The titular Jeff in Comedy Central’s new animated series Jeff & Some Aliens is the normal character, which is an unusual space for Brett Gelman to occupy. Gelman provides the voice of an everyman called to do weird and heroic things—throwing a handful of his own pubes to save the planet!—but he usually plays the uncomfortably weird guy on the perimeter, like the comically vile Hamish in Comedy Central’s Another Period or the harmlessly obnoxious station manager in the Netflix series Love, both of which are returning later this year for new seasons.
Gelman is increasingly in demand. He appeared last year on Starz’s Blunt Talk and Amazon’s Fleabag. Later this year, he will appear in Netflix’s Stranger Things and Showtime’s Twin Peaks. He’s starring in a film called Lemon that will premiere later this month at the Sundance Film Festival that could find its way to theaters or streaming later this year, and he’s shopping a script he wrote for a film that he would direct.
For the premiere this week of Jeff & Some Aliens, Gelman took a call from Playboy.com to talk about his career, playing the normal guy for a change and Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech.
You worked on a dozen or so film and TV projects last year. How head-spinning has it been to change characters and stories so frequently?
The pace last year was insane for about six months, but the memory of never working at all certainly fuels that. [laughs] I’m lucky. I get to work on great material that I connect to very quickly, but it is challenging to make sure you give everything the right amount of attention.
The first time I remember seeing you in something was NBC’s Go On (2012) with Matthew Perry, and you played a spacey oddball character. Is that the kind of auditions you were getting at that time?
I have always been cast as people who are a little off—somebody who isn’t the most mentally stable, either with something clinical going on or a substance abuse problem or they’re just having a bad year. I think I come off at first glance as a flawed, awkward guy and at second glance as a really awkward guy.
You have moved back and forth from odd odd to sleazy odd. On Another Period you’re this filthy character and on Love you’re more of a narcissistic wimp.
Most of these characters are outsiders—someone on their own who’s reacting to being an outcast. Everyone wants to belong. For somebody like Hamish on Another Period, his aggression comes from feeling looked down upon. He has the mentality that, “If you’re going to judge me, I’ll give you something to judge.”
I heard a couple of podcast interviews with you last year around the release of your Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America special on Adult Swim, and you’re definitely more thoughtful and have more of a social conscience than most of the characters you play. Do you feel like you have an outlet for things you really care about?
I don’t want to play perfect people; that’s not fun. I want to play the most fucked-up person I can and still represent that type of person and give them humanity. Humanity is flawed, and that’s why we have a lot of the challenges we have in the world. Those Dinner specials are the most overtly political things I’ve done. John Waters has said that comedy in and of itself is political. When you make someone laugh you’re causing them to shift their current state, and that is political. When I’m writing those specials I think about those issues, but when I’m acting I approach the character—the character Brett Gelman—like I would any other character.
There are moments in that special where something really terrible is about to happen and you’re playing with that discomfort that remind me of Jeff & Some Aliens, which has a lot of scenes like that.
I like to work with people who will go to those limits and who know that I’ll go there. I work closely with people—and Alessandro Minoli and Sean Donnelly, who created Jeff & Some Aliens are definitely included—who see life as shocking and unstable and a big mess. We tell ourselves platitudes and nice things, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in our lives. The current state of the country is an example of that. Everyone thought the election would go one way, and it went in a very shocking opposite way.
Jeff seems more centered, more idealistic, more duty-bound, more normal than what you typically play.
He’s more of a victim that the characters I usually play. He’s a victim of circumstance and a victim of himself too. He’s got a lot of problems. He’s been more fucked with by the outside world than most of the characters I play, who usually create their own conflicts by nature of their personalities. Jeff could not be less equipped to deal with these problems. He can barely take a shower, and he’s trying to save us from the apocalypse.
Is there a particular idea that Jeff & Some Aliens is pursuing over the course of the season?
There’s a feeling as the season goes on that the potential disasters are getting greater and greater, and it leaves you wondering if Jeff is going to be OK or not. He’s got to overcome all the problems the aliens are causing, but he’s also got all these personal problems.
Rick and Morty has a lot of that same existential threat.
Both of those shows, I think, are hyperbolizing the reality that our world could endure a horrible disaster at any point.
Have you read new scripts or had conversations with other writers that give you any sense of what the reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency is going to be?
People are still shellshocked and trying to figure out if it’s business as usual or if they need to kick up the dust a bit. Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes shared my opinion, but with other people it’s more business as usual. And I get that. I respect that people think it may not be the best forum to bring political statements into. Personally, I think people should do that. You don’t want to piss on your own cause and make yourself look like an idiot in what you say and what you tweet—that’s not the same as what you do in your day-to-day lives to combat injustice and oppression—but Meryl Streep’s speech was a very positive thing. She is iconic. When she gets up and says something, people listen. I would definitely like to see more of that.
I thought it was interesting that Trump’s response to Meryl Streep’s speech was to say that she’s overrated, which is the same as what he said after Mike Pence got addressed from the stage at Hamilton. You can tell these things bother him.
I think he has revealed himself to be a very sensitive person with a very low self-esteem. He cannot deal with criticism, and I think he picked the wrong job. If President Obama dealt with criticism that way—if he took to Twitter to comment on everyone who has viciously hated on him—he’d be on Twitter 24/7.
That makes me think we’re going to see a lot of satire of authority figures. That’s always been there with the boss character or the dad character in comedies, but I could see that being a place where we would see some very aggressive satire.
I hope so. People need to combat any dangers from the new administration by representing protest in their personal character and speaking protest head-on. We definitely need to not respect authority right now, and authority is doing whatever it can right now to make us fear and respect it. Trump is a distraction for Congress and for the people he has appointed to his cabinet to make a whole bunch of money. We should stop paying attention to what he says and only pay attention to what his administration and Congress is actually doing.
Jeff & Some Aliens airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on Comedy Central.