There's a full room waiting for Brett Gelman inside Rockwell: Table & Stage last Thursday night. The comedic actor, known for his work on the show Eagleheart, as well as a slew of television guest spots, is getting his own cable special. Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends airs on Adult Swim tomorrow, on April 24. In it, the funny guy is joined by a tableful of fellow actors for a meal that goes awry. “It's not so much a comedy special so much as it is a play,” says Gelman by phone a few days before the Rockwell event.
A week before the premiere, friends and fans arrive at this Los Feliz restaurant/venue to catch a sneak preview of the special and to see Gelman live on stage. The crowd quiets as Gelman opens with a diary entry. He's not on stage yet. We hear his voice take on an almost childlike quality as he mentions the nervousness that comes along with having his own television special. Somewhere towards the end of a monologue where trains of thought link up with each other, he starts talking about death and funerals. Namely, he's wondering about his own. He asks aloud if the kids who taunted him in high school would make an appearance? He answers his own question, “no invite for my funeral.” He says this with the angst-filled frantic tone of thoughts that will keep you awake at two in the morning.
In the audience, the laugher is hard to resist. You laugh because you understand it, because as awkward as it is to admit, you have thought about your own funeral. You have wondered who would mourn you and, more importantly, whether you would want them there.
On stage, Gelman does some of the most intense performances that you will see. He taps into the things that we don't discuss, even with friends. He channels anxiety and fear. He finds the juncture between over-confidence and insecurity.
“I want to make it really vulnerable,” says Gelman. “I want people to connect on a human level. I want people to be really invested in what I'm doing up there and to be really affected by it.”
Gelman says that he never wants to come across as “cooler than the audience.” When he takes the stage, he's wearing an eggplant suit and white gloves. He thanks a lot of people who were involved with the production before he bursts into song. He croons with odd dance movements and subtle emotional outbursts that let you know that the song and dance aren't completely serious. He mentions his alma mater – North Carolina School of the Arts – where he learned “the intricacies of the art of musical theater.”
“It's taken me a long time to get here,” Gelman says right before a slideshow of goofy photos of the comedic actor appears on screen. It's something that is as much a part of the act as it is truth, possibly the point where Brett Gelman, the actor, and Brett Gelman, the character, merge. He has been on the scene for a long time. Right now is the moment where he's coming into his own.
When Gelman was six years old, he saw A Night at the Opera, the Marx Brothers flick. He was entranced simply by the sound of Groucho Marx's voice. During our interview, Gelman says that he has told this story before, but it's a crucial bit of history.
“I didn't even understand the jokes at the time,” he says. “I was six and those are pretty sophisticated jokes.”
Sill, he became “obsessed” with comedy. He watched Charlie Chaplin films. Mel Brooks movies were huge, not just for the writer/director, but for his company of actors. He rattles of the names: Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Dom DeLuise, Marty Feldman. He stills reveres those actors.
In college, Gelman studied the masters of theater, Shakespeare and Chekhov amongst them. The education in Shakespeare came in handy. “The precision, the craft that you have to have to make that work, to do that, that's a lot of work,” he says. “That requires a lot of practice.”
Learning the essentials of comedic acting helped when he did a stint in New York after college and got involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade. “I had all those tools and I was able to get on stage rather quickly because I was always acting, I was always going 100 percent,” he says.
“I think that's something that people don't realize enough about when they get into comedy,” Gelman adds. “It's not just about sitting back and observing and saying something funny.”
Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends is demented in the same way that Eagleheart, which also airs on Adult Swim, is. The special crams a lot into a short period of time with each twist revealing something even more bizarre than an audience member can anticipate.
After the screening at Rockwell, though, things get really weird. Gelman hits the maniacal point of the performance. His voice pitch-shifts. Lance Reddick (The Wire) and Dale Dickey (True Blood), both of whom appear in the special, join him on stage. The language reaches levels vulgarity that would drive television Standards and Practices types into a tizzy. There's no controlling the laughter as hysterically profane rants fill the room with Gelman's occasionally demonic delivery.
There's a brief period of calm before the end of the show. Gelman builds up again towards the climax when he sees someone in the room holding a cell phone. That someone is me, reacting to something without thinking, without realizing that I had just done something obnoxious. Gelman runs off on a tangent about cell phones. The words race through my ears so quickly that I can't remember what they were. I'm laughing because the bit was genuinely funny, yet shocked that I had done something so stupid and rude. After the show, I go up to Gelman to apologize. We laugh about it. All was well.
After the fact, I remember something from the interview with Gelman. “At the end of the day, stand-up comedy is like acting when the audience are the other characters that I'm acting with,” he says. “I always welcome any kind of interjection.” He talks specifically about hecklers. “That gives me an extra five minutes of something to do, tear that person apart.”
I think about how fast he responded. The phone was out for a matter of seconds at the bar at one end of a small room when he went off the cuff. It was a reaction that could only successfully come from someone who is really in tune with the audience. In our interview, Gelman discusses how you have to learn the technical aspects of comedic acting, but you have to understand “when to let it go.”
“Nobody wants to see the preparation,” says Gelman. “It's got to be the thing that they connect to and don't think about at all.”
In the end, Gelman says, “You have to trust your instincts.” Brett Gelman has very good instincts.
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