Brett Gelman on his Adult Swim special, VICE, and Gregory Goes Boom

Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman & Friends is about to hit the Adult Swim airwaves. We interviewed Mr. Gelman...

The last time that Brett Gelman (Go On, Eagleheart) and Jason Woliner collaborated on a “stand-up special” we saw Gelman take to the stage to sing and dance about 1,000 Cats for Funny or Die. This time, Gelman decided to ditch the stage entirely while mining the awkward humor that comes from his repeated verbal assaults at a table full of celebrity guests like Alison Pill, Lance Reddick, Gilbert Gottfried and others in Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman & Friends.

Last week, we had a chance to talk to Gelman about the genesis of his new special, the importance of having Gilbert Gottfried aboard, sticking to the script, his insane work with VICE, and the award winning and controversial short film that he co-produced with frequent collaborator Janicza Bravo, Gregory Go Boom.

Den of Geek: With the special, Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman & Friends, can you tell me how that came together and why you went with Adult Swim? Also, are there any similarities between this and your Tim and Gelman Have a Lunch shorts?

Brett Gelman: How the special really came together was that Jason Woliner — who co-wrote it with me and directed it — [and I] had this idea to do kind of a stand-up performance, but over dinner with only six guests there that would go in between me doing my own version of stand up, to making the guests feel really awkward. I’ve had a long relationship with Adult Swim and to me, with this kind of thing, Adult Swim would be the only place where Jason and I could do it because it’s just so extreme and it really pushes a lot of creative boundaries that would be deemed too insane by other networks. There was no question that Adult Swim would be the place to do it and lucky for us they wanted to do it — they’re kind of like a family type of thing. We’ve been working with them for so long on Eagleheart and they’ve always been so supportive.

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It is nothing like the Tim and Eric Have a Lunch thing. That’s more like Tim and my nightmare, if we were way less successful than we are and just, like, a really desperate version. Kind of like a portrait of desperate open mic comedians, whereas this starts out as… what it ended up being is not a standup performance at all and Adult Swim kind of had something to do with that. They said, “You know, the performance part…” they weren’t as excited with that as me fucking with people over dinner, and so Jason and I took that note and ran with it and it became this thing that starts off as a Jon Favreau Dinner for Five type show and [it] turns into a full on evil psychological thriller. It’s sort of like a televised play in a lot of ways.

How did the guest list come to be? It seems very random — Lance Reddick, Alison Pill, Gilbert Gottfried.

Well, we wanted people who… they are some of my faves among faves. I mean, they are some of my favorite actors and Gilbert is one of my favorite comedians. We really wanted really great actors to be in it because… and we told them, you know, don’t worry about being funny, just act this full out like its a drama. We thought it would be really interesting to see Gilbert do kind of a dramatic performance in the midst of this, because it really is… I’m just evil and I just torture them and they are all fully game. Fred Melamed, Alison Pill, Dale Dickey, Lance Reddick, Alex Karpovsky, and Gilbert — they were down. I mean, we shot a half hour script in two days and everyone was just fully committed to it and really supportive of it. It’s mind blowing who we got, that we got these people to do it because they’re all such fine actors. It’s great to work with people who love to work and that is the most important thing to them.

How tightly scripted was it? Was there room for improvisation?

There’s always room for improvisation, but we kept it pretty scripted. It’s a pretty methodical thing and it happens in this specific, structured way. And so, there were certain moments when improv was used as a tool to help the moment, but we really wanted to work from a script. It was very important to show the guest, since it is so aggressive and I am so aggressive toward them, that they would know everything that was going to happen to them and everything that I was going to say to them and be able to fully feel comfortable to act at their utmost and not feel… it was never our intention to prank any of the guests.

Looking at your career, you get around and you do a lot of guest spots. Do you prefer that, or do you want to find that one thing?

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Yeah, I just like doing great stuff, simply put. And I love to act. So, as many things as I can do I want to do and I’ve been really lucky to get to work with really great people on a variety of things on television, film, and the internet.

Speaking of the internet, you’ve done some work for VICE, what brought that about with regard to Rat Tail and your rap career; what inspired that?

Well, Janicza Bravo — who does all the photos for those and who also helps me conceive a lot of the storylines and concepts — and I wanted to do these serial columns, and take these really old photos since Janicza is a really great instant photographer. We wanted to stage all of these different things and I knew some people at VICE and I pitched the first idea to them which was called Toupee which was sort of like a wannabee Charles Bukowski type of serial. And we did that and then we went on to do Combover, which was sort of a Robert Evans, Kid Stays in the Picture warped sense of Hollywood, and its kind of in the ’70s and also kind of now. And then came about Rat Tail, which is sort of an 80s rapper, and we love 80s hip hop fashion too, so we wanted to really… and I love to rap, so that was really fun. But yeah, Janicza and I were just trying to do something different for that magazine.

This short film I just watched, Gregory Go Boom, it’s astonishing. The ending is tremendous, I’m a big fan of non-standard endings. Tell me a little bit about the decision to go there and if you guys were waiting on any kind of controversy to come from that.

(Laughs) Well, there’s always the possibility of controversy. I mean, you know, you don’t go for that. You have the idea… I mean, I didn’t write it at all, first of all. Janicza and I work together on many many things, but… how that came about was, she wrote a short a few years back that is also on VICE now called Eat that went to SXSW, and she wrote that for me and Katherine Waterston and that also has a very non standard ending. And then, the next thing, she was asked by Michael Cera to write something and direct something for JASH for him, and so she had written Gregory Go Boom and she cast me as the brother and I helped produce both of those things, but both are totally her brain children. She’s a super talent, I think that she is going to be one of America’s next great filmmakers and Gregory Go Boom won the Special Jury Prize for US Fiction (Short Form) at Sundance this year.

It’s well deserved.

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Thank you, I’m proud to have had a small part in that, she’s a genius.

I saw some of the criticism about it [the film] and obviously, people think that every story is speaking about every single person in that situation.

Well, first of all, the wheelchair is a metaphor to being dismissed and Janicza is a black woman, so, I mean, I think it’s a brilliant thing for a black woman to express her own feelings of alienation through a young white impoverished paraplegic. I think that’s a complex way to create something, but, at the same time, I don’t know why people were saying that… [why] people would ever think, even if they were taking it literally, that she was saying that disabled people should kill themselves, because she’s not saying that. She’s saying that people should be nicer to disabled people because you don’t know how you’re going to hurt somebody and there is that type of message going through it. I mean, he doesn’t just kill himself because he’s disabled, he kills himself because he can’t find love and that happens. That happens in this world, unfortunately. And I think that it does help people, whether they want to see it or not, to see darker stories be told because that exists in the world and that’s part of what we should be doing, as well as… I think its good to entertain people too. There’s room for both of those ways of telling stories.

I agree, definitely.

Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman & Friends airs on Adult Swim April 24th at Midnight.

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