Brett Gelman is a writer, producer, and actor. He has appeared in many comedy series and held supporting roles in Comedy Central’s Another Period, FX’s Married, and the upcoming Judd Apatow-produced Love, for HBO. Gelman is the co-writer and executive producer of both Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends and Dinner with Family with Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family, the latter of which is an Official Selection of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight Shorts category. The next special in the “Dinner” saga, Dinner in America, will premiere on Adult Swim in 2016.
Jason Woliner is a writer and filmmaker best known as the offscreen member of the comedy team Human Giant. As a director and producer, Woliner is one of comedy television’s most in-demand talents, with credits on critically acclaimed series including Parks and Recreation, The Last Man on Earth, Nathan for You, and Netflix’s W/ Bob and David. In 2015, Woliner co-wrote, directed, and executive-produced Dinner with Family with Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family for Adult Swim, as well as consulting on Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories anthology. The “Dinner” series is also executive-produced by Heidecker and Wareheim’s banner, Abso Lutely Productions.
Jason Woliner and Brett Gelman spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about Dinner with Family’s unlikely second life as an Official Selection at Sundance, the “mega-bummers” of mainstream comedy, and how the “White Liberal” factors into their upcoming work together. This conversation has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: I saw the [most recent] Dinner special, Dinner with Family… , when it aired on TV. It felt like I was one of maybe fifteen-thousand people who watched it at the exact time it aired.
Jason Woliner: I love Adult Swim. They get really good ratings, actually – they told us that over a million people watched it when it aired.
SM: Jesus. I had no idea. It felt like I was part of an exclusive club.
JW: That’s probably why we get to keep doing it *Laughs*. Did you just see Dinner with Family or did you also see Dinner with Friends?
SM: I’ve seen them both but I only watched Family as it was airing because the first one aired in 2014, when I was in graduate school. There just wasn’t time to watch alternative-comedy short films, you know? But it felt, watching the second one when it aired, that I was part of something amazing – it seemed, at least online, like no one else was doing that.
JW: We’re lucky because they do get strangely good ratings, but in another way, these [specials] fly under the radar. It’s almost like we do them when no one is looking.
Brett Gelman: It is strange to have that awareness because we feel like no one outside of our comedy community has watched it in the way that we think it should be. But we’re really proud of it and think [Dinner with Family] is a special thing. That is what is so exciting about the film getting the notice it’s getting from Sundance.
JW: We do think of these things as “films,” even though they’re hard to classify. They air on television once in the form of a talk-show at first, or some kind of taping. And then they become…
SM: That dissipates. The audience falls off somewhere in the middle of each special.
JW: Right, so that makes them hard to put into boxes. But we’ve always thought of both of them, and the new one [Dinner in America], as films. So it’s amazing that Sundance agrees and they can open up to a whole new audience.
SM: Brett mentioned the fact that people in the comedy community and the wider cinema community don’t really know or have access to these short films. I have a theory that doesn’t have anything to do with either of you because, obviously, Brett’s impact as a character actor and Jason’s as a director recently have led to you both being so fucking busy. I don’t think it’s a matter of either of your exposure: I think the problem has to do with shorts in the film market having trouble finding a home. They do not reach people in this country except on rare occasions, through a Pixar screening or in the form of an anthology like the Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories series. It’s actually something of a minor miracle to see the Dinner specials make air at all.
JW: Well, thank you, and yeah, we agree. There are so many mini-scenes now that the film community has fragmented into a million different communities. Comedy has as well; and of course television, where there are so many shows and options so that everyone can find what’s directly tailored for their interests. But the result is that it gets harder for things in-between to crossover except in the case of something like Making a Murderer [2015, Netflix.]
BG: There is a climate of narcissism in these communities, of “I can do that!” You have all these new people saying that. That is happening in both film and comedy: there are so many people who are not necessarily as experienced or as talented as they might have had to be in the past in order to get things made. People who don’t really have anything to say are entering these scenes just to say they’re part of a comedy scene. Of course, there are a lot of people who are talented and have something to say; not everyone is like that. But those people are in the same predicament we are and they’re going, “I’ve got to do my thing, too – let’s just make sure these hacks don’t push me out.”
