Astronaut, he’s not. Comedian, he is. Chicago born, Philly bred, this comic, one of ten kids, doesn’t hold back. From squabbles to sitcoms to live audiences, Kevin Brennan’s‚ got something to say; we hear him loud and clear.
By Jennifer L.M. Gunn
After last year’s HBO Special, is getting some well-deserved attention. His act is unapologetic, and so is he. Though tired and worn from working on a sitcom pilot for NBC, Kevin Brennan caught up with Punchline Magazine in New York City to chat about life on the road and the trials of life in television.
So you’re working on a pilot for NBC. Is this your ultimate dream come true?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to be an astronaut, so I guess I’d be better in a sitcom. I co-wrote it. Well, I’m going to get a “story by” credit. The actual writer guy wrote it. It’s like playing poker, though. You have to get lucky. You have to get lucky with everything.
Now that everyone is watching Desperate Housewives on their iPods, do you think sitcoms are a dying animal?
I don’t know. I’ll see. I will say this about sitcoms: There are a lot of entrenched things that aren’t good. It’s like the government. It only works because it kinda has to. They’ll address things if they have to. There are so many things in the sitcom process that don’t make sense. They don’t help the sitcom get made. And they say, “This is the way we do it.” But that’s not the best way! You get frustrated as a comedian because youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re usually in charge of your act. My act is not like Patrice O’Neal’s or Dave Chappelle’s, but we all have good acts. If we all try to make our acts similar, it’s just not going to be funny. People like to laugh whatever way you can put it together. But with sitcoms, they always play it really safe. People would rather watch a competition of people singing because it’s more dramatic. It’s more interesting than the same fucking warmed-over sitcom lines. The whole vibe is not so electric.
You were a writer for Saturday Night Live in 1999, back when it was funny. How was that?
It was fun. It was a good learning experience. I wrote for “Weekend Update.” They saw me do stand-up. I had a meeting with Lorne Michaels, and he said, “We have too many cast members right now. Would you take a writing job?” I was kinda in the running for the “Weekend Update” spot when Colin [Quinn] was leaving, but whatever. That didn’t work out. I don’t get mad when I don’t get things; I get mad when things are stacked against things working out. It’s such a natural thing. People laugh or they don’t laugh. It’s so bare bones. It’s very complicated. It’s really tricky doing anything with a lot people involved.
Like the sitcom thing?
Yeah, I find right now I just don’t know what to do. You do your act, and if it needs work you just fix it. Doing a sitcom, your hands are tied. It’s casting and writing. I have to learn how to act. I mean, I can act, I just feel like sometimes you get lines that aren’t funny and you have to make them funny. After a while, you feel like, “I’m not used to this. I don’t know how to do this. Again, I’m just used to stand-up. I have to learn.
Speaking of stand-up, you filmed a stellar HBO special last year. Was that a fun project?
I thought it was great. It was great offending people. Not as many people see it as they see the Comedy Central thing, but with HBO, they really see your act. They kinda see the passion of your act. When you’re doing stand-up on TV, you have to dance around this joke or that joke. People will ask me, “Should I do The Tonight Show or Letterman” And I say there’s no point of doing any show unless you can do it good. They’re taking this joke away or that joke. Unless youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re doing it for your grandpa so he can say “My grandson was on The Tonight Show, then what’s the point? If you can do a clean set on Letterman or Leno, that’s fantastic. Otherwise, why do it?
Did you have to prepare for the HBO special or did you just go in with your regular stuff?
I got the HBO special late. I try to write stuff all the time. Sometimes stuff comes to me. Sometimes I’ll do stuff onstage. Mostly I’ll have to sit down. You have to work through shit.
You just make stuff up onstage sometimes?
Yeah. Sometimes, if I’m working a lot and I get so tired of my act, I just start fucking around onstage. If something comes up, I’ll just start talking and see where it goes – like at Dangerfield’s [in NYC] especially, where the sets are so fucking long.
How did you get into comedy?
Well, I wasn’t really doing anything. I quit college. I was gonna be a DJ, and I was working at this restaurant and the waitresses there would always say, “You should be a comedian.” This is in Chicago. Eventually, I started paying attention. I thought maybe I should do that.
