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Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Brett Gelman's 'Dinner with Friends' Is One of the Darkest and Funniest Things on TV

Adult Swim has long been committed to airing some of the most innovative, writer-driven comedies on TV, and that trend continues with Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends, a half-hour one-off special from comedian Brett Gelman and director Jason Woliner that debuts tonight at midnight on the network. Gelman and Woliner have been collaborating for years now, most recently on the Adult Swim's show Eagleheart, which Woliner co-writes and directs and Gelman acts on, and with Dinner with Friends, they've created something that's every bit as funny, dark, and fast-paced as Eagleheart is, and something completely unlike anything else on television.

The special stars Brett Gelman as "Brett Gelman," a fictionalized version of himself who's a demented, show business-obsessed sociopath. It's a persona Gelman has been crafting for years on his podcast Gelmania and his UCB live show of the same name, and Dinner with Friends finds the Gelman character hosting a TV special in which he and a group of Hollywood actors dine and trade "showbiz tales straight from the Tinseltown trenches," a la Jon Favreau's old IFC chat show Dinner for Five.

Gelman and Woliner, who wrote the special together, assembled an eclectic group of  actors to be dinner guests: Alison Pill (The Newsroom), Lance Reddick (The Wire), Fred Melamed (A Serious Man), Dale Dickey (True Blood), Alex Karpovsky (Girls), and comedian Gilbert Gottfried. The actors are all playing fictionalized versions of themselves, there to straight-man Gelman as his superficial entertainment industry dinner quickly descends into him psychologically torturing his guests.

Gelman says he and Woliner drew from the works of Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier when making Dinner with Friends, and it shows. They definitely don't skirt away from darkness and violence here. Combined with the script's fast-paced twists and turns, they manage to make a comedy that's genuinely suspenseful and frightening in parts. Surrounding Gelman with a group of talented dramatic actors also helps to sell the horrific reality of the show while adding weight to its more absurd comedic moments, making them even more surreal. Gilbert Gottfried is the only actor in the supporting cast who's primarily known for his comedic work, but he holds his own against the more seasoned serious actors.

In addition to combining comedy and horror in a way that no other comedy on TV is really aiming to, Dinner with Friends also stands out for its relentless pace. Like Eagleheart, which Woliner directs and co-writes with Michael Koman and Andrew Weinberg, Dinner with Friends moves rapidly between jokes and plot turns, delivering a show that is as refreshingly economical as it is funny.

Dinner with Friends comes from Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and Dave Kneebone's production company Abso Lutely. Like Adult Swim, Abso Lutely has also made a habit of hiring creative people and "[staying] out of their way," as Heidecker puts it. As a result, Abso Lutely has some of the strongest, most original comedies on the air today — Nathan For You, ReviewComedy Bang! Bang!, just to name a few) — and Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends is certainly worthy of standing alongside those series.