Depression is Like Anything Else — Neal Brennan Mic'd Up
Comedian and Chapelle's Show co-creator Neal Brennan opens up on how culture and society need to change perceptions of depression.
Script, Narration & Audio by Kevin Chau
Photos by Christopher Lim & Eugene Kan
Illustrations by Jeremy Leung
Script, Narration & Audio by Kevin Chau
Photos by Christopher Lim & Eugene Kan
Illustrations by Jeremy Leung
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Neal Brennan: I like talking about things you’re not supposed to talk about. I just find it interesting. I say in the special I have a little bit of gold. I say I have money and you’re not supposed to say that. It gets a laugh because you’re not supposed to say it to people and laugh at it, but I like saying, “I have depression. I’m a star-fucker.” I like saying that stuff, because again, it’s a bit of an 8 Mile thing where it’s like, I am white; I am a fucking bum; I do live in a trailer with my mom. You just sort of take people’s…What’s the worst thing you can say about me? Okay. I just said it. So what else do you have?
Kevin Chau: When the world gets uncomfortable it’s time to tell a joke. Comedy has always been a way to cope with and trivialize the demons that exist in our world. To laugh is the brief respite against the unfathomable. The result is never meant to offend and if it does, well, it only brings to focus issues we’ve sequestered away as a society. Comedians are the brave navigators to these truths. Neal Brennan, American comedian, writer, and director known for the recent Netflix special 3 Mics and Chappelle’s Show co-creator—yes, that Chappelle’s Show—has never shied from the truth and is so very uncomfortable. Those who tell the jokes, those who hover close to the chaos, while at first a visitor to the abyss, whether willingly or unwillingly, they tend to find themselves trapped with a permanent residency.
Neal: I feel like comedy belongs in a dark, dark, dank, moist place. It’s like the place where mushrooms…mushrooms and comedy grow next to each other. Whenever I see people in comedy getting dressed up I’m just like, “Eh, shit’s not funny.” You’re not getting funnier from going to the Emmys or the Oscars, like, you’re just not. It comes from pain, heartache, rejection, and humiliation.
Kevin: We’ve all heard of the comedic geniuses who died too soon. When the world gets uncomfortable, it’s time to tell a joke, but for those who tell these jokes maybe the world is too uncomfortable. As for Neal Brennan there’s been a lot of jokes to tell. Full disclosure though, before we begin, this episode contains a lot of course language. We were fortunate to meet up with Mr. Brennan in a chance encounter in Hong Kong, so shout out to James for this.
This story has been in the vault for some time, always a work in progress. Maybe it’s because of the subject matter, the complexity, or even the approach to the story itself, but there’s been this underlying question we found that hits close to home, especially since many of the friends we’ve met in the creative field or people in our family have expressed the same notions and concerns and ideas and issues. So we’ve talked to Neal about his comedy, his depression, how he’s dealt with it, and, at the same time, we’d like you to consider the correlation between depression and creativity.
Neal: I have a reputation for being blunt. The world is constantly talking to you and it’s mostly garbage. So it gives you a chance to be like, “Hey world, you’re so full of shit and here’s why,” and then you get to counter. You get to counter all the things the world’s telling you. The argumentative person in me loves that. I feel like people are in comedy because they’re like, “Well, what else are you going to do to me?” If I fail at this it’s still more interesting than if I fail at anything else. I’d rather fail at this than the other things I’ve been failing at.
And there’s a bit of…there’s something about doing standup that is suicidal. I liken it to jumping out of a plane and you just got to hope the chute opens. There’s a huge risk. But if you’re dissatisfied to begin with the risk is minimized, because you’re like, “I’m not flourishing now,” so I’d rather risk failure at that than this parade of failure that I’ve been involved in—the parade of boredom and failure and anonymity and desperation, quiet desperation that my life is now.
