This story originally ran in February 2017. It has been slightly updated, as Career Suicide is premiering on HBO this Saturday.
For over a year and a half, Chris Gethard performed Career Suicide, a comedic one-man show about mental illness. After wrapping a three-month run at Soho’s Lynn Redgrave Theatre and taking the show abroad, the show is set to premiere on HBO this Saturday, May 6. Every night in the show, Gethard shares stories of the times he came close to committing suicide, confronting the darkest moments of his life with frank honesty. It’s intense but funny, dark yet sweet.
When I first saw it, during the summer of 2015, I was taken by Gethard’s ability and willingness to spend so much time thinking and talking and joking about death. Afterward, I interviewed him on the subject. With the show moving Off Broadway a year later, in October of 2016, I spoke with him again to see if his perspective had shifted over the course of the year — and, boy, did it. Gethard, no longer an underdog with the success of his one-man show and The Chris Gethard Show, seems truly content with his lot in life.
Jesse David Fox: The obvious place to start is the dream you told me about.
Chris Gethard: I haven’t told anyone about this my whole life. I was 18. I should say that a lot of times when young people suffer from mental illness, it’s right around that time in their lives. So I had this very strange, very real-feeling dream: I was walking through this forest, terribly confused and lost. This being made of pure, radiating light walked towards me, bent down, and said, “It’s halfway over.” I realized it was me, dead, informing me at the time that my life was halfway over. I’ve been operating in the back of my mind that I will die when I’m 36 years old. I’m 35 now. The past two years, I would say I think about dying every day.
It was interesting for me to hear, since I think I’m going to die at 39.
I’m known as a workhorse, and that’s a big part of it. I want to have a little bit of a body of work to leave behind in case I’m dead next year.
A fear of mortality, when not paralyzing, is a great motivator.
I’m hungry in the ways that every artist is, but I also have this extra layer. I’ve done a lot of things that were consciously not for money, but because I’m so convinced I’m going to die in my mid-30s, I’m like, “That’s not what’s important, doing cool stuff and having that legacy is what’s important.”
How did Career Suicide start?
I’ve always been really open onstage. I would talk about the depression stuff and people just locked into it. Then two things happened: One was a fan of my public-access show sent me an anonymous message on Tumblr, saying that he was thinking about killing himself. I didn’t know what to do. One of the people involved in the show was like, “We cannot get involved in this. We could get in a lot of trouble.” I was just like, “That doesn’t feel kind.” So I wrote this very raw thing and it went all over the internet. That really cracked it open, because people started talking to me about that all the time.
Then, I was touring with Mike Birbiglia all of 2014. It would just be me and Mike and the bus driver. Birbiglia knows more about me than most people. I told him a couple of these stories about really painful, dark things from my life. When I told him the one about me crashing my car on purpose, he was like, “You have to tell that onstage. That story is hilarious.” I was like, “No way. It’s a story where I crash a car on purpose, a man almost beats me up, and then the man who saves me afterwards uses the N-word. It’s one of the most traumatic days of my life.” He said, “If you can get to a place where you’re pulling that story off, that’s why you’re doing comedy.”
If you were going to tell stories, it should be those stories.
Ultimately, I hit a point where I could chase fame. There’s nothing wrong with that — I don’t want to be pretentious, but maybe there’s something noble about trying to put something out there that might help some people before they try to kill themselves. My main goal is to do a comedy show, but I’ve had a couple times where I’ve really lost my mind, and one time in particular where I really tried to hurt myself. If me finding a way to joke about that helps other people, I can’t not do that.
It’s sometimes to the detriment of my career, but I’ve had people contact me and say they started seeing a shrink because of my show. I’ve had people say they were thinking about killing themselves, found my Tumblr post, and decided not to. It’s pretty heavy, but if I have the ability to do that even a handful of times, I should do it.
Any time I do something that’s really good, something I feel is very true to me, I’m like, Well, if I died right now, all right.