SM: Although I know you’re kind of joking, it’s scary as someone who’s been writing about film for a really long time to hear about this. It just brings up memories of the dearth of shit that you have to watch to maintain relationships in this business. It’s making hacks and shitstains everywhere more popular. Like we’re talking in preparation for the film festival, and just yesterday I was invited to speak to someone there who’s becoming really popular. My first thought was, “I’m a critic, so what purpose would I have to talk to someone like this at all?” When you read an assignment like that, you feel like there is not enough money in the world to make you want it.
BG: [Comedy] still has the same amount of good people – there is just more bad, or more mediocre. That’s a whole thing, too, all these things where it’s like, “Well, that was alright.” To me, that’s more frustrating because there’s a kind of skill, but the people don’t need to be making whatever it is they’re making. It doesn’t have to come out of them. You can do something else!
SM: Work at a popsicle factory or something that really contributes to society.
BG: Exactly. You could go be a banker if you wanted to, but because comedy is cool, you’re going to get laid, and you’re going to meet celebrities, you’re going to come do it. When you pour your fucking soul into it, it is frustrating to see the industry reward those who don’t; that being said, despite the influx of people who are trying to do this, most of them are not successful. So it’s not like Jason and I have not been rewarded. I’m actually really grateful that we get the chance to make a living off of it. You can be an entertainer and still pour your soul into it, even if it isn’t something with incredible depth.
JW: It does get hard not to be negative. Ultimately, the only thing you can do is try to make your own work great and personal. You have to believe that if you keep chugging away, people will notice. With Dinner with Family, we worked on it for months and showed it once to our friends in Los Angeles. They were all very complimentary, which was a good feeling. Then it airs once at 12:30 a.m. on Adult Swim, and that was kind of the end of it. We had to be like, “On to the next one.” For this to be having a second life…
SM: Yeah, it’s honestly rare.
JW: You have to hope stuff like that happens and that you’re not just working really hard on something you’ll be throwing into the void. That makes something like this festival so rewarding. All you can do is your best work – that’s the only good use of your creative energy.
BG: Yes…but at the same time, you’re going to see other people’s work and you’re going to feel things about it that you cannot control *Laughs*. That has to be navigated. That can fuel your work, too, when I see some bullshit and now I have to make sure the thing I am making is nothing like it.
SM: The first time I recognized you by name, Brett, was when I saw you at Sundance 2013 in Jobs. You were so intense in such a small role and now, just in the last three years, it’s become so difficult to nail down an interview because of your work schedule. The timeline is about the same with people like Ansari or Jon Daly, who started to really break four years ago or so. Now Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer have a virtual reality film called “Interrogation” for Funny or Die premiering at Sundance, and you both have strong relationships with them. The fact that the four of you are each premiering films at Sundance proves, I think, that sometimes the chaff does fall to the wayside while real talent gets to keep producing work.
BG: I’m a trained actor and have always been a character actor. When I moved to New York from school, the UCB opened its doors, and that became something I really liked doing. But I was coming to it from an actor-place – no matter how short-formed what we were doing was, I thought about it as an actor. The great thing that has been happening, with our new special being the biggest example of this, is getting to parlay the comedy world into my acting career in the last few years. This is what I have been working towards my whole time in comedy. Like I went to school with Jon Daly.
SM: He’s comedically brilliant and a great actor. Nobody like him.
JW: We love him.
BG: Yeah, yeah. It is really rewarding to get to do this and push it towards [an acting] career more and more. And it is not about whether I can make something funny or not; that’s not something that Jason or I were totally concerned with. We have always been of the mind that if something is funny, great, but if it’s something else – great! If it makes people uncomfortable or sad or inspired, that is awesome as long as they are having a full experience. Nobody’s dissecting the reason you did Drunk History along the way or asking, “Where were you coming from in that role?”
SM: No, all you have to do at this stage in your career is bring the unadulterated you to the role and that can be your process.
BG: Yes – for better or for worse, yeah *Laughs*.