So how did you start from there?
I went to a club once before I did it, to an open mic night. Then, I started watching comedians on Letterman or The Tonight Show. I realized that you can control it. With the jokes, you just write ‘em and tell ‘em. If you control it, you can become the master of your domain, you know? You control all the elements– I mean, unless you get a bad crowd.
So you just went for it?
I went to watch an open mic night to see what it was like, and then I tried it. It went really well. I had a good crowd. But at the next seven or 10 shows, I bombed. I would think, “Man, so why were they laughing the first night?” But I got such a rush from it the first time, so I kept going.
This is all in Chicago. How long did you stay there?
I didnÃ’t stay too long in Chicago — about a year and a little bit. I thought I was better than I was. I left Chicago too early. I would watch comedians at Zanies in Chicago — Jay Leno or Richard Lewis and the opening acts — and Chicago comics get no respect. If you want to get respect, you’ve got to be in New York or L.A. To be taken seriously, you have to travel.
I already thought I was funny. But a lot of times jokes don’t travel. Jokes that were funny in Chicago often wouldn’t work in New York or L.A. You just don’t know. So, going to New York, I had a little seasoning under my belt. I got a job as a doorman at the Improv. You could see comics and get onstage a lot more if you worked there. Then I did some TV stuff like Evening at the Improv and the MTV Comedy Hour.
Did you go on the road and get out there?
I found the road really hard. Just because in New York, they’re more open-minded to certain jokes. On the road, they’re not that open-minded. They just want like wife jokes and girlfriend jokes, you know. On the road, I can kinda go for it now. You kinda have to get the crowd. If I do ethnic jokes on the road, they sort of look at me funny – you know, since there are no ethnic people there. They think I’m like talking behind their back or something. They think, “You’re kinda racist.” I’m not racist! They’re kinda racist! They’re so uptight about it. It’s like I can’t talk about black people, because maybe one will show up.
Hacks work the road. They’re not really hacks. They just become hacks. If you try to be too clever or insightful, [the audience] is just like “Come on, man.” I do great on the road now. It’s just a different vibe. I spend around three out of every eight weeks on the road. It’d be easier if I was really, really famous, because you can go on for two days, get paid a lot and go home.
Is the comedy scene just one big social circle? It always seems like it’s one big group of salty friends sitting around talking about the road. Is it really all slumber parties at Dave Attell’s place?
No. You start hanging out. Somebody gets jealous or somebody starts to make it. You’re naturally competitive. If somebody starts to do better, you kind of naturally resent them. I used to feel bad. I don’t feel bad anymore for my emotions. And that’s not therapy or some shit. You’re supposed to say, “Hey, good for you.” I’m not like that and I don’t pretend to be like that.
I used to be best friends with Dave Attell, and we kind of had a falling out. I don’t give a fuck. I don’t care. Every emotion I have about this is like a natural thing. If someone is doing better than me, I should get jealous. You’re supposed to act like, “Oh, I’m fine with this and that.” You’re supposed to be fine with everything. Well, I’m not fine with everything. It’s not corporate America. You don’t have to put a fucking sheen on everything.
So do you have any friends in the business?
My brother Neal is in the business. He was a writer/co-producer on Chappelle’s Show. I feel like I have enough friends. When you start out and you’re all in it together, a natural support group forms, but then you’re all going separate ways. I just don’t see everyone anymore. I used to be friends with Greg Giraldo. I don’t see him anymore. After a while, you get older, you have families and shit. You get grown-up.
Speaking of grown-up, how old are you anyway?
I’m 40-something. Early forties. I don’t look my age, though. I could say I’m 34 and someone will say, “I thought you were 24.” Well, fuck it then, I’m 24. In show business, it really doesn’t matter what you are, it matters what they think you are. Onstage, they either think you’re a nice guy or a dick. After a show, someone said to me, “We liked you the best, you’re like our age.” And I said, “Well how old are you?” They said, “We’re 28. Well, even when I lie I’m not even close to 28.
You won the Best Stand-Up Award at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen last year. That’s a pretty big deal, no?
I really shouldn’t say this, but not every comic is invited. People think you won this thing out of all the comics. And there was no money involved or anything.
For more information, visit comediankevinbrennan.com