The following was posted to the Chris Gethard Show Tumblr as a response to an anonymously asked question, which follows. It’s reprinted here with permission.
For Chris: I’ve always really wanted to get into acting and/or comedy but I’m terrified of failing at it. How do you get the courage to perform?
I often wish that I had a resume with anything on it besides comedy, but I started doing this when I was 20. The only other job I’ve ever had was at a magazine, where I wrote, delivered boxes, handled the mailing list, and answered emails. That magazine was about weird stuff in New Jersey. A very cool thing and the best job I’ll ever have, but also not the resume padding that I desire when I want to give up and go get a corporate job. On a very frequent basis, I find myself wishing I got that job when I was 27 instead of 20. I would have done it for the rest of my life, and I would have been very happy to do so. Things didn’t break that way. I am backed into this corner where I do comedy.
You might be thinking to yourself, “How do you know the fear never goes away?” It could just be me. It could just be pessimism, or cynicism. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks a few years back after witnessing an eye opening conversation in the green room of the UCB Theater. I saw two very accomplished comedians talking in one of the side rooms. One of these people was a cast member on SNL. The other was a correspondent for The Daily Show. (Luckily being at UCB there are multiple people who have passed through that have gone on to those illustrious jobs and I can use those specific examples without outing anyone. Please don’t ask who they were. It’s not important.) Person one said something along the lines of “I’m just not sure what I’m going to do.” Person two said, “Yeah, things have been so fucking dry lately. I’m really, really worried.” The conversation proceeded from there and sounded like the exact type of conversation I was having with my own friends who were in the trenches performing all around NYC with me. (To give you the context of where I was at, this was around 2008 or 2009, before the Comedy Central show, before my book, when I really was just a guy who was known on stages throughout NYC but could not catch a break for the life of me and was kind of becoming sadly infamous for it.)
These were two people who both had careers I would kill for. Being on SNL! Being on The Daily Show! I think for any of us whose dream it is to do comedy, those would be two crown jewel jobs. Those would be two jobs that most of us would think feel like a life-altering accomplishment. Getting those gigs would feel like grabbing on to the brass ring we’ve been chasing. Those are the types of gigs that you imagine lead to the validation, wealth, and fame that we chase so hard. You have to imagine that’s true, right? Those jobs? You will feel like you did it. You made it. Your life can have a movie ending where the sun rises and the credits roll and the hard times are over, you’ve done it. You’ve won.
But I eavesdropped on those two individuals, and realized - the fear is inside us. It’s part of why we do what we do.
The chase is the thing, and the thing is the chase.
There are no external circumstances that can erase the anxiety and fear of people like you and I - people who have this dream but also have a ton of terror regarding it. Getting that gig, getting that approval, getting that whatever your version of that dream job is - doesn’t erase the anxiety. The anxiety is internal. It’s part of us. I have never accomplished anything that made it diminish even slightly. We all wind up wondering “What’s next? How am I going to make my health insurance next year?” And even if we can get over that, the anxiety rears its head in some other form. It is part of us.
Now that might seem dismal, but I found witnessing that conversation to be one of the most incredibly liberating experiences of my entire life. If people in THAT position were still feeling that way, there was zero chance I would ever escape the constant self-doubt and self-questioning I tortured myself with every day.
So that being the case, I might as well operate with more freedom, I might as well take the chances I want to take, because apparently, I learned, even success doesn’t erase those negative, nervous, gnawing feelings - so what is the big deal if I don’t ever get it?
I mean, to be honest - even look at the circumstances of you leaving this question for me. You’re asking me for professional advice on how to be courageous in the worlds of acting and comedy. And yet, I consider myself very much a failure. I say that not to garner sympathy or so people can leave comments of encouragement; I say that because I consider it to be the truth. In your mind, I am someone who has both reached a certain level of achievement that you want to ask me this question, as well as someone who makes himself accessible enough to be asked this question. I am very flattered that you view me as someone qualified to give you this advice. It means a lot, and it’s an honor I don’t take lightly.
