Tomorrow night, Adult Swim is airing Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends, a new half-hour special starring comedian Brett Gelman and directed by Jason Woliner, who co-wrote the script with Gelman. Beginning as a talk show Gelman hosts over a meal with six Hollywood actors a la Jon Favreau’s Dinner for Five, Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends quickly takes a turn and descends into an evening of psychological torture. Like Eagleheart, the Adult Swim show Gelman acts on and Woliner is a writer, director, and producer on, Dinner with Friends is fast-paced, funny, and unlike anything else on TV.
I recently talked with Brett Gelman about the special, his past projects with Jason Woliner, and making more stuff with Adult Swim.
So how did Dinner with Friends come about?
Jason Woliner and I have been longtime friends and collaborators. One day on the set of Eagleheart, Jason had this idea that we would do this sort of performance that was a standup comedy special over a dinner for a limited audience of six people. We wrote the first draft of that and we pitched it to Adult Swim over drinks. This is the amazing thing about Adult Swim, that they bought it over drinks. We did the first draft. It was more of a performance thing, and then Adult Swim was like, “This is gonna be too much.” It just wasn’t working. It would have been more testing people of how boring something can be. They were like, “Take out the performance aspect and make it more about you fucking with these people over dinner.” So we were like, “Okay, okay. That’s a great note.”
We then rewrote it to be — it’s not so much a comedy special as much as it is kind of like a play. It all takes place in this one room. It starts out with the conceit of being a Jon Favreau Dinner for Five-type show and then quickly goes down the tubes as an evil psychological thriller where I basically torture my guests. It’s not a prank at all on the guests; it’s fully scripted.
We knew that we need to get really amazing actors to really sell the reality of it ‘cause we really want people to buy that I’m putting these people through the worst hell that they’ve ever been put through. It goes from Dinner for Five to being like a Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier movie. We got these incredible actors. Fred Melamed, Dale Dickey, Alison Pill, Gilbert Gottfried, and Alex Karpovsky, all of which are some of my favorite actors. In the case of Gilbert too, I think people are gonna be really amazed that he pulled off a really dramatic performance in this. He is, to a lot of people, one of the best comedians of all time. He’s like that classic comedian much like [Don] Rickles, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield. He’s up there with all of them to me. We told [the actors] don’t worry about being funny. Let’s just commit to this and see what happens. If it’s funny, great. If it’s disturbing, great. If it’s sad, great.
Since everybody’s playing themselves, did you have to write backwards after you got the actors onboard?
We don’t offer a ton of personal information about the people’s lives in the show. It really becomes more about me. It really just becomes about everybody dealing with the horrible thing that I’m doing to them during the dinner and trying to get out with their lives still in tact.
Did you have to watch a lot of Dinner for Five to write this, or were you familiar with it going in?
I had seen Dinner for Five, and me and Jason did watch it a little bit, but it quickly becomes not that. It’s only a talk show for a very short amount of time. And then, it becomes The Shining.
This is the first half-hour project you’ve written that’s been on TV, right?
Yeah. It was amazing. Adult Swim’s amazing. It’s the only place that we could do this. Fred Melamed would walk up to me on set, like, “I can’t believe somebody actually let you do this.” I was like, “That’s Mike Lazzo from Adult Swim.” That’s the whole crew over there. They really support your vision. They support the people who they are loyal to and really let them do their thing. It’s never too crazy for them, and they want to be innovative always. That’s their main goal. They don’t want something that’s been done before or anything like that. They want you to really trust yourself.
It was really exciting to be able to do a half-hour thing that I’m the star of. It’s a lot of pressure. We shot it in two days. We shot a full, half-hour episode in two days. It was really intense. It was definitely not a thing I could drag my ass to and look at the sides during rehearsal. I had to really, really, really be ultra prepared in order to totally commit to it in the right way. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that this is gonna be on TV.
When did you and Jason first start working together? I know “1000 Cats” is probably the first thing you wrote and starred in that he directed, right?
Right. The first thing that Jason and I did together — I used to do this hop hop thing all the time called Cracked Out, with Jon Daly. We still do stuff. We’re gonna be dropping some shit soon, actually, but it was this really filthy rap duo. We’d strut into shows with like, triple x track suits and G-Unit shirts and doo rags. We were doing this kind of pilot presentation for VH1, which was gonna be us actually trying to enter the hip hop world as these guys. We filmed this thing. There was this hip hop training ground on the Lower East Side called “Training Camp.” So we posed as being something real, that a real documentary was being made — a real television show — and went in and performed our songs “Fuckin’ Yo’ Momz in Da Ass” and “RU Ready to Get Fucked” in front of a bunch of dudes from Bed-Stuy, Queensbridge, the South Bronx, and Harlem. Jason filmed that. That was really the first thing that we did together.
Very few people have ever seen that. It’s questionable if it’s okay. I don’t know that people ever really should see it. It’s kind of like our Cocksucker Blues, that Rolling Stones documentary that people only have [pirated copies] of, only it’s 15 minutes long. And I never would have been able to do that as a show. I don’t actually like to prank. I don’t mind if people are made uncomfortable by what I do, but I never want to be acting with real people. I don’t like that. It makes me feel like I’m insane, and I already feel insane, so I don’t want to feel crazier than that.
What was the experience like shooting that thing and performing Cracked Out songs in front of those guys?