Kevin: To create, for some it’s for validation, others a catharsis, or even a bit of both, and overall an underlying need to express. One thing Neal is right about is the risk. It’s the price of admission and you really need to be this high to get on. But what motivates us to prove we have something inside? Is it ‘cause we have nothing to lose? Who are we doing it for? In this case, how did Neal Brennan’s Netflix comedy special 3 Mics come about?
Neal: I did an hour on Comedy Central called Women and Black Dudes that I’m a big fan of, I liked it a lot, but it didn’t really have much impact. So I knew like, alright, well, I’m not doing another just straight talking for an hour special, because no one cares.
Kevin: Today the Chappelle’s Show equals comedic cultural phenomenon and at some stage in your life someone probably shouted at you, “I’m Rick James, bitch.” Half hidden in the writing credits was Neal and, for the most part, Neal’s influence was not quite publicly known, even more so when the show abruptly ended. While some in the industry knew parts of the truth, there was a lot more to the story—a story that Neal felt compelled to tell.
Neal: I knew that I needed to kind of tell a fuller story of myself, because otherwise I’m just, like, Dave’s partner, at best. “You’re that dude who wrote the Chapelle’s Show and then you got into an argument with Dave.” Some people know that, some people don’t. So I wanted to talk about things that were not…kind of things that I wanted to…well, the depression part I wanted to just get out there.
Kevin: In recent years, the term “clinically depressed” has been thrown around casually as a punchline for sadness. Ironically, the conversation is taken way more seriously when it’s from an actual comedian talking about his own depression in earnest.
Neal: Whenever I would talk about it on podcasts people would be like, “Hey man, I really appreciate you talking about that,” so I knew that it would resonate with people. It has on Instagram, Twitter, on a daily basis, somebody—when the special first came out it was like ten people a day and now it’s one or two a day—people thanking me for talking about it. I’ve had people come up to me and be like, “Dude, now I feel like my wife will understand me better,” or “I understand my wife better.”
So that’s been great, because I don’t have any shame about depression. I don’t give a shit. It’s fucking like having high blood pressure or something. At least high blood pressure you probably ate too much sodium, I did nothing. It just happened to me. So I’m happy to talk about that. And then the middle one, the second one about star-fucking is being more open about wanting to do standup instead of just being a writer and being more self-determining.
I don’t care if I ever make a cool, a popular thing again if I’m happy, like I truly don’t care. I’d like to, but it comes down to, you know, it’s such a macabre thing to say, but we all fucking die.
Kevin: 3 Mics was part standup, part work in progress, and part confessional all done in-between the transition of three microphones on a stage. Now if you’ve seen it, you’ll notice that Neal was extremely heartfelt and candid and perhaps, by turning the topic inward towards himself, something other than laughter was taking place—empathy and understanding through a transformative and subversive body of work.
Neal: That was like a combination of telling on myself for being a star-fucker and also, I don’t know what the Olympic coverage on TV is like over here, but in America they always have a back story for the athletes. “His mom worked at the pool and he used to have to swim from midnight to 3:00 in the morning.” All those back stories make you appreciate the person. I felt like I needed to have some kind of back story, because otherwise it was like, “Who is this dude?” Like I said, it was, “He’s Dave’s old partner, but him and Dave got into a fight.” And no one’s going to side with me against Dave.
So it was like, alright, I just need to sort of explain who I am and how I got here and what led to this. Kind of letting people know, “Hey, you like me. You don’t know it, but you’ve liked the things I’ve done, so you could maybe give me a chance.”
I actually had a dream last night that I did another 3 Micsshow and people were like, “You’re doing it again?” and I was like, “Yeah!” But meanwhile I don’t have any more sad stories and I don’t have any more one liners so I kind of can’t do another 3 Mics show, but in my dreams I was doing it.
Kevin: When we finally got around to asking Neal about his depression and his thoughts about it, it’s funny to think about how guarded we were when we asked him. I mean, he was super open with it, super candid, but we approached each question like we were walking on glass. Thankfully, it’s with the same frank nature in which he connected with so many through his show that dispelled any furtive attitudes we had about this taboo subject. In retrospect, why were we so nervous about talking about depression?
