Jake Johnson Talks to Chris Gethard About Failing and Succeeding at UCB, Letterman vs. Leno, and Wanting to Quit

Chris Gethard and Jake Johnson. Photo: Frances Tulk-Hart for Vulture

With The Chris Gethard Show finally making its cable debut on Fusion tonight, after nearly four years on public access, this moment represents the culmination of over 15 years of doing comedy in New York. So it made sense that when we asked him to pick a friend to interview him about his experience in the industry, Gethard would pick someone who knew him since the beginning. We assumed it would be one of his old Upright Citizens Brigade friends, like Zach Woods or Bobby Moynihan, whom he spent years performing with, but instead he went with New Girl's Jake Johnson, a comedian and actor who had a pretty terrible experience at the theatre. So, earlier this month, the two met at Soho's Toad Hall and had a long, honest conversation about failing and succeeding at UCB, career frustrations, the desire to go underground, the differences between David Letterman and Jay Leno, and if they both are going to just quit one day. (To make it easier to read, we gave each section italicized subheads.)

On starting at the UCB Theatre around the same time — though while Chris Gethard was like the golden child, Jake Johnson was rejected:

Chris Gethard: I feel like I have managed to use press events to just catch up with you a couple of times. We did a video a couple years ago. But also I thought it was interesting because we’ve known each other well over a decade, but not that well. Yet I always felt like we actually did have a lot of fondness for each other.

Jake Johnson: Just to give the context, we met at UCB. You were still in New Jersey.
Yeah, I was in college—

In college, but young college.
Yeah, a sophomore.

And you were killing it.
I’m very interested to hear your perspective because I was like the young hope at UCB back then.

100 percent.
I remember seeing you and feeling like you were a dude at UCB who couldn’t bust through.

I couldn’t.
And I remember personally being so frustrated watching that. I can’t imagine how it felt for you.

Yeah, UCB was a weird place for me because it was a major failure. That was the place that never let me get to where I felt I needed to. My view of you was that you weren’t like the others. There was an attitude there that was very elitist. Everybody knew this thing was the cool kids. The Amy [Poehler]s and [Matt] Bessers were already kind of gone, and there was a second class coming through. And then a third class where it was like, all right, who is this? No one really liked us.
People liked you guys.

Some people in the audience did, but we thought we were going to do a show and then be part of a group.
Yeah, I always felt weird. I had a very welcome experience at UCB. I think I started a year ahead of you, and I feel like in that year—

It changed.
A little bit. Success did start to creep in. By the time you started, something blew up. Andy Daly and Dannah Phirman got MADtv. Rob Huebel was in like every commercial. And you were there when it was a thing to chase.

When I got there, I didn’t know it was a thing. I grew up outside of Chicago, so for me, Second City was the thing. I grew up idolizing the Belushis, the Murrays, the people who get on the Second City stage, where you help others onstage and be an ensemble. Then you form your team, and that team goes from job to job together.
When you say you weren’t one of the cool kids, I remember really vividly feeling like, why isn’t this kid embraced? Like, why aren’t you one of the guys at McManus [the bar UCB performers go to] after shows, where everybody is sitting around that big table?

I was never in the bits.
It was the best for me, and it’s my home. It supported the hell out of me, and there’s so much good about it. I want to make sure [I’m] not just totally coming down on it. But there are so many elements of it that I’m the first to admit can get very daunting and tiresome.

Even if I had a negative spin, the truth of it is that place did more for me in terms of my career than anywhere else times 100.
There’s a tradition now that you might be one of the early adopters of, of people who never quite busted through at UCB and, maybe in reaction to that, busted through in much bigger ways. Like Broad City. Abbi and Ilana couldn’t get on teams!

Photo: Frances Tulk-Hart for Vulture

On how Gethard went underground and carved out his own path in comedy:

Oh, they couldn’t? That’s a really funny.
It’s interesting: We started in the same place, with a very similar mentality, but we wound up in really wildly different places. I became this underground guy, partly because I stayed in New York. No one from my generation is still in New York.