But at the same time, it might be eye opening for you to realize that my perspective on my own career is that largely what I’ve accomplished is booking a lead part in a sitcom called Big Lake that flamed out publicly and where, being that I was both the lead of it and the only unknown member of the cast, my face and name are associated with its failure most heavily. 99% of the people who have ever heard my name or seen my face in the entire world know me as “That guy who was really bad in that sitcom Will Ferrell produced.” Who do you think people are gonna blame when they watch episodes of that show? Proven comedy god Chris Parnell? Unquestionably hilarious force of nature Horatio Sanz? The production team of Will Ferrell (one of the top three comedic powerhouses of the past two decades) and Adam McKay (the writer and producer of many of the classic comedies of recent memory, regarded as one of the most brilliant comedic minds on earth, proven through his work not just in movies, but as head writer of SNL, legendary Second City veteran, and member of The Family, among maybe two or three improv groups regarded as being able to lay claim to the title of “best improv group of all time”)? Probably not. Probably, they’re going to say “This show is weird and isn’t working. I wish it didn’t have a laugh track. Also, that main guy fucking sucks.” It was not easy to have a ton of press come out before the show saying things like I had “the pressure of an unlikely sitcom star” on my shoulders, or that “the success of the vehicle largely depends on his ability to drive it.” Or to have a reporter ask me “So many people have come out of the UCB and gone on to great success. How will you react if you’re the first one to drop the ball?”, and to then have it turn out the way it did, where that is indeed what happened.
Again, I’m not saying all of that to lay out my personal sob story. But you told me you’re terrified of failing and asking me how to have the courage to overcome it, and I want to make clear that I have failed at a level that made my head spin and that I would imagine might sound like your personal nightmare.
But here’s the secret about that failure - like I said, it wasn’t easy by any means, but it really didn’t crush me like I thought something like that would have. Why? Because just like I learned to suspect when I glimpsed that conversation a few years earlier, what I had some inkling of while watching my more accomplished peers stress out, the success didn’t really make me feel as good as I thought it would either. Not even close.
Getting the show was an amazing experience. On the conference call where all of my agents and managers and lawyers called me to tell me I booked it, they also told me that if it eventually got its back end pick up of 99 episodes, I would make 2.2 million dollars on the day those contracts were signed. The press blew up over the story of this guy who came out of nowhere (this guy, of course, being someone who had been performing on the most competitive stage in New York City at that point for ten years of his life). The New York Times wrote a profile on me. Every one of my peers rallied around the story. A student of the UCB school wrote a blog post someone sent to me saying something like “When Gethard was a guy who wasn’t making it, it made me feel like ‘If a guy that talented can’t do it, how can I?’ This gives me hope.” On top of that, I had been single about six months before the show came along, and I tell ya, when you have a TV show, girls seem to find you more physically attractive. They were less about your giant forehead and deformed hands and elbows and seem to find you “hot” all of a sudden. I won’t lie. Initially, in the short term, all of that stuff felt AMAZING.
But really, all of that stuff was totally gilded. It was hollow, empty, it didn’t actually change anything about me or my life. I was still going home to an apartment in Woodside, Queens where I didn’t have a closet and my shower didn’t work. I was still taking the 7 train. I was still waking up a lot of the time and dealing with my depression and anxiety. When I was feeling down, I would still call my mom in New Jersey, and she would still talk to me like I was the same idiot whose diapers she used to change. (Don’t get me wrong - she was definitely proud of me. But I was still me. She was still her. We just shot the shit like always. I’d drive out to see her and she’d tell me I looked too skinny and try to force me to eat six lunches in the same afternoon. Business as usual.)
I can tell you very honestly - when I first got to my dressing room at Big Lake, the thing I was most happy about, my first initial instinctive gut reaction was “Amazing! My dressing room has a shower. I can take a shower in a shower that works.” And then I realized how depressing and funny it was that this is what hit me in the face of this monumental upgrade in success I’d been waiting so long for.
I remember a camera man and I shooting the shit between takes and he asked me where I lived in the city. I said I didn’t live in the city. He asked me what neighborhood in Brooklyn I called home. I told him I lived in Queens. He asked me where. I said Woodside. He looked confused and said “But that’s a shittier part of Queens then we’re in right now.” (We shot at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City.)