Yeah, big time. Any time I’ve accomplished something, there’s a definite thought of, Okay, I’m leaving something. I wrote a book and I put out an album and those were two things I really prioritized, because you do stuff onstage and it’s not permanent. We only pressed 500 copies on vinyl, but they sold out, so there’s 500 people who will have this piece of a thing I put out there. People might remember that I existed. If I have a kid someday, that’s more stuff that the kid can discover about what I was like after I’m dead.
You wanna hear the weird thing I have with the 36 thing? I’m not the most well-known person at all, but in New York, people know me a little bit for always cooking up something. I weirdly have a mental block lately where I cannot figure out what I want to do. Part of me thinks it’s because I think whatever the next thing I do is, I’ve gotta nail it because it could be the last one.
From reading your book, I know that you both really crave control, and yet you do all these things that put you completely out of control.
Yeah, I like chaos.
How do you reconcile those two things?
When life isn’t chaotic, you settle into a groove and you just feel like you’re a fucking robot that wakes up and does your job and then goes to bed. A couple years back, we did a thing on the show where I had to make my way from California to Bonnaroo, and I wandered around the country taking rides from people and crashing at their houses when I didn’t know them. This is one of the most exciting days of my entire life. We got stranded in Arizona. Finally, this family picks us up and they’re like, “We can drive you as far as Albuquerque.” “As long as we get out of this fucking rest stop in Arizona, take me anywhere you want.” It was a mother, father, aunt, daughter — one open seat. They were willing to take me, but there was no room for the cameraman, so none of this wound up on tape.
We’re driving and the family was really nice, but I could just tell there was something grim going on. I’m sitting up front with the dad, and he’s telling this story about how he goes to Texas once a year to this insane private camp where they give you four dogs and you go and hunt wild boar with a knife. You rustle a boar out of the brush, and each of the dogs is trained to attack one of its legs to immobilize it. Then you have to run and jump on the back of the boar and slit its throat. That’s fascinating already. Then, in the backseat, I hear this daughter and her mom and her aunt talking. The mom is going like, “We didn’t have time to stop and pick up nice clothes, so we got to find a place open overnight where we can get appropriate clothes.” I’m like, What? I want to hear everything this guy’s saying about the boar. I want to hear everything they’re saying. I start to piece it together. They have now forgotten I’m an outsider, and they’re talking less quietly than they were when I first showed up. The mom is talking to her sister and she goes, “I don’t know who gave him the fucking gun in the first place.” I was like, Oh my god. This family is headed to the funeral of another family member who killed himself or herself with a gun very recently.
So recently that they have to buy clothes on the way.
Yet they pick me up! They drive me from the middle of Arizona to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the midst of it.
To me, the height of success is to get an opportunity where I can end up alone in a car while a family talks about heading to a funeral and another man tells me about killing animals with his hands, all while no one films it. That family was dealing with something so specific and strange, and then I came into their lives. That’s mostly what I’m in it for: to shake myself out of life being boring, because when it gets boring, it gets really sad really fast.
A lot of people use control to make sure everything is in a controlled environment and you’re using it to essentially create stories, filtering your life to be your art.
It does go back to that legacy idea, in like, how is the world going to remember me? I hope they remember me as someone who tried to shake the foundation a little bit. To be like, “Do things really have to be this way?” Watching talk shows, you don’t know the exact punch line, but you can predict what’s coming 90 percent of the time. You know the structure, and I just really hate that.
We’ll see how heady this question comes out, but broadly, Kierkegaard said religion is the only way to have any comfort. There’s this psychologist that I like a lot named Otto Rank. He’s a student of Freud who only worked with artists. He was like, religion is probably our only option for contentment, but the only people that have any shot that aren’t religious are creative people, because they can create their own world or, as he put it, they are able to fill “the need for legitimate foolishness.”
That’s awesome. I want to pick the brain of this Otto Rank.
The Chris Gethard Show seemed like one of the clearest versions of that.
It’s a world, all right.
I was researching you last night and I wondered if people are on the Gethard Show chat room. It was like two o’clock in the morning; there’s no show on.
Not for months. There’s probably like 15 people in there?
Yup. It’s possible that this will outlive you. I remember you once said, “This is not a cult, it’s just a cult following.”
