The TCGS Exit Interview: A Chat Between Chris Gethard and Brett Davis

Chris Gethard and Brett Davis. Photo: Mindy Tucker/Courtesy of Mindy Tucker

Earlier this month, Chris Gethard announced that his long-running show, The Chris Gethard Show, had come to an end after nearly a decade. TCGS has gone through several iterations over the years, starting as a live show at the Upright Citizens Brigade before moving to New York public access on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, followed by cable runs on Fusion and truTV. From the time Diddy paid a visit to the show to the now-legendary dumpster episode, TCGS has consistently proven to be the best home for comedy-nerd outcasts with ideas too weird for other television outlets — a sensibility in which Gethard takes great pride. As he put it in his Facebook post reflecting on the truTV cancellation, “We were always a little too weird, or a little too ahead of our time.”

To commemorate The Chris Gethard Show’s impressive run, we asked Gethard to sit down with fellow New York–based comedian Brett Davis, who took over Gethard’s public access time slot in 2015 with the launch of his own show, The Special Without Brett Davis. Gethard and Davis chatted about everything from TCGS’s cancellation to the time a character Davis played on TCGS inspired a lawsuit to what Gethard, who continues to perform live and host the podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, plans to do in the next phase of his career.

So you’ve ended TCGS. How does it feel?
That’s a question with a few different answers, you know? I can say, right out of the gate, the overwhelming feeling is like there’s a weight off the shoulders in many ways. It’s a thing that I had to really fight quite hard for over the years, and obviously I did not do that all myself but was sort of the captain of the ship. It does feel like I can let out a breath for the first time in a few years — the pressure cooker of trying to hold it together is gone.

I think I was pretty honest about this when I announced the [cancellation], but we were having some real disagreements with the network, and our numbers were very low, and I think all the disagreements were due to the fact that they had a lot of ideas towards changing things in order to get those numbers higher. I really wanted to get the numbers higher, I would have loved it, but it kind of felt like at a certain point, what’s the level of sacrifice when it’s no longer the thing that I built? It was kind of approaching that point where the writing was on the wall of, like, You’ve gotta change it in some bigger ways. To me it just felt like, Well, if that’s the case and we’re already kind of tense at times, let’s just move along.

So I’m happy to have those weights off the shoulders. It’s been very touching to see there’s been an outpouring of love. It’s hard to not get caught up in some of the negative things you see online — some of them from people who never liked the show, and also some former fans of the show who maybe took it as an opportunity to dance on the grave a little bit. That’s a little tough, but overall I would say it feels really positive and like a massive amount of tension released.

I was there at the last show. The vibe backstage felt like the end, but no one was going to say it was the end. So what happened between that night and when you went on Facebook? Was it just you kind of processing it, or was it another round of notes from the network and being like, This wasn’t where we wanted to go?
I guess I’ll just give the full-disclosure timeline. I actually pulled a lot of our writers aside before we were even halfway through these last ten episodes and said, “I want to let you guys know that if other jobs come up, you should take them. I have a feeling I might be done after this. I don’t know if this is going to be a long-term thing.”

I had a pretty bad panic attack heading into week two. It felt like the environment had become one that was not the healthiest, obviously, if you’re having panic attacks, and I don’t throw that phrase around lightly. I told J.D. [Amato] and Noah [Forman] and Dru [Johnston] first, those guys who have been working on it for seven years, then quietly rolled out — told some of the EPs, told the rest of the writers, started to spread the word quietly. Certainly for the writers, they can get a lot of offers and people try to poach them sometimes. I told them, around week three or four, “Hey, take those gigs when they come up, I won’t be mad at you. Go find something more long-term.”

So we were kind of planning on it being the end. It started to turn a little bit towards the back end of the season where I was having some fun again, and I started to say, “Maybe if they’re still into it, and we can figure out how to not butt heads, maybe we should do it again?” And my wife Hallie [Bulleit], who’s on the show, pulled me aside and was like, “Hey, I don’t want to lose my job or cost anybody their jobs, but just as your wife, you need to not dive all-in on that attitude. Get to the end of the season and think about it.” Which I thought was really great advice.

And then truTV sat me down, it was two of the people at the top of the food chain. They took me and my manager out to lunch, and we went over everything. I am extraordinarily thankful for the opportunity, and I was able to let them know that, and they were able to let me know how they were feeling. It was clear that they were proud of the show, and we all were sort of throwing our hands up like, “Yeah, we just can’t get the numbers to catch.”

