Just as the major TV networks are likely going to keep cranking out three camera sitcoms filmed before a live studio audience until the end of time, so too are we going to be treated to dozens of stand-up specials each year that feature nothing but a comedian, a microphone, and a well-rehearsed hour of material. But as the world has been embracing the possibilities of each format, new expressions have been slipping into the mainstream, from the postmodern approaches of Louie or Reggie Watts’ Spatial, to the folding in of raw human emotion that was Laurie Kilmartin’s 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad or Master of None.
The most recent addition to this growing community of more daring stand-up hours comes from a somewhat unlikely source. Neal Brennan has spent most of his career in show business working behind the camera or behind the scenes, most famously as the co-creator of the wildly successful sketch series Chappelle’s Show.
While he could easily spend the rest of his life dining out on that credit, the 43-year-old started to build his reputation as a stand-up, mixing together his keen observations about social issues and his own fumblings to connect with both, as the title of his first special spells out, women and black dudes. Great stuff, but again: one man, one mic, a ton of jokes. That’s in part why Brennan has, for the past few years, been toying with new approaches to his stage game.
At first it was an idea to have an extra microphone on stage that he would use to read jokes from his Twitter account. But there was also a realization that people listening to his podcast The Champs or the podcasts he would guest on were responding positively to him revealing more intimate personal details about his life.
“I wondered if there was a way to do it where I had three mics on stage,” Brennan said recently, “and see if they would work in concert with each other.” One for his more traditional stand-up, another for punchy one-liners, and a third for more deeply confessional storytelling.
He eventually developed this concept into 3 Mics, a stage show that landed Off-Broadway and was filmed for a new Netflix stand-up special.
The concept is clever enough, and one that could be used to cloying effect in the hands of a less experienced comic and a less skilled writer. Brennan, though, handles the balance with ease, spending the perfect amount of time on each microphone and, with it, keeping the audience with him every step of the journey. Well, most audiences.
“I was doing the show in Chicago,” Brennan remembers, “and there was this women that, during my show, posted to my Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, begging me to stop doing the more serious stuff. It’s so goddamned funny. ‘I’m watching the show and you gotta ease up.’ Did she think I was going to take my phone out and go, ‘Oh sorry, I have to change the entire format and do a quick on the fly rewrite.’”
For the rest of the world, those confessional moments in 3 Mics are what make the special so incredibly memorable. With stunning candor, Brennan discusses his struggles with depression and the various unusual methods he uses to manage it, as well as his embarrassing penchant for glomming on to and hiding behind famous people.
The most anguished moments, though, come when he opens up about his family and the strained relationship he had with his narcissistic and abusive father. The condensed version of the story does land on a wobbly kind of forgiveness but there’s no denying that, even after telling it dozens of times to audiences around the U.S., the emotions are still raw and real for Brennan.
“It choked me up like 40 times in a row,” he says. “That never got any better. I can say that I think talking about it is positive. Maybe there was some kind of healing. Nothing that I’m aware of. But I do think that there’s something good about acknowledging my own sadness and feeling that without judgment.”
He’s just as candid in the show when talking about his frustrations about the much-publicized end of Chappelle’s Show. When the star of that series Dave Chappelle, bowing under the pressure of delivering on a third season, left abruptly for South Africa in 2005, Brennan was forced to stop riding the coattails of his famous friend. Not an easy thing to admit to strangers, let alone his friend and former employer.
“Chappelle’s seen the show three times,” according to Brennan. “He came to the opening night and was really encouraging. He said, ‘That’s it. That’s what stand-up should be.’ Even though we share the same sensibilities, it was really encouraging to hear him go, ‘This is the right thing.’”
As for Brennan’s family, a lot of them have seen 3 Mics and “there were different reactions from all of them,” he says. That’s to be expected for a show that airs a lot of family drama to the folks who saw it in person. Their feelings about it will surely only get more complicated once they realize a much greater number will have a chance to see it thanks to Netflix.
“The thing I hadn’t thought about was my family maybe not wanting that stuff out there,” Brennan admits. “But it’s my story. I’m allowed to tell it. I’m sympathetic to them and will believe them if they say maybe they don’t want people to hear that their dad was abusive. There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s my story.”
Neal Brennan: 3 Mics premieres on Netflix today, Jan. 17, 2017.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.