If you ever thought Jon Favreau's DINNER FOR FIVE would've been more entertaining had he terrorized his guests instead of chatting with them, I give you DINNER WITH FRIENDS WITH BRETT GELMAN AND FRIENDS - and I warn you that Gelman pushes this concept well beyond the boundaries of what normal human beings consider "cruel". But it's okay. Really. As Gelman puts it, he's just prankin'!
Written by Gelman and Jason Woliner, the special begins innocently enough with the celebrity guests making small talk as they await their host's arrival. Then Gelman shows up in a huff, tells a shockingly elaborate tale of vengeance prompted by an unsatisfactory car cleaning and the evening of absurd horrors is underway. For the next twenty minutes, Gelman is a frighteningly unpredictable host; he veers from warm to distracted to abrasive to homicidal with zero warning or provocation. Initially, his guests try to roll with the punches and laugh off his bizarre behavior, but it quickly becomes clear that they're trapped in the dinner party version of NO EXIT. Gelman is prankin' with their very lives.
Airing tonight (Thursday, April 24th) at midnight on Adult Swim, DINNER WITH FRIENDS WITH BRETT GELMAN AND FRIENDS is a wild ride through the psyche of a comic who constantly dares his audience to stick with him. Before now, the classic Gelman routine was "1,000 Cats", in which he brings to life a dauntingly large number of fictional felines for reasons that are never entirely clear. I've found that there are two responses to this bit: "This is brilliant" or "Please god, make it stop." Both are likely high praise to Gelman, who has cited Michael Haneke as an influence; whereas some comedians seek out areas of discomfort for laughs, Gelman takes a dental drill to our anxieties. But, again, he's just prankin'!
Gelman has found a giddy enabler for his brand of comedy in Woliner, who directed the "1,000 Cats" segment for HBO's FUNNY OR DIE series as well as all three seasons of EAGLEHEART. While Gelman doesn't lack for invention (I've interviewed him before, and nearly every answer spins off into an inspired riff), it's good to have someone around to focus his endless spew of anarchic ideas - and, as he proved on last season's EAGLEHEART, Woliner has a gift for making the most bug-fuck notions feel organic within the context of the narrative. He's also great at escalation: e.g., there's a moment in DINNER WITH FRIENDS when Gelman interrupts his guests to answer the door. It's a child. He's there to buy cocaine. Gelman obliges (it's okay because it's for the kid's dad), and sends him on his way. I won't spoil what happens next, but it's inspired and hilarious and utterly unthinkable.
I have no idea how Gelman and Woliner settled on their guests, but the randomness of the group works in the show's unpredictable favor. Lance Reddick, Fred Melamed, Alison Pill, Dale Dickey, Alex Karpovsky and Gilbert Gottfried all amusingly transition from obliviousness to desperation as the dinner wears on. What begins as a parody of Favreau's celebrity hobnobbing (they've been invited to tell "tales from the Hollywood trenches") quickly turns into a bloody night of survival, and not everyone makes it out alive. It's a twisted one-off, but a perfect showcase for Gelman's delightfully volatile sensibilities. In some ways, it reminds me of the standalone comedy specials HBO and Showtime used to run in the '80s like Chris Elliott's FDR: A ONE-MAN SHOW or Eugene Levy's BIOGRAPHIES: THE ENIGMA OF BOBBY BITTMAN; it's an opportunity for a talented comedic performer to step out from the supporting ensemble and take a risk on something crazily non-commercial.
But while I sincerely hope DINNER WITH FRIENDS WITH BRETT GELMAN AND FRIENDS makes more Brett Gelman fans, I am also deeply unnerved at the thought of encouraging him. If this is his FUNNY GAMES, what will his THE PIANO TEACHER look like?