Brett Gelman on Confronting White Liberal Racism in ‘Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America’

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Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America — the third installment of Gelman and co-creator Jason Woliner’s Dinner series — premieres tonight at midnight on Adult Swim. While the first two parts of the series focused on friends and family, this special tackles one of the most difficult and important subjects in America: racism. The fact that a special on racism was created by two white guys is not lost on the show’s creators. Gelman explains, “Our fear is that people will think we’re making fun of race, that people won’t get that my racist character in this is a villain and not somebody to be liked. My character is a metaphor for white liberal racism.” Gelman uses his character in Dinner in America to push that metaphor to its limits, with horrifying yet significant results. I talked to Gelman about the creation of the special, using comedy as a mechanism to introduce important ideas, and the pitfalls of white liberalism.

You just premiered Dinner in America at the Theater at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. How was the special received by a live audience?

I think overall it went very well. It went way better than Jason and I thought it would. We thought there would be 50 people in that giant theater, but it was packed. We were really happy with how it was received and the attention it got. It’s not what Jason and I are used to.

What are you used to?

People being like, “Who are you? What is this? Oh, I’m busy. See you later.” That’s what we’re used to, making things in a vacuum. That’s how it feels a lot.

Was 1000 Cats the first project you and Jason worked on together?

Yeah, that was the first main thing that we did together. We dabbled with other things that never came to fruition, but that was our first real project.

How was the idea for the Dinner specials conceived?

It was originally Jason’s idea. We were eating lunch at Eagleheart and he said, “Hey, how about we do a comedy special where you’ve got dinner guests and it sort of starts out like Jon Favreau’s Dinner for Five and then you do a comedy performance at the table?” Originally it was me doing really stupid sketch characters juxtaposed with me making the guests feel uncomfortable in conversation. We wrote that, sent it to Adult Swim, and Mike Lazzo was like, “What’s with this character shit? I thought it was just going to be you fucking with people over dinner.” That was really the only note that we got from Adult Swim. They have been incredibly amazing on this. It was amazing because Jason and I were going this anti-comedy route, this is very meta route. Lazzo kind of saved us from that. It made us go in the direction of, “What if everybody is fully invested the whole time and there’s no winking at this at all?” That note changed the whole course of how Jason I work on things now, especially with the last special and this one. This one really was us caring about the issue and wanting to find a way to talk about it. We wanted to take the risk to tackle it because it’s something we care about.

Your cast is incredible. You’ve got Loretta Devine, Shareeka Epps, Mack Wilds, and Joe Morton making up the rest of the panel. Each of them gets to deliver some very powerful words on racism. They all represent differing views. The dialogue is intense. When you presented this to the cast, what was the initial response? Did they immediately get what you were trying to do?

They did. These are top-notch actors and they were all on board. It’s a very tough shoot. We shoot 25 pages in two days. We did it on a weekend to make sure that we could get these great actors. They took their Saturday and Sunday out to do two 14 hour long days. I can’t believe we got these actors.

You play the only white person in a roundtable discussion on race. You’re playing someone who really thinks that they know what’s going on and that they can help. Without giving anything away, so many of the setups in this special are risky, especially in the beginning. When you were writing this did you worry about how it might be perceived? Are there things that once you started filming you felt like you had to change?

Oh yeah. We’re still worried about it. As long as there’s somebody to see it and possibly misunderstand our intentions I’ll always be worried about it. Our intention was not to make fun of race. We don’t think that’s funny. This one in particular is sort of a prank on the audience, making them think that they’re watching a comedy when, in fact, they’re watching a tragedy. With the other two, as violent or as fucked up as they got, there’s still a level of humor there. There are many moments in this new one that are just not funny at all. We really wanted to experiment with that. The comedy was a way to let people put their guards down so that the tragedy of it hits them harder. Hopefully it allows people to process what’s going on in a more meaningful way. That’s the real goal here, for people of color to feel like they’re spoken for because they can’t be spoken for enough and for white people to check themselves and be like, “Okay, I’m not a racist, but I exist in a racist system. In what ways do I maybe contribute to that system by doing nothing?” Our fear is that people will think we’re making fun of race, that people won’t get that my racist character in this is a villain and not somebody to be liked. My character is a metaphor for white liberal racism. But if any person of color says it offended them I cannot tell them they’re wrong. I have no true understanding of what their daily reality is. I get to live a privileged existence.

Even if you were to reply to somebody who was offended and say, “No, no, no, this was our intent,” you would basically have become a real-life version of your character in the special.

Exactly. It’s tripped out to us because there are things happening to this character in the special that are, in a way, happening with Jason and I in our making of the special. How much of this is helping? How much of this is our low self-esteem wanting a pat on the back? How much do we want to get the awareness award? These are questions we ask ourselves. We had to continuously check our own intentions while we were making this. Us deciding to make something like this does not mean that these systemic problems are not present in us as well.

Your character is a hyperbolic extension of what a lot of white people are going through when dealing with racism. They believe they’re doing the right thing or that they’ve had an experience that they think allows them to relate to somebody of another race and the problems they’re going through. You take that premise and blow it up to a ridiculous level to where that character truly does become a villain. Watching it there were times where I felt like, “Oh shit, I’m ignorant like this sometimes.”

It’s a big thing that’s present in the white liberal community. That, “I’m talking about it so I’m doing something.” No, you’re just talking about it. And you’re talking about it usually to other white liberals. You’re not really doing anything here. Talking is not action. Don’t just look at what you say. Look at how you socialize. What is your work environment? What do you actually do to help legislation along to protect people who are in a more compromised position than you are? I would assume that intelligent white people will see this special and go, “Well… yeah. Yeah, I do that.” There’s the whole ‘white idiot makes racist comments without realizing it’ joke and as they try to dig themselves out of the hole, dig an even deeper hole. We wanted to show that archetypal comedy character, but then show what actual darkness lies behind that.

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