Brett Gelman has some uniquely odd and intriguing ideas about comedy, and — thankfully — he’s found many different platforms to support them. The Illinois native and UCBC veteran has guest starred on many of the last decade’s greatest comedies — TV or film — including “The Colbert Report,” “The Other Guys,” “Happy Endings,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Bored to Death,” and “The Office.” Though everyone will have their favorite role, the thick-bearded comic is best known for either his role on Matthew Perry’s NBC show “Go On” or as Brett Mobley on the Adult Swim series “Eagleheart.” Gelman has again paired up with the late night comedy network for a half-hour special titled “Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman and Friends,” a midnight premiere described as “a lively night of dining, showbiz chit-chat, and pyschological torture.” Gelman took a few minutes to discuss why he drew on the films of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke for his upcoming comedy special, how his approach to a role varies depending on the network, and why filmmakers should be learning a thing or two from TV these days.
I’m very curious about your latest project, “Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman and Friends.” How did it come to fruition?
Well, it really started with Jason Wollner who co-wrote it and directed it. He had this idea of a standup performance around a dinner table. All the parties involved quickly realized that this would really be way too annoying so it turned into more of this conceit of the Jon Favreau, “Dinner for Five” type of show that quickly descends into a full on psychological thriller. And I really wanted to mess with how far we could take something and what the effect of that would be. I mean, not to get too hoity-toity about me screaming around a dinner table, but you know, we really wanted a lot of it to be funny while having the scary parts be really frightening, have the disturbing parts be really disturbing. Just, you know, we were drawing as much from people like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier as we were from Billy Murray and Harold Ramis. […] It’s very fun to work in a space where, “Oh, I don’t know if this is funny, but if we do it 100 percent it’s going to affect people.” So that’s what we were really going for with this special.
You’ve cast quite an eclectic group. How did you go about selecting them?
All six of those people are some of my favorite actors. I think that Fred Melamed’s performance in “A Serious Man” is one of the best performances I’ve seen on screen in the last 10 years, and the same with Dale Dickey in “Winter’s Bone.” Lance Reddick, I’m such a huge “Wire” fan. Alex Karpovsky I love on “Girls.” And Alison just her whole body of work, on “The Newsroom,” but also the way she’s popped up and done so many distinctive performances, “Milk,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “Scott Pilgrim,” where she always stands out and is just an insanely interesting character. And Gilbert Gottfried I think is just the most underappreciated comedian in the world. I think that he doesn’t get enough credit for how funny he is. To me, he’s funny on the level of Rodney Dangerfield or Don Rickles or Joan Rivers. We just really wanted to put him in a situation — I mean, we joked about it because we’d never be this arrogant, but kind of what Woody Allen did with [Andrew] Dice [Clay] in “Blue Jasmine.” In our own little way, we wanted people to see Gilbert that way after they watched this special. So it’s just a dream cast, and they were all so down. This is a half-hour episode shoot over two days. I mean, they gave up their weekend to come do it.
I see each of the actors’ character names are the same as their actual names. Are they playing exaggerated versions of themselves kind of like “This is the End”?
They basically are extensions of themselves. I would relate it to “This Is the End” in a way, but we’re not really making comments on their personality or their careers at all. It’s pretty simple that they are themselves stuck in this situation. It’s a pretty fast ride. And with me I’m a pretty exaggerated version of myself. I’m basically doing a performance the whole time for them, and you don’t ever know what the real me is, I would say. Even when I’m at my most psychotic, [you ask] “Well, is that also a character?” So they really hit not only being really terrified and upset and confused, but really the whole dumbfoundedness of, “Who is this guy that’s doing this to us, and what’s going to happen next?” Had they not bought into that and committed to that fully, I don’t think it would have worked like it did. The tension building is so much on them and how they process the awful shit that I’m doing to them. [laughs] […] It really is set up like a horror film, but it all takes place in this one room.
You’ve worked on so many different TV series various budgets and expectations. Does your approach to a role change depending on what network you’re working on?
