In the opening minutes of his new HBO special, Chris Gethard regrets that he doesn’t have some inciting incident that he can blame for his lifelong depression. “I hate to say it,” he says, “but sometimes people just break.” Afterwards, he pauses for a moment, and you can almost hear people in the audience thinking to themselves, Wow, this got heavy real fast. But Gethard knows people are going to have that reaction and swiftly breaks the tension: “Welcome to a comedy show!” It’s such a great way to set the tone for a show as important and layered as Career Suicide, which originally had an off-Broadway run back in the fall. This is Gethard’s way of assuring everyone that yes, they are at a comedy show, and yes, things are going to get serious, but to trust him anyway: For the next 90 minutes, he has their back.
Career Suicide is hilarious, deeply sad, and ultimately cathartic to watch. Over the course of 90 minutes, Gethard forges an intimate level of trust with the audience. He performs the show without any ego, and the raw honesty he gives off must feel like a gift to anyone watching who’s lost someone to suicide or who may be struggling themselves. He doesn’t go for any cheap laughs, nor does he sugarcoat the tumultuous periods in his life. He simply invites the audience to listen while he tells them his story. It’s like theater; by him opening up, the audience gets to feel that sense of release too.
Gethard really delves into the specific and complicated ways that people struggling with depression think. One of the recurring themes he brings up is the feeling of needing to constantly justify his mental illness. He says he was nervous to even tell people when he first went into therapy because he was afraid that they’d react negatively, or that they’d mock him for getting help in the first place. (“You think you’re better than me?” he says, imitating the people he grew up with while affecting a Jersey accent.) For a long time, he was terrified to talk to his family, too. In one of the special’s best moments, Gethard makes you feel like you’re in the room with him right before he tells his mother that he’s suicidal. “I realize that this is the last moment in my mom’s life that she gets to think she has a normal kid.”
Career Suicide smartly points out that suicide has a “branding” problem because people always view it as “the coward’s way out.” Gethard’s longtime shrink, Barb, features very prominently in the show, but he also speaks about his experiences with a previous psychiatrist who first began prescribing him medication. This “quack” doctor, as he calls him, didn’t impress him from the beginning, but once Gethard moved out to California and realized he was running out of his medication, he grew desperate and called him up. The doctor repeatedly ignored his messages because he was no longer a patient of his. (Talk about the coward’s way out.) Toward the end of the special, Gethard talks about another depressive episode of his where he wound up in Weehawken, New Jersey and called Barb to help him through it. In contrast to the first psychiatrist he had who failed to pick up the phone, Barb is there for him when he needs it. And while Gethard jokes that Barb’s response – “We’ll talk about it on Thursday” – aren’t necessarily the best words to say to someone with a suicidal history, he later realizes that it was exactly what he needed to hear. As he later puts it (beautifully, I think), “You can’t predict what will break you and you don’t know what will save you.”
I’m so glad that Gethard also takes time in Career Suicide to dispel the pernicious myth about depression being some magical gateway to creativity. He says that after starting medication, people would tell him, “You won’t be funny unless you’re a Sylvia Plath-esque tortured soul improv kid.” Gethard refuses to buy into that thinking: “That creativity thing is the biggest bullshit myth that we allow to perpetuate.” In our recent interview with Gethard, he expounded on exposing this “sad clown” trope that we often see romanticized in art and comedy: “There are some people who say their mental health struggles are a major part of their creativity. I’d say to them, more power to ya, but I’d prefer to be alive and unfunny than funny and heading toward certain death.” Gethard’s personal philosophy is one more people should take to heart—that whatever helps make you a healthier person will ultimately make you better at whatever you want to do.
If Gethard has built any sort of consistent comedic brand for himself, it’s as one of the most empathetic performers of his time. It’s that same vulnerability his fans can hear on his hit podcast, Beautiful/Anonymous. Contrary to whatever bullshit Ivanka Trump says in her new book, you can’t “cultivate” authenticity—it’s something you either have or you don’t. Gethard most definitely has it. Plenty of comics are great at self-deprecating, and he’s certainly among them, but how many performers bare their soul as much as he does? When you add the frank discussion of mental illness, that list gets even shorter.
There are so many lines that have stayed with me since seeing Career Suicide live, and I found they resonated just as much after watching it a second time. One of my favorites is when he talks about driving out to California and following a nearby freight train. “I realized for the first time since the age of 11, I’m not worried about anything…zoom out just a little bit and you won’t be able to make out my car from the asphalt of the road…zoom out just a little bit more and all of it blends together. None of it makes any sense. And it occurs to me that I’m small and I do not matter. And that is beautiful.” But as this special proves, Gethard is anything but small. Career Suicide is a master class in storytelling.