The one that makes me laugh the hardest - I remember going on a press junket. A limo was sent to my house. When I went to leave my apartment, my door knob literally fell off my door. It was in my hand. I was wearing these expensive clothes I bought for shit like this press junket, clothes someone else instructed me to buy so I would look decent, clothes I felt completely uncomfortable and fake in. I was about to head outside to a limo, so I could go give canned answers that were coached to me for a bunch of press outlets that couldn’t have cared less. And I was holding my door knob in my hand, and I couldn’t figure out how to reattach it. The door would not open. So I had to climb out my bedroom window, past my unframed Morrissey poster, and down my fire escape. I thought I was going to slip and break my neck and get more press for dying after getting my big break but before it actually debuted. I somehow didn’t kill myself - which is a miracle considering that I trip and fall just from walking almost every day - and dropped down into the area behind my house where we threw all the trash. I picked myself up, made sure none of my trash or the trash of any of the dozens of Hispanic families who lived in my building was stuck to my shitty fancy fake clothes, and I got into the limo. And I laughed about it the whole way there - I wasn’t really the guy in the nice clothes. I was about to give hundreds of interviews, and not one of the people who ever saw or read anything in any of those interviews would know that less than an hour earlier I was legit rolling around in a giant pile of garbage. I wasn’t a sitcom star - I was still the sad sack with the ridiculous life who had to leap into his own garbage pile to get into the limo some assholes had rented for him.
Point being - I chased success for ten years. And I got it, and nothing about ME changed. I had a little more money. I had a little more attention. But I still got sad, I still got grumpy when I was tired, I still had immense trouble talking to people in social situations, I was still the same old weird shy nerdy kid from New Jersey who had a chip on his shoulder and felt like he shouldn’t be doing this in the first place. There was no real alteration to who I was, to my self-confidence, to how I thought and how I lived.
So - the reason I wrote that novel up above is because it gives me credibility when I got to answer your actual question of “How do you get the courage to perform?”
Well, the success you’re chasing isn’t going to be as good as you think it is. And I can tell you very much, with all honesty - the failure never hurts as much as you think it will, either.
When the show didn’t pan out, I definitely had some feelings of embarrassment. And man did it suck to know I wasn’t going to get that 2.2 million dollars. I knew that I would be judged based on the show, probably more than any other person associated with it. I had some bitterness over how some of the decisions were made. I loved the director of the show immensely, he is one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. The producers took care of me to no end. There were a few people in charge beyond those guys who I realized didn’t have my best interests in mind, who didn’t really trust me and probably didn’t want me to get the job in the first place. Some of the choices made about the show in general, and those ones relating to me in particular via those specific people did leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.
BUT - I never felt bad. Honestly. I analyzed those things, shook my head at them, had some internal “I told you so” moments. But sincerely I can say, I didn’t ever feel bad about the public flame out of my high profile first big break. I never felt talentless. My opinions related only to how things were handled: how the press put too much of the weight of the show’s success on my shoulders, when I didn’t write a word of it and got the job on literally two days’ notice. The cinderella story was a great story, but it wasn’t necessarily true with how it was being written up. And yeah, the decisions made by some of the powers that be were baffling and last minute and made it feel like the ship didn’t necessarily have a rudder. It made me grit my teeth to think about it.
But again, all of that is purely external. In the same way that the money and attention didn’t give me the validation I craved, the negative inverse of that - my opinions on the external circumstances of the show beyond me - did not hurt me when it failed. I felt strong. I did not feel hurt. I had some wounds to lick, but I have had many deeper wounds in my life. I was honestly barely phased.
I feel like that is maybe complicated, so I will say it simply - the good parts of getting the show didn’t solve any of my problems. The failure didn’t create more. Not at any given point during the process did it ever feel like those things had the effects I always expected they would have.
If I can fail that big, you can take an acting class.
If I can fall on my face that profoundly after the New York Fucking Times writes a profile on the pressures I have as the star of that sitcom, you can do an open mic or two.
If it doesn’t work out, trust me, you will be ok. If it does work out, the great parts will come from what you discover about yourself and the joy of doing the work. Success and failure are real things, but the effects we assume they will have are constructs we make up.