SM: When you do so in front of Patti LuPone and Tony Roberts, who play your parents in Dinner with Family, what is it like for them? Do they get freaked out by the “real, unadulterated you?” And what was the process like to bring them onboard?
JW: Everyone gets freaked out when they read the scripts without context, especially those who don’t know what we do or what the tone will be. But the actual shoots are a lot of fun. We have shot each one of the three [films] in two days and everyone becomes like a little family over the weekend *Laughs*. The tone on set is much lighter than what you see…everyone is onboard because they get it, and they’re cool. It has never been about freaking out the cast.
BG: The majority of the actors who we’ve cast in these come from the theater [world.] So if they are reading our script – like Patti – it is not much more fucked up than Sweeney Todd or something. Baking people into pies is fucked up! These are all educated and well-read actors who know so many playwrights, and have acted in their work. They have written much more twisted, darker stuff than this, although Dinner with Family is pretty fucked up.
SM: *Laughs* I would say so.
BG: But then you get things that really boost your self-esteem, like Tony Roberts comparing us to Ionesco. We would hear that and go, “Yeah, yeah, more shit like that!” Not really healthy for the show at all. One of the things the actors sometimes think when they hear that this is comedy and they read such an aggressive script is, “Is this all that is going to be done to me here?” Because of that, there is never anything going on onset that is not in the script.
SM: You literally have to warn your actors before you start shooting.
BG: It’s essentially a one-act play.
JW: The only kinds of issues that come from the actors are based on how thoughtful they are about the script and the characters. Dinner with Family has a cartoon logic to it in terms of the way that different things move within the reality of it. So Tony would have a question like, “When Brett calls his mother on the phone, why can we hear the call too?” We actually appreciate things like that because we go over the scripts so many times and try to make them pretty airtight, sometimes we still have these leaps of logic to maintain the reality or the tone that we need to work out. It can be hard for someone to wrap their heads around it.
SM: You both executive produced and co-wrote the specials. What are your experiences with casting?
BG: All of the people that we cast are incredibly educated people who just love acting. Everyone is so down just to act and we always have a great time. Because these people come from the theater, they are used to acting for long hours without a huge amount of money for the love of their part(s). That is completely across the board with the whole cast, really.
JW: These are long shoot days. We shot Dinner with Family over a weekend. Day One was fourteen hours and Day Two was sixteen hours; it was pretty grueling, especially since half the cast is in their seventies. We were very fortunate to have a cast of people that was so game because it is the only way we could have made something like this.
BG: Also, what reads as “funny” to the audience often does not read as “funny” to us. In the moment, we have to see it as tragic and to be immersed in the reality of it. One of the things we tell the actors is, “Don’t worry about this being funny at all. Be truthful to what is happening just as long as it’s really intense.” So you are really immersing yourself in this surreal, surreal tragedy.
*JW and SM Laugh*
JW: A lot of it becomes funny to us the darker and more tragic we’re willing to go.
SM: The more aggressive it gets, the funnier in a certain way. That’s the tonal brilliance of it that, in my mind, is what Sundance finds appealing about it.
BG: That adds to the real tragic factor in both the writing and the acting of it. Jason and I wrote this in a dark room because we didn’t like the fluorescent lights in some office. They were giving us headaches. So we’re writing this dark piece about family dysfunction in this dark office, watching Interiors. [Woody Allen, 1978] and Autumn Sonata [Ingmar Bergman, 1978] to get ourselves to feel. It was really crazy.
SM: The fact that you submitted this film to a festival that may not be as familiar with your work as the people in the comedy community may be is so daring to me. If I was in your position, I would have worried that they wouldn’t “get it,” in a certain way, not that I personally “get it” any better than Sundance might have. There is a certain kind of person who will be attending Sundance and will see this film, which I’m sure you’re aware of. Are you prepared for people – and I should say before I ask this that I’ve seen it happen several times before, it’s not a myth – are you prepared for critics and viewers to literally walk out of Dinner with Family with Brett Gelman?
BG: Oh, yeah, totally.
JW: I would love that.
SM: I’m telling you now: they will walk out.
