Chris Gethard Is the All-Seeing Eye in the Sky

One of the rare few comedians who doesn’t send me into my usual shaky, sweaty-palm pre-interview ritual is Chris Gethard. Thanks to his years as host of The Chris Gethard Show (and more recently his new podcast Beautiful/Anonymous), Gethard has perfected the art of easing near or total strangers into engaging with him in candid, sometimes serious, sometimes hilarious conversations. Unsurprisingly, then, talking with him feels more like catching up with a friend than a typical interview. Ahead of tonight’s hourlong season 2 TCGS premiere on Fusion, I asked Gethard about getting hourlong episodes back, his podcast, interns, fuck chains, and much more.

How’ve you been?

Not too bad! Pretty overwhelmed and dizzy, but for a very good reason.

I saw you just recorded another phone call for your new podcast. How’d it go?

It was good! I talked to a guy who was in Afghanistan. I was like “Well, I’m completely out of my element here, but I’m happy to talk for an hour.” I kind of got permission to ask a lot of ignorant questions I’ve always wanted to know about what that experience is like. And he was really cool – he was really nice. So we’ll put that out in a few weeks, I’m sure.

What made you want to start the podcast – specifically one where you’re taking anonymous calls?

It actually all loops back around to The Chris Gethard Show, because one of my favorite things about our run on public access was the phone calls. So when we went to Fusion last year we were doing everything on Skype, and I just really missed the phone calls. I just missed how casual it was and how relaxed it was. And one thing I think we all learned is that when you’re on Skype with someone, their face can be seen. There’s consequences, and they feel like if they say something dumb or if they mess up, they’re sitting there feeling a little exposed, so we brought the phone calls back to the Gethard Show as part of that.

But to me, as far as the podcast, I just really missed how often I got to talk to people, and a lot of the calls on the Gethard Show were anonymous. It always struck me that people can just hang up and walk away and there’s no pressure on them to perform or be funny – they can just hang up and get out of there and never think about it again if it doesn’t go well. So that was what was really behind it, and I also kind of like the idea, just on a selfish level, that I can act however I want. I don’t have to feel guilty; I don’t know who this person is, so if I just wanna say, like, “Pick up the pace, this is pretty boring,” I don’t have to feel bad about that because we don’t know each other. You get to say what you say, I get to react how I want to react, and some people just walk away. That has a lot of appeal to me.

Do you think that, over time, you’ve gotten better at getting strangers to open up and talk with you?

Yeah, I mean I think that’s the thing – I don’t even know if I’d say I’d enjoy it so much as it’s a little bit of a compulsion for me at this point to connect with people through my work. Every step of the way, the thing that is the most exciting to me about being in the world of comedy is you really feel like, when it’s going well, connecting with people. And that goes with every level. That could be doing standup in a room with ten people in a basement in New York where if you kept that laugh and really feel that laugh hitting the right way you feel like they know you and you know them, and it’s so addictive. Then all the way up to something like Broad City, which is probably one of the more mainstream things I’m doing now, where people stop me on the street or in the subway and say “Oh you’re Ilana’s boss! I love that show, it means so much to me!” To me, the only reason to keep doing this after this long is to just try to connect with people, so I keep building projects that are hopefully allowing me to really try to click – and not just for their sake. It makes me feel less alone when people like my work and have nice things to say, especially when they click in with some of the weirder impulses I have. It’s like “Okay, great, I’m not a complete fucking crackpot.” I have this urge to try some more experimental things, and some people actually embrace it. That just makes me feel less crazy. [laughs] A lot of me doing comedy as my career is an effort to feel less crazy by connecting with people.

For the podcast, is there a line you draw for calls that are too dark or even scary? Or is the call you get the call you get, no limits?

Well, I’m a big believer in the call I get is the call I get. I talked a lot about that with my producers, but I like the idea of just patching them in and seeing what happens. We’ve only had one episode – it hasn’t come out yet – where somebody got really personal and really dark, and without spoiling it, I was making some jokes, and the person hung up in the midst of these jokes and I immediately realized “Oh, that person was not okay.” That person was sharing some really dark stuff, and I assumed they were calling a comedy podcast and knew I would make jokes. It really took a couple days of feeling, in my head, “Oh my God…was that okay?” So yeah, as far as the anonymity, there’s definitely been a couple calls we’ve recorded where I really wish I could follow up and make sure all is cool with that person, but that’s kind of the contract, you know? They know what they’re getting into when they call, I know the limits on my end, the listeners know the frustration that comes with that. People were telling me early on it was really addictive – which is cool to hear, and that’s part of it – but there’s been a few situations where yes, the anonymity has been a little bit scary. I think we’re gonna still put up that episode, and my hope is that by putting it out in the public it might create some dialogue in the feedback that will help teach me how to handle that situation better next time.

