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Inside Neal Brennan’s Strange Comedic World

The stand-up shares his key influences, from Rick James to Seth Meyers

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Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Neal Brennan has always been a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, which makes his latest move all the more surprising. Brennan's first hour-long special for Comedy Central, Women and Black Dudes, premieres on January 18th, following a long list of directorial and writing gigs for the 40-year-old Philadelphia native. As co-creator of Chappelle's Show, he helped introduce a new generation of catchphrase comedy ("I'm Rick James, bitch!") while earning a trio of Emmy nominations for his work with mercurial comic Dave Chappelle. He co-wrote the modern stoner-movie classic Half Baked and has since directed episodes of Fox's The New Girl and The Mindy Project, alongside sketches for Comedy Central's Inside Amy Schumer. But the lanky, plainspoken Brennan has a simple reason for finally wanting to step into the spotlight: "The material is ready to be seen," he said over the phone from Los Angeles. "You always think it's ready, but then you look back and you're like, 'Ugh. . .' But now it's really, really ready." We asked Brennan to share some of his favorite clips, which offer a window into his influences – comedic and otherwise. John Wenzel

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“True Hollywood Stories” From ‘Chappelle’s Show’

"[Documentary director] Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line was a big influence on that sketch," says Brennan. "He does that thing where he asks people a question during an interview and won't respond after they're done talking, which makes them panic and spill more of their beans. We had to re-shoot part of that, because the first time we had Charlie Murphy sitting down, which made him sort of languorous and low-energy. We re-shot it to have him standing and it gave him this air of salesmanship and pleading that was lacking before. As for the catchphrases, well – they really weren't our intention. If anything, 'Cocaine's a hell of a drug' should have been the one that caught on!"

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2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner

"Seth Meyers and I have been friends for a long time, and I was excited about writing something that was like SNL's 'Weekend Update' but a little more barbed," says Brennan. "And the writing staff on that was great, with Seth, John Mulaney, Jeremy Bronson and a few others. I wanted to speak truth to power and it was great to put the nail in Donald Trump's coffin for all that birther shit. But actually being there was the greatest thing. It was like hosting an awards show and winning an Emmy for hosting an awards show at the same time. We were the fucking victors."

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“Gang Bang” From ‘Inside Amy Schumer’

"Whenever I watch these gang-bang sex tapes, I'm not embarrassed for the women – I'm embarrassed for the men," admits Brennan. "They're the ones who should be ashamed, showing up for this gang bang wearing a sun visor. It's like, 'Dude, you're the piece of garbage, she's the human being.' We wanted to make it awkward, so I pitched that slow unfolding of the couch, which could have easily been cut if it was too excruciating. But I think it's funny that she has to do it herself. Even though it's a gang bang, it's still house work."

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“Black Friends” From ‘Women and Black Dudes’

"Some comics say, 'Black people are like this and white people are like that.' But they're doing it with zero experience, and generally in a white-people-are-superior kind of way," observes Brennan. "All my stuff on that topic is from a unique point of view, which you could say is near the inside. When I say I have a lot of black friends, I really do. And when I say "nigger" on stage, there's a pretty high level of difficulty just to say it and be able to defuse that bomb. I mostly play black [stand-up] rooms, so I'm hoping this will help break me into the white comedy world."

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“Celebrity Trial Jury Selection” From ‘Chappelle’s Show’

"There's this Family Ties episode where Alex's friend dies and most of it takes place in a black void, and that influenced a lot of what we did on the show, which you would never think. Some of Rick James is like that, and this sketch is similar in its sort of dream sequence atmosphere. We didn't have a big budget, and it was also late in the second season and we were like, 'What are we going to do next?' I remember reading this big Vanity Fair article about the Michael Jackson trial. I said to Dave, 'Even you have to fucking say he's guilty, right?' And he's like, 'No.' So it was a true argument we had."

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“Celebrity Trial Jury Selection” From ‘Chappelle’s Show’

There's this Family Ties episode where Alex's friend dies," explains Brennan. "Most of it takes place in a black void, and that influenced a lot of what we did on the show. Some of Rick James is like that, and this sketch is similar in its sort of dream sequence atmosphere. We didn't have a big budget, and it was also late in the second season when we were thinking, 'What are we going to do next?' I remember reading this big Vanity Fair article about the Michael Jackson trial. I said to Dave, 'Even you have to fucking say he's guilty, right?' And he said, 'No.' It was a true argument we had.

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