A week or so ago I turned in my first piece for Storyboard, a profile of Chris Gethard and The Chris Gethard Show. Storyboard shut down last night. I was excited about writing my first long feature piece in two years, and excited to write a profile of a comedy show where things are just sad sometimes. (Like how David Foster Wallace predicted TV could work, someday.)
The first three minutes of The Chris Gethard Show are a mess. The hour-long variety program airs Wednesdays at 11pm on Manhattan public access television, but most people watch it online. As of tonight its web community has made it the number one video comedy podcast on iTunes. Everyone loves the extra attention; the audience in the Harlem studio loves it so much they’re derailing the entire production. They applaud over the host, comedian Chris Gethard, each time he tries to introduce the show. It’s mean too: they pause just long enough to let him think he can begin. He says, “Thank you everybody! This is The Chris Gethard Show!” but the audience persists, drowns out his words, makes him start over. There’s more shifting, more smiling, more shouting. Shannon O’Neil, the show’s longtime panelist and Gethard’s close friend, gestures for the audience to quit it, because anyone watching the number one podcast on iTunes for the first time won’t like a mute host drowned out by hooting. Gethard wipes his glasses on his shirt, then rubs his eyes. From the back of the studio, it looks like he’s crying.
Turns out crying would be the least weird thing that could happen on The Chris Gethard Show. Over the next 57 minutes a woman hula-hooped in a corner of the studio (she’s there the whole time, every time); they introduced a member of the panel that no one has met before (they call her The Random, the staff selects a new Random every 15 weeks); a regular caller named Calstead listed the top five things you can do on your couch; Gethard did a dance while holding Ritz crackers (it’s called “the Ritz Carlton”), they took a call from Andres, a member of their online chat community (they’re called “the Ratz Carlton”); panelist Murf updated everyone on Gimghoul, a semi-secret Chapel Hill social organization he’s investigating; a show writer slapped Gethard; the Random slapped Gethard; Murf slapped Gethard. No wonder he cried.
First of all, he wants me to know he was not crying; he’s cried “only once or twice” on his show. “They just love frustrating me,” he explains when I meet up with him at his apartment in Brooklyn a couple weeks later. That night he promised his fans he’d be game for whatever tortuous stunts the show’s writers could think of, which included putting ice on his penis and trying to solve algebra problems and listening to “Gangam Style” on repeat. And letting the studio audience applaud over him. “But I find that very charming and endearing, that they’re willing to mess with me as much as they do,” he says. It happens so often that a fan invented a drinking game to go with the show: Take a drink if “Chris takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes in frustration.” This alone could calcify your liver.
This was a relatively tame night for one of the strangest, most trying, most addictive shows on the Internet. Most others are stranger, with regular, yet unpredictable appearances from a stable of callers, characters, and audience members. It makes more sense if you think of The Chris Gethard Show less as a late-night talk show and more like stunt theater, live-action role-playing, and depression. “Our show is intentionally very dumb, but all of us are trained in a style of comedy where you’ve got to be the top of your intelligence,’ he says. His references for the show’s feel are heroes of introverted adolescents everywhere: Letterman, MTV before TRL, Howard Stern, pro-wrestling, Marvel Comics. But Gethar incorporates the rest of adolescence — the ennui, the boredom, the self-doubt — into each episode, too.
The show is very funny, but what’s more unusual is how not funny it can be, that a show and a comedian can be so comfortable with long beats of eye-rubbing, eye-crying sadness. Louis CK’s Louie reveled in long episodes of discomfort for its second season, as did Lena Dunham’s Girls. But both shows scripted those detours. Gethard can’t control The Chris Gethard Show; its sadness is as unpredictable as its humor. Lots of comedians mine their own anxiety and depression for material, but Gethard’s highwire vulnerability is special. He shares his panic attacks, bowel troubles, girl troubles and career worries on the show, all of this while daring you to find a soft spot on him.
"I respect that about him, and his honesty and truthfulness in his comedy, even if it’s gonna be a little awkward and not funny and a little sad and a little uncomfortable. He’s not afraid," cast member Murf Meyer tells me. That fearlessness drew Meyer into Gethard’s UCB classes, where many of the show’s cast members come from. Gethard has taught and performed at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, New York’s alternative comedy epicenter, since he was 19. He’s a regular on their most popular weekly show, ASSSSCAT 3000. There are his guest roles and small parts too, on The Office, in The Other Guys and the upcoming Iron Man movie. He is the first comic of IFC’s Adopt a Comic program. And there are all his appearances as himself, or, the stranger version of himself that appears on The Chris Gethard Show. He started the show as a monthly live stage event at the UCB Theater in 2009, but it moved to public access in 2011. The rapper/meme Diddy was a guest once.
He is 32 and looks it, by averages. Gethard was a “late bloomer,” and it shows in his big-kid eyes and wide smile. Yet when he’s frustrated and he rubs his eyes or rests his head in his hands, his face wrinkles into retirement. Gethard demonstrates his trademark eye rub for me and his sleeve shifts just enough for me to catch the first few words of a tattoo across his bicep. It reads: “It takes strength to be gentle and kind.” (It’s a Smiths tattoo, not his only one.) If there was a drinking game for the rest of Gethard’s life, it’d go like this: Take one drink for every other comedian who says Chris Gethard is the kindest person they know. Take one if they say he’s the funniest, or the most supportive. Take another for each person who says they are hoping for the best for him, or that they can’t understand why he isn’t more successful, because he is the next comedian who should be famous, the one who deserves it.
But he still considers himself a loser. He calls the show’s panel and audience “losers” too. Since everyone from pretty tech show hosts to NBA players have co-opted “nerd,” the word “loser” is the best way to describe the weirdos, loners and shy kids who make up the show’s core audience, and its host: “I feel like I’m kind of a loser. I’ve always felt that my whole life and I think a lot of people who dig the show are people who feel like that.”