You did take a turn. We’re talking about UCB, and it’s a launchpad. You don’t go to UCB and go, "Let’s do improv for ten years and then go do advertising." You do UCB because, hell, you can get on SNL, you can get on TV, you can get on movies, you can do anything. But you took a turn. I keep up with The Chris Gethard Show.
You have reached out very kindly a couple times in the past few years—

Well, I love your stand-up. As somebody who has taken a commercial path, which I have been at a major crossroads with it — I haven’t taken an acting job, really, since Let’s Be Cops — I can’t say yes to anything—
Are you having, like, an internal existential crisis?

Yeah, for years. Yeah, 100 percent. Because UCB said, “We like it but you’re not good enough.”
You have real hang-ups about what happened 14 years ago, but from my perspective, you took that and proved them all wrong. But you’re not buying that. You’re looking at me right now with confusion. You’re on like one of the few cool traditional shows that people view as having some heart and some integrity when a lot of shows on networks don’t. You’ve done a whole bunch of indie movies. You’re looking at me right now to tell you something, whereas I very much want that from you.

I’ve been on public access …

But I love what you’re doing!
I’m psyched. My show was on public access for four years, and now we’re on an up-and-coming network, but I have had conversations similar to this before, where people much more successful than me feel [like], Yeah, you’re doing something the right way, or something like that.

But here’s what it is, and it goes back to what I said, the turn. I watch everything. I’m not a big socializer — I’ve got a couple of friends I hang out with; I’ve got my wife — but I keep up with talent. I like it. I see the decisions a lot of people who I know are making. I see the decisions I’m making. There’s a lot of times the decisions that are made in Hollywood [are made] in order to get one thing. If you have a 30-minute special on Comedy Central, there is a way to frame those jokes in order to get a network show, a cable show, or a network writing job or a cable writing job. So it's like, "Oh, this guy Chris — people know his face, people respect him in the community, this is his 30 minutes, what does he do?" You did these stories about depression and abuse.
It’s true. I do have this fear that I’ve failed compared to my peers, but then I also do that.

It’s an active turn, because that community at UCB, everybody there was aware this could launch them.
I feel like what we’re getting at here is I have walked the path that every kid thinks you should do when you start improv. I came up with Bobby Moynihan and Zach Woods. Zach got The Office and Bobby got SNL, and for years, pretty much everybody was like, “That’s the next guy.” I had a few swings and misses that showed me some things about where I was headed that I didn’t want to participate in. And the failures scared me at the time. So I went underground in a big way. I went to public-access TV. Less than a year after I was a star of a sitcom [Comedy Central's Big Lake, which was canceled after ten episodes], I was on public-access TV. I feel like a lot of the people who came up around me really respect that, but I also have the fear that there’s a little bit of, Am I a sad figure?

No, and I’ll tell you why: You’re having an interesting time.
Well, I got a sitcom and it didn’t go well. I would do it again. But I remember doing this interview promoting it where someone said there’s been so many people from UCB who have been so successful, what are you going to do if you’re the first one who drops the ball? It changed everything for me. It just made me examine what I wanted. And I’ve gone back and forth. There’s a part of me that’s completely envious of the way you did it. There’s a part of me that thinks I should’ve moved to L.A.

But the thing I found so liberating about it was that I realized when it looked like it might go well it actually didn’t make me happier, and when it went poorly it didn’t make me that sad. There was definitely an element of, this stings, and it’s a little bit embarrassing and I could feel people pitying it, but I could remember feeling that so distinctly, that the potential success ...

… didn’t bring you the joy you expected.
I still know that I can get on a stage and get a laugh. I still know that. I still know at my core that I’m good and that I have something interesting to say.

You took an interesting turn because I remember that show, and I remember thinking, Good for Chris. Then I saw it, and they were just using you incorrectly. So, you said, “I was used incorrectly, that’s fine, I’m not mad, but now I’m going to keep pushing.” The way the business out there works is it's peaks and valleys. For example, upfronts every year when I’ve gone, New Girl was the thing at Fox. So you go to the things and everybody’s shaking your hand first. Well, now there's Empire and all these sexy new shows, and we’ve been there for 100 episodes. So now it’s, "Hey, you guys are still here?" But I also [know that] if we were in our final season, there would be the big announcement and it would spike up again.

