Writer, director and producer Neal Brennan is stepping in front of the camera for his latest endeavor: host of “The Approval Matrix,” a zeitgeisty zinger of a panel show debuting at 10 p.m. Monday on Sundance TV.
Based on New York magazine’s back page feature by the same name, the cable TV chatfest enlists a rotating group of guests debating hot pop-culture topics and slotting them into the categories of highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant and despicable.
“It activates a discussion,” Brennan said about the “Approval Matrix’s” deliberately oversimplified conceit.
“I would describe the show as a little bit smarter than ‘Chelsea Lately,’ not as smart as ‘Bill Maher,’ ” added Brennan, who lived in Wilmette until high school, when his family moved to Philadelphia.
Like the aforementioned hosts, Brennan has strong opinions. And he’s not afraid to share them.
He calls Donald Sterling a piece of garbage — but that doesn’t mean the embattled L.A. Clippers’ owner should have been rung up for spouting racist talk in the privacy of his home.
“I’m glad that he’s getting defrocked or they’re taking the team away, but I also agree with the fact that he keeps appealing it,” said Brennan, who debates the issue in an “Approval Matrix” episode with his friend and “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. “They should have gotten him on the housing discrimination stuff but they ended up getting him saying racist things in his house. To me, that’s an American right.”
Brennan also thinks “Girls” creator Lena Dunham and “Saturday Night Live” caved in to Internet pressure by casting African-Americans — Donald Glover in season two of “Girls,” Sasheer Zamata this year on “SNL” — arguing that art should be exempt from affirmative action. (Panelist Julie Klausner, a podcaster and comedian, rebutted that “it was kind of embarrassing that we had a black first lady before we had a black [‘SNL’] cast member to portray her on that show.”)
Topics covered in the six-episode first season include the current golden age of TV, in which Brennan calls Louis CK’s critically lauded FX comedy “the kale of television,” a show people like to say they watch more than they like to watch.
Another half-hour “Approval Matrix” episode probes whether technology is making us the worst people in the history of mankind, snapping endless strings of selfies and engaging in constant self-aggrandizement.
A taped segment with Stewart is part of the episode examining America’s hall monitor culture and our increasing need to call out bad behavior for public shaming. Brennan does similar one-on-one interviews with Chris Rock and Amy Poehler.
Panelists on the show include Chicago stand-up comic Hannibal Buress (“Broad City”), Evanston-born “Today” co-anchor Willie Geist and “Orange Is the New Black” actor Jason Biggs, who’s been known to step in it on Twitter.
Another “Approval Matrix” voice comes from comedian Donnell Rawlings, a former cast member of “Chappelle’s Show.” Brennan co-created that Comedy Central series with Dave Chappelle in 2003.
The youngest of 10 children, Brennan started his career in the mid-’90s as a writer on the MTV dating show “Singled Out.” Twenty years old at the time, he landed there after lasting only a year at NYU Film School, where he quickly realized a) he didn’t like film students and b) he needed to write something.
“That’s the only way to break in,” said Brennan, who also penned the stoner comedy flick “Half Baked” (1998).
A stand-up comic in his own right, Brennan fronted an hourlong special, “Women and Black Dudes,” that premiered earlier this year on Comedy Central.
He’s performed a few times at the Laugh Factory in Chicago, where many of his brothers and sisters still live.
“I’ll come in for weddings, funerals, christenings,” said the L.A. resident and vegan, whose favorite local restaurant is the Chicago Diner on the North Side.
“For a city that prides itself on its love of meat,” he said, “Chicago’s not bad.”