This makes him protective of the show’s fans. A few months into the show’s first season, viewers started posting questions on The Chris Gethard Show’s Tumblr. He and the staff first put up the Ask Me Anything button to answer comments about the show, mostly questions like "Who is Calstead?" and "What just happened?" Then Gethard published a book of personal essays, “A Bad Idea I’m About to Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgment and Stunningly Awkward Adventure.” He writes about losing his virginity, fleeing from the cops, and having his first enema (a second loss-of-virginity story), but he also talks about his lifelong depression, panic attacks, and mania. “I just really pretty quickly committed to the idea of I’m not ashamed of things I’ve dealt with,” he says. His audience committed to the idea that they could ask him how to deal. In September, he received an a-bomb of an anonymous question: “I know you’ve talked about depression and anxiety issues before and if you don’t answer this cause it’s a complete downer i understand but I’m curious if you ever had suicidal thoughts. I admire you and your show and have just been in a really bad place lately. I used to see your show as the last thing I had to look forward to but I haven’t even been back for months and can’t even bring myself out the door to get there without panicking. I’d appreciate any advice really.”
Gethard didn’t want to answer. “I emailed a couple other writers at the show,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘We got this thing, and it’s really scary to me.’ One of those guys wrote back, ‘We shouldn’t deal with this.’” Gethard worried about getting into trouble if he answered the question. Especially if he wrote the wrong response. But he worried more about the person on the other side of the question: “They might be sitting on our Tumblr clicking ‘refresh,’ waiting to see if a reply comes up. If that’s what they’re waiting for, and God forbid that’s the last thing the last Hail Mary they threw into the world, I want to get it out.” That settled it. He typed an answer and posted on The Chris Gethard Show Tumblr. It had nothing to do with the show, but his answer, a mix of heartbreak and humiliation and humor, fits. “The first thing I need to say is don’t do it,” his answer starts. Over the next 6,000 words, Gethard begs the anonymous fan to seek help, lets him or her know that he cares about them, and details Gethard’s own suicidal thoughts and what he did (and still does) to fight them off. It ends with: “Feel better. Don’t do it. I got your back.” The post ended up getting nearly 2,000 ‘Likes’ on Tumblr.
The anonymous letter also underlined how important the show can be to its fans. The Chris Gethard Show is a big part of their lives, but it’s also a refuge from those lives. “He was one of the only teachers at the Upright Citizens Brigade, maybe one of my only teachers ever, who really encouraged people to find themselves and find confidence in who they are, and through that find humor in what they are,” Bethany Hall, another longtime friend and show panelist, tells me.
All that weighs on a guy. “I don’t think I have it in me to share every inner thought I’ve ever had the way he does. And I think that’s what makes people feel like they know him even when they don’t,” says Hall. “But he can’t really take on all the responsibility himself.” Gethard gets hurt on The Chris Gethard Show, a lot. On past episodes he’s been spanked by a dominatrix, electrocuted, slapped by friends. The show’s biggest fans torture him the most. It helps that Gethard has a big, sweet, punchable face that attracts girls and bullies. The connection between his self-esteem and on-camera degradation isn’t lost on him (or his therapist), but he figures it’s healthy: “That’s a lot better than sitting in my room in the dark, hating myself, which was my college experience,” he says. “A lot of the things we do on the show prove that I have some mental health issues. We put our money where our mouth is on that one.”
Nonprofit works better for public access TV than it does for life. TV networks are curious about the show and have met with Gethard to talk about how it could work on their channels, but they’re wary of a show that relies on unfiltered, live callers. The show needs a wider fanbase to survive, and Gethard worries that readers may think thechrisgethardshow.tumblr.com (now at over 100,000 followers) is an advice website that has a live talk show attached to it, sometimes. There stack of props taller than either of us in his kitchen where food should be, more props in his closet where clothes should be. He’s past deadline for a pilot script based on his book, and he’s got 130 questions waiting on his Tumblr dashboard. Maybe The Chris Gethard Show isn’t all of him, but it’s a big part of it, and it’s hard not to mix up one with the other.
The next time I see The Chris Gethard Show live is at SXSW, a stage-only version sponsored by IFC. The night’s bit is “The World’s Most Fucked-Up Game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” but what we get is Gethard stumbling through the audience blindfolded, asking, “Is this a terrible show?” every few minutes (you’re supposed to take a drink for that, too).
The question turns rhetorical when I tune in online next week, and there’s no audio for the first 17 minutes of the live broadcast. It’s maybe a good time to remember his own answer to the guy on Tumblr: “Like all aspects of life, I think back and remember… the POSITIVE parts. The funny parts. The ridiculous parts. I think back to separate incidents where I had actual suicidal thoughts and at times even dipped my toes into actions, and I laugh.”
The theme of the next show is “First Times.” The panel tries to do card tricks, eat yogurt, and do standup for the first time. Gethard talks to a few callers, including a girl named Emma who’s using the show to get over her fear of speaking in public with a stutter. As the episode winds down, Gethard asks Murf what his first time activity would be, and instead of shaving his body, he gets his girlfriend on camera (they met in one of Gethard’s improv classes), drops to one knee and proposes to his girlfriend. The women on the panel and in the audience know what’s happening (as they tend to) for a moment before Gethard does and when he realizes he’s just set up a real proposal, and that she said yes and actually got engaged on his show, he ends the broadcast right there,14 minutes early, so everyone can get out of the studio and celebrate. As the credits roll, he calls over and comforts a member of the audience, who is crying. It’s a great episode, and it’s not funny at all.