"It's a tragedy masquerading as a comedy," says director Derek DelGaudio of Neal Brennan's latest solo show. In Neal Brennan: Unacceptable, now running at Cherry Lane Theatre, the writer and stand-up comedian examines his own personality in an attempt to understand why he doesn't "fit in."
The two had never worked together before, but Brennan reached out to DelGaudio to direct. "The list of people who've done good one person shows can be counted on one hand," he said. "Derek is the thumb." (DelGaudio's own solo show, In & Of Itself, about the illusion of one's identity, ran Off-Broadway from 2016–2018.)
Brennan's previous solo show, 3 MICS, premiered Off-Broadway in 2016 and was filmed for a 2017 Netflix special. He is a three-time Emmy nominee for his work on Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show. Brennan can currently be seen on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, where he serves as a writer, creative consultant, and on-air correspondent.
Playbill chatted with Brennan and DelGaudio about categories and roles, and why the exploration of identity is a good topic for mining.
You both wear many hats…actor, director, writer, producer, storyteller, magician, comedian…Neal, you even appear as yourself in a national credit card commercial. How do navigate those roles?
Neal Breannan: I don't do that much ultimately. The credit card commercial was one I directed and decided to jump into because it was easier than watching casting tapes. We shot it last summer, they just haven't stopped airing it for a year so it seems like harder work than it was. Took an hour to film my part.
Derek DelGaudio: It's all one job: Make great art. Sometimes that requires a different hat, but it's all one job. And you do what it takes to get it done.
Are all those roles ever clearly defined?
Brennan: The roles can be clearly defined but ultimately, it's just trying to make the thing better. If we do it as a writer, actor or director, it's all the same goal. I would imagine a nice part for Derek is that as a director on Unacceptable he doesn't have to show up every night once we started going. Must be a nice change of pace from his show, which he did over 700 times.
DelGaudio: We both bring everything we have to the table. When Neal is on stage performing, he trusts me to guide him. But I'm always watching as someone who knows what it's like to be on stage. And he's on stage with a director's eye. Working with someone who knows how to do your job makes for better work. You cut through the bullshit quicker and get to the heart of the thing.
How did you establish your roles when collaborating with each other?
Brennan: Derek did it with verbal abuse. Whenever my lunch would come, Derek would grab it, take a bite from it and then hand it to me. I kid.
DelGaudio: Carefully. It takes time to earn creative trust. We both respected each other's work, but that's different than respecting each other's process. We both had to learn how the other works.
Derek, how a person sees themselves was the major theme for In & Of Itself, and Neal, with Unacceptable, you talk about your perception of self and the things that have prevented you from fitting into groups. What is it about the self-exploration of identity that made it such good fodder for each of your solo shows?
Brennan: Ultimately it's the most important relationship we'll ever have. Even when I'm talking to other people, I'm talking to myself. We can't get away from ourselves. We're our own conjoined twins. Our relationship with ourselves is relentless. It's dizzying to think about.
DelGaudio: Everyone questions who they are. It's one of the few battles we all face.
Let’s talk about the intersection of stand-up and the theatrical solo show. What is it that makes a show cross from one category into another?
Brennan: I would say it's about being more than just funny. It's about experiencing an emotional arc or narrative onstage. My shows so far have been less narrative and more about exploring feelings or relationships.
DelGaudio: If you remove all the jokes, there's still something of value.
Has working on Unacceptable changed or enlightened how you see yourself, and how so?
Brennan: It's a little early to say, but I feel like it's helping me accept myself more. Which is excellent and incredibly corny.
DelGaudio: In the movie Free Solo, Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan without ropes while his friends watched helplessly. Before working with Neal, I related Alex. Now I understand what it's like to watch him climb.
For more information, visit UnacceptableShow.com.