The real big thing was that, partway through the season, we were told that we should start preparing for the show to be shifted to a half hour instead of an hour, and that was a big discussion we had to think about week to week. I just told them we had tried a half hour our first season on Fusion, and it felt a little bit more like a best-of than fully fleshed-out episodes. I said, “I don’t think I can do The Chris Gethard Show at half an hour. I don’t think a half an hour can support the full cast, and musical guests, and bits, and interactivity.” I told them at that point it’s just not The Chris Gethard Show, and they said, “If you want to think of other ideas that are kind of the descendants of the show, or another step that’s a little smaller for a half hour, let us know, because we’d really love to hear those ideas.”

It was a very pleasant meeting. I sat down and thought about an idea that was a little closer to a televised version of my podcast than the Gethard Show. And then eventually they were like, “You know what? We think this isn’t for us.” And I was like, “Yeah, I think that’s totally fine.” That’s part of why I didn’t announce it — I didn’t want to let the whole cast and crew know and then turn around a few weeks later and go, “I’m doing a smaller version of the show that’s just me, and I cut you guys out.”

It’s worth noting that a lot of these people were hired for the TV show, but a lot of them were there in the public-access days, and you never really see that. So these are people who are committed.
Oh, absolutely. And a handful of them are from the UCB days. Jonny and Bill from the band, Shannon [O’Neill], they were all with me. I remember 2009 UCB, Bethany [Hall] came the next month. The people have always been the most intensely important thing to me — the people I get to work with, the people who watch the show — far more than any other aspect. I wanted to make sure I could tell them all the entire story. I thought it would come off as real cheap if I was like, “Hey guys, so the show is canceled,” and then a month later I was like, “Hey so I got my own show on the same network.” It would just put so many questions in their minds and leave such a shitty taste in everybody’s mouth, so I wanted to have the full picture. This is also, I would have to imagine, one of the more ill-advised, thorough answers to a cancellation process that anyone will ever see. It really is like every step of how we were canceled.

You are extremely thorough, and I think that’s what people like about you.
Well thank you so much. You know, what I lack in laugh-out-loud humor on a consistent basis I make up for in being thorough. We all know that.

Let’s say the TV show never happened. It’s just crazy that there was a TV show that was born out of this UCB show that had people dumped into ice, people throwing actual human feces.
Yeah. Thanks for bringing up the feces one, too. That was a moment that wasn’t televised that I think more people should know about. Murf [Meyer] did do diarrhea in an adult diaper and then throw the diarrhea at Dru Johnston. That did happen. That’s real.

I didn’t see this. I heard many firsthand accounts, and then I was there the week after when you came back. While you were doing your public-access show you did a test, or sort of a one-off UCB show, and the vibe in that room, knowing what happened but not being there, it was like everyone had an orgy, and now everyone’s like, “Oh hey, how’s it going?” It was crazy.
Absolutely. Certainly a level of something had been breached in a way that hadn’t before. I still, all these years later, don’t know if that was a positive thing that brought us even closer together or a disturbing look at the fact that we were taking things too far. But we brought it to another level in one direction or the other.

So public access — we’re both familiar with having a public-access show.

I don’t know if you can legally talk about everything …
[Laughs.] Yeah. I think you might be referring to the lawsuit that you know about, and that you are weirdly … you’re not named in the lawsuit in any way, nor do you have to worry about it, but you did once portray a character who had some things in common with some people who are suing me. This is another thing that is not known. I still don’t know if that case is being thrown out, but I’m being sued in federal court. These are some things I pulled off during my time in public access, that is true.

I don’t know if you can get into the specifics of this lawsuit, but it’s worth noting.

Manhattan Neighborhood Network is a place where anyone can come in, and if they have the gumption and the time, they can get a show on the air. Which most people don’t feel like doing. I might not have done it if you hadn’t helped usher us in with crew and stuff. The other people there are very determined, and a lot of them are very nice, but a few of them are really insane. And you had a run-in with one. So do you want to just paint that picture?
Well, I think the best way to paint it actually involves you. There’s a handful of things that people remember from our public-access days — a handful of things that maybe exceeded the level of awareness we were getting on a regular basis. Zach Galifianakis coming in to do haircuts was a big one, and a few other things along the way. But I think one thing that a lot of people heard about was your performance as Smith, a character where the conceit was that you were playing a very disgruntled person who had another show on public access, and you didn’t like me. You felt like I was a Hollywood interloper, you were very conspiracy-driven, and you placed me at the center of those conspiracies. And I know that one thing that is okay to say is that there are some people who fit that description. You were basing that character off some real-life emails I had showed you from people who, you can vouch for me, having seen all those emails, relentlessly hated me and very often sent out emails about how they didn’t like me to dozens and dozens of people involved at public access, hoping to lead some sort of rebellion against me, almost, I think it’s fair to say. And yeah, now it’s a court case.

