Chris Gethard Inspires While Seeking Inspiration

Photo: Desiree Navarro/WireImage

The very first thing you can read on Chris Gethard’s website, therefore the first thing you’ll read when you Google his name, is a description that is so aptly him: “Welcome to the online home of ‘comedian’ Chris Gethard – the host of The Chris Gethard Show, the Beautiful/Anonymous podcast, the star of Career Suicide, and a guy you’ve seen on television and in movies from time to time but can’t quite place!”

Beyond just listing his relevant and diverse credits – a talk show unlike any other, a podcast that dares to put at least half of the pressure of making good content onto a random caller, and a one-man comedy show that focuses on depression – Gethard also brands himself as a comedian in quotes, which seems so quintessentially him; it’s not just self-deprecation, it’s that charming brush-off of the job title that says, “I may be doing this for a living, but I’m not saying I’m any funnier than you are.”

But to hundreds upon hundreds of people who trained at the UCB theater in New York in the 2000s, Gethard is more than just a comedian, improviser, writer, host, or standup – he’s been a mentor. Gethard began training at UCB 18 years ago, got his first major opportunity as a guest writer at SNL 11 years ago, and created the first iteration of The Chris Gethard Show nine years ago. After going from the UCB stage to public access television to Fusion and then truTV last year, The Chris Gethard Show returns next week on March 20th. Gethard intends on the show, which is back to being live, to be as new and unique as it was when he first started it.

Because that’s who he is, and that’s the type of innovation that makes him excited to be a “comedian” at all.

When a show starts as a stage show, whether it’s at UCB or somewhere else, and then transforms into a TV show, and then keeps evolving as it moves around networks, what types of advantages or disadvantages does that give you?

It’s been a real roller coaster ride. I just realized the other day that it’s been around for nine years. Started at UCB almost a decade ago. It’s had so many different iterations, so many times that I thought it was completely dead on the vine, so many times I felt ready to move on but the other people involved with the show would pull me aside and say “You’ve got something really special here.” The actual amount of time put into it is kind of mind-boggling to think about. It’s funny because one of the things that makes me most proud is that when Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas came on, or Rob Corddry came on, these were the guys that when I started at UCB in 2000, they were the ones where I was like “I have to be a part of this.” And a lot of those people have said to me, “Your TV show is the one that feels like what UCB felt like back then. You’re taking a show that would’ve happened at midnight on a Wednesday when it was in an abandoned strip club in 2001, and 20 people would’ve been there and six would’ve walked out because it’s so confusing. You’re the one who got that vibe on TV.” So I’m pretty proud of that. I do feel like a lot of this show is, at the end of the day, my effort to keep alive what made me fall in love with comedy. A lot of that was just a very cracked-out, gritty experience at the UCB theater.

Your show is one where each episode feels unique, which makes each individual episode perhaps more special and “on its own” than most shows. How important is it to not oversaturate the show and the number of episodes?

I want every episode to be unique. I want every episode to be one that, when people hear what it is, they say, “I gotta fucking see that.” And when they watch it they say “I already thought it was gonna be nuts, and then it was nuts in a totally different way than I thought.” I want each to have its own ecosystem. I just have this admittedly irrational hangup about not liking how rigid talk show formats are. I just don’t like it. And I love talk shows. But I always think about my favorite moments, and it’s when things that you didn’t see coming happened. I never want to be weird for weird’s sake. I don’t want to be wacky or a renegade in a way that feels false. But if every one is different – if every one has its own spin, if every one attacks what a talk show can be from a different angle – isn’t that the ultimate way to say that I don’t like the format? The tough part is that it means exponentially more work for my crew and a ton more mental, emotional pull on me as the host, but I just don’t want to phone anything in. My great nightmare is that I’ll do something that works and I’ll say “Let’s do that five more times.” That’s when it gets stale. I’d rather overwork and do things that fail and experiments that work great and then walk away from them and never mention them again. I’m also a little bit unhinged.

You were an improv coach and teacher for a long time, with many students who cite you as their greatest mentor, but eventually you had to walk away to really pursue comedy as a full-time career. Do you miss it? What lessons of coaching and improv do you think were the most important that you learned or taught along the way?