JW: This film is closing the Midnight Shorts section so it’ll be screening around 1 a.m. after people have watched a lot of aggressive, weird stuff. And this thing is about abuse and it’s just…it is relentless.
SM: That is indeed the word for it.
JW: Once it gets going, it does not stop in terms of its plot twists. And it’s a comedy in large part about incest and domestic abuse. That is another reason that it feels like its own thing. When you think of “horror-comedy”, you think of Evil Dead or something. I love Evil Dead but it is not similar to this, which keeps twisting in your brain.
BG: I was at this party and someone I knew said, “Wow, it is a really amazing horror-comedy,” but Jason and I never really thought of it as a “horror” film. That may be why we were able to make it something “more” than that: because we are really not concerned with filling any box or genre or tone. We will realize things about what we’ve written that do make us go, “Whoa, that was really my subconscious?” We get into this zone with the writing where we’re pulling from our deepest fears, anger, resentment, and jealousies – and injecting them into this character, my character. The thru-line of the three films, or rather of —
SM: Of the specials, all three shorts.
BG: Yeah, the thru-line is this clueless, oblivious narcissist who has some deep psychological agenda that he is using against his guests to help himself feel.
SM: He’s desperate to get through his trauma.
BG: *Laughs* Yes, in the case of Dinner with Family, a very deep trauma that he needs to work out. It’s pretty wild. In the new one, too, you see the journey that my character is taking from special-to-special that we didn’t consciously do. We are just now realizing that in the edit.
SM: You’re talking about a narrative journey that neither of you consciously developed in the “Brett Gelman” character.
BG: A subtle, psychological narrative, yes, but I don’t want to reveal too much about because it might ruin it for those who haven’t seen the other two.
JW: We are editing the third one now, and I have to say, it is much darker than the first two.
BG: It’s on race.
JW: Yeah, it’s about race in America. It’s obviously risky even to tackle that, especially in a comedy environment; we knew that going in. But like Brett was saying, in making and editing it, [the film] keeps evolving and revealing itself to be different from the original idea. When we write them, we try to follow our instincts and go with what feels right without analyzing it too much. But then as you get into it, you start to learn what you wanted to say with the film. Like we were just in the editing room with the new one, and it was so exciting because there would be something that just wasn’t working until we found a whole other artistic layer. Discovering that, for me, gives us a real feeling of connecting to each other and to the material in a way that kind of beats….well, it is just a special feeling, indeed.
BG: There’s a lot of trust in our work. We have been friends for a long time and we’ve both seen each other at our ugliest. There is a lot of freedom all the time in the editing and it is really fun to figure it out together. We can walk into the shadows together and not walk out until it’s done, like we did with this new one, which is really an indictment of the White Liberal.
SM: *Laughs* That explains some of the cast I saw you posting photographs of on Tumblr: Loretta Devine, Joe Morton, Lance Reddick. The moment I have their images in my head alongside yours, Brett, is extremely disturbing even as a logline.
JW: Even for us, watching [Dinner in America] is uneasy from minute one. It hits certain buttons in you that we do not have names for, which is kind of the goal. I want to trigger things in the viewer that feel visceral but that you can’t quite describe, somewhere between laughing, and shock and horror, but without shocking just for the sake of it.
BG: The one thing we want people to take away from the next one is the knowledge that [Jason and I] are not laughing at the problem, we are showing how awful the problem is, but the comedy comes in by showing how flawed the White Liberal is.
SM: I live in Austin, Texas, and nowhere does that character get more exposure than here. Have you seen these bumper stickers with people co-opting the “Black Lives Matter” movement into “All Lives Matter” stickers? And then there’s a whole other sect of this city where people are putting “Unborn Lives Matter” stickers on their cars. What is going on in a person like that’s mind, do you think?
BG: White people have to co-opt black slogans – it’s an obsession. The “All Lives Matter” movement is horrible and evil, but it’s only a small metaphor for how White America uses black people to benefit. All white people in this country are conditioned to benefiting from endemic racism. That is something that we all need to admit, and that’s what the next special is about.