Even now when I do The Special, I take a beat before talking about you in the way that you wouldn’t necessarily want to bring up certain political things with family members. They’re like, “Oh, is this like The Chris Gethard Show?” and I’m just like, “It’s similar.” I just don’t know who to trust immediately.
Yeah. You gotta watch your step. I mean, some of the behind-the-curtain stuff I’m really glad to say out loud now, because there’s some things that people don’t know. People would show up at the studio sometimes and ask me questions and then they’d just turn around and leave mid-sentence, and I’d realize, Oh, these are people who someone sent to, actually in an espionage way, get me to give information. Like I remember one time someone walking up to me and asking me where I lived. And I said, “Queens,” and the guy was like, “Oh cool,” and turned around and ran out the door. And I was like, What the hell was that about? And then I went, Oh, it’s the Manhattan Neighborhood Network — you need to have Manhattan residents to have a show. What they didn’t realize was that we had like half a dozen Manhattan residents who trained and got certified who were on the crew of our show, and technically on public access, I was just the host of a slot that someone else had registered for and that person was a Manhattan resident. But that type of stuff was happening all the time of people trying to find these “Gotcha!” moments to get me off the air at MNN.

But all that being said, I think you would agree with me that MNN is one of the best places for creative people in the world. It’s still funny because people still think of public access as this weird outdated system, but no — it actually is, I think, the biggest bastion of free speech I have ever been a part of, and I can’t imagine that there’s a bigger one out there that I could someday be a part of. Public access is the best place — MNN at least. I don’t know about other cities and how it works with them, but MNN? Incredible place. Supportive place. Weird place.

You are also supportive of young comics like myself. I don’t know if I would be wherever the hell I am now without your support. There are people who’ve been given their first job in comedy by you, and now they are an executive producer at HBO, or a writer for SNL, or a writer for The Tonight Show. How do you feel about that? At what point were you like, I’m going to be the champion of young people?
I think it’s always just been my instinct. The fact that I was able to give people opportunities quickly became my favorite thing about our time on cable. The fact that we put stuff as weird as we did on a national cable platform is insane, and the one thing that I was able to do was Oh, I can hire people now. All these people I’ve seen who are young and good but weird, it’s like, Oh cool, maybe they can have a place.

I think so often about how when I was starting out at UCB, Conan O’Brien was in town and on his show back then, they sometimes did character bits, and I started getting paid to dress up as a page or a Dutch boy on his show. And it’s these little things where it’s like, Oh, somebody with a platform is letting some of us pay our rent a little bit, but also kind of hold our heads up high and be like, “Cool, this is something we should keep doing. I was mentored by John Ross Bowie, and I love that Owen Burke was executive producer on our show because he was the artistic director at UCB who really helped fan the flames on me and helped me find some confidence. I remember the people who mentored me, and I just love being able to do that for other people. I just really remember the feeling of being a younger comedian who was kind of an outlier for being experimental and weird and how that could feel lonely or hopeless. I remember that feeling of Okay, I’m going to sit down and write a packet for a show, but everything I do that people like is completely insane and no one would ever put it on TV.

I wish I knew what that felt like.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I’m sure you’ve written a couple in your day where it’s like, I gotta sit down and write 15 monologue jokes? That’s not what I do. There are many things about TCGS where I’m like, Thank God I get to put that phase of my life to bed, but moving forward, I would say the big one that I hope I find new ways to retain is just finding ways to work with people who I’m excited about and who I think deserve bigger opportunities. One of my main goals is that, because of what we did with our show, maybe some people who are the other young weirdos don’t have to bang their head against the wall as often as I did because maybe we can open the door a little bit for them — either as an example or me going, “This person is really fucking good, and someone needs to listen!”

Name names. Who’s your new favorite? Who are you excited about right now?
There’s a bunch of people. Some of these people are not the newest people on the scene, but I think you can vouch for me that anytime I talk to anybody who’s in the comedy world, I’m like, “Who should I know? Who are the people coming up?” It’s one of my favorite things to hear about. I think Carmen Christopher is going to be massively huge. He’s just too funny. He’s got funny in his bones and he wants to conquer every room. I’ve seen that attitude show up in New York before, and I’m like “Yup, he’s gonna be good.” I think Clare O’Kane is just too fucking funny and too fucking cool — she’s gonna blow up, I’m calling it now. I think Martin Urbano is doing such inventive stuff; he’s such a likable guy.

