From early in his life Brett Gelman knew he wanted to be a comedian. Heavily influenced by the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks, Gelman worked his way up the comedy hierarchy – performing regularly at UCB and eventually landing recurring roles on shows including Married (FX) and Eagleheart (Adult Swim). Gelman has appeared in The Other Guys and 30 Minutes or Less and hosts his own podcast, Gelmania.
Gelman’s humor often blends insanity, confusion, and occasionally a psychological reflection of self, which, when combined with the former creates an eccentric elixir of comedy. I spoke with Gelman about Joan Rivers, frightening numbers, and his Late Night-themed Bar Mitzvah. His new special, Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman And Brett Gelman’s Family, premieres this Friday at 12:30am on Adult Swim.
So you have the new special coming out with some interesting guest stars. How did Tony Roberts and Patti Lupone get involved in this project?
We reached out to their agents. Thankfully Patti and Tony liked it and wanted to do it. They play themselves playing my parents. I don’t want to ruin what actually happens in it. It’s going to take you for a ride.
What inspired you to do a dinner format for a show?
You know, dinner is often a very celebratory environment, a very safe place, a time to reflect and let the day go and enjoy good food and good wine. It’s a very peaceful moment during the day. A great dinner can change your day around. So when you add horror and trauma to a dinner it makes it that much more horrific and traumatic. You’re busting the tranquility of such a positive daily ritual. When I was growing up, even if there was a big fight, once we got to dinner usually things had calmed down.
You have your own podcast, Gelmania. You’ve said you’re a fan of WTF podcast, but when you hear podcasts you like you strive to be more original with yours. What guides you to try and do something completely original?
What drives me the most is that I’m an actor, and as a writer I want to create a theatrical situation. I’m not so interested in putting my personality out there to be a regular guy that you listen to. I’m an actor and I want to play flawed characters and I’m a writer that wants to write flawed characters, trying to let something out and hoping people relate through that or have fun experiencing the story. That’s a real nice way of talking about my own work. [laughs] But, I mean, I’m not an interviewer. I’m an actor and so I didn’t want to do an interview format.
A lot of the podcast seems like it’s you putting out what you want, regardless of listener reaction.
At the end of the day I would prefer if everyone liked it, got something out of it. But me and all the people I work with we all want people to like the stuff and connect to it. But you can’t meet a person and try to be who you think they might want you to be. You can only be yourself or else your work will only be halfway there. The people I work with and respect put out what they need to put out. And hopefully people like it, but I try to be realistic when I’m doing something that’s dark or dirty or aggressive. It might turn some people off. Although I think they’re wrong and they’re my enemy. [laughs] I don’t think they’re crazy, they just don’t want that. I think it’s important to expose yourself to dark things because life is very dark at times.
I noticed a reoccurring bit in some of your work where you interact with yourself: Beezor in Eagleheart and you interviewing yourself on Gelmania.
In terms of Eagleheart I did not write one word of that. All of that amazing writing was [Jason] Woliner, Michael Cohen, and Andrew Weinberg. But Jason was also close friends with me before he came up with that interactive idea. I think a lot of what that’s expressing is narcissism. [laughs] Everybody who does what I do is at least a little narcissistic. Not everybody to the point of being a totally self-absorbed bad person, but that is in each and every one of us. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. We wouldn’t say “hey world, look at what I’ve got to say.”
I had read that you had OCD when you were younger and you said it was pretty serious. I was wondering how much that plays into your writing and performing.
It definitely plays into my worrying. [laughs] And my jealousy of people who are doing better than me. No, but it definitely does. When I’m writing something or acting it, most of the time it’s rewriting it and then retrying a scene or trying to find a different way to edit something, then it really comes into play and it’s really helpful. I can also be a hypochondriac at times. But I don’t really do any of the physical rituals. And it’s interesting because I was reading, I think it was in David Sedaris’s [Naked], he talks about having horrible OCD and then what kind of took care of his physical rituals was weed. And when I started doing drugs in high school the physical rituals started to subside. But I still get that shit, man. I still get weird when I see the number 13. It freaks me out. And I have a desire to do a ritual in order to eradicate the possible negative effects of looking at the number 13.
I have that with the number 27, all the musicians and artists that died at that age.
That’s a way more interesting negative relationship with a number and a way more original number than fucking 13. Kudos, man. Good number, man.
[laughs] Thank you. Speaking of 13, I read that your bar mitzvah theme was Late Night with Brett Gelman. What was that exactly?