I will say I miss teaching improv way more than I miss performing improv. I really started doing standup as my only focus about half a decade ago, but I came up during an era when it was really kind of becoming an institution. So it’ll always be at my core. But when I perform improv now I tend to feel very panicky, because I’m like “Man, I don’t practice, everyone else is really good.” Teaching I miss – I’ll tell you, the main thing that I miss is being around people who are young and hungry, because it is really inspiring.

One of the dangers of any place that’s a school, like UCB – and this is true for Second City, iO – is that there becomes this ladder, you know? You’re a level 1 student vs. you’re a level 5 student vs. you’re on a Harold team vs. you’re on a weekend team. It feels like this ladder. I think I was really good about ignoring that ladder and looking at everybody as an individual and going, “I don’t care if you’ve been doing this for 11 years. If you’re shit is getting stale you gotta own up to that. And I also don’t care if you’ve been doing this for nine months – you’re an original, and you’re saying some unique shit, and we gotta work together. And let’s throw down.”

You go into a classroom and when it’s at its best – when it’s not just regurgitating things, and it’s not doing it for the sake of doing it or trying to impress somebody or with the goal to try and win stage time – it becomes this collective experiment where the teacher gets to become this rabble-rouser and troublemaker and get a bunch of people who are hungry and want to leave their stamp on it to really start going nuts. It’s such a cool thing.

How were you a rabble-rouser in that way?

One thing I always said to my students was, “This is a young artform. This didn’t really exist in any form until The Great Depression. And longform really only got cooking in the ‘80s. It’s young. We can leave a stamp on it. We can have our names in the record books. You can be in the Hall of Fame, but you have to do something interesting and unique. I don’t ever want to pat somebody on the head because they can successfully do a Harold in the correct order of scenes. I want you to shake it up, show me something new.” With the Gethard Show, I think we have seven people on our writing staff, and five of them were all in the same class I taught in 2010. I really like linking up with people in a genuine way and saying, “You inspire me creatively, let’s go start some trouble together.” I taught this class with 27 people and it was all about really trying to remove anything that felt arbitrary from improv forms and see if you can’t build it on your feet – cause some disasters that wind up being okay on the other side of them. And five of those people are now on my writing staff helping me build a talk show that has the same ideals.

What did you want to be when you started doing comedy, and how has that changed as far as what do you want to be now?

This is gonna sound like bullshit, like “He’s trying to be Mr. Integrity and Mr. Punk Rock,” but at the end of the day, in the year 2000, there were no career opportunities from doing improv. All anybody knew was Whose Line Is It Anyway and the stuff we were doing at UCB was very different from that. When Andy Daly got MADtv, they closed the theater that night and threw a party. Can you imagine if the UCB closed down every time someone got a job now? It would be closed four or five days a week, it’s not feasible. I can tell you so honestly – and I thank God for this – I was doing it because I needed it. I was at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I was really spiraling from depression, I needed something in my life, doing comedy made me happy, and I realized, “I think I’m in real trouble if I don’t at least find a way to get on stage.” I was doing comedy with my college troupe, summer came, and I said “I can’t quit,” so I started taking the train up to New York. I had no career aspirations. I finally started seeing people around me getting jobs, and for the first seven years doing improv I just assumed I wasn’t good enough. Then SNL asked me to be a guest writer and even then I was like “I’m not good enough,” and I went in and I got the sketch to dress rehearsal and I was like “Maybe I can actually do this.” And that was seven years in.

A lot of people show up now and they know it’s what they want to do, and it took me close to a decade to decide. I finally managed to build a career that I’m pretty proud of. Moving forward, one of the things I think about a lot: I’m on a little bit of a hot streak the past few years. I’m extraordinarily thankful for that, and I’m also realistic that it’s gonna go away someday. Things get canceled, people move on, and one of the things that I really think about is: Can I flip it where my next ventures aren’t about me but about taking some of the other young weirdos, people with really unique voices, and really championing them? I’ve learned a lot about how to stick to my guns, be a weirdo, and still manage to create some opportunities. Maybe if I can help out some of the young bucks, they won’t need to spend half a decade on public access banging their heads against a wall before somebody else takes a chance on them.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Del Close Marathon, UCB’s annual festival of three straight days of improv without stopping, going on over multiple stages. But you were there near the early days, before anyone had career aspirations, as you said. What’s a DCM memory that stands out to you?

