Brett Gelman on Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman's Comedy

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After talking to Brett Gelman for about thirty minutes I think I can say he’s not that much like the characters he plays on TV. If he is he hides it well over the phone, where he’s polite and gracious and never once tries to kill me. That is a good thing, of course, as his characters are usually frightening. Few comedians today can match Gelman when it comes to portraying either wild-eyed mania or an extreme lack of intelligence. You’ve seen it in his work in Eagleheart, NBC’s Go On and FX’s Married, but the purest distillation of Gelman on TV can be found in his Adult Swim specials. His second half hour special, Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family, airs on Adult Swim at 12:30 AM ET on February 13. Also starring legends Tony Roberts and Patti LuPone, it’s a dark sequel to last year’s equally dark Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman and Friends, which is some of the blackest comedy I’ve ever seen on TV. Both are hilarious and incredibly hard to watch, and below Gelman explains why it’s important for comedy to make us confront the darkness.

Paste: Why would we want to come eat with you?

Brett Gelman: Why would you want to come eat with me? I think you’re going to experience some things that you haven’t experienced at a dinner before. You know, a lot of emotion, a lot of new ideas, new ways of looking at things. You’ll experience a lot of childhood trauma as well. And I think sometimes in life we have to do that: to really face our trauma and deal with it so we can move forward.

Paste: So it could be cathartic for us then?

Gelman: No, I think Dinner with Family stands on its own, but I think you’ll have more of an understanding of it. Perhaps a different, deeper understanding with it. I mean, it is a companion piece, but it’s not like you won’t understand what’s going on. But I would recommend watching the first one. One specific thing I would say is mine and Anthony Atamanuik’s character, who played Joey in the last special, there’s sort of a reference to that, but even if you didn’t see the last special, it’s not like it would hold back your enjoyment of the new one at all.

Paste: So Friends was really dark and shocking, kind of in that Adult Swim way. How do you one-up that with Family? Or have you just gone in a totally different direction with it?

Gelman: No, we definitely go in a dark direction. I would say that some of the stuff in this special does the most unsettling things that have ever been on television. And I think it’s darker because there’s a lot of people—and these are people who have great relationships with their families, I certainly did—it’s very easy to make it a subject of darkness because they’re the first people that you ever know. And you come out like a being knowing nothing and being open to everything, so everything is immediately traumatic. No matter what parents do, they’re screwed. They’re going to traumatize their children. Just the actual act of birthing them is a traumatic event. They’re thrust from the perfect world of the womb and then brought into a complete, unstable reality.

Paste: What do you think your parents would think of the show?

Gelman: My parents? Well, it’s not autobiographical, but my mother doesn’t like it when I get too dark. So, I think that she would be very upset by this. I’ve already told her that she should wait a little bit to watch. She should wait until she’s feeling very, very positive until she watches it because, you know, nobody likes to see their son behave the way I do at times. By no means would she be upset by the content or think that it had anything to do with her. Thank God. I mean, I hope not or I got a real fucking problem on my hands. A Jewish mother feeling betrayed is never a good thing. That’s not a good thing, not something you want to deal with, man.

Paste: You deal with that kind of darkness a lot. Like Eagleheart was pretty violent, too. What’s the appeal of that as a comedian?

Gelman: I think it’s laughing at all the horrors of life. I know everybody says that, but I think it’s good to take what really scares us and what bothers us, and blow that out in order so that we can kind of take the sting out of it, like Joan Rivers did. You got to laugh at the dragon. So it’s taking all of these dark things—and what me and Jason also like to do is really embody that with these specials, and just see how dark we can go and see how much we can blur the line. And this isn’t dark just in a scary, violent way. It really does have to do with the issues of being a kid, being a parent and all the things that can go wrong. Like, what are we supposed to joke about? How great everything is? I mean, that’s boring. It’s like whenever anybody says a comedic character’s unlikeable, like, “Well, what do you want to watch? A perfect person just being nice to people all day?” That’s not exciting. People only say that because they feel a personal twinge from a particularly offensive thing they’re watching. It’s pretty interesting that—and I am by no means the first person to say this—but what most people get freaked out about is sex. So, why sex more than violence? Well, most people have sex, but most people don’t kill people. So, you’re seeing actual things that you experience and that you’re about come into play, I think it starts to hit home and that’s when people get upset.