It’s very close. Once I got together with my wife, who plays music on the show, it really slowed down. I used to flirt with just being an outright cult leader, for my own amusement, because it was fascinating. I once put on Tumblr, “If I bought a compound, how many fans of the show would come live on it?” And 30 people unironically were like, “I’m in.” I was like, Oh, I could start a cult. I could be arranging peoples’ marriages and creating weird group-sex situations if I wanted. I have to be pretty responsible with this.
Yeah, because they believe your world more than the world that they’re in, especially because you have a lot of younger fans.
I don’t know if they believe it more, but they like it better and I’m proud of that. A lot of the fans of my show are the types of nerds that there’s not a word for anymore. Chris Hardwick has done a good job of branding it and made it a lot easier for people with obsessive interests. That’s great, but it’s still pretty tough in school for the kid with scoliosis and bifocals. Those are my people. It’s almost harder when it’s like, Oh yeah, it’s cool to be a nerd now, but I’m still not cool. So, fuck, what happens? I did realize like, Oh, some of these people are so hard core about what we’re building here that I need to actually make sure it stays safe.
It can become a Fight Club situation real quick.
Yeah, it could, but I think we did a good job of making it like the Island of Misfit Toys. We all gotta take care of each other. That’s the vibe.
It’s still a show. It’s not anarchy, and you’re not just saying, “Fuck society.” You’re like, I am channeling my creativity into a thing and not giving up on the world.
Yeah, big time. Creativity saved me. Also — I am very, very tired of talking about it — but the show was created in the aftermath of a big professional opportunity [Comedy Central’s short-lived sitcom Big Lake] that didn’t go well. Then it turned around and turned me into someone that was a much better version of me than if I had been successful in a traditional way. Kids who watch the show, they probably look at someone like Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon, and they’re probably like, I’m not as good-looking as those guys. I’m not as quick, charming or talented as those guys. I’m never going to be that guy. For a certain type of kid who looks deep enough, you could be me, no sweat.
How have you come to terms with whatever balance of cult and mainstream success you have?
Before we even went on public access, at UCB when we started doing the show, people were like, “This is going to blow up.” We had some meetings and nobody picked it up. For years, we were pitching it, pitching it, pitching it. Nobody picked it up. Fusion finally picked it up and it’s a great thing, but I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that it won’t “blow up.” My real hope, at this point, is in ten years, somebody is going to break big and when they get interviewed, they’re going to be like, “I was watching that show when I was 14.” Maybe it’s foolish, but there’s still a part of me that’s like, “My show should be as big as Fallon.” Intellectually, I understand that’s delusional but I’m like, “What doesn’t the world get?” Then sometimes I watch old episodes and I’m like, “Oh, right, this is one of the strangest shows in the history of television.”
Right it’s the distinction of being like four months ahead of your time or like 20 years.
Yeah. At the very least, I am convinced that there’s a lot of young people watching the show, feeling a little empowered by it. I’m like, Oh someday there’s going to be somebody who’s going to make something really fucking cool who is like, “Oh, this show you never heard of was a big part of the puzzle for me.” Another plan for post-death relevance.
Seems like there are two precedents for this: Either you’re dead and people discover your work, in part because you died and you become a martyr for a sensibility. Or there’s the version where you live, and you remain underground, but later you’re revered for it, like a Mission of Burma.
Or Velvet Underground. Here’s the thing that’s embarrassing to admit: When I make choices about my career path and projects I want to work on, I do often think about, If I died in a plane crash, I’d get good think pieces.
It’s funny. I was going to ask whether you think about people writing your obituary.
I do. Not only do I think about it, it emboldens me to make interesting choices. This is a joke I’ve made with people who build my show with me: The only thing that would make our show mainstream would be if I died. If I died, a bunch of people would write think pieces and they would spread around. Then the archives would blow up.
You wanna hear another really morbid, awful thought I have that I shouldn’t even say in case my wife ever sees this: The best thing that would happen for The Chris Gethard Show: We get season two, and right after we start, I am diagnosed with cancer and keep hosting the show as the effects of cancer ravage my body.
