Brett Gelman Examines the Effect of Darkness in “Lemon”, and Throughout Comedy


When you speak with Brett Gelman, you notice that his gentle-jokey voice sounds nothing like the moody and mean character Isaac he plays in the new film Lemon. It’s easy to see how a performer like Gelman can swing from characters like Isaac to his goofy “Little Bit o’ Luck” New York Lotto character with complete easy. They show two equally important sides to Gelman and his brand of comedy…a mix of dark rage and depression and joyful silliness. While Lemon is more interested in the latter, both show that Gelman’s comedies aren’t just the latest entry within the in vogue “cringe-comedy” genre. Clearly, he has something to say with all that discomfort.

Having been a fan of Gelman’s for a while (yes, including “Little Bit o’ Luck”), I mention my particular love of Gelman’s Adult Swim short “Dinner with Family” as a favorite that also happens to be one of the darkest and strangest things I’d ever seen. To that Gelman just laughs, and takes it as a compliment (as it was meant). “You aren’t the first person who’s said that to me,” he says “I like being strange, I like being hyperbolic and surreal. It can give us a more visceral connection to the material and can ultimately make people relate to it more because it bursts through the walls we have put up. But consequently, it can also make people very angry and/or uncomfortable. Which really isn’t my personal goal. I want people to be able to relate and acknowledge in themselves that we have a darkness within ourselves. But I know not everyone’s down to take that on.”

I’ve definitely seen people get angry or really uncomfortable with stuff I’ve made in the past. And my stand-up, if you could call what I do stand-up, is quite aggressive too.

Seeing the polarizing reaction audiences can have first-hand at a screening of “Lemon,” it’s worth mentioning that the film is likely to divide audiences and should come with a warning that there will be some discomfort. But that’s nothing new, or disappointing, for Gelman. “I’ve definitely seen people get angry or really uncomfortable with stuff I’ve made in the past. And my stand-up, if you could call what I do stand-up, is quite aggressive too. Even when I do performances of stuff I haven’t written, my goal is always to bring out the light and the dark and have them ultimately merge. For a lot of people, they process what I’m doing as very dark and unpleasant. Or maybe I’m just insane and what I do is that dark, but I have a high threshold. I don’t have an answer, but I’ve seen it bother some people and sometimes they try to dismiss it. Or maybe it just doesn’t register for them, I don’t want to be egotistical and think that if they don’t get me, there’s something lacking in them. And I know that in myself, there are times when I’m just not ready to face dark things, and when I’m confronted by something like that, I start to get a little angry too. I love Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, but if I’m not in the right frame of mind to watch their work, I feel upset after watching it. But I tend to process being upset as an audience member as something good, because it means the work is strong.”

I love straight up comedy, but I have all this darkness that I need to put into the work.

It’s obvious from all of Gelman’s work that he clearly has an understanding of how circular comedy and drama can be, pulling from influences across genres and mediums. “My early influences were Edward Albee and Sam Shepard and Samuel Beckett” says Gelman “but my earliest influences were the Three Stooges, Mel Brooks, the original cast of ‘ and . I love straight up comedy, but I have all this darkness that I need to put into the work. The Producers is my favorite movie, and my favorite performances of all time are Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, and I feel like I strive to be a combination of those two guys. They’re my mother and father of acting. Every great comedy has some darkness, even if it isn’t as in your face. The Marx Brothers were creating chaos. They were stepping into normal society and torturing everyone. Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau is creating chaos when he’s supposed to be solving crimes.”

In Lemon, two of the victims of Isaac’s worst behavior are the women in his life, his girlfriend (played by Judy Greer) and an acting student (Gillian Jacobs). The acting class scenes arguably receive the biggest laughs in the film at the screening, as Isaac’s cruelty towards Gillian and wanna-be BFF relationship with Michael Cera’s character are guaranteed to make audiences laugh while they cringe. While his character could easily be labeled a misogynist, Gelman sees the roots of that going to a darker neurosis. “He sees himself in Gillian, but he wishes he were more like Michael. But in his subconscious, he knows he’s more on Gillian’s level. But he doesn’t want to see himself in that way and admit that, so he tries to get as far away from her as possible. And because he’s so angry, the most effective way to do that is to verbally abuse her and make her feel as bad as he feels. Every misogynist is a narcissist. And I don’t know if you can call him a complete misogynist because of the relationship he has with his sister. She’s his rock and he has this co-dependent relationship with her. He’s a narcissist, so anyone serving his ego is his ally and everyone else is an enemy. That’s why I turned on Michael’s character the way I do, because he’s going to abandon me and stop feeding my ego.”

Greer, Cera, and Jacobs are just two of a large cast which include Shiri Appleby, , Jon Daly, Megan Mullally, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, Elizabeth De Razzo, Martin Starr, Hannah Heller, David Paymer, Nia Long, and Marla Gibbs. Gelman describes the entire filmmaking process as collaborative, with fellow actors and crews while film to the day audiences see it. But on “Lemon” he was able to collaborate with his own wife, Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote the film with Gelman and directed it. While Isaac is the physical manifestation of Isaac, the character comes as much from her own subconscious. “She relates to Isaac just as much as I do, and originally conceived of the film as a vehicle for me. And she asked me to write it with her. She sees Isaac’s story as a cautionary tale for her own life too.” The two clearly work well together and share a similar view of how to approach the work. “I’m kind of like let the moment be the moment and that’s how Janicza works too. If it’s funny it’s funny. The thing that I love about actors like and Michael Keaton is, they have the full knowledge that they’re funny. But they also have the knowledge that they are capable of great depth. And you never want to force something to be funny or force something to be sad or moving. You just have to let it be and allow the audience to make their own decisions.”

Making a great piece of art is almost antithetical, it’s removed from who you are as a person. It’s your responsibility as a human being to not let that darkness creep into your everyday life.

When discussing some of the filmmakers they were influenced by while making the film ( is mentioned as a professional influence) we discussed the film’s commentary on how Isaac uses his artistic pursuits to justify bad personal behavior. While we’ve heard the art vs the artist debate a multitude of times, Gelman clearly has thought and considered the issue seriously. “I think that when you’re an artist you’re opening doors in your brain and messing with your own emotions. And it’s very easy to let those emotions get out of control. And that’s when it gets maybe a little too easy to do those immoral things in pursuit of art. The big mistake a lot of artists seem to make is the thought that ‘if I’m successful at this, it justifies my acting in a fucked up way.’ But those are two different things. The artist and the person are two different things. People need to work on themselves with the same fervor they work on their art. Making a great piece of art is almost antithetical, it’s removed from who you are as a person. It’s your responsibility as a human being to not let that darkness creep into your everyday life. Which is why I personally am able to watch and listen to artists who have done really bad things. Because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be exposed to a lot of great stuff. Yes, they’ve done bad things, but to completely throw out their work would be robbing ourselves twice. We get bummed that they turned out to be bad people, but we also don’t get to benefit from what good things they did manage to create.”

Read more comedy news.

 

The following two tabs change content below.
Lesley Coffin is the Features/Interviews Editor for the movie site Filmoria. She has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Look for her brand new podcast, "Lake Shore Drive to Hollywood" part of the Second Wind Collective podcast network. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.