Paste: So what scares you?

Gelman: What scares me?

Paste: Yeah.

Gelman: Death. Disease. Failure. Loneliness. Having a tragically flawed personality that you can’t do anything about that leads to your own ruin. I’m scared I got one of those. Cataclysmic events, people being rude to me, I’m afraid of. People hurting the people I care about, I’m afraid of that, too. I’m afraid of just getting out of bed some mornings, you know? But then I’m also afraid of lying in bed some mornings so, you know, it all balances out. Gets me active.

Paste: So on set, who had better stories: Tony Roberts or Patti LuPone?

Gelman: Oh, I think it’s a draw. It’s a total draw. They both are legends. Collectively, they worked with every hero of mine and they are heroes of mine, so it was insane. I could not believe that Jason [Woliner] and I got the two of them to do this and say these things. Yeah, they had incredible stories. Stuff about everybody from Woody [Allen] to John Cassavetes. It was very cool. Tony started out being a straight man in a play with Milton Berle. When you’re getting Milton Berle stories, you feel like you’re running in a different league.

Paste: So you mentioned Jason Woliner a few times—you’ve worked a lot with him—what makes him a good collaborator?

Gelman: Jason and I make each other laugh really, really hard. We really find a lot of similar things funny, and I think that we push each other. He’s got big balls. He’s a very brave writer and director, so he’s willing to—we’re both willing to take it farther than what we think people definitely will like. We’re both willing to take that risk of, “Well, this is what we like. Hopefully other people will like it.” But we’re fully realistic that sometimes it will not ring enjoyable for certain people. So not giving a shit about that, and still doing it and still making the choice to make what we make, is very freeing. So, it’s a blast. We both feel like we’re getting away with something illegal here because we get to take things so far in the special.

Paste: So that type of comedy that you do didn’t really exist on TV that much until the last couple of decades. If you were a little older, and came around at an earlier time, before cable and podcasts or the internet opened up opportunities that expanded what comedians could get away with, do you think you would be doing comedy? Do you think your comedy would be different than what you do today?

Gelman: I definitely would be doing comedy because I like to do different tones, and the thing is, is that even if you do something that is really, really wholesome, if it’s good it’s got some darkness in there, there’s something going on. It’s not necessarily conscious, but everybody is taking in. And it’s not necessarily dark. It goes beyond that. Like, some deep truth of life I think every great comedian holds and is acting from. There were certain things being done in the 80’s that still most people aren’t even really touching on that much. I mean, the things that were being done by Andy Kauffman, Chris Elliott are pretty hardcore, I feel. And in some ways, some things were more hardcore than they are now. In some ways, a lot of comedy is very conservative and very bent on pleasing. Even the “cruel comedy” is that way. But Adult Swim is different and a lot of the people on Adult Swim are coming at us in a way that nobody else really has to that extreme. People like Eric André and Tim and Eric.

Paste: When I was a kid, I’d see The Young Ones reruns on MTV, and that would kind of blow my mind. Or when Get a Life started, I didn’t know you could do that type of stuff on TV. And it just seems that until Get a Life, there really wasn’t anything on network TV like that. And now there’s so much—so many channels—that will just let people do stuff they want to do, and it’s kind of a great time to be around, you know?

Gelman: Yeah, it’s really amazing. I can’t believe that there’s a network that lets Jason and I put this on television. Adult Swim is so supportive of the people and they let you really go for it. And they’ve proven that that works. I don’t know why more people don’t follow their model.

