Brett Gelman is doing well.
He has appeared all over network and cable television, with recurring roles shows like Eagleheart, Go On, and The Inbetweeners and guest spots on Bored to Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Californication. He’s acted alongside Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell in films such as The Other Guys, Jesse Eisenberg in 30 Minutes or Less, and Kal Penn in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. He is also an accomplished author and frequent Vice.com contributor.
At midnight on April 24 his special Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends (yes, you read that correctly) premieres on Adult Swim. The special feature features special guests known for their recurring supporting roles in other series: Allison Pill (The Newsroom, The Book of Daniel), Lance Reddick (The Wire, Fringe), and Dale Dickey (Justified, My Name is Earl). Rounding out the cast are comedy legends Gilbert Gottfried (Aladdin) and Fred Melamed (In a World…) along with relative newcomers Alex Karpovsky (Girls) and Erin Darling (The Pop Fix).
If the dinner is anything like Gelman’s other work, things will get…interesting.
Known on stage for his confrontational style, Gelman heckles the audience as much as they heckle him. His standup routinely features attempts to find common ground with the audience flipped by attacking those who agree with him, or by taking points of commonality to absurdly logical conclusions. “I like to challenge the audience,” Gelman says citing diverse acts from NWA to Lars von Trier as influences. “I want people to feel discomfort.” In one of Gelman’s stand up clips available on YouTube, his appeal to heterosexual men in the audience begins by describing traditionally sexualized feminine features then segues into a comparison of how they would experience that same sexualization applied to an intimate family member. One of his Vice articles compares Jesus to Adolph Hitler.
Raised in Indiana and trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Gelman first came to New York City at the turn of the century and performed improv at UCB. To increase his stage time, he started doing standup comedy around the city. “On stage, I’m playing a character,” Gelman says. “I got into standup as a way to act.” Because of these roots, one of the actor’s pet peeves isn’t hecklers, which he expertly handles, but distraction. “I hate it when I see people texting at a show,” he says. “And talking to each other. They’re at a performance, they should respect the performer.”
That isn’t to say Gelman is immune to heckling. “I was performing at the Telluride Comedy Festival doing my show ‘1000 Cats’ for Funny or Die and the audience was just terrible,” he says. “So there’s a moment at the end of the show where the lights go down and I tell them they are the 1000th cat. The audience was so hostile. People were screaming. So when the lights went down, I walked off stage.”
Like all “overnight” successes, Gelman has spent the better part of two decades hustling in all media. In addition to his standup, he hosts a regular podcast, Gelmania, with musician and audio specialist King Cyrus King. He has showcased his dramedic acting in short films like Gregory Go Boom and Eat, both directed by Janicza Bravo. Gelman’s articles for Vice explain and promote his “rediscovered” ‘80s rap pioneer, Rat Tail, whose cassette tape the comedian claims to have found “wrapped in a ball of human hair…in a [Guadalajaran] garbage dump.”
The bulk of Gelman’s work, of course, has been on television, where he has played one-off characters on critically acclaimed comedies like Happy Endings and Drunk History, but his longest role has been that of Brett Mobley on the Adult Swim show Eagleheart, a parody of 1990s cowboy police shows like Renegade and Walker: Texas Ranger. He stars alongside eternal comedy underdog Chris Elliot (Get a Life, Cabin Boy) and Maria Thayer (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Of series star Elliot, Gelman says, “Chris is still ahead of his time.” On the series, the trio play U.S. Marshals in serialized adventures. Until the third season, in which Gelman’s absence became a season-long narrative, episodes featured single stories, giving the Eagleheart universe the sort of flexible reality often only seen in animation. At his commanding officer’s request, Gelman’s sycophantic Marshal Brett may bite his tongue until it bleeds, but in the next, he’s perfectly fine physically. Psychologically, he exists somewhere on the spectrum between Norma Desmond and Alex DeLarge.
That chaotic evil element is sure to feature in the premiere of Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends. Longtime Eagleheart director Jason Woliner joins Gelman for Dinner. Since meeting back in Gelman’s days at UCB, the pair have worked together on multiple projects, including “1000 Cats.” But Gelman was quick to point out that “Dinner is completely scripted. There are some improv elements, but I’m not interested in pranking people. It’s more like a play than standup.”
A teaser trailer released on April 16 showcases the relaxed atmosphere of seasoned actors sitting down to dinner and conversation, which then devolves into Gelman freaking out and crying on the floor. Cultivating that dangerous psychosis, of the variety that vacillates between congenial and homicidal, is the most critical aspect of Gelman’s performance and the fulcrum on which his nightmarish characters are balanced. “Comedy is all about the character. When you’re too focused on the gags, the character suffers and you don’t get the laugh. Comedy has to come from the character.”