If I died publicly on the show, week by week, you could watch me inch closer to death until the final episode where Shannon O’Neill’s just hosting it because I’ve died and they haven’t announced it yet. It would become a very popular show. People would watch week to week. It’s weird because I’m not a character in a TV show — I’m a man.
This is the thought that went through my head. I feel really bad saying it, but I think you’ll agree. If you committed suicide while you are working on a show called “Career Suicide.”
I’ve thought about this, and I’m glad you brought it up because it’s a little bit of a faux pas for me. Imagine the think pieces. If I’ve merged my comedy career with fighting against stigmas against mental health and — I hate to say this, J.D. has warned me about this — he’s been like, “Dude, you need to stay on top of your shit. Because if you kill yourself there’s going to be like 50 of our fans that kill themselves.”
Jesus. You would definitely be remembered. There’s a movie going to be made about that.
Absolutely. I’m played by some fucking person I wouldn’t have respected.
I don’t know, I feel like it would be like Paul Giamatti.
Or like Steve Buscemi.
You named Paul Giamatti or Steve Buscemi [laughs]. I was hoping like Miles Teller, but no Miles Teller for me.
Here’s my only other option: Go off the grid. They find me dead in the woods 50 years from now. Disappear Salinger-style, but creepier.
You’d have to disappear real soon.
Well, I mean, we’d have to get a deal for a second season. Then I’d have a public meltdown and walk away from it. I’d have to go live somewhere in complete anonymity and become a guy who lives on the outskirts of a rural area where people know not to mess with me. Then when I die, someone realizes like, “Oh, 50 years ago this guy was doing all this stuff when he lost his mind.” I’d become like Henry Darger. I’d be able to retrofit myself into an outsider artist.
I haven’t spoken to you much over the last year but I feel from watching this season of The Chris Gethard Show, you’re like, Well, this is what success for me looks like.
Yeah, we took it further than anyone predicted. For some reason, that dumpster episode [in which the TCGS audience is asked to guess the contents of a dumpster sitting onstage] — I go on the road, I talk to other comedians, it’s like that’s the one that people are like, “Yup, that.”
That felt like the perfect version of whatever it was you were going toward.
People I haven’t met before are like, “Blah blah blah told me to watch that episode of your show and I get it now.” From the start, at UCB, I was like, There’s something here. Then on public access, other people started to catch on. I started to see articles from people that were like, “There’s something cool about this.” Then the first season on Fusion, I think even the network guys would agree, there was a lot of real straining, like, How does this fit what we do? And a lot of me arrogantly saying, “You have to let it be what I want it to be.” Which I don’t have a right to say, but season two really was that. That dumpster episode, in particular, is what everybody said this might turn into someday. That’s where the bar is set. If we get to do season three, the rallying cry is gonna be like, “Can every episode be better than the dumpster episode?”
You mentioned that when the Chris Gethard show moved to an hour, it got more boring in some ways. As a person who lives with a certain urgency, how does that balance with your desire for things to maybe be a little boring?
One of my favorite improv notes that I got as a student was it takes a lot more bravery to be boring than it does to be funny. Funny, you get validation and you hear that feedback. But I come from an improv background of — and this has been a little bit lost in the last few years of that art — what if you pass on easy laugh? If you have a hunch that the laugh beyond that is going to kill in a way that nobody saw coming.
If I can be totally frank, there’s a lot of comedy I don’t watch that has a higher laugh-per-minute ratio than mine. I don’t think it’s necessarily better comedy because it’s getting easier laughs. I don’t know if I need to do a recurring bit that’s very cute and charming that everyone in Middle America is going to laugh at. Even the nicest stuff like The Chris Gethard Show or the darkest stuff like Career Suicide, I don’t need to be singing in a car every week. More power to you for all the views you get. Honest to God, not talking shit, it’s hugely successful. It’s not what I do. Also, I’m very aware my inability to do that stuff is why I’m on the Fusion Network and not CBS. Not to talk bad about my own network, but there’s the reason I’m a small cable outfit.