But what you did, which was interesting, was you said, “I’m out. I’m going underground. I’m doing my own thing. I don’t want to play. Fuck all y’all, I’m doing my own stuff and I’m still going to get opportunities. I’m still going to do my stand-up special, but I’m going to do it my way. I’m going to talk about my mental issues 'cause we all have mental issues,” but you’re the one who says, “I’m leading out with mine,” rather than what a lot of us do, which is say, "Yeah, I’ve had a little bout with alcohol and depression, but I’m going to put all that behind my eyes," like Bill Murray. I play a character, and they can see it behind the eyes, but the words will be like [to New Girl co-star], "Jess, will you come here?" but I'm really saying, "I feel really depressed, I haven’t left my room in six days, and sometimes I’m afraid I’ll never get out of this."
Though sometimes I go a little too far in that direction and have the gall to refer to that as comedy. It has found a niche. There are some young kids. I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know exactly what to make of myself. It’s nice to hear that there’s some level of respect for it.

What I would say to you as a friend and admirer from afar is keep pushing, because in 2015, with your show in Fusion as the example, and with the decisions I will make post–New Girl as the example …
So you’re thinking of scaling it back?

On Gethard's audition for New Girl and why it's okay he didn't get cast as Coach:

I am scaling it back. So I did Let’s Be Cops, and Let’s Be Cops for me was this thing where I didn’t love the script, but they said it could be you and Damon Wayans Jr. It was going to be me and Adam Scott for a second, and I was like, “I’ll do it for Adam Scott for sure,” and they were like, “Adam’s out,” and I was like, "Yeah, I think I’m out," and then they were like, “What about Damon?” And I just did the [New Girl] pilot with Damon. I just love the guy.
I don’t think I’ve told you this: One of the last sitcoms I ever auditioned for was New Girl. It was the last one where there were nibbles. I tested for Veep and then I didn’t get it, and the kid — it’s that Jonah part — is crushing it, ten times better than I could’ve done it. But then New Girl I got to try out for Coach, which is really weird.

Oh, you did? Well, Coach originally was supposed to be white.
And almost like a creepy nerd. When I do get traditional acting parts, they’re sort of "unsettling nerd."

[Laughs.] Yeah, they were going to go that direction.
I don’t think I tested, but I went back in front of Liz [Meriweather, New Girl's creator]. I’ll never forget, I never do this, I actually always hated the guys who do this, but I dressed up in the outfit for the part.

You wore the jumpsuit?
The sides for that Coach part at the audition were so funny, and it said he was wearing jorts. And I went to a Walmart in L.A.

And you got jorts?
Well, I got denim shorts and wore them. And I remember being so embarrassed, and I was leaving and Liz had been laughing — and she had been really kind and conversational the whole time — but she was like, "You know those aren’t jorts?" I was like, "They’re jean shorts," and she was like, "But jorts are kind of a more specific type than that."

So here’s a thing about the industry that’s funny. Going to the Coach role, I remember they were seeing a bunch of people and they really liked people and they were ready to test people. And then they got word that that part would be ethnic. So your audition could’ve been the one where they were like, “He’s the guy.”
Think about it, there could’ve been a world where you and I were on a show together. It’s that close.

Exactly. And then it was just, let’s see which way we want it to go, and then Damon came in, and they were like, great, we can give Damon the part, and everybody’s happy.
And he’s great.

But in that galaxy of, like, weird auditions, I don’t care how well you did, you’re not getting it because there was a mandate from above.
Well, when you come that close and then Damon Wayans Jr. gets the part, you’re like, "Okay, there’s a totally different element to this."

It wasn’t a dude who looked just like you who’s doing a similar thing but different.
Exactly, it’s more disconcerting when you’re like, "I wasn’t the best at me." It’s another thing to be like, "Oh, he’s super talented and very different from me and must’ve crushed it in a way that they like better."