The first one I went to was DCM3. I had started taking classes before DCM2 but they didn’t even really tell us about it. It was like the second week I was taking classes. Still to this day, the ultimate DCM memory to me involved one of my great friends in this world and also my co-host on the Gethard Show, Shannon O’Neill. This must have been 2002, and Shannon and her group put together a show called Substance Abuse and the whole idea was that every person on stage would have a substance, and if the audience yells the name of that substance they had to consume that substance to keep going with the show. Everybody else’s was a joke. Somebody had a jar full of fake cum. Somebody had donuts. And Shannon was like “Fuck it. Tequila. I’m doing tequila.” And she committed, man. Every time someone in the crowd yelled “Tequila!” she started chugging from this bottle of tequila, and it ended with her just rampaging through the show, completely stealing focus, giving a long rambling monologue that was about her childhood, and also a lot about a tiger stuck inside a crystal. It was really weird from what I remember; it was many years ago. I do distinctly remember that from the edge of the stage she was vomiting into a garbage can and then turning around and returning to the scene. I thought it was one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever seen, and I still think that to this day. I was watching it, and I was like “Man, I think I am in love with the way Shannon performs, and I think I want to work with her forever.” It’s 16 years later and we’re still getting in the ring together, so mission accomplished. Watching her vomit and then turn around and be like “Alright, where were we?” – that sums up everything that DCM can and should be to me.

You have uncomfortable moments and conversations on both The Chris Gethard Show and Beautiful/Anonymous. One would even say uncomfortable moments are part of your “brand.” What would be the most interesting, uncomfortable public conversation you could have?

Wow. I mean that is… This is tough. I’ll put this out there in a delicate way. I’m not trying to put anybody on the spot but, uh, you know, everybody has relationships that come and go in their lives, and there are two different people in my life that I can think of that I was intensely close with and we don’t speak anymore, for different reasons. It would be really such a horrible idea but fascinating television to have those conversations on live TV. That being said, I would never do that because I respect the privacy of other people. But we all know, there’s people from our past – thinking of an old friend, thinking of a college roommate, maybe some people I dated in the past – you go a decade and you don’t talk and you wonder why those feelings still exist, even if they still do. Most people never resolve those. I think it would be fascinating to resolve them on live TV, but other people tend to keep things like their emotional well-being in mind, so I don’t want to drag them into this.

You want to do things that are interesting and exciting to you, that’s a key part of your body of work. So when looking at other people’s work today, in all forms of art, what is “exciting” to you in 2018?

I think that’s an awesome question. One of the reasons I stay in New York is because you’re always around so many other types of arts and it’s easy to just get lost in it. Lately I‘ve been really diving headfirst back into the world of Brazilian jiu jitsu. There’s a teacher at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York named John Danaher, he’s leading this whole group of fighters named the Danaher Death Squad and they’re revolutionizing how that world works. I actually went and signed up for classes mostly because man, if there’s innovation like that happening in New York, I want to be around it. So that’s oddly been a thing that’s inspiring for me. As far as music goes, my friend Jeff Rosenstock has been on such a tear and he really does things the right way. He’s put out three solo albums in recent memory and all of them are really great. I love following him and the things he’s doing. As far as comedy goes, I’m endlessly inspired by Jo Firestone. There was a stretch where I felt like, “Man, I’m kind of spiraling in this direction where things are getting weirder and weirder,” and then Firestone shows up and I was like, I’m not nearly weird enough. I’m chasing this beautifully strange comedian.” Those are some of the names popping in my head right now, but I wake up at 6 in the morning four days a week to go get my ass handed to me in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and a lot of it is just because I want to be around innovation. So I stay in New York, man – there’s always something happening and it’s up to me to go find it.

The Chris Gethard Show returns to truTV next Tuesday, March 20th at 11:00pm.

Chris Gethard Inspires While Seeking Inspiration