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Brett Gelman talks <i>Stranger Things</i>, the “dark nobility” of his <i>Fleabag </i>character—and “iBrain”

Brett Gelman talks Stranger Things, the “dark nobility” of his Fleabag character—and “iBrain”

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO (Getty Images), Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Although comedy nerds most likely first encountered him through his intentionally abrasive stand-up performances, or numerous appearances on Adult Swim or Comedy Bang! Bang!, Brett Gelman has become positively ubiquitous in the streaming sphere of late. As one of the stars of both Stranger Things season three and Fleabag—the latter of which is up for four awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series, at this year’s Emmys—Gelman has become something of a streaming superstar, whether playing belligerent alcoholic Martin on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s caustically comic cocktail, or rogue journalist Murray Bauman on the latest season of the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix hit. Ahead of awards season, we talked to Gelman about his banner year, what he finds funny about diving so deep into anger and discomfort, and how far his sympathies for Martin really run.

The A.V. Club: Over the last couple of years, you’ve been on shows like Mad Men, Twin Peaks—lots of high-profile stuff. What do you think people are looking for when they pick Brett Gelman for a role?

Brett Gelman: They’re like, “Oh, Mikey’ll do it!” “Who wants to go into the deep, dark recesses of human folly?” [Laughs.] “Oh, we’ll get Mikey to do it.” You remember the Life cereal—or Wheaties, I don’t remember what cereal it was. I do think I get cast as some pretty flawed guys. But I think people like to cast me in that because they feel like I bring a sense of humanity to them, that you can see this horrible behavior take place in a lot of these cases, but enjoy it, you know? And still feel kind of connected to the character in some odd way.

AVC: Both Murray and Martin have a similar “Hey, I’m just telling the truth here” kind of bluntness. What draws you to those roles?  

BG: I think that I am a pretty honest person. And I also recognize in these characters that, even though they’re honest, they all—we all have things that we’re very honest about, and things that we’re not so honest about, too. And I think Martin and Murray—Martin especially—is not necessarily honest about certain things in his life at times. But I think though, too, with these characters, that the truth in them always seems to rise to the top. And their characters are living so intensely that they can’t really—it’s sort of impossible for them to live on some automatic place of denial. And they are probably the two most honest characters that people have seen me play as of yet—I wouldn’t call Dr. Greg in Love or Isaac in Lemon honest. Those characters are in massive denial. But I think there’s a major similarity between Martin and Murray in that they’re kind of at this place where who they are—the new version of who they are is being revealed to them in a very aggressive way in the course of both seasons of both shows. I’m drawn to it because it’s intense and it’s relatable. I think both characters—this is a testament to both Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] and Matt and Ross [Duffer]’s talent as writers. Their brilliance and genius as writers is that all of their characters they write to be very relatable to people, even if it’s really hard to relate to some of them.

AVC: Do you think Martin evolves between Fleabag’s seasons?

BG: I think he got worse. I think there’s been a year between the two seasons, and he’s been doing the thing of pretending that his marriage is okay, and being sober but not really taking care of his alcoholism. Because if he was really taking care of his alcoholism, he probably would’ve broken up with Claire, just because he would have recognized how unhealthy the marriage was for his self-esteem. Which was, you know, a big fuel to his drinking. But there’s been a year of pretending that everything is okay, and so what’s been building underneath that very false surface is chaos. And that’s really what the first episode of the second season is: It’s an explosion of what everyone has been holding inside this entire year between season one and season two. He’s in a much worse place. He’s trying to hold it together, but there’s more of, like, a rotting inside, and more of a chance of exploding and being unhinged. He’s kept it together—everyone’s kept it together—but once Fleabag re-enters his life, he’s shown he can’t hide from the flaws and the horrible place where his life and he himself is actually at anymore. And so what he’s been pushing down just explodes.

AVC: At that dinner, he’s the first person who escalates things from passive-aggressive to aggressive-aggressive. 

BG: Yes! And that’s his thing. And it’s also that the other character who is most likely to do that, besides him, is Fleabag. And so I think they probably very much trigger each other in that first episode, and it’s off to the races. And they sort of take solace in a sick way, like, “Oh, I can call this person a piece of shit to their face.” This is the only person in my life that I can be like, “You’re garbage.” I think both people, in a dark way, both relish being able to do that to each other, while at the same time suffer from what the other person’s presence means in their life and what it means about them.

