Long before co-creating Chappelle’s Show, Neal Brennan hung out at West 53rd‘s original Improv Comedy Club, dropped out of NYU film school and worked as a doorman at 3rd Street’s Boston Comedy Club. Now living in Santa Monica, he returned to his old stomping grounds to host The Approval Matrix, a panel and sketch series based on New York Magazine‘s recurring last-page feature. With the likes of Chris Rock, Hannibal Buress, Judah Friedlander, Julie Klausner, Kurt Metzger and Jim Norton contributing their pop-culture opinions, The Approval Matrix debuts August 11 on SundanceTV.
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When I last spoke with you, you were developing a sitcom pilot for FOX and a sketch pilot for Comedy Central. Where did The Approval Matrix come from?
The sketch thing died because Comedy Central said they had too much sketch [programming]. It was good, though. And the sitcom is in some sort of flux that may be good or bad, I’m not sure. The Approval Matrix is just a thing they asked me to host, and then once I started it, it was like, “This is kind of a full-time job.”
Is there a lot on the line with SundanceTV, bringing all these panelists and interviewees in to a station not known for comedy?
They had the show, so that part of it was set up. There’s no pressure. They’re not known for comedy, so if anything they worry too much. There’s stuff that they don’t know will be funny, but me and [executive producer] Rory Albanese of The Daily Show are like, “No, you can trust us. We’re pretty good at comedy, so…” But they’ve been cool.
You’re primarily known as a go-to writer and director for shows including Inside Amy Schumer, New Girl and The Mindy Project. Was there a certain point or specific event that made you want to step in front of the camera?
In comedy, whoever’s on camera is basically in charge. You and other people write for you, and you select the jokes that you want to do. As a writer or a writer-producer, you’re sort of beholden to another person. You have to please them. So I felt like, “You know, I’m funny enough to be on camera. My face looks decent enough. Why get my jokes rejected if I don’t have to?”
Why shoot The Approval Matrix in the East Village as opposed to Los Angeles?
That was purely monetary. It was where we could get the space. Eleventh between A and B; it was an old bath house that they’ve converted. You can really feel the naked dudes.
You’re got an impressive list of comedians lined up both as panelists and one-on-one interviews.
Jon Stewart–who I’ve known for, like, 20 years–it was really great of him to do the interview, because he never does interviews. [Amy] Poehler was great, and then the guys like Hannibal [Buress] and Donnell [Rawlings] and Whitney [Cummings] and people I’m actually friends with were very gracious about coming and doing the show.
What else does the show’s format entail?
I do a monologue, two or three minutes, then there’s a panel. We talk about these subjects like, “Let’s talk about Louie.” “Let’s talk about people snitching in culture.” “Let’s talk about Donald Sterling.” Whatever we’re talking about, they’re represented by a block, and then we move it around the grid, as it were. It’s not a game show at all. It’s basically a panel show where people go, “I disagree!” and they’ll move the block or keep the block where it is.
How does it feel being back in the area where you first started doing comedy?
It’s great! Whenever I’m in the East Village, if it were a movie of my life, there would be a lot of flashbacks from certain corners. Where I’m walking now to go tape a TV show, in 1992 I was broke. You’d do a flashback of me listening to the Cameron Crowe movie Singles. I lived there 20 years ago, so I don’t know if it’s quite “Local Kid Makes Good,” but it’s certainly rich with a lot of personal history.
Avenue A and Avenue B were fucked up. All of Alphabet City was, like, “What? You went to Alphabet City?” It was a big deal. Now it’s “Yeah, I’m going to Alphabet City to shoot a TV show! For Sundance! With a young comedian named Jon Stewart!”
Are you doing spots while you’re here?
Yeah, I’ve been doing spots at the Comedy Cellar every night. Just working in a comedy club is like going to school with somebody. I was just watching one of the interviews with Jon, where somehow Joe Rogan came up. Jon was like, “Oh, Joe Rogan’s a funny guy!” You’d think that Jon Stewart would be, like, ‘Joe Rogan…?'” but they worked the clubs together. If somebody makes you laugh once, it’s like, “All right, that dude’s funny. That dude’s funny forever.” And even [Chris] Rock. I know Rock from the Cellar, basically. I’ve known Rock a long time off and on, but just kind of tangentially. Now we talk on the phone, text and shit, and I helped him with his movie [the upcoming Finally Famous]. I’ve been here for three months doing the show; it was great to go to the Cellar every night and test out some of the monologues at Whiplash. It’s fun; it’s convenient. It’s helpful.