The Only Living Comedian in New York: Chris Gethard on Avoiding Los Angeles

Chris Gethard. Photo: Alex Welsh

This week, Vulture is running a series of stories about the comedy produced in, and inspired by, New York and Los Angeles. We start off with an essay from comedian Chris Gethard about the migration of comics from NYC to L.A. and why he's refused to join them.

The first thing I want on record is that I don’t hate Los Angeles and, in fact, don’t rule out the idea that I’ll someday wind up out there. I’m a comedian, and it seems like, more often than not, we all do. But I haven’t made that move yet, and it’s not something I’m planning to do. I moved to Queens from New Jersey in 2004 and have continued to stick with New York to such a degree that when people ask me to explain it, I’m sometimes unable to provide an answer.

The reason this is a questionable decision is that over the past handful of years there’s been what many people call an “exodus” with regard to the New York City comedy scene. Most of the people I’ve come up with since I started doing comedy at UCB in 2000 now live 3,000 miles away. I’ve taught people in improv classes, then watched them move to Los Angeles to become Emmy winners and movie stars. That experience, for anyone wondering, is both super exciting and also makes you put a microscope on your own life choices. It causes you to question why you still perform stand-up in so many Brooklyn basements.

Here are some people that over the years I’ve considered among my best friends and either the reasons they moved to Los Angeles or the things that happened to them once they did. I’ll only use first names to try to protect their privacy, but some of them are successful enough that this will not matter. To those people: I am sorry to include you in this if you are uncomfortable with it, but you are the ones who decided to go get famous.

I won’t even list acquaintances, because that would just be gauche.

  • Katie wrote The Heat and the new Ghostbusters movie.
  • Zach got cast on The Office.
  • Joe was hired to write on Parks and Recreation and now sells his own shows like that’s easy.
  • Phil was my roommate, and I helped him get his first agent. He moved out to write for Key and Peele and now writes for Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
  • Lennon has sold two shows that she also stars in (including the fantastic Playing House on USA).
  • Anthony moved out to write on those shows.
  • Eugene was recently on the space show Paul Feig produced.
  • Charlie wrote for Key and Peele and a bunch of other things and in general just keeps killing it.
  • Will was a New York mainstay, then moved to Los Angeles and immediately sold a pilot to Comedy Central.
  • John had long been one of the funniest people in all of New York and slugged out a decent amount of success on cable and the web, then moved out west and immediately got cast on a network sitcom.

These are ten of the people I was very close to during our time doing comedy together in New York. But over the course of the four years that they were moving to L.A., I was hosting a public-access television show in New York. I lost money doing so. As far as success goes, it was a very public fact that I was devolving in New York while a steady stream of friends were killing it on the West Coast.

Photo: Alex Welsh

And believe me, people continually tell me I could be much more successful if I moved to Los Angeles — that the track is laid for a guy like me to get out there, put on some shorts and sunglasses, and start grabbing jobs like they’re ripe fruit hanging from trees. When my friends have these heart-to-hearts with me, where they believe in my ability to attain success and where I explain to them I am confident enough to agree, they leave baffled by my insistence on staying in New York. I know there are many things California can offer — personally, professionally, meteorologically — that New York can’t. It sounds awesome.

What I don’t think they understand is that my belief is that the whole premise is flawed. I get that for some people — many people — success and happiness are the same thing, or at least that the first leads to the second. Me? I’ve never quite been convinced. It’s happiness that motivates me — and right now, whether with the traditional definition of success or not, New York is where I think I can best find it. 

For example, let me tell you about this past Sunday.

I woke up in Massachusetts, in a fancy Berkshires hotel that a museum paid for me to stay in. I’d performed stand-up comedy inside the museum the night before. Sometimes I get gigs in weird artsy places because weird artsy people embraced my public-access show, which I could only have done in the way I did in New York.

In the other bed was one of my favorite comedians, Tim Dillon. He’s nothing like me, which I enjoy. He’s a tall, furious man from Long Island who posts political ramblings on Facebook that are so intense that people who learn we’re friends ask me if they’re real. (The answer? I have no idea. He might actually be crazy.) Any chance I get to share seven hours of car time with someone who fits this description, I take.

At the show the night before, Tim looked around this giant museum and said to the crowd, “The Berkshires? Is this the part of the country where I might open a random barn door and find two lesbians making homemade ice cream in a bathtub?” It was an insanely aggressive way to start a set, especially in a Berkshires museum on a bill I was headlining with my notoriously rambling emo storytelling. The crowd exploded. They loved him. I had to follow it. It forced me to be better.

Once we got back to New York, I got lunch in Greenpoint with another comedian I love, Julio Torres. We’d been trying to catch up, and I had a couple of free hours, so I texted him. Julio’s nothing like me either. He graduated from the New School, and you can tell from his comedy: It’s artsy and thoughtful but always hilarious. Much of it involves fake diamonds and impressions of Cate Blanchett. He refers to himself as a space prince, which makes no sense until you see him onstage. Then it is the only thing that makes sense.

Julio recently received an artist’s visa. If he hadn’t, he was going to have to return to El Salvador. Many comics, myself included, participated in a video to help him raise funds to get a lawyer. He’s a space prince but also a quiet badass, and the fact that he’s had to fight so hard just for the right to be an artist reminds me to never take for granted that I get to do what I do.

