Brett Gelman on ‘Stranger Things 4’ and the Holy Trinity of Comedy

Did you know when you signed on how big a role that Murray would eventually play?

I thought from the get-go that they were going to expand the character. Absolutely. The Duffers are very honest people. And so if they’re being really warm to you…it just felt like this character is going to grow. There’s nothing else like this character on this show and I think he brings something that no other character is bringing.

How does your comedy background influence the flavor of the show?

My comedy background played so much into it. A lot of it is playing the script, but there was some improvisation. But I’m classically trained too and so I was always a student of acting and comedy growing up. Just watching my favorite comedies. I’d watch my favorite comedies three times in the same day sometimes.

What are those?

There’s the Holy Trinity, which is Mel’s best three: The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. That’s to me the three funniest films of all time. Then the Marx Brothers. Peter Sellers. Eddie Murphy. The original SNL cast members. Ghostbusters. Doctor Strangelove. A Night at the Opera. Duck Soup. What was so cool about this season was how we really dipped into that ‘80s action-comedy aesthetic. So I was channeling my ‘80s heroes like the guys who were in their prime when I was a kid: Eddie, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, John Candy. Tom Hanks! When I was a kid, Tom Hanks was a comedic actor. Channeling those guys but also always having Gene Wilder in my mind.

Murray does almost seem like a ‘70s leading man, like Gene Wilder or Richard Dreyfuss.

Those were the two that I was channeling characteristically. Whenever I play somebody, I am thinking of other actors’ performances—not to mimic but to get their soul and the tone of what they’re doing. And it’s always been Dreyfuss and Wilder. But I will say a little bit of John Candy creeped in this season too. There’s a lot of tense laughing [big, nervous laughs]. Trying to fool the bad guys with laughter—that’s very John Candy.

The way that Murray freaks out is very Gene. And a lot of the we’re laying out the stark reality here stuff is very Dreyfuss in Jaws. Channeling that but bringing myself to it, of course. I’m very influenced by the ‘70s aesthetic, the ‘70s values of acting, both in comedy and drama. Wilder was a method actor. He studied with Strasburg. And then was working with Mel. In the Holy Trinity, Gene is the Jesus of those films and Mel is God! My two favorite comedic performances of all time are Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. I’m always thinking of those performances.

What are the ‘80s buddy comedies that were specifically mentioned as reference points for you and Winona this season?

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