Paste: And Chris Elliott again: those one-off specials he did—I don’t know if it was for Cinemax or Showtime—

Gelman: It was for Cinemax, yeah.

Paste: Action Family and the FDR: A One Man Show, like that half-hour episode of a show that will never exist again, are the kinds of thing that no one did until, it seems, recently.

Gelman: Even Late Night with David Letterman. The whole show in general. David Letterman’s medium in general. It’s just so balls-out. “I’m going to take a break. Larry ‘Bud’ Melman’s going to host the show,” and then he goes and he watches the rest of the show in a little room on a small TV while he eats a sandwich. Nobody did that. So, there are these people that pop up and it’s pretty exciting because it seems like that more comedians are being given the opportunity to do that is because of Adult Swim and the internet. They’re getting more noticed.

Paste: What was it like to work with Chris Elliott on Eagleheart?

Gelman: Amazing. One of my heroes. He’s like my big, bully brother. I’ve never had my balls broken as hardcore as Chris did. Just, just brutal. Constant. I am so tough now. I mean, people try to fuck with me and I just look at them, and I laugh in their face and I say, “What do you think you’re doing? You’ll never get through. I worked with Chris Elliott.” Anyway, he’d tell me how terrible I was all the time and how fat I was. And I didn’t even know if he was joking! Maybe he wasn’t! But it was really fucking funny, I’ll tell you that much.

Paste: Earlier you mentioned how you like to work in different tones—my wife, she couldn’t handle Eagleheart, but she liked Go On when that was on. So, I know you’ve been on a few sitcoms, you do lots of cameos, you do your specials, like, as a comedian, as someone who’s creative, what do you prefer: spending time with a character or the freedom to just work on as many different characters as you can?

Gelman: As long as the character’s great, I just love it. As long as I love the character. And now, as someone in the position that I only get to do characters that I really like, I don’t have to do a character that I’m not cool with. Obviously, you take certain jobs for business reasons, and you’re like, “Well, this person’s involved, or all these people will see this and then the public will see this piece of shit.” Then I’ll get them to see the good stuff that me and my friends make that I’m in. But then usually, the shitty stuff is just forgotten anyway. So in that way it sucks because it’s like, “Oh, this is just a giant waste of my time.” As far as the networks that come—in order to do that again, I think I would either need to be broke or it would have to be like Seinfeld in order for me to pursue something like that. It’d have to be really, really special. I’m excited for Will Forte’s new show. I feel like that’ll maybe be that type of thing, where somehow they got in under the radar and are able to have complete creative control. Well, not complete, I’m sure, but somewhat more than the usual network situation. But, yeah, it’s good to be able to do lots of things, but a great character, you never get sick of.

Paste: With Go On, that did seem like a pretty Gelman-type role. Did you have creative input or was that just a job?

Gelman: No, those were great writers. Scott Silveri is an incredible writer and he had really talented writers writing for that show. I don’t know; it’s just one of those things—they got the character. They created it but, they got what they themselves created. They hooked into the pervertedness of it; they weren’t afraid of that. I wanted to come at it from the get-go that he wasn’t just crazy. I wanted something to be fueling him. So, a lot of that had to do with him being sexually weird and then just being completely out of it at times. I think a lot of things that fueled him was that intensity to be liked, especially by Matthew Perry. I just felt that they really locked into the absurdity of that character, and it was sort of cool to kind of play these sort of iconic type of sitcom character, like Reverend Jim or Kramer. Just total crazy guys, but you’ve got to have a real place where that’s coming from or else it sucks.

Paste: Is there anything about Dinner with Family that you wanted to mention?

Gelman: Don’t be eating while you watch it. You’ll have, at the best, indigestion. Extreme indigestion.

Paste: Also it’s on at midnight and you gain more weight if you eat that late.

Gelman: That’s true. You gain more weight if you’re experiencing high levels of anxiety while you shovel food into your face.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.

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