Life is hard. We’ve heard that line before and likely had the sentiment proven true time and time again throughout our days. But how we cope when bummers and rainy days storm on us is either what propels us towards victories or plummets us into incurable depths.
For director, writer, and comedian Neal Brennan, it’s the ability to find humor in a life full of problems ranging from daddy issues to depression (requiring the aid of both a psychiatrist and a psychologist) to dealing with a professional career in show business as being the guy next to the guy; he’s best known for co-writing Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show with its star Dave Chappelle. The pop phenomenon flamed out after two seasons, when Chappelle wasn’t sure if his audience—increasingly becoming white—was laughing with or at him as he performed his, at times, racially controversial sketches.
When the show wrapped, Brennan’s gut urged him to step into the spotlight himself, which meant starting from ground zero as an open mic comedian after directing and writing one of the best sketch comedy shows of all time. He jokes in his new Netflix stand-up special Neal Brennan: 3 Mics that a friend said hIs career trajectory was Benjamin Button-like, because it’s going in reverse order. But 3 Mics is proof positive that his career is, in fact, moving forward.
Mics features a skillfully managed stage set. Brennan sidesteps to three different microphones, each with its own purpose. Stage right is for quick, no-context one-liners: “The little league world series. Or as pedophiles call it: The world series.”). Stage left is dedicated to standard stand-up (bits about college loans, being in the grocery store with a concealed weapon). But the most impactful content comes from the center mic’, where he earnestly talks to the audience about his bouts with depression and a father that didn’t love him.
Often these monologues are so intimate that I felt uncomfortable being privied to such vivid details of his life, like finding out what it was like to see his dying father for the last time in the hospital and learning about their final discussion.
Finding a way for us to laugh at his depression, Neal explains that Black people enjoyed his beaten down spirit. “Always,” he recalls matter of factly of their reverence. “They’d be like, ‘Neal, man, you don’t give a fuck!’ And I always want to say, ‘Well, that’s because I’m sad.” I love his dry, witty humor. Just as it seems we’re all about to be swallowed up by his misery, in comes Breenan with a light quip to rope us out of the quicksand.
Towards the conclusion of 3 Mics, Breenan, again at center microphone, speaks about that drowning feeling. A joke, to him, is like being blessed with an air bubble as he’s flailing in a sea of despair. “For a second, things slow down and I can win,” he says, as he pretends to inhale a small bit of oxygen on stage. “It’s something I’m so grateful for… Jokes.”
We all have our own struggles, though not everyone finds the tools to deal with them. God only knows if Neal would still be with us if he didn’t have comedy. And that was a mighty big gut punch that hit me as the credits rolled with Electric Guest’s “See the Light” (what a beautiful song that is, by the way) playing. I sat on my couch at midnight, dead serious after steadily letting belly laughs loose for an hour.
How many people aren’t as fortunate as he was to find humor or whatever it is that could help them endure life when shit’s not going their way and looking bleak? A lot, right? Suicide is essentially what people do when joy, faith, and optimism have left the building for good. Here’s hoping that we all can find the gift that helps brighten things up. Or help someone find theirs. Or actually be someone’s light. As Neal shows with 3 Mics, every little bit helps.