Family is hell.
The first time I talked to Brett Gelman, he explained he was driving to see his parents in San Francisco and stressed that they’re both wonderful people and he had a very happy childhood. The next time we spoke, I asked if his parents had seen his new special.
“No, they haven’t seen it yet,” he said. “They will see it, but because of its disturbing and violent nature, I have to make sure that they’re in a good mental space to watch it.”
You might know Gelman’s face before his name. The comedian and actor can be seen in FX’s Married, Comedy Central’s Drunk History, and Amazon’s new pilot The New Yorker Presents. And then there are his Adult Swim specials.
Last year, the channel aired Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman and Friends, in which Gelman helms a dinner party attended by Alison Pill (The Newsroom), Lance Reddick (The Wire), Gilbert Gottfried, Alex Karpovsky (Girls), Dale Dickey (True Blood), and Fred Melamed (The Good Wife, House of Lies). The party quickly takes a sharp turn south, as Gelman puts his guests through psychological and physical torture approaching a Lars Von Trier level of uncomfortable.
That special was co-written with Jason Woliner, and the two also collaborated on one-man show One Thousand Cats. It seems they prefer a theatrical approach. His new special, Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family, finds him surprising a couple— introduced as his mom and dad—for their 40th wedding anniversary. They sit down for dinner and a show: More specifically, they watch a theatrical performance of “the story of you,” Gelman explains, with Patti LuPone playing Gelman’s mother and Tony Roberts playing his father.
This is Adult Swim, so things quickly get weird. Gelman takes some “liberties” with the remembrance of his childhood, and the tension between the on- and offstage action drives the tragedy and comedy here. Suicide, incest, and drug addiction all enter and exit stage left, and Roberts and LuPone’s performances are surreal once you start thinking about their past theater work.
How did Tony Roberts and Patti LuPone react to the script?
Tony told me that at first he was like, “What the fuck is this?” He asked his agent why they sent it to him. But then his agent sent him the last special, and he watched that and then he saw what we were going for, and Jason and I also explained in a cover letter to Tony and Patti that we weren’t going for shock humor. We were trying to say something about family dysfunction, in a really hyperbolic way. And they both loved it. They’re both of the theater, and this is essentially a play.… When you’re educated in the theater, there are many playwrights who have gone this far and even farther.
Anyone in particular come to mind?
Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, Harold Pinter. They can all do some really disturbing stuff. But [Roberts and LuPone] know every play. Patti did Sondheim; she was in Sweeney Todd. I mean, Sweeney Todd is super disturbing, if you really think about it. She’s playing a woman who, because she’s in love with a man, is helping him kill people and cooking them into pies.
Were your parents funny, and did they encourage comedy?
My parents are very funny. They 100 percent encouraged my comedy, never told me to have a backup plan, and also made it very clear that I wouldn’t. My father, he had a command of his humor, and my mother is more a naturally funny person by accident. So there was a lot of laughter in our household.
You mention in the special liking the Marx Brothers as a kid. What else made you laugh?
I was so obsessed with everything comedy. The other huge, gigantic influence was Mel Brooks, at an early age, and all the actors in his movies: Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Marty Feldman, and especially Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. Those performances in The Producers with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, those are my two favorite acting performances of all time. I grew up in the ’80s, so to not be influenced by Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, and John Candy, I don’t know who you were influenced by.… Peter Sellers at an early age, just watching all the Pink Panther movies. But I even watched shit. I thought Disorderlies was funny. I think I’ve seen that movie, like, 20 times.
Why did you decide to focus on family with this special?
I don’t know. You’re looking for ideas, and I think Jason and I are really into the big themes of life and family is one of those themes, and we wanted to tackle that. And even though our families aren’t fucked up like this, nobody has a family that doesn’t have issues. And even though the actual issues we may have with our families aren’t in any way this extreme, they do shape you. So how [do] you take that and magnify that in order to make something funny and interesting? And we’re both totally fucked up guys. We both have a lot of darkness in us. So it’s good to get it out.
What shows or films do you think capture the fucked-upedness of family well?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? really shows a marital dysfunction and way of behaving that is not the healthiest.… The two things we really watched for this were Interiors and Autumn Sonata. So the special isn’t directly drawing from them; it’s its own thing. I wouldn’t compare the special to masterworks like that, just because I’m a humble guy. But the energy and pain that fueled both of those movies helped us tap into the pain that fueled this special.
I guess the fucked-upedness of a show like The Sopranos is a little more institutionalized.
Yeah, no. That’s a good point. The Sopranos is one of my favorite shows of all time. Breaking Bad is very funny at times, and The Sopranos is very funny. Those shows deal with family in an equally humorous and totally disturbing way.
Do you think TV is able to be a little edgier than film right now?
It’s allowed to be, yeah. And I don’t know why independent film is playing it as safe as it’s playing it.… I just think there’s a lot of fear right now. There’s this trend in film that’s very flaccid. It’s a lot of white people complaining about feeling bad. It’s a bunch of white dudes complaining about feeling bad. I get it, you know? But what else?
That’s pretty much the Internet too.
“White guys feeling bad” is pretty much the entertainment industry. But I just think cable television, they saw… A lot of these executives are very visionary, and HBO kind of paved the way for a lot of these cable and streaming networks to take the risk. There’s smart executives at the top of a lot of these networks who learn from successes. Not only just failures, but successes. Oh wow, The Sopranos. A balls-out, uncompromising piece of work. Well, why don’t we try to do that? As opposed to film and network television: Not only do they not learn from their mistakes, they don’t learn from their successes. Why have we not seen another Seinfeld? Why aren’t there more filmmakers being allowed to do things like David Lynch and Jane Campion? I just think a lot of people are thinking it has to be played safe.
But I think that that’s going to change, because more and more we’re witnessing that people want to watch their cable shows than go see any movie. And they blame it on people not wanting to go see movies, but I don’t think that’s true. If you give people a movie that they feel they should go see, they’re going to see it.
So are you going to go see Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend?
No. Absolutely not. But I also think that it’s amazing, how that whole thing grew and came to be. That’s an example of what’s wrong with the system. People are making these giant budgetary decisions and putting all of this energy into something that was ironically liked, in a lot of ways. So in that way, it’s kind of cool that decisions are being made from irony.
Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family debuts Feb. 13 at 12:30am ET, on Adult Swim.
Photo via Adult Swim