A Look Inside The Hell of Adult Swim’s ‘Dinner Specials’

We explore how Adult Swim’s “dinner specials” are evolving one-off comedy.

“So you’re just going to torture us? Torture us and kill us?”

“Torture you? I’m teaching you.”

It would be redundant at this point to say that comedy has evolved to a challenging, ambitious place. 

It would be just as redundant to outline how Adult Swim has become such a safe haven for programs that are looking to throw convention to the wolves. But July 1st marks the premiere of Brett Gelman and Jason Woliner’s latest “dinner special,” and I feel compelled to tell you that these two have been working on something that demands your attention. 

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One-offs and specials are hardly anything new for Adult Swim. What’s so important about these specials in particular is that Gelman and Woliner are creating one of the most unique adaptations of Dante’s Inferno to date. Their latest special, Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America, not only continues these themes, but also pushes this premise even further along.

For those unfamiliar with Dante’s classic piece of literature, Inferno chronicles Dante’s journey through Hell. He goes through all sorts of self-discovery while wallowing in the recognition and rejection of sin. If you had to distill Woliner and Gelman’s specials down to a single word in the end, “sin” wouldn’t be the worst choice. It’s remarkably apt for the journey they take their audience on.

In a nutshell, these specials have Gelman turn friendly, civilized dinner discussions into a sprawling madness that swallows up his friends, family, and most recently, race. These specials are some of the most unpredictable, challenging think pieces to come from the network. The newest entry wastes no time in stirring the pot. On top of that, Woliner and Gelman pull from influences like Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier rather than the typical comedy staples, all of which adds to the sense of uneasiness that drives these pieces. 

It’s kind of shocking how much overlap there is between Dante’s text and these specials when you really break it down. Dante’s Inferno is concerned with the topics of primivity and naturalism, the search for perfection, and the doling out of justice, all of which are prevalent throughout these specials. Another huge concept that Inferno spends time with is the idea of storytelling as a means of achieving immortality, a fundamental concept of these Adult Swim installments. They revolve around the idea of Gelman reconstructing and changing history in a way that makes him more powerful. In a sense, they’re all about Gelman wanting to leave behind a “perfect” legacy with these recorded specials meant to act as time capsules of his infallibility. Of course they so often end up proving the very opposite, but they all stem from a place of self-preservation.

In the first special, Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman and Friends,

Gelman attempts to talk shop with some of Hollywood’s finest. Quickly, Gelman shares the same twisted anecdote to his guests, but presents them with two radically different versions of the truth when the cameras are and aren’t rolling. Immediately this causes the guests to be on guard from the duplicitous Gelman. 

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Gelman tries to draw lines between Hollywood and the “real world,” and even invites his “real” friend Joey over to mix up the dynamic. He of course is an actor though, only blurring the lines further. It’s not much longer until Gelman reveals everything has been a “prank” up until this point, as he continues to destroy these people’s sense of reality. These pranks continue to happen at moments of intense vulnerability, digging deeper into raw wounds. 

At one point Gelman turns off the cameras so everyone can feel more comfortable about opening up. Raw surveillance footage is emblematic of the truth, and they treat it as such. It’s a story entirely about manipulation and control, and the ending hammers it in to a resounding degree. 

In each of these specials, Gelman attempts to put on pieces of theatre, creating versions of reality where he is the author. Each of the scenarios has Gelman acting as puppet master and dictating the events that trap his respective guests. The theatre is no different. It’s as if it’s a microcosmic version of the reality that Gelman wants.

It’s brought up here in a cavalier fashion that “this is Hell” and that all of these people are trapped. In response to this, due to the emotional and mental gauntlet that Gelman puts these people though—forcing them to figure out right and wrong, having personal epiphanies, and working through moral dilemmas—he is very much Satan. Gelman is the gatekeeper. Once again, he presents all of this as twisted, intrusive, upsetting comedy.

Then in the follow-up special, Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family, Gelman treats his parents, Larry and Iris, to a dinner and a show for their wedding anniversary, which ends up spinning into an Oedipal nightmare. It seems like this might be a simpler concept than the first one, but it somehow gets even crazier, allowing more room to get intimate and dig into this family. It all feels so sweet and innocent at first, but we know it’s somehow going to turn, making this humble beginning especially tense at times. 

