In response to their exceptionally poor track record of ordering shows by women and promotion of the alt-right comedians and fans behind Million Dollar Extreme, comedian Brett Gelman publicly announced last night that he’s decided to sever ties with Adult Swim going forward. Earlier today, I spoke with Gelman on the phone about his decision to part ways with the network, what other comedians can do to take action against hate and bigotry, and what he’s learned from the unexpectedly explosive reaction to his announcement.
Hey, Brett! Thank you for taking a stand.
Well, to me it didn’t even really feel like a stand. I mean, I had already decided to do that, and once I’d read those articles, I just couldn’t see how I could continue to work with the company when those were their policies. And how it was defended – that is what I had a real problem with, but also the greenlight of Million Dollar Extreme and allowing that on their network. And then the election happened and I was really angry with social media and thought it was pacifying us, our side, on these matters. A fan of mine called me out on my hypocrisy and said “You’re working for a company that does this – that has these policies of greenlighting a white supremacist sketch show and not having any women showrunners.” I responded to him by saying “No I’m not.” So I decided to make it public. A lot of people are probably gonna think that this is bullshit, but I honestly didn’t think that people were tracking what I say on there. I always think it’s falling on deaf ears, so I really did not assume that it would get this type of reaction. But I’m very glad that it did.
So how far does this go back? When did you first decide you were done with Adult Swim?
I started thinking about it I guess a couple weeks ago when I fell upon the articles. I mean, I had already made the decision, right then. I was like “I’m done.” I would’ve made it public earlier, but I guess the election really kind of looped me into making it public – and also, just seeing a fan feel like I’m letting them down in a way, saying I’m proselytizing but not backing it up. But immediately when I heard that, I was done.
But I’m not a martyr here. I’m a straight white man – I have options, and I’m not blocked on a consistent basis when I wake up in the morning because of my race, sex, and orientation. I have options; this is not a martyrdom by any means or a sacrifice for me. And I do think this is what straight white men need to do on the liberal side: It is up to us to not just talk but to take action here. And today has taught me more than anything, “Oh wow, my action does count.” There is a reaction behind taking this action, and my voice is heard. But the loudest voice is in action.
Did you not ever have any inkling about this before, having worked with Adult Swim for a while now?
I didn’t know. I didn’t have such an in. Look, the reality is the whole business is misogynist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic. The oppressed people need to deal with the state of our business every single day, and as much as we move forward, that is still present – not necessarily consciously, but it is subconscious. And this is the thing that everybody, especially straight white men, have to realize not only about the system but about ourselves: We are subconsciously conditioned to be comfortable, and we might be looking the other way without even knowing we are looking the other way. We might be making racist, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic decisions without knowing that we are actually doing so because we are conditioned to be comfortable. That is the thing that we all have to realize, and when we make mistakes we must not defend ourselves; we just must move forward and change our policies, and apologize and acknowledge that we’ve made that mistake.
What can comedians do to actively fight against this?
Really go out of your way to hire women, people of color, homosexuals, transgendered people – go out of your way to hire them. This whole thing of “Oh, it’s the most qualified!” Bullshit. That argument of who is the most qualified – you have to question that, that impulse, because what is making you make that decision might be the fact that you are uncomfortable with hiring a person different from you, and that might be limiting your honest appraisal of your work. Even if somebody is maybe a little less qualified, you can bring them in, you can teach them, and it will also make your work better because you’ll have different perspectives. Even if somebody is less talented, they’re coming at it from a completely different perspective, and that helps your work. That perspective is invaluable to us.
So it’s hiring practices and it’s knocking out this fucking bullshit thing that you hear a lot of people say – heroes of mine have said this, peers of mine who I respect as artists have said this – that “I write what I know.” Okay, that is a lie. That is a lie you’re saying out of fear of losing your comfort. If you’re saying you write what you know and you’re a Jewish man and you’re writing any female character, any person of color, if that person of color is not your job, your age, your thoughts and beliefs completely, you are writing something other than what you know. You have to recognize that that is a lie you’re telling yourself, and we got into this to use our imaginations: Use your imaginations and use your empathy. If you don’t do that, you’re limiting yourself as an artist and you’re hurting the world.
It’s now time for us to take action and really be activists for the rights of our fellow human beings. This is something that I deeply believe, and it wasn’t so obvious to me when I was working there. I mean, you’re involved in your show, and the practices of my work were not being blocked by them. They made my last special Dinner in America, which is about this. So they allowed me to make that, and in my experience of that, I was not experiencing any sense of discrimination, but things swell up in you, and your fear of making waves is hopefully overcome by what’s right.
A lot of women have spoken up about this, but unfortunately, I don’t think it was seen as “legitimate” by a lot of people until you commented on it. So, how can Adult Swim work to fix this now?
I mean, they cancel that show and they start hiring women showrunners. They can start being more conscious. I never had a conversation at Adult Swim about this; it is not my policy ever to discuss directly with executives the other shows that they’re making. So I don’t know what their reason was behind greenlighting a show like Million Dollar Extreme. I hope that they didn’t think it was a show promoting white supremacy – I hope that they just saw it as another crazy sketch group that was pushing the envelope. But that was an erroneous way to evaluate that. And on top of that, you’re not giving any shows to a lot of women who fit the creative mandate of that network. There are a lot of women who are comedic minds who are absurdist or surrealist who would do great things on there, so when you’re not greenlighting and you’re not hiring female directors… I don’t really track what other shows do, so I don’t know the full extent of all of it. But I saw that article and it was heartbreaking to see.
And yes, it is a problem that these things can only get attention if a white guy says something. So guess what? Until it changes, white dudes, we better fucking step up and take action, because we are the ones who can afford to do so. Why are we not seeing more white male representation locking arms with Planned Parenthood and with Black Lives Matter and the ACLU? Why are we not seeing more representation of that? That is how we change this: By everyone supporting each other, unifying, and taking action. That’s what the right has done, and it’s proven to be very effective. So we need to do that, and you have just as much white liberal men being sick of hearing about discrimination as white conservative men, or just not doing anything.
So does this mean your Dinner specials are officially over?
[laughs] Yeah. I mean, I could still do specials, they just won’t be Dinner specials. I could still do comedy specials, and Jason Woliner could still do comedy specials – I wanna give a shout out to him, he’s half of all of my work on Adult Swim. And you know, I’ve got tons of options. This is not a sacrifice to me.
I will also say, I don’t begrudge anybody for continuing to work with them, especially my friends of color. But I do think it’s time, especially for the powerful white liberal men – and I am not powerful – but for us to do something. For white liberal men it’s easy, so take that easiness and fucking do something. If somebody tells you that it’s gonna be really hard to hire inclusively or write something you don’t know, say to that person, “Well, it’s not harder than not having a fucking job and being discriminated against your entire life and being told and treated like you are less than.” That is something that white liberal men need to fight against. Right now.