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Chris Gethard’s Slow Transition From UCB Improviser to Comedy Cellar Stand-up

Chris Gethard. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and photo by Getty Images

For about a decade, Chris Gethard, whose new self-help book/memoir, Lose Well, is in stores now, was not only one of the best improvisers at the UCB Theatre in New York, but he was one of the performers most closely associated with it. Then he stopped performing there as much, and then at all. Around the same time, you’d see him doing stand-up much more. It seemed like a harsh transition at the time, but now, six years later — after an album, Comedy Central half hour, and his one-man show Career Suicide, airing on HBO — it just seems as it is. He is even performing at the Comedy Cellar, the comedy club’s comedy club, which has found itself in the spotlight of late, after Louis C.K. performed there multiple times without acknowledging what he did. And for Gethard, all of this change started with one joke that taught him how to write Chris Gethard jokes.

That joke, and so much more, is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who write them. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You were known as an improviser in the city for so long, specifically at the UCB. How did you transition into stand-up?
My transition into solo work came in 2006. I started a storytelling show at UCB, and in the course of doing that show, we would invite a lot of the Rififi scene. Then those people ran shows and would invite me to come tell stories on their shows. What I found is I would go and I would bomb, because my long stories felt like stand-up that was all set-up and no punch lines. I realized, Oh, I have not paid my dues. I actually took a few years and voluntarily went back and did a whole bunch of bar shows. Around 2008 is when I really locked in and was like, I want to conquer this. And then I largely abandoned improv, in about 2012, and have focused primarily on stand-up as my live performing ever since then.

What was it like leaving the UCB?
There were some big, major changes with UCB. I helped lead the charge on those changes. I wrote the curriculums for the schools. I always say, when I found it in 2000, it was punk rock and at a certain point it became New Wave — still very cool, still very hip, but not grungy, not underground. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a place that I would feel totally comfortable as a 19-year-old, was one thing I was realizing at the age of 32. I was burnt out on it. Also, if I’m being a little arrogant, it had started to feel a little too easy. I knew what worked at UCB. I could be on my phone backstage until the second they called my name and I could go out there and I could crush. And I am just of a mentality where that’s not okay. If I’m not working hard, what am I doing? I didn’t want to become the cliché archetype of the improviser who didn’t know when to hang it up.

I saw you perform at the Comedy Cellar recently, which you know because I was almost kicked out. I was taking notes during your set and they thought I was stealing your jokes, which would be very funny because it would be me stealing a joke about having your last name and how it spells out “get hard.”
That’s a funny one too because I only tell that at clubs. That’s my cheap “get the club audience to shut up” joke — I tell a “get hard” joke. That’s the least hip joke anyone will ever see me do. But if it’s a club and they’re all drunk and its 12:30 at night and they’ve seen a couple famous people, I tell the get hard joke just to get them to shut up.

I had heard you say that you didn’t audition to perform at the Comedy Cellar until after Career Suicide came out. Which is crazy.
I’ve been told by many comics there that it is crazy.

And you’ve said getting passed at the Cellar is possibly a bigger deal for you than having an HBO special. Why?
Yeah, in many ways. It’s the most competitive comedy stage in the world. Despite being a pretty laid back, thoughtful dude, if you’re a hard worker, and you want to keep growing as an artist, you need to find the challenging environments. I can’t imagine an environment more challenging for a comedian, let alone a comedian known for being a sensitive storyteller, than the Comedy Cellar. My stuff should not work there. I very often go up at 1 in the morning. It shouldn’t work for me to tell a seven-minute-long story about how I got bullied. The fact that it does feels like an accomplishment. I don’t think there are many other stages that offer the same challenge.

You said to Todd Barry one time that performing at clubs is the only way you know if your material is actually funny. What do you mean by that?
I don’t think jokes are truly good unless they’re universal. I want to know that they work in Bushwick, where everybody else is also an artist. I want to know they work down in Gowanus, where everybody probably listens to NPR. I want to know they work at the Stand, where there is a lot more Jersey and Long Island people. I want to make sure they work in the clubs where it’s all German tourists. I want to make sure it’s the Cellar, where it’s this rabid hungry crowd. I want to make sure they work at UCB, where everybody is hip and analytical. I want to make sure they work at colleges, where they might get offended. I want to make sure they work at clubs in every corner of the country. I want to just make sure my shit is universal. And clubs are the piece of the process where I know where they’re funny. Brooklyn is the part where I know that they’re thoughtful and intellectual. The road is where I know that they actually speak to people.