What all my favorite comedians have in common is extraordinary honesty. From Louis C.K.’s confessional style to Andy Kaufman, who is probably the least personal comedian but creates honest feelings of rage and sadness and torment. David Letterman was an honest guy. A lot of the reasons people got mad at Jimmy Fallon for mussing up Trump’s hair was that it didn’t feel like the most honest moment in the cultural time. I’m not trying to slam him for it, but my immediate thought was: “Man, Letterman was honest, honest, honest at all times.”
To back up, I saw your Off Broadway show earlier this week, and I realized the first time I met you was during the period that, in your show, you call the last rock bottom of your life. It was 2012, and I saw you at some party in the old Pfizer building. I guess this was a time where you were doing drugs and out partying a lot.
Oh, shit. It was a weird room with just a big tent and pillows. It was one of the most exciting stretches personally, creatively, but also one of the saddest and most dangerous.
Yeah, we were walking past each other and I thought, I might as well say hello to Chris. I was on my way out and you said, “All my friends are on drugs, so it’s real weird.”
It was like a weird half rave, half art exhibit. Everyone at that party was on molly and I had this very addict-level craving. I was searching for molly, couldn’t find it, and then had to say, “I need to chill out.” That was one of the lowest nights of that whole stretch.
Now, this is at the centerpiece of your show.
That summer was bad. I had a friend tell me about one night: “You were so crazy that when we left, I started crying because I felt guilty I didn’t call an ambulance to come get you.” So there were things like that, but there was also exciting and positive stuff, too. That was the best stuff the Gethard Show ever did. I met and got together with my wife that year.
A huge part of that story — I don’t talk about in my show because it’s just outlandish — is I have this friend who’s a filmmaker. I was working on a movie outline with him. We’d sit down to work and he’d be like, “What was up with this weekend?” I’d be like, “I went to this Pfizer warehouse and there was a room full of pillows.” He found it funny, but it hit a point where he was like, “Dude, you’re partying too much. My film is in a festival in Rio. As a friend, I think you need to get out of New York. Come with me.”
To the calmest place on earth.
Well, that was the thing. It wasn’t like, “Let’s go get you on the straight and narrow.” It was more like, “This summer, you’re clearly at a crossroads. You need to really think about who you want to be. If you want to just chill out on the beach and get your head together, we can do that. We can find trouble if you want to do that.”
We went to some parties in the favelas and it was nuts. This male ballet dancer gave us a bunch of cocaine and we were like, What the fuck is going on? There was a night where I couldn’t find anything to eat and this stand was open on the beach in Copacabana and I got these deep-fried root vegetable nuggets. For about 36 hours, they gave me horrific diarrhea. Very on-brand for me. I had to slow down. There was a pool on the roof of the hotel. It was empty. All I could do was just sit on the roof and go back and forth to the bathroom. I had this true moment of clarity: What am I doing? How did I wind up in fuckin’ Brazil, trying to do Ayahuasca with a mountain sect? This is not me. I had a true moment where I was like, If Hallie Bulleit [Gethard’s now wife and bandleader for his show] is gonna go on a date with me, she’s not gonna go on a date with this guy. This was, I think, September 2012 or October 2012 when my wife and I finally went on our first date. It was not coincidence. It was a moment of reckoning.
She was like, “You need to be a better person.”
There was one night where we walked home from the Woods. She lived in East Williamsburg and I lived in Greenpoint, so we’d always get to where Bedford meets Manhattan and she’d go right and I’d go left and I could tell there was so much vibe between us. I remember saying, “Do you want me to walk you home? It’s really late.” She was like, “No.” It’s dramatized in the show, but there was a moment where she was like, “No,” and walked away. The subtext was like, “You don’t have it together. I’m a fucking grown-up.” I went to Brazil after that, and I came back committed to be a grown-up. You have a chance with this woman. Make it happen.
The climax of the show, your last suicidal episode happened around then too, right?