Neal: Have you tried putting a bag over your…? It’s not…it’s not easily explained away. It’s also not a…it’s just not…it’s not like a choice that it’s like sneezing, where you are just like, “Oh you know what you got to do!” Yeah, I guess it’s just not a choice. It’s not. It’s just like a thing that…it’s an affliction, but it’s not like a thing that like, “You just got to run more. Have you been outside? You need fresh air!” It’s, “No, you need medicine.” It’s not like, “Well, I’m gonna tickle you.” It’s just another thing, like, you don’t need to go into the other room and talk about it in hushed tones.
It’s like anything else. That’s the evolution of society. Homosexuality is not a choice. You don’t need to be like, “I think he might be [whistles].” You know what I mean? Same with depression, you don’t need…it doesn’t need to be stigmatized in any way. It’s literally like—high blood pressure is not a good example—it’s like having sciatica or something. So it’s like, I need to do something about this, or like needing glasses. I’m not ashamed…although I am pretty ashamed of having to wear glasses, I’m kidding. I’ve actually gotten…I’m cuter with glasses, it turns out, so thanks guys.
If you just feel isolated or feel like you don’t get…I mean there’s plenty of things in society that I’m like, “I don’t get it.” But if there’s too many of them, if you don’t experience joy, if you see people enjoying themselves and you’re like, “I don’t get it,” you probably have depression. I can spot it. It’s like a countenance thing. It’s their overall energy or vibe. I can just be like, “Oh, you need medication.”
I feel like comedy belongs in a dark, dank, moist place. Mushrooms and comedy grow next to each other. Whenever I see people in comedy getting dressed up it’s like, ‘Eh, shit’s not funny.’ You’re not getting funnier from going to the Emmys or the Oscars. You’re just not. It comes from pain, heartache, rejection, humiliation.
Kevin: Neal’s been known to keep a handful of influential friends from the realm of entertainment and fashion. Therefore, he gets a firsthand look into the experiences of others. While these comments were made prior to Kanye West’s most recent reactivation of Twitter they suggest that there may be some subtle clues around what depression entails.
Neal: I can always tell when rappers are depressed. “Oh, you just need medication.” Like when everyone was saying Kanye was like, “Oh, Kanye!” I remember Chappelle and another buddy of mine had seen Kanye and said, “He seemed in great spirits!” and I was like, “No he didn’t. I can tell you he’s having a manic episode.” And they were like, “He’s in–,” “Nope, nope, having a manic episode. Needs medication.” And ended up I was right. It doesn’t give me any pleasure, but it’s, like, you can just tell, it’s like someone’s heat signature, whatever. Like, “Okay, yeah you have a little something.” What was funny is people saying, “Son, I didn’t know that shit about you!” People didn’t know. They thought I just didn’t give a fuck or they thought I was just quiet or they thought I was just…
Kevin: It’s clear that Neal thinks depression should be out in the open. Empathy over sympathy. That being said, depression isn’t simple and it’s not something you can just try to fix overnight. So where do we start?
Neal: I guess it’s, like, just don’t judge the person any more than you would judge them if they were near-sighted. Just accept them for…and it’s also that thing of like, “Smile. Why don’t you try smiling?” It’s not that simple. So yes, that’s the thing, I guess just be patient and don’t stigmatize them or feel bad about their thing. So that’s sort of where I’m coming from.
Kevin: For those who live outside the dark, their eyes never truly adjust. We want to see and there’s a frustration, because in a way there’s nothing we feel we can do. Empathy and compassion, while both virtues, both also take a knee to patience. Patience that there is perhaps something out there that can help. For Neal, this came through understanding that he had to do something about it. Enter medication.
Neal: People are like, “Oh, you take medication.” I’m like, “Dude, who do you think is better: an athlete that takes PEDs or not? Who do you think is better: someone on steroids or not on steroids?” I want to have more fun, I want to experience more, so I’ll take anything. I don’t think it’s cheating; I don’t think it’s a cop out; I don’t think it’s weak; I don’t think it’s any of that stuff. I think it’s just like, “Okay, cool.” I remember when I started taking Zoloft when I was like 23 and I said to a friend of mine like, “Hey I think I understand why people dance now.”