You’re on a really interesting path. If you continue pushing the way that you’re pushing, with kind of honesty first and the question of, “Is this even comedy?" first, you’re going to continue getting shots. The way that entertainment is going is everything’s getting fragmented. Like, I didn’t grow up with cable. There were four channels, and I didn’t watch two of them.
Now there are 200 channels and a guy like me has a chance to survive.

A guy like you has a chance now to thrive because you can say, "This is exactly what I want to do, and I’ve got ten years proving I can do it. I’m sure this is an [obvious] comparison, but what Louis [C.K.] is doing at FX to me is the best.
It seems like the dream.

Photo: Frances Tulk-Hart for Vulture

On being on Late Show With David Letterman and the difference between being on Letterman and Leno's shows:

It is.
See, I love Louis, I have so much respect for him and his show, but I want to be Letterman, man. I feel like it’s weird comparing myself to him at all. I will be chasing him as long as I’m hosting anything that resembles a talk show. But it feels like it’s such weird karma that my show debuts a week after his goes off the air. Like the fact that you watch his show and it seems just like Carson’s show, and then the next thing you know, he’s wearing a whole outfit made of Alka-Seltzer and being lowered by a crane into water. Like you know you’re laughing and that’s the first thing, but you’re also like, “Why are you doing this?” Like, why are you harassing your deli guy, and why is it so funny? Why are you making your mom come on your show? It makes me feel bad and it makes me a little uncomfortable, but I love it so much. Andy Kaufman was [the] same thing. I know it’s funny, but I feel super bad for laughing because he was like, wrestling women in Memphis and calling them fat. Howard Stern was the same thing.

And I also want to be Letterman in the sense that if he doesn’t like somebody or respect someone, he’ll go there. I want to do that. I want to live in the woods in Connecticut.

So I’ve got a funny Letterman story. I did Letterman twice. And the first time I did it, I was super nervous, I didn’t enjoy it because I was so scared. And I did Leno, too. I loved that I had like a view of the differences. And the difference to me was that Leno’s so nice. Like so jarringly nice. I was in the back green room — you know, nervous as hell — and he comes out in an all-denim outfit, "Hey, how are you. Good to see you. Thanks for doing the show." I’m like, “You’re in my dressing room and you’re Jay Leno.” Then we started doing bits, bits with like F-bombs in them, and I’m realizing, like, Leno’s pretty funny, actually. And Leno’s doing this [for us to] warm each other up.

I do Letterman. I have a story to tell about one of my first big jobs. It was a Tampax Pearl commercial, and I was the before guy. The Pearl is an upgrade from your regular old tampon. And so the commercial campaign was, “Upgrade your life.” So the spot was, I knock on the door, open it with a bucket of chicken. It then goes, “Bbbbbbbbbbupgrade,” and then there’s like a hunk with a bottle of wine. My entire experience on set was the ad people saying he’s not fat enough and the director getting her creative heart broken, yelling, "He’s perfectly fat." I was going to tell that story on Letterman. I didn’t have another story. Ten minutes before — and on Letterman you’re all cold and weird in your dressing room by yourself — they go, “So I don’t think we should do the tampon story. You know, with Dave you never know his mood, and things like the word tampon could really turn him the wrong way, so let’s not do that.” I ended up just bullshiting with Letterman for like six minutes about a lizard I saw in my house.
You’ve got to love it.

But that’s Letterman, as opposed to Leno.
But see, that’s what I want to do with my show. Like, my show is really interactive, and these kids really feel like they can get on it and say whatever they want, but because it was a public-access show, one thing I never anticipated is that these teenage kids didn’t think they could mess it up because there’s nothing to mess up. It was already shitty. It’s a public-access show, things go wrong all the time. We once showed up at the studio and they were like, "So here’s the situation tonight" — which I had heard so many times — "We know the microphones are here because they’re on and we can hear them on the soundboard, but we cannot find them." So we’re going to do an hour of live TV with no microphones? When a kid is watching that, they know that they can’t mess that up, it’s already messed up.