I tell that story about that night I wound up in Weehawken, and I had two different people who I texted that night approach me after seeing the show and say, “I remember that night, and it was super scary.” It was June 2012. That was when everything hit its real breaking point. That was the night at ASSSSCAT [the UCB improv show, where Jack McBrayer jokingly insulted him and it caused him to have a breakdown].
Did you stop doing ASSSSCAT in 2012?
Soon after. It felt like an obligation for a while. Amy Poehler had personally asked me when she left town to handle it. But it just hit a point where I was like, “I have to move on.” There were two nights where I had panic attacks right before the Stepfathers shows. One night I walked in, and Michael Delaney goes, “G, how you doing?” I just stopped in my tracks and started crying. Delaney pushed me into one of the dressing rooms and was like, “Go home. Don’t do the show. We’re good.” And then another night where we were all sitting on the couch, the house manager came back and was like, “Two minutes,” which means “get up, get ready to go onstage.” Everybody else stood up, and I just sat there and they looked at me and I was crying. They were like, “What’s going on?” I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I just sat there. That night was horrible. The staff didn’t know what to do, and somebody called my brother, who drove up from Philly and got me out of there. It was a very, very hard year.
Now, years later, how has it affected how you think of the theater?
My relationship with UCB had come to represent so much of what was good about my life but also so much of what I viewed as feeling like I had put all my eggs in one basket and it wasn’t smart. I had to move on. Still, every time Del Close Marathon comes around, and they want to put alumni in the spotlight, they now see me as someone who’s successful enough that they want me. I’ll always come back and do it.
I always say UCB has done so much good for the world of New York comedy. That being said — you’re the first person I’ve ever told this — I have mental and emotional baggage from my own personal life that I will never be able to totally separate from being 20 years old and finding that place, up until 32 years old, and hitting a real breaking point. I’ll never be able to totally dissociate that.
It’s like a codependent relationship.
One-hundred percent. I was a big in a small pond.
There was a quote in your show, “Comedy won’t save your life.” What’s that realization like that it won’t save your life but also you’re going to keep on doing it?
I remember when I first fell in love with UCB, and breaking up with my college girlfriend. A lot of the performers there were like, “Ah, that happens.” My relationship with my brother got really strained, [and with] a lot of my friends. I went all in on comedy being my life. I have about a half-dozen friends from college that I’ve made an effort to reconnect with, and effectively apologized to, saying, “We are friends because you guys forced me to remain friends.” My buddy Jeff just had a baby. That means so much more to me than headlining [the UCB stand-up show] Whiplash. A few years ago, if I were being totally honest, I would’ve prioritized doing the hot shows over making time to see my friends when they had life things going on.
Now I’ll do gigs around town and I don’t want to hang out. I want to get home before my wife goes to bed. I want to see how her day was. That’s real life. Comedy’s not real life. I have found that I need a balance. Some people don’t. I look at certain comedians who really go hard and do so many shows and sacrifice everything, and there is part of me that admires it. Part of me knows that I did that for a solid 12, 13 years and it almost broke me. I’ve become a more well-rounded human being, and if that means I don’t get invited to do a certain festival, it’s not eating me up like it would’ve a few years ago.
How much is that tied to whatever recent successes you feel you’ve had?
As we talk about it, I’m realizing for the first time, there’s part of me that feels like I’ve proven the things I needed to prove. I don’t have much of a desire to drive myself insane. Every five years I’d burn out and need to completely rebuild with the help of shrinks and medication. I would love to not do that again. If that makes the momentum slow down a little bit, okay.
It’s weird, Jason Mantzoukas pulled me aside a few years ago, and said, “Dude, just so you know, as a friend: Your show just got picked up. You married a really attractive woman. The underdog thing isn’t going to play much longer.” I was like, “No, I get it.” To me, it was never about crafting an underdog thing. It was about being honest. Anybody who was a fan of UCB, in that stretch where it was hot, I was a tragic figure. Friends of mine have said, “You were this cautionary tale for a while.” That story’s not true anymore.
You don’t feel as much like an underdog as you did?