Since I was already in Greenpoint, I texted my friend Jeff Rosenstock after lunch to see if he was home in his neighborhood. He texted me back that he could meet in 20 minutes and suggested that we go to Sunshine Laundromat on Manhattan Avenue. It’s a laundromat with pinball and now also a bar. Over the past few years, the space has expanded, but the amount of laundry machines hasn't changed. They just added more pinball. I’m not a huge pinball fan, but I am a huge fan of playing pinball inside a space that also houses a fully functioning laundromat, since New York real estate dictates that sometimes things like that need to occupy the same space, and in this case it’s those two things because why the fuck not?

Photo: Alex Welsh

On my way to Sunshine a guy named Kyle stopped me on the street and said, “I like your comedy. Me and my roommates watch your show. Keep doing it.” Then he walked away. One thing I like about people telling you they like your shit in New York is the walk-away part. I don’t mean that in a snarky way. I'm always grateful to be recognized. But in New York people generally get to the point and then keep moving. They don’t ask for selfies or say, “I know you … ” and make you list your IMDb page. (When people do this, I now know how to keep it quick: If the person is over 40, they have seen me play a sad, creepy nerd on The Office. If they're under 40, they have seen me play a sad, creepy nerd on Broad City.) People here clearly have someplace they need to get. That makes me feel great, because it makes me think that the person who likes my work is doing cool work of their own. Maybe it’s creative, or maybe they’re a banker, or maybe they help run a nonprofit that wants to switch the world to wind power. Whatever it is, I assume that every person on the street in New York works as hard or harder than I do.

It was good to see Jeff once we both arrived at the laundromat. He's one of my favorite musicians. He played my public-access show a few years back, and we hit it off. Now we’re allies. I often think of art this way — that you don’t just need supporters or kindred spirits; you need allies. You need people who think there's a right way and a wrong way to do it and whose right way matches up with yours. When you find those people, you need to hang on to them and treasure their opinions and give yours honestly — and sometimes, when you're anxious about the impending second season of your television show, you need to play pinball with them in a laundromat on short notice so they can give you a game plan on how to not be a total sellout.

Eventually, Jeff walked me to my car. I had to head to the Bell House to perform in a benefit for 826NYC. When we said our good-byes, I was in a good mood specifically because of one thing that New York offers that I sincerely believe Los Angeles can never touch: I didn’t plan any of that afternoon.

There was no need to organize anything. There was no need to valet. I was able to wander, manic and unexpectedly, from one beautiful conversation to another. That night I had the pleasure of getting my balls busted at the Bell House by the event's brilliant host, comedian Maeve Higgins, before leaving early to go play basketball (Maeve had some things to say about that). I ran from the show to my game, where I played well for a 35-year-old guy with a genetic condition that makes his knees not work. I hit two three-pointers and even got a rebound. My team won by one point.

It was fun. It made me happy.

Spending an afternoon playing pinball and eating veggie burgers didn’t put me closer to success. Getting dressed down at a show, playing basketball — none of it put me closer to fame.

But, man, did it make me happy.

And what my gut tells me over and over again, just as it has for years, is maybe the most crystallized "tl;dr" version of why I continue to choose New York over the West Coast:

I just don’t think Los Angeles seems that fun.

I may be wrong, but even my most pro-L.A. friends say that you don’t get a New York day like that one I described above all that often. Things there are planned and career-driven and family-focused and quiet. New York, at its best, is unpredictable, overwhelming, driven by selfish mania, and loud and fast and never gridlocked, because we don’t slow down for anything for too long.

I’m not stupid. I won’t deny that for many people success leads to happiness and that there's way more success to be had out there. But there's another side to Los Angeles that people don't talk about as much, the one that suggests it's not always the Shangri-La it's made out to be. The truth is, for as many friends as I’ve seen go out to L.A. to great success, I’ve seen just as many go out and struggle. L.A. is a town where opportunities and jobs and other peoples’ lack of struggles are in your face all the time. When you uproot your life to go somewhere specifically to succeed, and when that place has such clearly defined measures of success, and then you don’t pull it off? It seems so much harder to struggle in that situation.

But to me, there’s one fate that’s even worse. From time to time — and not as rarely as you might think — I see a friend go to Los Angeles to chase it. And on their way out the door they'll say something to subtly imply that by moving west they’re also moving upward — and that by staying I’m moving, in a sense, downward.

Then they go and they crush it. They become high-profile. Their face is known, they get stopped in the streets, they get booked on talk shows, and everything they hoped would happen when they moved to Los Angeles happens. But they’re miserable. Because none of that shit is all that fun, and all the success in the world didn’t chase away the demons that fueled the insecurities that led to the need to chase that fame-framed validation in the first place.

My basketball team shot the shit for a while after our game, and by the time I headed home it was after midnight. I was hungry, so I stopped at a random deli and got myself a sandwich. That’s one of my favorite things about this city: At any hour, in any neighborhood, you’re probably within three blocks of a bodega where you can get a turkey sandwich with American cheese and mayo on whole-wheat bread. Walk a few streets and you’ll see a bodega light, and someone will be in there, awake and working hard and willing to make you the exact type of sandwich you get when you just need to eat something before bed, because you’ve got to wake up in the morning and do things and talk to people and stumble into surprises.

I know that being able to reliably get a turkey sandwich may sound trivial, but, at the end of the day, it's crucial to me. When I think about the warmth of Los Angeles, the crushing weight of the potential success that may or may not await a person like me there, and how often I’m told that life there is easy and all of the obstacles are cleared, a turkey sandwich at the end of a block doesn’t feel trivial at all.