This is someone who’s been around for years and it’s so funny because I kind of watched from afar but we never did shows with each other, but Christi Chiello is someone who I always thought was really funny. I knew her through stuff she did with you on The Special, she did a bunch of stuff with Lorelei Ramirez who is also so great, and then I saw her on Roast Battle, and I was like, Whoa, she’s taking some of these dudes apart. That’s always been a big indicator to me of when somebody’s about to pop out of New York is when they can do stuff as versatile as a one-woman show at Ars Nova but also go take on some aggressive dudes in a roast battle. That versatility always stands out.

That was the first thing that made me really know I have to figure out what Julio Torres is up to. I had been hearing his name for a while and it was always like, “Oh, you’d really like Julio.” I poked around and he was doing some really interesting stuff, and then I saw one night Julio was headlining at like Carolines, and I was like, Man, this is someone who’s outgrowing the artsy Brooklyn stuff. He’s taking some chances on some stuff that’s harder and scarier, and I can see that bubble up and I recognize some of these patterns, being 20 years in at this point. Those are some of the names that come to mind. Then, of course, some people who are blowing up now. I love how much hype Dan Licata got for writing that episode of Joe Pera’s show.

It was incredible.
So good! And it was also so beautiful because you know they’re best friends, and I feel like that episode was the Rosetta Stone that explained to people how they should watch that show. It’s just such a beautiful testament to their talent and their friendship. I love that gang — [Conner] O’Malley and [Jo] Firestone, Licata, Pera. A good gang of people that we’ve all known forever. Why the fuck wouldn’t they get big opportunities? I love what Julio and Anna [Drezen] are doing. Gary Richardson is my fucking favorite person — just the nicest, funniest guy. I’m just so happy to see everybody working and doing good, and there’s more coming. If you’re out there and you’re looking to hire a young weirdo, I’m always happy to tell you who the good ones I’ve been noticing are. So get in touch, Hollywood.

I did my Macaulay Culkin Show last night.
I saw he tweeted at you.

Yeah, Macaulay Culkin finally responded to a show that is called the Macaulay Culkin Show that I’ve been doing for over five years.
It’s exciting! It’s your Diddy moment. He’s gonna show up. It’s your Diddy moment.

He said he would. I’m gonna hold it to him. What we do [on the show] is we put 25 performers all in one bill and say, “Hey you’ve got four minutes,” and just watching one after another, I’m in such awe of this thing. And I was kind of bummed out, because a lot of these people that were regulars weren’t available because they’re doing cool things, but then I watched and I’m like, “No, this is still a very solid show and maybe the best one we’ve had so far.” And it’s just like, you know, if anybody is bored by the comedy scene, they’re just not paying attention.
I know I keep saying stuff from the perspective of an old man, but it comes in these waves. There was a wave that I was kind of at the tail end of with UCB and then it kind of transitioned over and was at the tail end of the whole Rififi thing. And then there was a little bit of a stretch where I think TCGS was holding down the fort as a home for the weirdos. But then Firestone showed up with all her crazy shit, and then you showed up with all your crazy shit, and then all those dudes moved down from Chicago at the same time. It just goes in these waves, right?

I’ve always felt like I’m the youngest brother of one scene and the oldest brother of the next. That’s always been my whole life. I feel like I was just born at an era where I was tagging along with the 15-year-olds when I was 10 and also playing with the 7-year-olds when I was 10. You just see people pass the torch, and I think as that recent wave of Brooklyners moves on, it’s just gonna create more space for that next wave. And you see it already — you see people coming up.

I want to put this button on TCGS: I’m just so thrilled that for a lot of people on IMDb, their first gig is going to say the name of my show in it. I’m trying to send up signal flares to the industry at large that there’s so many good people in New York — so many good, inventive people. And I told my writers room over and over again: “Conan did this for my generation, I want to do it for the next generation. “

And I’d say, if you want who’s next, look at The Chris Gethard Show. But if you want the real hot ones, check out The Special.
Oh, absolutely.

Nobody watches my show, but they will look back at this IMDb page that I have amassed, and it will be telling.
Your show is great, and I love it.

It depends on the week.
But that’s how I’ve always felt about my show. It’s so funny for me — people romanticize the public-access years so much, but if you go back and watch my show’s public-access episodes on YouTube, they’re extraordinarily inconsistent, and I would say, for long stretches, more bad than good episodes. I think when you’re doing it that way, and it’s about making it and putting it out there, whether or not it’s good is not as important as the fact that it exists. It’s really hard to make something good in that environment. You don’t have time or money. It’s hard. And you guys put in so much more work on what you do than we ever did, and I’m always impressed by it.