I will tell you this, and again, it comes from a place of pure honesty: Everything I’ve ever done that I’m proud of is something that someone else told me was a bad idea, and something that came in the face of a failure. This goes back to the very beginning of my career in comedy, and anything I’ve done that is even slightly respected or notable.
“Who wants to watch a show where you pretend to be Darryl Strawberry? Write something that showcases you, something that can get you an agent.” Well, I wrote that show - it didn’t get me an agent. I took it to LA and literally zero agents came to see it. But word of that show spread over time and when my current manager signed me years later, he told me the first thing he saw of mine was a two minute fuckaround video I made as that character years later, that was not lit properly, that had bad sound, but that he thought was funny. He has been my greatest defender, and the biggest proponent of me doing the crazy shit I like to do now. He is an ally who encourages me. By following my voice - by making a one man show out of a dumb bit my brother used to do to make me laugh - I found someone who has been in my corner for years, someone whose opinion I can always trust.
“Chris, no one is interested in reading your dumb stories about your life.” This was said to me by a manager I worked with very early on in my career. I wanted to focus on my storytelling on stage and he wanted me to focus on making more videos with my friend Zach Woods where Zach would like never speak and turn down alleys where bizarre stuff would happen to him. Zach and I loved those videos, but we both wanted to expand and move beyond them. The manager wanted us to keep making him money, we wanted to do stuff that reflected our voices more, and in my heart, I knew that meant writing a book of my stories of growing up. My manager told me that above quote and I fired him the next day. Six years later, A Bad Idea I’m About to Do was published. It is a book of my personal stories. It exceeded expectations. I was able to promote it on Jimmy Fallon and Conan. I read a version of a story from it on This American Life. Guess what? For the first five years of that process, my old manager was right: no one wanted to read any of it. It was a failing prospect. All I had to do was work harder, make it better, stay stubborn, believe in myself, and trust that even if no one else ever read the stories, the process of writing them down was completely fulfilling to me and worth it on its own.
And now let’s get back to Big Lake. You know when I was offered the contract for A Bad Idea I’m About to Do? The day the show premiered. I don’t think I’ve ever said that publicly, but doesn’t that feel like karma or God or whatever you think it is that guides life saying “You know in your heart you should have been doing your own thing this whole time anyway, right?”
I took that message and ran with it. The Chris Gethard Show had existed on stage at UCB for two years before Big Lake happened. It could not have been a weirder, less industry-friendly show, but I loved it more than anything I’d ever done, easily, hands down, no question. Now when Big Lake failed, some of my agents thought the next steps were very clear - move to LA, get more sitcom work, be a character actor, look for staff writing jobs on sitcoms. I was now in the sitcom world. That’s something they can work with. Even with Big Lake failing, I had opened a door that they could walk me further through.
Instead, I stayed in New York and decided to bring TCGS to public access. I had failed SO HARD. There is no way to describe how big it felt to me that Big Lake failed - people were SO excited by the cast, the producers, all of it. And it flopped.
But again, the experience didn’t crush me. Instead, it gave me an insane sense of liberation and freedom. As I tried to make clear above - the jig was up. The storybook version of what my life could be was no longer tricking me. It was fiction. Head west, wear sunglasses all the time, make millions, be a star - fake, fake, fake, not as easy as you think it is anyway, doesn’t solve your problems even if it does happen, fake. Why leave the east coast - my family, my home base at UCB, my beloved motherfucking New Jersey, and the endless source of insanity, experience, and creative inspiration that is New York City - to go chase more jobs that weren’t going to necessarily make me feel good anyway? I wasn’t fooled anymore. That romantic notion that Hollywood is going to be salvation wasn’t convincing to me anymore. In my gut, I felt like if I went out there and crushed it completely, if I nailed it as hard as everyone wanted me to, I’d probably wind up more like that lonely, insane starlet from Sunset Boulevard anyway. Validation wasn’t coming down the pike from chasing those high profile jobs.
So I took TCGS to public access and felt immense freedom in doing so. The book was something where maybe no one would ever read it, but at least it would be my words and I would stand by them. No one else would put words in my mouth and force me to do it their way. My picture is on the cover. If you like it, you like what I vouch for. And if you hate it, at least I’m not taking it on the chin for decisions I really had very little say in, if any at all.
