Where would your favorites fall on Sundance's upcoming series The Approval Matrix? Based on New York Magazine's long-running backpage feature that breaks everything in the universe down into one of four categories (Brilliant/Highbrow; Brilliant/Lowbrow; Despicable/Highbrow; and Despicable/Lowbrow, if you're curious), the show is hosted by Chappelle's Show co-creator and influential stand-up comedian, Neal Brennan. We spoke with him about the current state of comedy television, the mutual exclusivity of cool vs. popular entertainment, and how Netflix fits into the equation. Don't forget to track The Approval Matrix on SideReel, and tune into the premiere Monday, August 11 at 11pm/ET on the Sundance Channel.
SideReel: First, where would The Approval Matrix fall on the Approval Matrix? We’re going super-meta.
Neal Brennan: That, you know what, that’s not me, that is one matrix that I cannot levy any sort of judgment on. That is up to the people of America.
SideReel: OK, well, I’m an American and I would say that it’s probably in the “Brilliant/Highbrow” quadrant.
NB: You don’t have to be nice. I’d say Lowbrow; it’s TV.
SideReel: It’s super wonk-y though; there’s a lot of thought happening there.
NB: Yeah, that’s what somebody else said. Someone was like, “You come across as really smart in this,” and I’m like, “Do I?” I guess I do, but I’m such an argumentative guy that I’m arguing a lot in my head, so this is like letting someone inside an argument that I would have in my head. But I guess it is wonk-y in terms of like, we do talk about real stuff. That’s what I like about it. It’s not as smart as [Real Time with] Bill Maher but it’s smarter than Chelsea [Lately]. It is interesting to talk about TV. I like that [first] episode [on the current state of TV] a lot because it is interesting as a thing that everyone wants. Whether they admit it or not, everyone’s sort of pursuing it now.
SideReel: Especially from that first episode, a lot of the reaction is going to come from your placement of Louie [as Lowbrow/Despicable].
NB: I know, how dare I?
SideReel: No, no, but since the taping occurred, I’m wondering if you’ve had any further thoughts on that placement?
NB: The thing about the placement is that it’s pretty limiting, and I have to be provocative to get a discussion going, but, you know, I stand by what I said. I don’t think it’s exactly “comedy.”
SideReel: That’s been a big discussion this year especially in terms of the Emmy nominations where it’s been submitted as a comedy, and people are arguing that it wasn’t funny; it was pretty depressing.
NB: The thought I had yesterday is that putting Louie in the comedy section for the Emmys is like putting Steve Martin’s banjo-playing in the comedy portion of the Grammys. He is technically a comedian but he’s not doing comedy at that juncture, as it were. I didn’t go on Twitter for a couple of days [after the taping], and I’m probably not going to when the show airs either because people see this kind of stuff as their religion now. So if I say that I think Louis [C.K.]’s show isn’t comedy, particularly then people start insulting me. It’s like I’ve burned the Quran or something. Like I’ve had a cartoon of the Prophet and I must die now; I expect people to throw paint on me in public. So yeah, I think people take this really seriously and I think that’s mostly due to the internet and people wanting clickbait.
SideReel: It definitely seems now that liking shows that no one else likes is a badge of honor.
NB: No, it absolutely is, it’s absolutely like that. And it’s like, these aren’t books that you’re talking about, it’s just this passive experience of you know [makes a bored sound] watching TV. But again, people aren’t going to read books anymore. TV’s taken the place of art, books, uh, you know, highbrow music. People are basically getting their identities from it. Who they are is identified by what shows they watch, and I guess that’s always been true; I think in the seventies it was probably records and books, like what you had on your shelf. I always say I made a bunch of money on it, too, because the Chappelle DVD was, you know, that was an indicator that you were into hip-hop, and you were racially progressive and liked audacious, bold comedy and satire, so as much as I roll my eyes at it a little bit, I have nice pants as a result.
SideReel: What do you think about the increasing hyperserialization of TV series? It seems like every show (comedy AND drama) has to have this kind of overarching storyline/mythology that carries across the entire series, which is a huge change from 10-15 years ago.
NB: It is in the boutique TV world, but in the Two and a Half Men/Big Bang Theory world, I don’t know. I think they’re on that same à la carte thing where you watch one episode and you’re pretty much done, like the Law & Order syndication model.
SideReel: I hate to keep harping on Louie, but I think it’s a really interesting kind of case. It seems like it’s the one show that’s kind of “cool” right now that doesn’t follow that same overarching mythology. Like whatever needs to be true in that episode is true whether it contradicts something that happened earlier.
NB: I think, yeah, I think it’s a choice you make. I don’t think Louis is counting on a big syndication deal, but I think that in a weird way, Netflix is a form of syndication.
SideReel: Quick, top 5 comedy series of all time
SideReel: You can; it’s pretty influential.
NB: Yeah, I guess I’d put it on there. That’s another one of those things where it’s not really mine to judge. Oh, uh, Jackass! I love Jackass. I’m still not completely over it. I think that’s probably the list. Is that five?
SideReel: I think that was five, yeah. What are your thoughts on @midnight? It seems to be a pretty big success and it’s certainly a showcase for comedians that Americans haven’t necessarily heard of.
NB: I think it’s a great idea for a show and I think it’s really easy to watch. There’s a thousand jokes per episode and it’s great. It’s filling a hole. It’s getting comedy from a new source in a way.
SideReel: I’ve been introduced to a lot of comedians I hadn’t necessarily heard of before and it just makes me far more aware of the innovative stuff that’s happening in the stand-up world right now.
NB: Yeah, there are just a lot of good comedians, there just are. There’s a lot of very funny, talented people, and you’re right, that’s a very good showcase of people you may not have heard of before. It’s just very easy to watch. That’s what I like about it. It’s like, here comes a joke, here comes a joke. Joke, joke, joke, joke. It’s great.
This interview has been condensed and edited.