I still feel it, but I know it doesn’t ring as true as the guy with his own TV show and an Off Broadway show produced by Judd Apatow, as it did when I was complaining about how Bobby Moynihan and Zach Woods had good jobs and I was on public access. It’s not that I don’t feel like the person I’ve always been, but now when you watch my stuff, I’m the old guy in the room. I don’t think I’m in the trenches with a lot of the 20-, 21-, 22-year-old kids the same way, but they can look at me and go, “That’s our guy. He’s not living through the thing we’re living through, but he lived through it.” I’m not going to claim things aren’t going better than they were a few years ago. They are. I’m also not going to sit there and be this guy bleeding in public just for the sake of doing it. I’m still largely an unknown commodity, but I am doing better than I was.
A lot of stand-ups have a certain persona, and it gets them to a certain point and then people are like, “Yeah, you did that already. Do something else.”
I can say so honestly it didn’t feel like a persona to be a sad sack. That’s what it felt like — being a guy whose head was spinning, wondering where he went wrong while going home to a room with no closet in Woodside, Queens. I’ve heard a little backlash about Career Suicide. A friend of mine was around some other comedians who were saying, “Oh, he’s crafting this image as the depressed guy now, and he pretends he’s this accessible dude.” Its like, “Was I crafting an image when I was cutting my arms in the dark in 2002? Was that all for the service that 14 years later that I’d have this show?”
How many times do you think you’ve done the show?
Probably coming up on 100 times, if not past it now. It started toward the end of 2014 at UCB, then Union Hall, then Just for Laughs. I did it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where I did it 26 nights. That was just before the Off Broadway run started, so that was a huge amount of fuel in the fire.
What is it like to live in this show for that long?
Not mentally healthy. The show has gotten so much better but I’ve had to steel myself to the fact that no matter how many times I do it, I’m still getting up on a stage in front of strangers and talking about a time I tried to kill myself and other times where it got close. I’ve accepted the fact that that’s never going to be 100 percent easy, at all.
And you don’t want it to be.
I don’t want it to be. Every single time I do this show, somebody either waits for me or sends me a message afterwards saying, “I lived through that,” or “someone I know did.” I can’t just show up and walk onstage and do it and then walk away. I’m opening a can of worms by making a comedy show where the logo is a picture of my face with a cartoon noose around my neck. I have to remember that the other half is always how that sits with an audience, and it’s not always going to sit well.
I remember the first time I saw it, before the first time we spoke, there was a letter on the chair, explaining that it’s okay for you to joke about these things. Now there isn’t.
This letter basically said like, “Hey, you’re going to hear some hard stuff tonight.” It was very useful as I was workshopping the show, but ultimately, you can’t start your show with an apology. Still, I remember tweeting about the show and someone tweeted back and said, “Hey, I actually find this really offensive.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Well I had a family remember kill themselves. I don’t think this is a joking matter.” I wrote back, “In case you don’t know anything about me, I’ve been depressed for years. I still take medication today. I’ve hurt myself a couple times. My approach with this show is that I want to make people laugh about it. I always felt like this was a very serious, scary thing to be kept behind closed doors. As a young person, if I didn’t feel that, it might have been easier. That being said, if you don’t feel that way, I’m sorry for your loss and I’m really sorry I brought up some stuff.” The person wrote back and went, “You know what? Hearing you say all that, go do the show. That’ll help people.”
So I don’t want to laugh at suicide or depression but I want to laugh at my experiences with it. I want to be a good comedian who’s taking risks. Once people walk in the door, they realize I’m not making fun of or trying to exploit it, and they let their guard down. Still, I’ve had to say, “I’m okay with the fact that this isn’t an easy sell or an easy show.” I don’t need my comedy to be easy.
When we last spoke, we started talking about you had dreamed you were going to die when you were 36. You’ve been 36 for half a year.
It’s weird, man. You’re really the only person I’ve told that to. I love my life with my wife. I love our house. I don’t want to die. I always have it in the back of my mind that I had that dream, but also it is strange to really feel like 36 is the first year where people have been like, “Dude, good shit. You busted through the bullshit and you made it.” I feel that way. It feels like there’s a lot of full circle closure and I don’t love that. As someone who had this weird feeling, this weird premonition at the age of 18 that his life was half over, it’s not the most comforting feeling to feel like, Well, things have come full circle and they’re all wrapping up with this nice little bow. There’s a part of me that’s like, Ah, shit, I feel this story coming to a natural conclusion the same year that I had this odd premonition about. Little scary. I hope it’s all just bullshit.
