‘Approval Matrix’s’ Neal Brennan on Being the ‘Bill Maher for Cultural Stuff’


For a pop culture aficionado, one of the most popular magazine features is New York’s back-of-book Approval Matrix grid that ranks dinner party-worthy factoids based on where they fall between highbrow and lowbrow and despicable and brilliant.

Of course, what’s brilliant and what’s not so hot is open to debate, so SundanceTV started one. Premiering at August 11 at 11 p.m.,  host Neal Brennan (“Chappelle’s Show” “Inside Amy Schumer”) invites a panel of guests each week for six episodes to ruminate on where various people and topics fall on the spectrum. Each episode has a different theme, ranging from entertainment (Is this really the golden age of television?) to the more serious (Can Donald Sterling say what he wants in the privacy of his own home?). Prerecorded segments also offer glimpses into Jon Stewart, Chris Rock or other high-profile comedians’ takes on the topic.

Brennan is aware that this style of programming may sound slightly familiar. Here, he expands on how his show stands out from the crowd.

How did the show come about?

Michael Hirschorn, the exec producer, optioned it awhile ago. They tried with Bravo and it didn’t quite pop there and Sundance needed a show to go with the Writers’ Room. I got involved and they did a dragnet of people.

Most of your TV work is as a comedy writer and director. Why did you want to get in front of the camera?

In comedy, if you’re not the host then you’re kind of not in charge. You’re basically beholden to the host and you have to make the host happy. I was sort of happy I’d rather be a host and do jokes than be a second in command.

I did a show in Dave Chappelle and that ended chaotically, so I thought, “how can I avoid that?”

The show’s format of a host and four experts speaking on a subject is similar to say, “Real Time with Bill Maher” or trivia shows in the U.K. How did your show’s style come about?

I think it’s more to do with Bill Maher than those British shows … I want to do a dumb Bill Maher. I think it’s a Bill Maher for cultural stuff. Hopefully, there’s a level of intelligence to it and you can go from there.

Not all the show’s topics are pop culture-related. How did you choose which topics would you like to cover?

It’s sort of stuff we’d find ourselves talking about when we were trying to come up with themes; stuff you could talk about for half an hour. It couldn’t be topical topical or “in the news this week” — it’s this year or this era because we filmed in late June.

You seem to have chosen commentators based on each episode’s theme, such as “Orange is the New Black” and “American Pie’s” Jason Biggs appearing in an episode about celebrity.

Some of them were thematic. I think we got lucky in terms of people. Jason Biggs, I thought he was interesting and good.

You actually disagreed with Jon Stewart in one of the episodes …

I’ve known Jon since before he had a show on MTV. He is a paragon of justice, truth and comedy, but he’s also some dude I know.

Where there any topics you felt the show didn’t get to cover?

We only had six good ideas. There are only six good ideas out there in the world.

I think Shakespeare had that problem too (well, seven).

Yeah, that was his whole idea.

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