So you’re hoping to evolve through the podcast in that way?

Yeah, that’s one of the things I enjoy – it really is just talking. The way it works is we tweet out the number, somebody calls, our engineer in the studio John is like “Okay I’m gonna patch you through – don’t say your name,” and then we just talk. So there’s no real rule book, there’s no guidelines – it’s a thing that I think can adapt to the person and adapt to how I’m feeling, and I think that’s the way to take it. I don’t want it to be a highly structured thing. I don’t think I’m a smart enough person to know how to do that, but I think I’m pretty empathetic and I’m very happy to get a chance to just talk to some people who have something to say.

You taped the first TCGS episode last week – I watched some of the livestream, but there were some technical difficulties. How’d it go on your end? And what’s it like to have the full hour back instead of half hour episodes?

It went great! I kind of couldn’t have been happier. [laughs] And you know me – you and I have spoken enough for you to know that for me to say I couldn’t have been happier is kind of a rare thing. Usually I beat myself up for whatever I didn’t like, but this one felt really good. I feel like we know what we’re doing a little bit more now, and I feel like the pressure of being on a network that we have to answer to isn’t putting us in our heads anymore. We’re really, I think, treating that like a partnership and trying to do it in a way that satisfies everything that’s expected of us being in a new professional situation while still doing our thing.

And getting that hour back felt great. So much of the fear was that you could see all those comments, and a lot of people, including old fans of the show who had been with us for years, were like “I like it, it’s still really good, but man, this 22 minute thing is really tight and I can feel how edited it is,” and I’m reading all that and kind of spent a lot of time in my head like “I agree – I get it, I get why these people are frustrated by it.” So I really really lobbied hard to get that hour back, and in the first episode I think you’re gonna feel it. And I obviously can’t watch the livestream of the episode, but like you said, I had heard there were some technical difficulties, but the thing I’m most excited for is when we edited the episode I was like “Man, I really really think this episode is a better experience than watching a livestream.” A lot of people tell me “I love watching the livestream because it’s exciting – it’s happening right then,” and I think there’s some people who are like “I watch the livestream but don’t go back and watch the episode,” and that always bums me out because I worked really hard on the episode. But now that we’ve edited this first episode I really strongly believe that this season is gonna fulfill the promise of what we said we could do with the budget. And coming off of public access, we were like “We really wanna do some new shit – we really wanna try some cool things,” and I think the first season was figuring out how to do that, and now I really feel like we are. So I hope people pick it up and check it out, because I watched the episode and I’m like “Man, I think we’re doing it the way that people are gonna be excited to see it done.”

Was your instinct to just be more like the public access show, or did you reconsider the show’s structure when you got the full hour again?

I thought really hard about it, and our instinct right away was that we don’t need to shoot any more. Our taping was actually shorter than a lot of the tapings last year for the half hour, because we did a couple things: One, it was just like “Let things breathe. Let’s just use this hour to let things breathe, to have some moments that nobody expects,” and we did that. John Reynolds, who’s an improviser and comedian in New York and I think he’s the funniest guy going right now, we did a bit with him where a whole act of the show was just three or full bullet points, no script. And right beforehand I just said to him, “This is Act 2 of the first episode – we got the hour back, and to me, this whole bit is about establishing the fact that we’re gonna let things get chaotic and see what happens, so go big, man.” And he did – it was so good.

And then Act 4 was a similar thing. We did a bit where it was like “Hey, our cameraman quit. What happens now?” And that’s honestly all we planned, and Shannon O’Neill turned it into this beautiful insane thing called the fuck chain. You’ll have to tune in to see what a fuck chain is. So the spontaneity is the hugest blessing of having all that time back, and I really love it. And what we are able to do with our budget that we never had before. There’s a lot of pretaped stuff that’s getting edited in after the episode’s shot, so it feels like this cohesive piece where there are huge chunks of it that are always spontaneous, there’s big sections of it that feel really well thought out, and hopefully the whole thing plays. It’s pretty exciting! I get excited about it, and I hope other people do too.

Thankfully there were no technical difficulties during the fuck chain, so I did have the honor of seeing that last week.

Oh, good. I think you can agree that the fuck chain is a new sensation that the kids are all gonna flip out about. I think the fuck chain’s gonna be 2016’s version of what the hula hoop was in the ‘50s. I think this is gonna be a real trend amongst the youths of today.

They gotta get on the fuck chain early before it blows up.