AVC: In some ways, he’s the character who comes closest to seeing the Fleabag that we do—the one making the asides to the audience.

BG: They’re mirrors of each other. They are. And I think that’s why—that’s part of the reason why they go at each other’s throats so much. It is, in many ways, a fight for Claire. And because they relate so heavily, it makes them hate each other more. And they both have a very similar way of dealing with things. They both hide behind humor and are the most honest people in the room a lot of the time, but they use their honesty as a weapon to make everybody else feel uncomfortable. And, in some way, to alienate themselves more to justify the place that they’re in and not totally take responsibility for it.

AVC: You have the big speech at the end of the season, this big, amazing, intentionally pathetic moment. When you watch that, do you root for Martin? Do you root for Claire to stay?

BG: [Pauses.] I do. I think it’s really heartbreaking that she leaves. I mean, of course, I’m playing him, but I do root for him. If I take a few more moments to think about it, I do know that, logically, that would be a terrible decision on her part. Not only for her, but for him as well. But they both—that just needs to end. That just is not a good situation, and it has gone past the point of no return. But I do feel so bad for him in that monologue, because I—of course—heavily relate to it in a lot of ways. That line “I’m not bad, I just have a bad personality”—that’s really the thesis for the whole show in a lot of ways. It’s, “Oh my god, am I just fucked? Am I just cursed to be this person? Is there nothing I can do to change, no matter what I do?” And that curse means loneliness. “Has who I am just made a recipe to be lonely for the rest of my life?”

I don’t really feel there’s any bad people in Fleabag, but everybody is super fucked-up and spinning out. And because they’re spinning so fast, they’re really not conscious of a lot of the damage that they’re doing.

AVC: A lot of times in this show, it feels like no one’s making choices—they’re just reacting to the last person’s reaction.

BG: Yeah, well, that’s what happens when you’re spinning: You don’t have an overall path. In the moment, you just can only see two feet in front of your face. And that’s really where everybody’s at, except maybe Godmother.

And that’s where Andrew thinks that he’s at when he meets Phoebe. What makes Phoebe so brilliant—one of the many things—is that she links it all together, where everybody is serving this grand theme of the show. Or themes. And she can make everybody kind of be doing the same thing, but in a completely different way. And you really have to look at it to know that’s what she’s doing. Because she’s also brilliant at making you experience what the characters are experiencing in that moment.

AVC: Could you imagine a version of the show where it’s Martin talking to the camera?

BG: [Laughs.] I think the camera would turn away. I think the camera would be like, “You know what? I’m not interested.” I feel like he would get caught in a lot of rage and rambling and whatnot. And it would be very disjointed, and it would probably be taking back a lot, but then taking back the taking back. And it would just be… it wouldn’t be fun. He’d crack the lens with his rage.

AVC: A lot of your comedy—stuff like “iBrain,” which you did on Comedy Bang! Bang!—operates in the world of hostility and discomfort. What about that vibe is funny to you?

BG: I think that flaws are funny. I think that human flaws are funny. I’m never seeking to make people feel uncomfortable. I’m seeking to make people connect to a different part of themselves than they usually do from the day-to-day. I feel like that’s every artist’s job to do that—to take you out of the automatic pattern of your life and really make you face some things about yourself or about the world or just about how you’re reacting to a certain moment. And I guess things that I’m interested in tackling are uncomfortable things to talk about. You know, “iBrain,” for all its silliness and pornography, is about a dystopian future, and also about literary pretension. And people being way too forced with their messaging. You can do this heavy messaging, and I think the reason people are more uncomfortable with “iBrain” is the beginning of it. Because it’s so pretentious, and it almost goes on way too long before the pornography, to the point where it’s like—it’s boring. [Laughs.]

