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