I think you always have to start with who the character is and where the character’s coming from. That stretches across the board whether it’s “Go On” or “Eagle Heart.” But every show has its own tone. It just depends. An NBC sitcom is less naturalistic than even this special in a lot of ways. So you want to always be truthful, but you have to match the style. Doing Arthur Miller isn’t necessarily the same thing as doing Shakespeare in one way, but it is in another way, too. You always have to find the truthful core to the character because you never ever, no matter how silly I’m acting or “crazy,” I’m never thinking, “Is this funny?” Because I think that’s death. You gotta trust the writing and you commit fully to the character you’ve made and what the writer has made then you’ll be okay — if it’s good. [laughs]
That always helps.
[laughs] Yes, on a network show it’s different a little bit. There’s a certain order to network shows that doesn’t exist so much in cable, which is, you know, if you want to change a line you’ve got to talk to the writer. You don’t want to disrespect the writer because then the producer might see that and there’s always this way in which things go that you don’t want to throw off too much — unless it’s crap. But luckily, I’ve never been given crap to act. But I would rather the script be great. I’m not somebody necessarily looking to improvise. A lot of people I know, that’s what they want and to me, it’s like I’d rather have a great script because then we know what this is going to be after it’s edited. Unless it’s like a certain situation like when I worked on “The Other Guys” — Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have that down to a science, and they know how to cut a ton of improv together and make it work. Even those guys have you do the script first, and then you improvise.
Television seems to be trending toward shorter series and miniseries with “True Detective” and “Fargo.” Adult Swim has been doing that for a while now. Did you feel liberated working on this as opposed to being forced to make it into an eight, 13, or 22-episode season?
I definitely think we could have made it work, and we would have gone all out like we did. That type of spirit, that type of freedom, you know, “Fuck it. Let’s make it and then we’ll see what we want to do after.” It’s just a great way. It does make you feel more free when you’re writing it because you can do anything and you’re not worrying about the circumstances. I think television is at its creative zenith right now. It’s really dominating in terms of creative freedom and people really going for it. I think a lot of these networks, too, now — you know, we’ve been so influenced by the British for a bit, I think now people are like, “Let’s really be influenced by the British.” This show is only two seasons and then they pulled the plug. Not the network — the creators. They know when to go out on top. I think Adult Swim is smart in that way. I have no doubt they could make more of these and make it great, but if this is great, why not let that exist and then we worry about the rest later so we at least have something good to put on TV for a half hour. A lot of the cable networks are really letting people spread their wings.
I feel like television has been much braver than film lately. I’m not knocking film. There have been some really brave, great films, but I think that’s positive. I think that television is so brave because it was influenced by the brave films of the past, and now I think that television will start to really influence film again. A lot more financiers and studios will find the courage to take more risks. […] I really do believe that people are not stupid. They really do want to see good things, and they react well. They might take something bad in right away, just to chill themselves out from their crazy lives, but that only lasts so long. In the end, after a while, people want to see something that they can get into and that they relate to.
Hopefully it’s a two way street and these two mediums keep influencing one another back and forth in a positive way.
I think that, too, that it’s not dirty to be on television any more. It’s actually just as cool to be on television as to be in a movie, and nobody’s ashamed of this back and forth. So some of these filmmakers are going to hire talented actors that they like on that TV show. It’s not weird to cast Bryan Cranston in a film whereas before people weren’t casting so many TV stars in film like they are now. That’s a very positive thing because there are so many talented actors who should have their day on the big screen, as well — like me!
Oh, I see what you did there.
[laughs] Yes, this is all a disgusting plug to get me in movies. That’s the dream. [laughs]
Do you have plans to do another special with different guests or in another format?
I would definitely do more if Adult Swim wants to. I love Adult Swim. They give you so much artistic freedom. We couldn’t have made this on any other network. That is the question, what we’d do with future episodes. We would definitely bring on other guests. I don’t know if we’d stretch outside of the room as it went on more and more. The dinner portion of the show dissipates and it becomes more of a narrative structure. We don’t know. There’s so many ways you could go with it. I would love an episode to kind of be a “Red Shoe Diaries” hypersexual thing and another to be really, ultra left wing political views to get some issues going. We’d have a big challenge ahead of us to always make it different, but working for a network like Adult Swim you can take things to an opposite extreme and they’ll let you do that. There’s just so much creative freedom, I don’t think it would a problem at all figuring out where we’d go from here.
“Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman and Friends” premieres Thursday, April 24th at midnight.