People who have been trained in improv are very good at seeing a narrative in things. Maybe it’s just your brain trained to make sense of actually random events.
If I slumped down in the middle of this interview and never woke up again, that would be the best thing for this article [laughs]. What’s funny, too, professionally I’ve had a lot of thoughts about moving away from the track I’ve been on. I walk out into the hallway after Career Suicide, and I see T-shirts and my book and my album and they all have my fucking face on them and I’m like, I think maybe I’ve done enough of that. Especially with the Gethard Show, it’s gotten a lot of respect that was never predicted. We’ve had some network people and some development people say, “We missed the boat.”
One thing I’m keen on lately is that some of the younger, weirdo comedians have let me know that I was a guy they looked to as they were starting out. That’s really an honor. There’s a part of me that’s like, Can I help friends who maybe started six, seven, eight years after me? Can I go into a behind-the-scenes role, where people won’t have to spend four years on public access to get what they’re good at in front of people?
There’s always those people like you that people in the comedy community know, but it’s hard to predict if they can be fit into the entertainment industry in a way that works for them. Like Zach Galifianakis, it worked out, but there’s a dimension where his career doesn’t work out.
There’s a reason that Zach Galifianakis said to me, “I want to be an executive producer on The Chris Gethard Show and help you sell this thing.” He famously had his VH1 show and you read that New York Times profile about him and it’s all about how he grew out a beard and was doing open mics in bowling alleys after he had been a top dog for years in stand-up. He was a pariah. He’s never said this to me, but I think he lent his name to that thing because he wanted to help me. That means so much.
When we first spoke, you were pretty convinced that your greatest legacy is that someone really famous one day will credit you. This seems to fit into that.
Yeah, I remember there was a stretch where I wanted to stop focusing so hard on myself and help other people. My therapist said it was a textbook indicator that someone is less depressed than they used to be. A big part of that is feeling like, All right, your struggles are totally valid and real, but there are other people who have struggles of their own, some that might feel smaller or bigger, but they’re all out there.
I have said facetiously my legacy will be that in ten years, some really successful people will cite me as an influence. But the truth is, that would be a dream. The Ramones never had a hit album. Confederacy of Dunces was published after the guy was fucking dead. It’s weird, I do feel like this past year I’ve started to realize like, Oh, it’s actually breaking through more than I ever expected and more people are aware of my stuff than they were and than I ever expected. That’s good, but when I would make that Velvet Underground joke.
Oh, that 10,000 people bought their album, but they all …
Started bands. I would joke that that was my work, but I’m actually very, very proud of that. It means a lot more to me than being famous would. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that once I let that go that success started actually happening for me. Because at the end of the day, I can offer a little bit more to the world by staying small, if it means I get to stay personal. My real desire now is to go behind the scenes and spread the word on some of the people that I think have so much to offer. I look at people like Jo Firestone, Julio Torres, Brett Davis, Lorelei Ramirez, Tim Dillon, all these people around New York who I think have so much special stuff to offer and I’m like, How can I use my experience, in a personal or professional way? I would love if my future became being a champion of some of the other oddballs. That would be a legacy much more worth having than the legacy I maybe wanted when I was 23.
This second season ends with you losing a wrestling match, in which the penalty was you not existing anymore. It was a perfect way for The Chris Gethard Show to end. It would almost be better if that was the series finale.
It was definitely a conscious thing. If this season is the end of The Chris Gethard Show, what’s the funniest way to end it? Me, naked in a void, banished to nonexistence. Knock on wood, it looks like we’re going to get to do some more, so I have to figure out how to re-exist. But I will always make sure to end our season in some fashion where if that’s the last anyone hears from me, then that’s a good way to go out.
This interview has been edited and condensed.