Neal Brennan knows it’s odd to give John Legend top billing as the presenting executive producer of his new show, 3 Mics, which officially opened its Off-Broadway run Thursday night at the Lynn Redgrave Theater (45 Bleecker).
Brennan could poke fun at Legend with a zinger.
He could tell a funny anecdote about how and why he and Legend would be friends in the first place.
Or he could pull no punchlines and reveal the grueling nature of show business and the importance of star power.
That’s the inherent beauty of 3 Mics, a show that offers the performer three different microphones spaced just far enough apart to allow Brennan to explore various facets of himself and his comedy and showcase them as separate but equally valuable parts of his character. As for how he chose to address the Legend partnership, well, Brennan actually managed to combine the elements of the mics with a funny joke inside of a revealing emotional story.
If you don’t look at your program before the lights dim and the show begins, then you may be confused at first, as Brennan doesn’t outright explain the premise himself to the audience.
Rather, lights up and immediately Brennan is at the first mic, papers in hand, selecting one-liners and checking them off after the audience responds. After two or three jokes, the lights go dark. Moments later, he’s at the third mic, delivering 10-15 minutes of solid stand-up routines you’d likely hear any given night if you saw him at his two home comedy clubs on either coast, The Comedy Cellar in New York City or M.i. Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. The lights go dark again, and then he’s center spotlight on the middle mic, launching straight into 10-15 minutes of “emotional stuff,” as it says on the front of your program.
Brennan cycles through three times, and finishes with a coda.
If in long-form Harolds, improvisers build upon lines or situations created in earlier scenes, then Brennan’s stand-up, too, achieves greater punch in the second and third cycle as he can use one mic to call back to a story or joke he’d told into one of the other mics. As in when Brennan begins a stand-up bit with, “I went to see the doctor.” Pause. “You know why.”
The audience with whom I saw Brennan thoroughly loved all three mic’d versions of the comedian. The one-liners may not have resonated as strongly with me, but then again, I’m biased for having heard so many more jokes over the decades and therefore not finding either the premises or the presentation as new as casual comedy fans do. That said, my bias probably also causes me to love Brennan’s emotional storytelling even more than those other fans, as his bare-naked honesty about himself, his ego, his depression, his addictions, and his career track hits home for me. On going from a successful career that began at 20 and included co-writing/creating Half-Baked, Chappelle’s Show, writing multiple screenplays with Michael Schur (before Schur went on to co-create Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), directing The Goods, Inside Amy Schumer and other TV shows, Brennan decided to pursue his stand-up full-time. “I have a friend who calls me Benjamin Button,” he said.
We all can agree, though, that Brennan’s stand-up insights are fairly solid, with some keen insight into the predicament of choosing a life as a police officer, or in the South.
And upon further reflection, the one-liners help break up the meat of the meal, his two other courses, much like a sorbet to cleanse the comedy palette.
Because if you’re going to dig deep in a comedy show about depression and the varying side effects of anti-depressants, or how hard it is to love or to be unloved no matter who it is you’re choosing to love, or how violent and unloving his own alcoholic father was to his youngest son — even at his deathbed — well, yeah, a few zingers about pedophiles, basketball, anything will help balance that out. Brennan jokingly suggests, heading into his climactic emotional tale about his tortured, strained relations with his father: “I feel like I can’t get my one-man show license unless I have something about my dad.”
3 Mics puts all of Brennan before us, which it turns out, is something that goes against his previous self-interest, as he acknowledges he’s always looked for personal or professional cover, for someone to hide him from the spotlight. And he understands all too well that “being Dave Chappelle’s comedy writing partner” is the ultimate cover. Even if that makes him Scottie Pippen to Chappelle’s Michael Jordan.
Chappelle is one of several all-star stand-ups to offer testimonials for Brennan’s latest effort. Chappelle’s official quote: “If you’re thinking about writing a show with Neal, be sure to pay attention to that middle mic.”
Of course he’d give the best, truest, slam-dunk from the free-throw-line assessment. Because even if you’re never getting into business with Brennan yourself, you best be sure to pay attention to what he’s telling you from that middle mic. That’s where the heart of the show is. That’s where the heart of any comedian is, really. And Brennan has a good heart.
You don’t have to ask his black friends. Just go see for yourself.
Neal Brennan’s “3 Mics” runs through April 9, 2016, at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker St., New York, New York. Most nights at 9:30 p.m. Showtimes and tickets here.
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