Well, thank you. I will say, we’re about to surpass your run on public access.
That’s nuts! That’s nuts, because it felt like we were there forever.

How many episodes did you do?
I mean, I know that at the end of truTV, we had just broken 200 episodes total from when we started on public access. And we did 47 on cable. So we must have done 150-something.

We’re in the 140s now.
Take the crown! Please do.

I don’t know if it’s a crown. It’s a public-access crown that I have to put back at the end of the night and let someone else pick up and use for their stuff. And it’s dirty and kind of bruised.
I remember when I started there, one of the reasons they let me have my show — and they kind of helped shepherd me through the whole process of getting my show, which I think is one of the things that makes people pissed off at me — but they were like, “We just feel like this is a cool thing, and maybe other comedians would use public access if you came in and showed them stuff you could do with it.” And I really wish more people would. Because again, I look at what you’re doing, and a lot of the people that I found out about, I found out about because of what you were doing. There was one week on The Chris Gethard Show when I had to miss, and you filled in as Smith and did an alternate-reality episode, and I learned about so many good people. You know what? Speaking of that episode of “Truth or Myth With Smith,” here’s the name we really need to be talking about: Is Anna Drezen going to hold all our fates in her hands in a few years?

I hope so. She is a genius.
She is a genius, and a fucking badass. I always tell young comedians to look at what she did. She didn’t get involved in one little corner and get territorial. She did the Brooklyn shows, she did UCB shows, she was writing for Reductress, stayed tight with her NYU crew — she just went on any stage that would have her, wrote anywhere that would let her. Surprise, surprise, she’s one of the hardest-working people I have ever seen, and it has worked out for her.

When you kind of start coming up in comedy, you start to map everybody and where they are, and Anna Drezen was always, Oh, she is an island to herself, and she will zip around from one scene to another and never feel out of place because she’s so funny.
If I were starting out in New York today, I’d study what she did. She’s the person I would try to harass into getting a weird awkward lunch with me. Sorry, Anna — sorry for ruining your inbox now, but I just think you have done so good and I am such a big fan. I was actually so mad when she got hired [at Saturday Night Live] because I was doing a ton of shows with her the summer beforehand and was just really realizing what a powerhouse she was. I was grooming her to be a writer for TCGS and then she got hired before I could have some time with her. But onto bigger and better — she can skip us. Too good for us! She deserves it.

I’ll end with this: You once promised, in your public-access days, that you would do Sandwich Night forever. You held true to that. You’ve come back on The Special and thrown Sandwich Night. I don’t know whose domain that is, it’s kind of its own thing. But will you be back for Sandwich Night this year?
Well, I said I would be, and if you’ll have me and you’re still going, I’ll do it. I kind of assumed that when you move on to greener pastures is when it’ll end. But I know that they’re going to all hold me to it, man. You know all those kids out there want Sandwich Night.

Yeah, maybe expect to keep doing Sandwich Night for a while.
I also feel bad. When I gave you the spot, I said you can have the spot with the contingency that I can do Sandwich Night. But you’ve been so nice about honoring that.

No, it’s a treat. It’s a week off for us.
I always felt like I was an interloper coming back, but I’m glad to give you the week off. You know, at some point I’d like to see my family around Thanksgiving weekend though.

Well, you made a promise.

I will say thanks, and sorry to the GethHeads out there that we do put on our own spin on your Sandwich Night.
Dude, I love that. Things have got to evolve — they have got to change or else they get boring. My life is changing night now. It’s time to maybe shake off the past and see what else is out there. I’m excited to do so. And if Sandwich Night continues to evolve, I will be very thrilled about that. Because we can’t really keep doing a thing where people eat sandwiches on public access forever. We can’t.

Your weird outlet, TCGS, is now gone, so are all the other things going to get weirder?
I’ll tell ya, I have been pretty happy doing my podcast and doing stand-up, and I think that the weird stuff, the art stuff, the experimental stuff is a little bit more of a young person’s game. I know I am not ancient, but I am pretty happy with the stuff that I am doing, and I would really love to be in a position to maybe work behind the scenes and help some of these other lions, weirdos, bucks who have these creative voices. I would love to find chances to help behind the scenes and fan the flames of what they are doing. I think my weirdness will express itself less with me being the public face of stuff, hopefully, and more with me maybe creating some opportunities where I can help shepherd through some of the people who I love so much.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Brett Davis Interviews Chris Gethard About the End of TCGS