Yeah, everybody. [laughs] That’s the main message I want people to take away from our interview today: Look, we all know the fuck chain is gonna be a huge, huge cultural sensation. It’s like the new Snapchat. Everybody’s gonna be using it, and all the old fogies of the world are gonna be like “I don’t quite get it – I don’t quite get the fuck chain.” But I’m gonna go ahead and say you watch the episode, you learn what a fuck chain is, and then you can be one of the first ones to say “The fuck chain is from three weeks ago – that jumped the shark, we’re all moving on.” So if you want to be a real cool kid that’s in on the current cultural trends, you watch our first episode, you figure out what a fuck chain is, and you start off your own fuck chain.

I came to TCGS pretty late, so at first I found it a little intimidating. But beyond all the inside jokes and characters, it still manages to feel really welcoming for newbies. That seems like a difficult balance to keep.

It is, and there have definitely been times where things get a little dense and I take a step back and say “I can’t make this show only make sense to people who have been watching public access TV since 2011.” [laughs] The press has been very nice to us, and a lot of it has been about how we’re “strange” or we’re “innovative,” and those are very kind things to be said, but one of the things I wish got underlined more is that at the end of the day, I think the show’s pretty fucking funny. And I think funny can slice through a lot of that stuff and make people want to invest in figuring out a little bit more about what’s going on. Then I think when people get hooked through the funny they start to look into some of the history of the show and some of the inside jokes, and they realize that the reason there’s so many inside jokes is because it’s a tight-knit community that our fans have built around the show, and almost all of those inside jokes reference things about that community and things that that community has really embraced. I think it feels warm, and those inside jokes, as you figure them out, exist for positive reasons. It’s not to make things feel more insidery or make things feel like a clique. It’s really a two-way street: We send stuff out there, and then we see online what you guys are digging, and then we try to fan those flames. On our worst days we’re referencing a character – we’re like “Oh, Zero Fucks Boyd – you haven’t existed since 2013, what are you doing?” – so there’s definitely times where it hits a tipping point, I’m the first to admit.

Your season 1 “twinterns” had a pretty impressive run last year. Have you kept in touch with them? And how’d hiring your next round of interns go?

Chris, one of the twinterns, was at our first taping so that’s good. And I keep in touch with Royce – he’s out in San Francisco. I have a lot of love for those guys. I think they feel good about their time on the show, and I think they also felt pretty tormented and maybe a little mentally broken by the end. And you know, emotional breakdowns are a big part of our show, and I think interns have to learn that. And I can say that, in total seriousness, there was a whole discussion that happened before the hiring process for this year about how we’re gonna have someone who’s in charge of the interns, and a big part of that is to make sure that the hiring isn’t done just based on my glee over which ones I can fuck with the most. [laughs] We have to make sure these are actual people who want to work in TV and have something to offer the show, and it can’t just be me being like “That person looks like they’d be fun if I forced them to do some dumb shit!”

So the hiring process was a little more official, but I’m really happy because this year we have a new office and there’s like a little bullpen where all the interns hang out, and almost every time I walk in there they tense up and wonder if there are cameras on them. I’ll go in there and try to do bits with them, and you can see that they’re like “Oh my God, is this being filmed? Am I being fucked with right now?” And I’ve been told by our friend Hot Dog, who’s been involved in our show forever – he’s in charge of the interns, he’s the captain of that ship – he’s told me that they are constantly asking him if I’m gonna show up with a camera crew and force them to do weird things. And the answer is yes, yes I am. I have every intention of doing that, and if the interns are reading this on Splitsider, the first thing I wanna say is brace yourself. Your instincts are correct that I am going to torment you at some point; you will be on camera. Especially Maeve. If Maeve is reading this, understand that I’m going to mess with you, Maeve. You can’t escape it. If you want to work on this show, you have to know what you’re getting into. And the second thing I’ll say to them is you guys shouldn’t be reading Splitsider right now. You’re on the clock, you need to be working a lot harder than that, there are intern tasks that aren’t getting done because you guys are fucking around on Splitsider, and you just got caught. Get back to work, Maeve.

You’re everywhere.

Yeah. I’m an all-seeing eye in the sky. With The Chris Gethard Show, at the end of the day, what I’ve always been trying to create is an Orwellian nightmare dystopian world where no one can escape my whims, my desires, and my all-seeing eye. So just know that, Maeve. Know that I could be watching you right now. I could be standing right behind you as you read this wondering why you’re not doing your job.

Photo by Atisha Paulson/FUSION.

Season 2 of The Chris Gethard Show premieres on Fusion tonight at 10:00pm.

Chris Gethard Is the All-Seeing Eye in the Sky