Well I’ve wanted to be a comedian since I was a kid and my parents were very supportive of that. And at Bar Mitzvahs you have a theme and mine was comedy. And it was Late Night with Brett Gelman. My mother found a guy in Vegas and got this address book and all of these photographs of comedians and put down all of their addresses in this book and sent them a photo of them that she had gotten saying “you’re my son’s favorite comedian will you please sign this picture and put it in the self addressed envelope for is Bar Mitzvah?” And an overwhelming amount of comedians, but probably mostly comedian’s assistants, signed the pictures and sent them to me.
Who were some of the comedians you got autographs from?
Oh I got like everybody. Bob Hope, George Burns, Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers. And when I did In Bed With Joan, [Joan Rivers’] web series, my girlfriend told me I should bring the picture and I did. And I showed Joan the picture and she said “when was your Bar Mitzvah? That was my 1985 nose.” And she told me that she definitely signed the picture because she signs every picture.
She seemed like a good person.
She was a beautiful person. I spent two or three hours with her and after the interview I talked with her for about 45 minutes and it was one of the greatest moments of my life and career. She couldn’t have been more welcoming. I mean that’s a common thing with comedians who have a brash persona. Normally the comedians who play assholes are the nice ones. Her and, I’ve never met him, but I hear Don Rickles is the kindest human being.
I wanted to bring up one of my favorite parts you’ve played: Hal in The Other Guys. What was it like playing him and working with Adam McKay and Will Ferrell?
It was totally amazing. The scene was written. So we did it a couple of times as written, but we were also improvising. Adam and Will shout out things for you to say and give you ideas for things to do. It’s their incredible writing, you improvising with them, and then them giving you amazing jokes. It was like two and half days we shot that scene. And it was all of us in this little living room and nobody really left the living room. It was me, Will, Mark Wahlberg, and Natalie Zea just hanging out together. And at first Mark thought I was crazy because I think he really thought I was [Hal]. I was so aggressive and it was how I ended up playing the role. My choice was that I wanted to fuck everyone. The guy is so repressed to the point that he is excited that his wife is going to have sex with other men and never him. There are a lot of demons in there waiting to just explode out.
You’ve mentioned how the Marx Brothers had a huge influence on your comedy.
Yeah, they’re the whole reason why I’m doing this.
Any scenes or lines in particular that got you into comedy?
The main thing was when I first heard Groucho Marx’s voice and what it sounded like. And it sounded to me like the way I wanted to sound. And he was behaving the way I wanted to act. And then after that was Mel Brooks’ movies. I think that all the Mel Brooks’ company of actors is just tremendous. It was a crazy group of genius people. All of them taught me what kind of actor I should be and what was funny.
Especially with Groucho, there’s that confidence, even when others don’t like him, he’s happy with who he is.
Yeah, a complete disregard for other people. You can be confident when people are just walking meat-stacks for you to manipulate. The character of Groucho Marx is confident.
And even Harpo, who doesn’t say anything, is really confident. He says nothing, but his actions are confident.
All three of them were stepping into normal everyday life and tearing it apart. They’re basically saying everything you value or hold dear is bullshit. [laughs] It doesn’t mean anything. And in that way of behaving you get more meaning than you could ever hope for.
At this point in your career do you feel like you are free to play the roles you want to?
Today I feel that way. But sometimes you do have to take a role because professionally it might make sense. And nobody will ever know how I feel about that role because I’ll never tell the truth. [laughs] I feel like today I can start saying no to stuff. I’ve always been very scared of saying no to anything because I did not work for so long. And I love acting. I do love creating and writing and doing comedy, but I equally love acting. So whenever I get the chance to act, my impulse is to act. And that can be hard to say no to because you always have the mentality that: “this is the last job that’s going to be offered to me, I gotta take it!”
I’ve noticed many successful performers and writers have that fear that it could all end in a moment.
And that’s not a crazy fear because it might. You remember those actors who you love, who you don’t see for a bit. I remember thinking: “Oh, that actor, where’d they go? They must have went to famous person summer camp where they just hang out until they decide that they want to work again.” No, they’re wandering the park, tearing what’s left of their hair out of their head, trying not to drink that day and wondering where it all went wrong and who they told fuck off to one too many times. So it could easily go there and I think especially if you don’t just immediately luck out, if you’re working and going through all that, you do have a major awareness that it could all go tomorrow.
I mean you could get shot in the head. [laughs] That’ll stop you from acting. You never know man, life is crazy.