And then when the sexuality comes in, it’s like a release from that. And it sort of says, “Yeah, everything that came before that is just bullshit.” [Laughs.] And I’m not the first person to say this, but I think that there is hostility in comedy a little bit. Or at least aggression. I mean, you are going at people and trying to shift how they’re feeling in that moment. And it’s also catharsis for me. I want to get something out, and, a lot of the time, I’m feeling discomfort in myself. And I’m just expressing that, and I’m hoping that people connect to it. I’m not hoping it alienates people, even though I am conscious of the fact that it might. And probably will. But that’s not my main intention with what I do. Whether I’ve written it or not. It’s always to be like, “Yes, this is not an easy picture to look at, necessarily, but… it’s you. It’s me. We can look at this.” Or at least it’s what you fear you could become, or fear what you are. It’s dealing with these things—I think it’s healthy. I think that’s my little job to do here.

But that being said, I’m open to doing that in a not-so-confrontational, not-so-discomforting way either. It’s just how things have led me, and the people that I’ve worked with, too. And where I’ve been at in my life, it’s led me to making some of these things, and then getting cast in some of these roles. But I don’t necessarily think that Murray, for instance, creates discomfort. I think Murray actually—that’s a very positive arc to that season of Stranger Things.

AVC: It’s a much more heroic role.

BG: He’s a good guy. He can be a little brutal with his honesty, and can have a little bit of a short fuse and have no patience, but he is out for good, and he is definitely not out to take advantage of anyone in any way, or use anyone to make himself feel better. And, in season three, it’s kind of like a deliverance for him, from what he’s been dealing with. The Duffers wrote the journey for him being that he sort of finally—really, more than ever—gets back to being with other people. And caring about other people.

AVC: And he also gets the vindication of being a conspiracy guy who was actually right.

BG: Yes! Yeah, well, he’s a passionate journalist, so the fact that he’s right about this, and that he’s also seeing it through—and he needs to see it through. He needs to see it through so that he can be fully sure of himself. And come out of whatever dark space led him to that bunker, or at least get closer to it. Playing him was very positive.

AVC: There are certain similarities between a lot of your most high-profile roles. Do you think you’re typecast?

BG: Well, I think I can be. I think that there has been a major difference in all these roles, to a point where they don’t really feel the same—like even two roles that are somewhat similar, like Martin and Dr. Greg—they’re very different. I mean, Martin is scarier than Dr. Greg. Dr. Greg is just an ineffectual, walking limp penis, where Martin is—if Martin is a limp penis, it’s connected to a very, very aggravated [Laughs.], sexually stunted man who is out to blame whoever made it happen that way. Where Dr. Greg has no effect, and is easily just brushed to the side. I don’t think Martin is easily brushed to the side. I think Martin can really do damage. And then Murray, I feel, is way different from them in that—again, he’s heroic.

It’s interesting—I have a show coming out soon called Mr. Mercedes where I play a character that is actually the most well-adjusted character that I’ve ever played. I’m very excited for people to see him, because he’s intense, but he’s not fucked up in any way, really. He’s got his idiosyncrasies, but there’s no massively unhealthy thing about him like there is about any other character. And—yeah, I don’t know if I’m typecast. I think the next couple of roles will reveal that, or not. But I think so many of our favorite actors can go through periods of time playing similar shades of different people. If you look at De Niro in all of his great collaborations with Scorsese, all of those characters are vastly different—but there is a similarity between them. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that Robert De Niro is typecast. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jack Nicholson is typecast. There’s a fine line between being typecast and representing a certain type of human story.

AVC: There is a certain Brett Gelman energy, you could say.

BG: Yeah! Yeah, no, there is. And I like that—I like that I’m enough of a something for people to be, like, “That’s an energy.” And I do want to grow that. And I want to play different roles. It’s all about the role. There’s going to be different variations of how people define my career from the outside. And I’ve had people say, “Yeah, you’re kind of typecast.” And then some people say, “There is a major versatility to these characters.” I think both statements are true to a degree. But I always try to bring something different to each of these characters. And, thankfully too, I get to work with some incredible writers who are writing in a different voice than each other; they all have singular voices that they’re coming from, you know, whether it’s Phoebe, or the Duffers, or Janicza Bravo, or Judd Apatow. I’m stepping into their world, and that’s part of my job, too—to serve the world of these writers and directors who have a singular vision.

AVC: You mentioned an unhappiness with pretension, or a desire to skewer it. Your one-man show 1,000 Cats feels very much like a pointed attack on that kind of self-seriousness, while also being this very strange, committed thing. Where did it come from?

