From an early age, we’re taught to avoid hot-button issues around the dinner table to make mealtime a pleasant experience for everyone. But many of us have been there when some idiot uncle/cousin/sister/in-law/whoever mentions politics, religion or another taboo topic at a family function, leading to a main course shouting match, served up with a side of indigestion. So think of comedian Brett Gelman, host of the new Adult Swim special Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America, as an uncle provocateur. He’s there to prod, provoke and elicit laughs—but most of all, force some viewers away from their comfort zones to at least consider the country’s systemic racism.
Best known for his work on Adult Swim’s Eagleheart and the Comedy Central series Another Period, Gelman once again teams up with co-creator and director Jason Woliner to write and executive produce this installment (their third half-hour “dinner” following 2014’s Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends and last year’s Dinner with Family with Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family). Dinner in America explores race, with Gelman (who is white) leading a roundtable discussion with four black actors—Loretta Devine (The Carmichael Show), Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson), Joe Morton (Scandal) and Mack Wilds (The Wire). Though Gelman’s intentions at the outset may be innocent, his indirect racism and ignorant commentary snowballs and pushes Dinner in America way beyond alternative comedy into absurdist, confrontational television.
During a recent Adult Swim press day at Abso Lutely Productions (the Los Angeles-based film/TV company founded by Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and Dave Kneebone), Gelman and Woliner discuss why they felt compelled to take on such a charged subject. “This was an issue that we care a lot about, and that is a real embarrassment to our country,” says Gelman, the person (and not the character). “We felt like we should tackle [race] in a satirical way, but also in a dramatic way. If you notice there’s things in [Dinner in America] that are not funny at all.” That’s an understatement. Their goal, he adds, was to make the audience “feel the tragedy even more because of the false promise that it was going to be a comedy.”
With the current political and cultural climate, of course they had reservations. “Our big concern was that we’d be seen as making fun of this or laughing at it,” Gelman says. “We felt the only way to tell the story was to make my character a complete villain, but have him not know he’s a villain.” They strived to create a relatable character that engages in the “kind of evil that’s just about looking the other way, or going on with your life and pretending that there’s no problem,” Woliner says. “[Which] we are guilty of as white, straight men in America,” Gelman adds.
Gelman’s buffoonish on-screen alter ego accidentally offends his guests, even before any food can be served. The police are called when a crisis emerges, and without giving too much away, we’ll just say that shit gets real—very quickly—and the dinner devolves into disaster. By the end of the special, the audience won’t be laughing—that much is guaranteed.
Woliner explains that while their first two specials combined comedy with a touch of the psychological thriller and absurd horror, both he and Gelman wanted to address a larger socio-political issue in this special. “And we’re fortunate enough that Adult Swim let us do this because we also don’t think there’s a lot of places on TV that would just give us carte blanche to go for it on a subject like this,” Woliner says.
Despite filming the show with the actors over a single weekend, developing Dinner in America was a year-long project. “Man, for this 22 minutes, 24 minutes…this is like a feature film here,” Gelman jokes. “We went back and forth on things more than we ever have.” They admit that writing the script and the editing of the project took the longest—to the point of inanity—with four to five months of prep and four to five additional months for editing. “We edit our stuff longer than anyone else,” Woliner says. “We’re really stupid. We’re not efficient with our time.”
Before attending this Dinner, Woliner notes that all the actors involved in the show were sent a script, a letter from the producers and links to their other specials so that the performers understood the tone and the humor (or the lack thereof) in several of the more serious scenes. The actors largely performed the script as it was written, and didn’t offer many edits. “They didn’t, but my wife [filmmaker/designer Janicza Bravo], who is black, did help us a bit,” Gelman says. “Our number one concern was being responsible and saying something we didn’t mean to say.”
Gelman and Woliner had written, and then nixed, an original ending that featured on-screen Gelman as an overt villain—a truly evil, racist coward. Instead, they re-wrote the scene to highlight a more insidious, systemic racism. Gelman plays a more passive participant who hides then looks the other way. “It’s a clearer line to reality,” Woliner says. “People like us can just go about our lives and decide when to care about this, and when not to, while other people don’t have that luxury.” Regardless of how Dinner in America will be received, there is one certainty: The show will force its viewers to at least think and talk about race, in between uncomfortable laughs.
So, in a post-racial America (or at least after their special airs), Gelman and Woliner have been mulling over other future show topics. Gelman spouts a few subjects, including animal rights, meat eating, death, “maybe misogyny, homophobia, transphobia…” Woliner adds with a small laugh, “We’re not going to run out of problems.”
Sad, but true.
Dinner in America airs July 1 on Adult Swim.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter or “Instagram”:https://www.instagram.com/christineziemba/.