Kevin: For those unfamiliar, Zoloft is a prescribed antidepressant belonging to a group of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRIs, which affect chemicals in the brain that may be imbalanced in people with depression, anxiety, or compulsive symptoms.
Neal: Prior to that I just didn’t understand, like, “What are you doing? Why would you do that?” It’s a feeling of alienation and feeling different, that eventually you just go like, “They can’t all be wrong, like, the norm can’t be wrong.” The norm of, “Are we having fun?” Love and fun and happiness and all that stuff. I did Zoloft for, like, 9 years and it was great and then it stopped working. Then I tried probably five different pills and then ketamine. It’s a horse tranquilizer and people use it as an antidepressant now and it just didn’t work for me. It’s a drug; it’s like a heavy drug; it’s like a party drug. I think this dose was either a huge dose or a tiny dose. I don’t remember. And you’re in a doctor’s office tripping your fucking face off, but it just didn’t work for me long term.
The world is constantly talking to you and it’s mostly garbage. So it gives you a chance to be like, “Hey world, you’re so full of shit and here’s why,” and then you get to counter. You get to counter all the things the world’s telling you.
Kevin: So while medication works, it’s important to know that it’s not a solution, it’s not a solution. That sort of language is almost dismissive. The path to wellness is fraught with paths as complex as getting there and it’s important to know that if one thing works it might just be temporary. In Neal’s case it was a path of evolving experimentation to find out what worked best for him.
Neal: TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation, that’s the one where they hook a thing up to your head and sort of shoot MRI beams in your head, and that worked great. They just like shoot [makes sound effects] and it doesn’t feel like anything, it just feels like a weird tapping. And I’m back on…long story short: TMS worked, I wasn’t on anything then, speaking of performance-enhancing drugs, I was talking to a guy, he had some HGH that he could give me. It was like cream and I was like, “Yeah, I’ll take HGH.” So I started taking HGH; I was rubbing it on my arms. Within two weeks I was having panic attacks, which I’ve never had in my life. Stopped taking HGH, kept getting panic attacks, probably my worst moments were the week before 3 Mics I was getting panic attacks onstage and I was like, “What the fuck is happening.” It was crazy. And that was due to the HGH and all that stuff. But once I stopped taking it, it was cool.
Kevin: As Neal continued to talk about his experiences with his treatments, one underlying theme seems to permeate his motivations. Again there’s a feeling of wanting to be included, accepted, and understood, but more so with a sense of urgency. Cliché as it sounds, living in the now is something we all aspire towards, especially when one considers how short life is.
Neal: I was like on some “misery is way cooler” and now I’m like, I don’t care if I ever make a cool, a popular thing again if I’m happy, like I truly don’t care. I’d like to, but it comes down to, you know, it’s such a macabre thing to say, but we all fucking die. We all die. So like death is the equalizer. Meaning, there are certain people when they die you’re like, “Fuck! He can die?!” Trying to think of a good example of that. Prince! Where Prince I feel like, “Wait! What? Prince? Huh?”
There’s a woman who lives, literally lives next door to me in L.A., and she wrote a movie and I would always, whenever someone would come over, I’d go, “Guess what movie she wrote.” And people would go, “What?” I’d go, “E.T.!” “No one fucking wrote E.T.” “No, she did! And she just died.”
So like everyone dies. Shakespeare, dead. Mussolini, dead. Like, great, horrible. Some dude, some lady. First of all, this comedian named Garry Shandling died like a year ago and Garry was popular in the States and he had a popular TV show. He had a couple of popular TV shows and then after he did the TV show, for the last 15 years of his life he didn’t really work that much and he would meditate and box and he would go to Hawaii a bunch. Everyone thought it was kind of weird, but I was like, man, that’s the way to do it if you don’t have to work. And then he died.