BG: I was doing the Outer Banks local theater in North Carolina, right after I graduated from school. And there was a local theater that was not through our school that we had—you know, we were all pretentious, classically-trained actors who hated ourselves and were scared shitless of the future. How do we handle that? Well, make fun of local people, who were also completely snobby to us and really competitive. And that made us get really angry. And they were doing a show called 1,000 Hats.

And one night we were wondering what to do, and one of my friends said, “Why don’t we see 1,000 Cats?” [Laughs.] And we all thought that was so funny. And I just got obsessed with writing these 10-second songs for all of these cats, and also, you know, spirituality, which I’ve always been fascinated by. I was all into this concept of human evolution, and so a backstory started to form around this character that was Brett Gelman that you never see in the actual thing, but who thinks he’s doing the thing that’s helping humanity. And while he’s doing that, he’s also losing his mind. So he’s having a nervous breakdown through the course of the show. And that’s really how it came about. But first it was just writing stupid songs about cats. And taking—if you look at the writing of that, it’s so stupid. I mean, it’s like utter stupidity. So it’s utter stupidity taken deathly seriously.

And so it’s failure, it’s folly, and then it’s raw emotion. He’s so invested in it, and he’s panicking that this isn’t going to do anything for him, and, really, it’s for him. He thinks that he’s doing it for people, but it’s really for him. [Laughs.] I mean, do you like that I’ve analyzed—did you ever think—this was my analysis of 1,000 Cats?

AVC: [Laughs.] I was interested.

BG: But, hey, that’s how I work, man. That’s how I work. Nothing is too small or too dumb to inject a lot of humanity into it. And I think when you do that, and you take something like that, it can freak people out, because they don’t totally understand intellectually what you’re doing. And that can make people uncomfortable, and that’s what I always strive to do. I don’t want to just put this, like, comedic sheet on stage that there’s nothing under. I want there to be blood and guts under that sheet, so that, yes, people are laughing, but they’re also connecting to it in a human way, even if they don’t totally intellectually understand why that is.

Is that just the most pretentious way to explain that?

AVC: [Laughs.] It was in-depth. Do you feel like you think about these things more than the average person?

BG: I do. I think the average person has the capability to think about it more, and I think that that’s what I’m trying to show. I think that’s kind of what happened since the president, with all the apocalyptic thinking and the anxiety. We’ve always been on the cusp of destruction, at least since the fucking atom bomb was invented. So I think what happened was—having such a completely unhinged personality being the most famous man in the world, we suddenly saw everything that we were in denial of for our whole lives. Really, he just raised the curtain. I know I’m saying something incredibly obvious and cliché here, but I think it’s important to remember that, too. That we can get lazy in our despair and just because you’re being negative, doesn’t mean you’re being honest.

AVC: And, not to tie everything up in a bow, but that does come back to Fleabag in a lot of ways. A lot of that sounds like Martin.

BG: Yeah, you’re driving things into a really negative place, and he really doesn’t have to. He really doesn’t have to. It’s sort of—Martin and Murray are opposite sides of the same problem. These are both two truly alienated people who feel victimized in their lives. And one person decides to go deeper down that hole of despair, and the other person decides to climb out of it.

AVC: To some extent, Murray says the things the audience has been waiting for someone to say, and Martin says the thing they’re afraid is true.

BG: Exactly! And what Martin is saying is not necessarily true. But it is true to Martin in the moment, and there’s something darkly noble about that, that he is so honest with himself [Laughs.] about what he’s feeling. But he’s not necessarily honest about why he’s feeling that. He’s just trying to keep it together and there’s this pride—that is the true torture of toxic masculinity: “I would rather keep myself together and stay on top than admit I’m fucked-up.” And he does that. That’s why that monologue hits people and makes you feel for him, because that’s him admitting, like, “Here is the reason why I’ve been behaving the way that I’ve been my whole life. Or at least the last bunch of years. Here is the reason. I’m coming to terms with it.” And then it’s too late. And that is a tragedy of him and of his and Claire’s relationship. That is a lot of stuff that’s too late. That’s such a great thing about Fleabag. And that’s all of our fears.

AVC: You can have the epiphany, but…

BG: You can have the epiphany and then it doesn’t matter. There’s another person here who doesn’t share in your feelings anymore. Yet if you would have said this a couple years ago, this maybe could have done something. You know?