Oh, I thought I might get the fuckin’ shit beat out of me. That’s the other thing. I’m not a fighter. I don’t like to get beat up. This is eight years ago. I had a more cherub-like face. I’m Jewish, so it’s like I’m not totally white. I’m like gray. But Jon is white. Dudes were coming up to me and being a little more respectful, offering to sell me beats and shit like that. More people were coming up to Jon and telling him to get the fuck out. Half the people left the room, half the people stayed. It was very weird.
The other reason why I don’t think it would ever see the light of day is we’re not sure if it comes off like we’re making fun of those people or not, which we weren’t. There are not many people that I respect more than rappers. I’m a huge fan of hip hop. It’s incredible, one of the most influential things to me. It takes real genius to be able to do well. It’s a very deep art form. People are going up there and telling their story and getting out a lot of stress. I don’t want people to think that I’m making fun of them in that way. It’s very irresponsible to do that.
I mean, I don’t think that’s what the joke of Cracked Out is.
No, it’s “Can you believe that these two fuckin’ idiots are here right here?” It was always a joke on us and what psycho assholes we were. And also, living out a fantasy of wanting to be cooler than we were and rapping. It’s just us living out a fantasy, and that’s why it was so dirty because we didn’t want people to think we were trying to do the joke of a white guy doing hip hop, which to me, is totally racist too. And there are a lot of white MCs. We never wanted to be like, “Yeah, homeboy!”
Right. Because that’s a thing that was played out 20 years ago.
I can’t abide the joke anymore, the joke being, “Can you believe that I’m rapping and I’m white? I’m the white person who you would never expect to be rapping.” I fucking haaate that, man. I hate that. It’s one of the things I hate more than anything. From the get go, we were trying to combat the irony and have people really buy into it, and we actually really did want people to like the music. I wanted people to listen to our songs and bump them. Of course, they couldn’t. They weren’t good enough, but that’s always been the goal: Make that element of it better and make that feel more real. At first, we were so scared of it that we were just like, “Let’s offend the shit out of people. Let’s just say the most fuckin’ horrible stuff.” So that nobody ever thinks — it’s at least creating a visceral reaction.
What was that VH1 show going to have been if you guys got picked up?
I have no idea. It was a presentation. It never was official at VH1. It was a guy who worked at VH1, Fred Graber, it was kind of like a side project for him. But after we did that one thing, we were like, “We can’t do this.” We pulled the plug on it. Because we were like, “This is so awful. I don’t want to be pranking people who are real rappers.” That’s a very real thing that people are trying to do. That industry, that is so intense. Like to just be like, “Yeah, we’re coming in and doing this,” it felt bad. It felt like against what Jon and I were about.
I wanted to talk about “1000 Cats.” That was another early project between you and Jason. You’d been doing that as a live show, right?
Yeah, I’d been doing that as a live show at UCB for like eight years. Right out of college in ‘99, I started writing it, and then I started doing it. Jason came and saw it, and he was like, “I love this.” And then, a couple years later, Funny Or Die asked Jason what he wanted to do for their HBO show, and Jason said, “This is one of the things I want to do.” Originally, the show was a half-hour. Andrew Steele at Funny Or Die was the first person who came and saw it and gave it the green light and told Adam McKay and then Adam saw it and gave it the final green light. To give Andrew Steele credit, he’s like, “Well, we’ve gotta cut it down to 12 minutes.” And then, we made it 17 minutes, and he was like, “I love it. Don’t cut this down at all.”
This special and that are the only things that I’ve been the lead of on TV. It’s cool that it’s both with Jason. There’s similarities to them. They blur the lines between funny and drama in a lot of ways. It’s just like committing without irony to the reality of it, even though the reality is completely ridiculous. Both characters are very insane psychotic people. They both have a lot of problems.
What did you have to cut out of the half-hour version of “1000 Cats”?
You know, I think the version on HBO is better than the live version. If I ever did it again live and wanted to make it longer, I would probably rewrite parts that we ended up cutting out. It also was better because we performed it at The Orpheum in front of a bunch of people who were wearing tuxedos and had been told not to laugh. Jason got on stage and was like, “Everyone, what you’re about to see, this is not funny. It’s a very important event.” I don’t think they would have thought it was funny anyway. They were just like, “What the fuck is this?”
That’s got to be very surreal, performing in front of that crowd who doesn’t get your sensibility and has been told not to laugh versus doing it at UCB.
Well, there’s plenty of times where I did that at UCB and no one laughed. I performed it at a couple bars. I’d be screaming at people to shut up while I was in character. People thought I was just a disturbed guy who was really bad and thought it was a good idea to perform that there. And that felt terrible. I stopped doing that. That was awful. I want people to like it and people to get it. I don’t want to alienate people, but when you have an idea though and it’s intense, you’ve gotta assume that people might be but you hope that they’re not.
Do you have plans for future Adult Swim specials? Would you like to do more stuff like this in the future?
Oh yeah. Yeah, I hope we do more of these. It’s so much fun, and I feel like there’s nothing really like it on television. I’m really proud of it, and I love working with them, and of course I love working with Jason. Yeah, we might do more. I’m not sure. It’s up to Adult Swim. I’m sure we will because they’re very proud of it too.
Would you want to do more in the Dinner with Friends series, or would you want to do different one-offs?
I don’t know. I think we want to continue this if we can, if we can do it without being repetitive, which I think we can do. I think we would do more of this character. This “Brett Gelman.” I like to play characters who have my name. Yeah, we’ll see, man. We’ll see. It’s all up in the air right now, but of course, I would love to do it in any way Adult Swim sees fit.
Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends airs Thursday night (Friday morning) at midnight on Adult Swim.