I kept thinking like, “Oh well, he’s…” or I thought about Shakespeare and like, “Hey, you know what Shakespeare is right now? Mud.” So a lot of good it did him to like—not like he didn’t—I hope he had fun. That’s my only takeaway. Not, “What did he accomplish? What’s his legacy? What’s his…?” They still do his work. Good. Good for him. He’s still dead. And so I’m just more in touch with, like, I want to have fun today. Clearly on my terms. My standard for fun hasn’t changed. I consider writing fun. I consider doing standup fun. I consider arguing fun.
Kevin: While sadness is a great catalyst for creation wherein we might discover and heal through the process, it’s easy to forget this moment and focus on the expectations, like, “If I do X, I’ll get Y,” and in turn we’ll fall into a vicious cycle. We create because we’re sad, but stay that way since we judge our works results and thus ourselves. From there we continue to create each time further and further away from the original calling. However, if you do this cycle enough times, maybe, just maybe, you can learn and be aware of this perspective from the process.
Neal: I still don’t know what gives me inspiration, but I think perspective is never bad. So maybe it will, maybe it won’t. That’s the thing is…I’m trying not to see…in the last 6 months or so I’ve gotten way more sanguine, I think is the word. I’m way less work-oriented, so I’m more interested in “I want to have fun today.” I don’t want to…I don’t…I’m trying not to put my self-esteem in with my work stuff, which is what I did forever, which is what I did for my whole career and waiting for things to…
As I talked about in 3 Mics, I didn’t get a lot of support or self-worth from my father, especially, there was sort of competition and all this stuff. I was always, like, a lot of my inspiration for achievement was, “I’ll show them,” and then what you realize is no one’s even paying attention. No one’s…people, it’s sort of like, everyone’s running their own race and having their own sort of inner monologue and they’re barely…
Sometimes I’ll catch it when people introduce me at comedy shows. They’ll be like, “This guy…” and it’s very positive and I’m like, “Oh is that what people think of me?” Because I assume everyone thinks I’m like a fraud and so it was a bit of an engine for achievement. But like I said in 3 Mics it got me a lot of ego and adrenaline.
Now, there’s a Prince quote that I read in an article right after he died where he said, someone was like, “Write another hit so you can be a huge star again,” and he goes, “Look man, I’ve been to the mountaintop, there’s nothing there.” Which is great and no one ever says that.
There’s such a push to achieve things. I love in America when they go, “You gotta work hard and you gotta play hard.” It’s like, “I’m not going to fucking play hard. Shut up. Let me relax and enjoy myself.” So I say all this as somebody that’s fairly accomplished and has made some money. So it’s easy for me to go, “You guys, see, the thing is everyone should relax.” I don’t…I think everyone should relax, but at the same time it’s easier for me to say because I have some money.
Kevin: So does it ever get better? Are we having fun yet? What’s the point of it all? More importantly, who are we doing it for? Floating through time and frozen in a moment, we’re living in a culture of distraction vying for our finite attention, a momentary tonic for what ails us. And when our collective boredom isn’t being pulled apart, our ennui, by this need for validation, we might find ourselves asking, “Why am I doing this?” Perhaps it should be, “What am I doing? And in the end, does it even matter?” Ironically, for a comedian whose survival depends on whether people get it or not, Neal seems to get it the most.
Neal: You’re on the MAEKAN website and I’m Neal Brennan and I hope you fucking learned something. I don’t know what you came here for, but I hope whatever it was, whatever you came here for, I hope I delivered. Thank you.
Kevin: This story was written, produced, and mixed by myself, Kevin Chau, a.k.a. Gold Mountain. Photos of this story, which are visible on www.maekan.com were shot by Chris Lim and Eugene Kan. Illustrations are the work of Jeremy Leung. Thank you for that. The rest of the team includes Alex Maeland, Nathan Kan, Charis Poon, Elphick Wo, and Alek Rose. Thanks for listening, guys. Click here for sound and music credits.