They’re safe.
They’re safe, exactly. One of the things I’m obsessed with on my show is pushing that further. I know it was rough for you, but I like that Letterman makes celebrities uncomfortable and puts that on TV. One of the things I really have in mind with my show on Fusion is that now that we’re on cable, we’re getting guests. It was really hard to convince people to come be on public access at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday. People are down now. But I don’t want to do any pre-interviews ever. I don’t want to know what the anecdote is, ‘cause I don’t want you to feel safe. Like, all I want is a kid who’s the only artsy kid in a town in Iowa to be able to call up and actually talk to you. I’m bringing on heavy-hitter people, and you get to see them actually connect with a kid.

So why don’t you do the Letterman thing and not be friendly before? Because looking back, I love that Letterman did that because it's what he does. The other thing I loved was I got advice: shave, wear the nicest suit you have, and let it be known you’re on the king’s show and you’re not the king. So when he decides to let you be funny is when you get to be funny. He loved [that] it was like, "You’re the king, you can take me for seven minutes and humiliate me in a way that my career won’t recover." People would go, "Did you see that one guy from New Girl who Letterman hated?"
That’s something I don’t want. Like, in a perfect world, I want to be the peasant. I want to be the guy who does not belong at all in this world and is the representative of all the people. That’s the cult following of The Chris Gethard Show — all these kids who never feel like they’ll belong in a cool world.

They get to do the show?
Yeah, and they get to have a voice. I don’t feel like it’s disingenuous because my experience with the more traditional entertainment industry, the rejections always made me feel like I’m the kid in my high-school lunchroom that nobody wanted to sit with. "No, you go eat outside at the picnic table and pretend it’s because you want fresh air."

When we wound up on public access, it was much more of a middle finger than I’ve ever really admitted. It made me feel like I don’t want to connect with the cool kids. I got to be a cool kid for one summer in 2004, when Big Lake was on and they don’t like me. At the end of the day, I’m never going to change the fact that I’m a scared nerd who grew up in a white-trash neighborhood in New Jersey.

On their futures in entertainment — or lack thereof:

That’s what you’re doing. I think the only place where you’re not doing that is where you’re going through in your head and you’re having self-doubts, but all your actions are doubling down on that.
I guess my fear is never about that anymore. What it is, and it’s a little legitimate, is I actively maybe painted myself into a corner where it’s like, Well, if you can’t get it to work, you’re now 35 years old — you’re not 21. Things don’t tend to start as often for people at 35.

There are two conversations going on about similar stuff, but they’re different. You’re saying you’re doing everything you want and it’s working, and then you’re saying but things don’t start.
But there’s no safety net.

Well, there’s no safety net either way! Look, if they say New Girl is over, [the] syndication thing is not what it was. I’ve got to find a job!
It’s so funny for us because clearly there’s such fondness and appreciation for each other, but it’s weird ‘cause I feel like you’re looking at me and being like, "You did it totally your way, 100 percent, and that’s great."

Well, because you did.
But I’m looking at you and being like, "You broke through, proved it, and now you’re set." In my mind, you’re set for life!

No way, no way!
That is the perception.

But it’s incorrect, man. So, remember the show on Comedy Central you did, how fast it came up and how fast it went away?

That part of the town hasn’t changed. That’s the town.
Yeah. I do wonder, if it does run out someday, I’m not sure if I’ll finally move to L.A. or if I will honestly just disappear and never do anything public ever again. Just go work, like make copies at a Kinkos and be married to my beautiful wife and be happy. I might just do that.

I had a very similar conversation with my wife. I haven’t taken a job in two years besides little fun indies that I enjoy doing that aren’t money jobs. There is the world where I’m beginning to like real estate. And she’s like, "I don’t have a lot of stake in you doing a press tour."
Do you think about moving back to Chicago ever still?

No. My wife’s a California girl.

But if it wasn’t for her, I’d probably go back. If she leaves me …

[Both laugh.]
That feels like a good point to end on right?

That was really fun, man!
This is one of the best conversations I’ve had in years!