TCGS is the same mentality - public access doesn’t have the reach of cable, but you know what it is? Ours. That show represents a world that I am the architect of and that I believe in. And when Murf calls out Gimghoul, when Shannon starts digging into the dark sides of callers, when Haskel puts on the banana suit and talks about the environment, when Bethany gets all nervous about the crazy bits, when Bluvband gets weird as the Human Fish, when Malone dances, when JD does a fucking insanely good live cut of a musical performance, when the LLC make everyone in the room break with their intro songs, when Noah and Dru run around the floor like the point guards of the show, like fucking conductors at an orchestra, THAT IS OURS. Those are OUR voices. There’s pride there, in what we’ve built. I lose money on it. Almost no one watches it. But - It. Is. Us.
Keep in mind though, for as much as we love making it and for as much as those of you who watch the show seem to enjoy it, the show IS A FAILURE. It’s the thing I’ve done that’s loved the most by the people who love it, but you know who’s not convinced? Development executives, production companies, and decision makers. They all respect it, but no one has decided to pick it up. I’ve been reached out to by people who can make those decisions to tell me that they love what we do, but that it’s not for them. That they respect it, but they’re not in a place to let us do it our way, and that they don’t want to ruin it. That’s really nice. I mean that sincerely. Respect goes a very, very long way. And all of us making the show are happy to continue to fail, on our terms, in our way, with something that makes us and other random people who find it happy.
I get emails from people all the time telling me the show actually means something to them. Got one today from a guy today who said his social anxiety built to a point where his friends abandoned him and the show was the fun high point of his week when it was at its roughest. Got one a few days ago from a guy who almost flunked out of college due to some people fucking him over, and who said the show kept him sane in the midst of it. Got one from a kid overseas a while back that said he was forced to upsell funeral suits to grieving families by his insane boss, and that it was so grim and fucked up that he’d watch the show to watch people being nice to each other. I get consistent emails from people who say things like this - it boggles my mind, it feels like real responsibility, but it also makes me feel like the thing I built in the scorched earth aftermath of my biggest failure as a man actually means something to people.
All this relating to a show that IS A FAILURE. Monetarily, failure. Ability to move to a traditional network, failure. Ability to get a huge audience, failure.
But nobody was writing letters like that about Big Lake. That show had the potential to reach millions of people, and if it went one hundred percent swimmingly, it would have been regarded as a funny show. Big Lake would have gotten me 2.2 million dollars. TCGS will get me about negative 80 dollars a week, but it will also get me letters from kids who remind me of myself, letting me know that I’ve built something for them that I wish I had when I felt like them. Is that worth 2.2 million dollars? I guess everyone has to decide that for themselves, but I know in my heart how I answer that question.
All the stuff I’m doing now is consumed by only a few thousand people. The book, the show - I am a niche comedian even in the alternative world. A development guy once told me I am “the alternative to alternative comedy.” But the stuff I’m doing now is stuff that the people who DO find it care about. Which option do you think does more for me? The one that got me success and money? Or the one that connects me with people and keeps me poor? In case you’re not clear, the answer is the second one.
Of course, everyone who watches the show knows that we are in over our heads. I may get a job someday and have to go to LA and act in a sitcom. When that day comes, I will be grateful for the opportunity. I will be a professional. I will not bite the hand that feeds me. I will do my absolute best. (I will earn my health insurance that year!) I will pray that it’s a show I find funny and that I will be proud to be a part of. But you guys - the ones who follow me right now at this era in my life - will know that if I could have made my living doing this I would have, and that I will be taking those jobs to hopefully pay for more stuff exactly like this in the future. And if I don’t ever get the chance again, you’ll all know that I really regret that more than almost anyone besides us will ever know.
So back to you, Anonymous. If you want my real advice, focus hard on this part - For me, I don’t even think of the missed chances at mainstream success as failures. I think of those as odd, educational, and unexpected blips of life.
The book is a failure. The show is a failure. The fact that I still get on stage in NYC every Friday and Sunday when literally almost everyone I started with has moved to LA, that is a failure.
