You might be familiar with Brett Gelman from his appearances on Comedy Bang! Bang! and other podcasts, but I wasn’t fully introduced to his comedic prowess until I saw him live at SF Sketchfest earlier this year. His performance during Natasha Leggero’s show involved a hauntingly beautiful session of Beyoncé-worshipping that included a “soundscape” of her song “Halo” playing while Gelman passionately praised the beauty of Bey. The bit was in the style of what he and Cyrus Ghahremani (a.k.a. King Cyrus King) do on Gelman’s own podcast “Gelmania.”
“That bit was about how much I loved that song and how perfect she is in her music,” says Gelman with a little giggle. “[Cyrus] is really brilliant about how he can put together a whole soundscape very fast, and I just follow him.”
Gelman then continues to talk about Beyoncé. He calls her a “beacon of perfection” and says how he loves “Drunk in Love” and “Partition”—you know, her nastier songs. Then he starts to get deep with her music, specifically “Halo,” applying the track to re-evaluating his friendships and how the song is about wanting so much more from the other person.
And that’s the thing about Gelman. When you talk to him he takes you on this meandering adventure of “yes, and” conversation, which makes sense because of the Illinois native’s improv background at the Upright Citizens Brigade, where he has performed for over 10 years. It’s Gelman’s nature to take a topic and continuously add to it, making it a little absurd, thoughtful, funny and relevant to his own life as he goes along. Please, don’t even get him started on his love of Scandal.
After gabbing about Beyoncé like two teenage girls, I steer the conversation toward Gelman’s multi-faceted career in comedy. He’s been in the game for a while, and few garner more respect from their comedic peers. He’s written plenty, notably for the comedy sketch series Human Giant starring Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer, as well as for the Comedy Central sketch special This Show Will Get you High, created fellow UCB man Matt Besser. Before all that Gelman went viral as one half of the comedic rap duo Cracked Out. Needless to say, the comedy scene has changed since he started, as has his own approach.
“I’ve always come from an ‘asking place,” he says. “I ask, ‘What is this character and what is going on here?’ [I try] not be so worried about if it’s funny or not. I’ve always been an actor, even when I was doing improv and my own version of stand up.”
His acting-before-comedy philosophy has given Gelman an IMDb page filled with more TV shows, movies, writing credits and Funny or Die shorts than it’s even possible to keep up with. He’s an Adult Swim denizen, currently starring alongside Chris Elliott as “human bat” Brett Mobley in Eagleheart, a parody on Walker, Texas Ranger. Also on Adult Swim is his show Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman & Friends, in which he plays a sociopathic dinner host version of himself to actors like Alison Pill and Alex Karpovsky. In terms of broad comedy, he may be recognized from NBC’s Go On or his roles in movies like The Other Guys and 30 Minutes or Less.
That said, Gelman is a highly circulated name in the comedy nerd world. Even though he is associated with a lot of cult comedy groups, he still kind of occupies his own niche within the niche community. On the other side of the coin, he’s one of those comedic actors that you might see in a popular TV show or movie and recognize his bearded face but not his name—one of THOSE guys. He is a comedian who has one foot in the alternative comedy world, but who pokes his head into the wonderful world of broad comedy with a big and endearing, albeit mischievous, smile.
His role in the new FX comedy Married, which premieres July 17, could serve to further bridge this gap between Gelman’s career in niche and broad comedy. In it, Gelman stars opposite Nat Faxon, Judy Greer and Jenny Slate as A.J., a jaded yet disgruntled victim of divorce who he describes as the result of “George Costanza fucking Iggy Pop,” which may be the greatest character description of all time.
With shows like Louie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Archer, FX is not too cult-y like Adult Swim and yet it’s still not a major network, making it the perfect landing spot for Gelman’s brand of comedy. It’s a comic-friendly network that is willing to take risks with specialized shows that normally might be targeted for niche audiences and package them so that mainstream audiences can enjoy a different kind of humor than what they might be used to getting through network sitcoms or major motion pictures. Again, this is to Gelman’s benefit.
“I think it’s good news that cable television is so, so supportive of the Louis C.K.s, the Lena Dunhams, the Matthew Weiners and the Vince Gilligans,” says Gelman. “There’s just so many people fearlessly making their stuff, you know?”
He’s had small parts in shows of a similar ilk, including The League, Happy Endings and The Office, but the one defining difference is that on Married he is a series regular. Working with the show’s creator, Andrew Gurland proved to cater towards Gelman’s skills.
“I’ve never worked on something where the lines between [improv and scripted acting] were so blurred,” he says. “Andrew Gurland is so precise and, again, such an amazing writer, but then he’s also really honest with himself and what he is seeing. It was really searching for just the best way the scene could be done.”
Working in such an environment allows Gelman to practice his acting-before-comedy philosophy even more. He says that sometimes everything was from the page and sometimes it was the cast doing improvising, a healthy mix for someone well-versed in both styles of comedy like Gelman.
When it comes down to it, though, the jokes in comedy aren’t Gelman’s main concern. It’s all about the “humor of the moment” and listening. He says you can get a lot of laughs off of how you listen to somebody as much as what you say. “It’s just trying to become a better actor and really fully commit to what’s going on in the scene,” he says. “[I try] not to be so worried about whether something is funny or not. If you just trust that it’s supposed to be funny, it will be.”
Brett, we trust you.