Gelman’s construction of his family contains a deeply abusive, sociopathic father that pushes Gelman and his mother to become closer—eventually romantically so. As Gelman’s real father gets increasingly uncomfortable, you can’t help but wonder if maybe Gelman’s play isn’t all fabricated and maybe there’s truth to this fiction after all. With these specials, you never really know, which manages to keep the suspense high. The revelation that all of this is in fact true is both astonishing but also totally expected, as this universe created is often shown to be the darkest one possible. This once again becomes about confronting trauma and trying to move on. All of these specials are somehow meant to be—and are, to an extent—perverted tools designed for growth.

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The first special is more about controlling others and making strangers confront personal truths, realizing what they are at their core. This one however is all about a de-construction of the American family, showing how something seemingly perfect can be just as dark and twisted as any Hollywood celebrity’s hidden secret. The fact that Gelman makes it something that involves himself this time causes it to be even more personal and affecting. 

Gelman and Woliner’s latest special, Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America, continues with many of the same themes and stylistic devices brought up in the first two installments, while still managing to shake up the status quo. The format still revolves around Brett and a number of guests congregating for dinner as cameras chronicle their dissection of a particular social more. 

“We never set out to do anything that was just shocking or dark,” Woliner tells Den of Geek. “It’s really just what makes us laugh. We did the first one, which was essentially just Dinner for Five, which comes with psychological horror. Then we tried to do something different with the second one, but it still kind of follows the same general arc—it’s set up as a TV taping that becomes a nightmare.”

Then, with the release of Dinner in America, he adds, “And we felt like it would only be worth doing a third one if we could turn that on its head or figure out a new wrinkle, or do something new with that format.” 

With Gelman taking up much of the focus of the previous installments, it’s inevitable that these specials’ focus would broaden up a little bit. Dinner in America still peels back many layers of Gelman and continues to portray him as the pseudo-Devil that’s calling the shots. He’s still holding lives in the balance, widening the spotlight to racial prejudices and inequality. The material provides plenty of poignancy as it pushes the envelope. 

The issues brought up in Dinner in America are real and present in our lives. The first two specials might challenge the audience by forcing them to wade through such dark material, but this special achieves this by holding the mirror up to reality—even if it is a funhouse mirror. In the first two specials, arguably the characters within the show don’t know that they’re trapped in Hell. Well, with this latest entry we’re the oblivious ones that are stuck there. That might seem like a heavy message for an Adult Swim special to push, but these are also specials that have a growing body count of innocents each time, too.

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Woliner explains a bit of the duty felt in engineering this topic. “Part of it was that we did have this special and thought that we could actually kind of say something with this and try and get people thinking,” he says.

“So we wanted to make it about something that’s real. And a real issue that’s important to us.” It wasn’t without its reservations though, as he mentions, “It was also a bit of an experiment to see if we could blend this surreal, absurd tone of the stuff that we’ve been doing with something that’s like the most real and one of the least funny things.” 

This might sound like a dour piece of programming that has an overt agenda, but that couldn’t be further from the case. This is straight-up one of the funniest things Adult Swim has produced, and it’s a worthy successor to the previous dinner specials that Gelman and Woliner have created. It’s merely impressive that something can simultaneously be so funny while still having such a message to it. These installments leave you in such a dazed stupor from their impact and part of the reason is because of how much they make you think.

It sounds like Gelman and Woliner are interested in continuing this trend and challenging the audience. Gelman tells us, “There’s always things to talk about. There are other racial problems, there’s misogyny, there’s meat eating, transphobia, homophobia, the government…There are a lot of things. We can definitely keep going.” 

Whatever the basis for their next special may be, it’s surely going to be a trip down a disturbing rabbit hole with this duo all too ready to open another can of worms, challenge audience members, and continue more of this darkly comic journey through a figurative Hell.

Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America airs Friday July 1st, at midnight (technically July 2nd), on Adult Swim

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