The failures are the fun ones. The failures are the ones where we take chances. The failures are the ones that you get to own, they’re the experiences that are yours. No one else’s.
For many people, they look back on the time they were allowed to fail as the era of their career they miss most - I have so many friends on TV now, and they kill it, and I couldn’t be more proud to call them friends and compatriots and mentors and people I look up to - but almost universally, they say that the headaches and stresses of success make them miss the days when they were poor and figuring it out and failing on stage over and over and over again. Enjoy it. Enjoy not knowing how it works, enjoy figuring it out, being scared of it, and tripping on the ice during the newborn phase of your artistic endeavors.
Failure isn’t something to be terrified of. You should only be terrified when you’re not scared. Because it means you’ve stopped learning, that you’ve gotten complacent. Here’s a secret at the heart of your question - I don’t have the courage to perform. I still get scared all the time. And when I’m not scared - like when I’m on stage improvising at my second home, the UCB, I purposely do something where I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, to make sure it gets scary again.
The trick isn’t to eliminate those feelings of fear, the trick is to understand that they are the feelings that come about when you’re taking risks that might lead to creative growth. They’re the feelings that spring up when you’re broadening your horizons and getting to a level you haven’t known before. Fear is like the bloodhound that sniffs out all the cool shit that you should be learning how to do, that you should desperately and zealously be pushing yourself to do. But every time you find one of those new horizons, new risks, new cool shit, it’s not going to go well the first time. Or the first 50 times. With anything worth doing, you’re going to be bad at it before you’re good at it. And comedians, they can only learn in public. They can only test how things work by doing them. You will have to get up on stage with material you aren’t sure about and do it on purpose knowing that it will be a miracle if it is met with anything except silence, dissatisfaction, and judgement. That will be doubly scary. It is one of the scariest feelings. Enjoy it. Know that the complete terror you feel getting zero laughs in front of a crowd that expected more is like a shower washing off all the complacency and self-satisfaction that comes about when you just keep doing the things you know will work.
The point is never to figure out how to NOT LOSE. The point is to figure out how to LOSE WELL. Be good at losing. Be graceful at losing. Learn how to lose with class. Learn how to lose often enough and severely enough that you want to quit, and know that your only job at that point is to not quit. You have failed enough that you have achieved the goal of wanting to give up. And know that if you do quit, that’s okay - it’s okay to admit this is not for you.
But know even moreso that if you don’t quit, you will run into the same situation where you want to quit, over and over again - endlessly - for as long as you do this.
But don’t avoid it. If you avoid failing and fear, you will at best become someone who plays it safe.
And know that the fear you’re feeling right now is what will get you to that failure. So when you ask me how to get the courage to perform - how to get to a place where you’re not terrified - you are asking me to do you a disservice. Any time I get to a point where I’m not terrified, I do something like write a book and send it out into the world with my ugly fucking face on the front, or sign up to do my show on an outdated, dying, and generally mocked broadcast medium. Those things are shit your pants level scary actions when you were supposed to be the next big TV star, when you were supposed to be the next proud representative of a legendary comedic institution. They don’t even feel like risks, they feel like suicide.
So pardon my rejection of your question, but I refuse to tell you how to find courage that overcomes being terrified. It will give you a false impression of the difficulties of this profession and lifestyle. Furthermore, it will be advice that guides you to - at best - a stale, boring place as an artist and creative mind.
That being said - I wish you nothing but the best and I hope you get into comedy, become a sensation, break out into undreamed of mainstream success, and then remember this advice and how inspired you were by it and give me a job.
Sorry for all the depressing parts. Sorry if this reads as discouraging. I guess it kind of is, but I hope under the surface it reads as I hope it does - as the most optimistic thing in the world. I am rooting for you.
And sorry for the parts where I made it about me. I hope if you do decide that this is for you, you go out there and make it about you. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the failure. Learn to love the fear. Like a rollercoaster or a horror movie or like driving around New Jersey breaking into abandoned mental hospitals to look for ghosts in underground tunnels, learn to love the fear.
Chris Gethard is the host of The Chris Gethard Show and the author of A Bad Idea I’m About to Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgment and Stunningly Awkward Adventure.