in Chicago, despite the fact that Paula Deen has been relegated to Kramer Island. These things aren’t really having an effect. Again, the people that like to pretend it is are just lazy people because if you want to help black people, go volunteer. But again, that’s inconvenient and that’s difficult.

When Dave Chappelle went on Letterman, he joked that he never quit “Chappelle’s Show.” He was just seven years later for work. Obviously he’s joking, but is that a little oversimplified?

No, I think that’s exactly what happened. Of course it’s oversimplified. No one’s waiting. It’s a funny joke though.

Where would this interview fall on The Approval Matrix?

Uh-oh. I’m gonna go lowbrow because I’m involved, and we’ll go toward brilliant. Sorry to drag it down there, man.


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