But what is it about clubs that make them better tests of things being funny? I ask because comedy clubs are built on an idea that funny is funny, which implies this one place is universal, even though it’s actually an incredibly specific sample. It’s specifically a power-structure-maintaining philosophy. Funny is funny — by that we mean funny is what we already do. Funny is funny — that’s why we have seven men on the lineup.
And I don’t know if I agree with that. I think I agree with that in a much more layered way than “Funny is funny — comedians can say what they want.” Like, yeah you can. Also, people can get offended and you can’t be a baby when they do. If you just think you’re allowed to say whatever you want because it’s funny, sure, go do it. I support your right to do that. But then don’t turn around and pretend that someone’s violating your rights when it hurts your feelings. They’re also allowed to have your feelings hurt. You’re running that risk, so the respect has to run in both directions. And if you’re the artist, you’re the one who is more culpable. If someone gets offended at you and rolls their eyes and tells you to fuck off, and you’re allowed to do what you want, but you’re actually violating the contract that you’re setting up. That being said, while I don’t buy into that power structure, I do know at the Cellar that there’s times where I will go up between Roy Wood Jr. and Dan Soder. And that’s why I know my shit’s funny. Because if they watch Roy Wood Jr., and I can still get laughs, and they watch Dan Soder right afterwards and they remember me in any way? I’m funny. And those are good hardworking people with great jokes.

A few weeks ago Louis C.K. returned to the Comedy Cellar. After much hubbub about it and the club considering their policy about him, he performed there again. Neither time he addressed the things that he did.
And that is my big problem to jump into it. Do I believe in second chances? Sure. And someone of Louis’s skill level — I think if he was to direct his energy in positive proactive ways [he] could actually speak to everything that’s happened and everything that he’s responsible for in a way that actually could further dialogue in a positive direction. The fact that he’s chosen not to is not only disappointing, but because he will not take responsibility for it, then the rest of us have to.

I haven’t been there long enough to wag my finger, but I’m not the only one. I do want it to go on record that there are a number of comics at the Comedy Cellar who feel this way or similarly. People who will tweet at me, “Why would you still perform there?” The selfish side of it is, well, I’ve worked for 16 years, before I felt like I even deserved the opportunity. Should I trade that in because this guy did some things that are awful? I do think that when I’m thinking outside of myself, there’s a part of me that thinks, Is that a better place if I leave? When I see Ted Alexandro go up and put out a video of him sticking it to the Comedy Cellar, sticking it to Louis and doing it on a Comedy Cellar stage, I think it is for the best that Ted is there right now and getting stage time to do that. When people think the name Gary Gulman, they do not think your traditional stereotype of closed-minded comic. Judah Friedlander — good-hearted people who I think echo my own thoughts. I will say, in defense of the Comedy Cellar, I was very happy to see that Ted walked up there, tore them up, and put out a video of it, and they were totally happy to take that criticism from another one of their comics.

When you reserve a ticket at the Comedy Cellar, currently at the top it says, “swim at your own risk,” which I found to be a very funny and bizarrely hostile way of positioning yourself to the audience. If you look at what you’ve done with your comedy, which is create a safe space with your audience, it is controlled and you are the one put into a more chaotic situation where all the uncertainty is placed on you. So, how do you feel now performing in a space where that is the expectation of the audience?
I go back and forth. I don’t think it is as cut and dry an answer as people would like it to be. If my comedy hurts anybody’s feelings it is generally my own. But I don’t know if I fully believe that a comedy space has to be a safe space for the audience. Some of the most brilliant comedy I have seen over the years involves people saying things that the audience initially vehemently disagreed with. Everybody always puts Richard Pryor on such a pedestal, and if you look at a lot of his best stuff, I don’t think that whole room was feeling safe when those bits started. Maybe not even when they ended. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle too. George Carlin. Certainly a lot of people show up knowing who those guys are and knowing what they are going to get, but I’m sure there are a lot of people that the first time they saw that stuff, it made them mad, but it was so funny that they had to consider the points behind it. That is actually an incredibly powerful thing.

So, I don’t know that comedy needs to be a safe space for an audience. But there is a difference between an audience feeling unsafe because of the way they are being intellectually challenged versus the potential of someone who has been sexually assaulted being put in a position where they have no choice whether or not they watch someone who maybe they feel has not been paid the price to an appropriate degree for an admitted sexual assault. There is a difference there. In the one sense it is like, yeah, swim at your own risk because you might hear things you don’t like. You might see people that you walk away feeling that they are bad people, and that is okay. But I wish that that phrase referred only to the experience you might have as far as what unfolds onstage and wasn’t being used to accommodate so many things that happened offstage.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How Chris Gethard Transitioned to Comedy Cellar Stand-up