Interview: Chris Gethard, Comedian / Author
Comedian Chris Gethard has spent the better part of a decade building up a cult following on stage and screen. The 31-year-old has long been a pillar of New York City’s improv scene, having spent years honing his craft at the renowned Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) theater. The past few years saw a surge in his public profile, with featured roles in commercials (ESPN, H&R Block), films (The Other Guys, May the Best Man Win), and television (Bored to Death, Louie, Big Lake).
Gethard’s work combines absurdist humor with black comedy and pathos, mining his strange, amusing, and sometimes humiliating personal experiences for comedic gold. The centerpiece of his efforts, The Chris Gethard Show, originally ran as a weekly stage show at UCB NYC before making the transition to public access in 2011. The series has prided itself on innovation: Flying a fan out from the Midwest to star in a show, launching a cross-country RV roadtrip, and staging a performance in which audience members were forbidden to laugh. Most famously, Gethard used his twitter followers to successfully convince rap mogul P. Diddy into make a cameo appearance in January of 2011.
In 2012, Gethard released the book A Bad Idea I’m About to Do, an anthology of autobiographical short stories originally used in his “Magic Box Of Stories” one-man show. The Chris Gethard Show continues to air new episodes every Wednesday night at 11pm EST at www.thechrisgethardshow.com.
When did you first become interested in comedy, and when did you seriously start thinking about pursuing it as a profession?
I have been obsessed with comedy really for as long as I can remember. Luckily a lot of people in my family are funny and have good taste. My older brother always knew about good comedy and music and that helped expose me to it at an early age. And for a shy suburban housewife, my mom has excellent taste in comedy. One of my earliest memories involves being woken up by my mom laughing at the David Letterman show. So there’s that.
As far as pursuing it as a profession, that’s something that took a lot longer to cement into place. I started doing comedy in college and took it way too seriously. As soon as I got chances to actually do it, it kind of took over my life. Due to this obsession, I found the UCB Theater in Manhattan the summer after my sophomore year of college and started taking classes and performing there. Being around so many talented people really motivated me to be as best as I could.
But as far as paying my rent goes, it took many years for me to believe that I had what it took to actually do so. I started doing bits for the Conan O’Brien show while I was still in college, and started booking commercials around 2004, and even though I was paying my rent with those and teaching improv classes, I still didn’t seriously believe I could make a living doing comedy until 2007, when I was asked to be a guest writer at Saturday Night Live. That was a real kick in the ass that made me realize I’d been underestimating myself and it was probably time to get to work.
Who have been some of your most significant comedic influences? Who are some talents out there that you feel deserve more recognition?
I have been obsessed with Andy Kaufman since I was a young kid. Being a fan of pro wrestling lead to me finding him and there are few people I look to more as far as doing their own thing and making comedy their own. Growing up in the tri-state area, Howard Stern has had a huge effect on me. David Letterman. The Hartman/Farley eras of Saturday Night Live. These were all very much things that have shaped me.
As far as people out there that deserve more recognition… there are so many. It’s hard for me to answer because so many of my peers are moving on and getting the recognition they’ve long deserved. It’s nice to see my friends like Zach Woods get the Office, Bobby Moynihan get SNL, and Charlie Sanders have his own show on MTV. Those are some of my best friends and it’s great to see their talent recognized after all this time. There are a ton of improvisors and stand ups I work with who I think are as talented as anyone and should become household names… Eugene Cordero, Billy Merritt, Joe Mande, Anthony King… those are some guys who I think should be household names. My buddies Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair are about to have a show on NBC and I hope that makes them as well known as they deserve to be.
Early in your career, you worked as a writer and assistant editor on the cult magazine, “Weird NJ”, before authoring the novel “Weird NY” under their brand. Do you think that this work influenced your view of the world and of comedy? Has your work- comedic or otherwise- always had a touch of the surreal?
Working at Weird NJ was formative in my comedy and in my life. First and foremost, I worked there full time from when I was 19 until I was 24. Those are five pretty important years in anyone’s life, and I look back and realize that I spent all that time being a part of something that was do it yourself, homemade. My bosses had a vision and a game plan and did their own thing and did it to great success. That made me really believe that if I work hard and apply myself and have a vision and ideas and commit hard, it is at least possible to make them work. It’s not likely to have your own thing turn into an institution, but working at Weird NJ showed me it’s doable. You just have to sacrifice and commit one thousand percent to what you’re trying to make happen.
On top of that, yeah, comedically, that job was insanely informative. I mean, sometimes I’d go to work and have to hike to the top of a mountain to find an iron door that Nazis used to hide behind. In New Jersey. That’s pretty awesome. I almost got raped in the woods once. And got paid for it. That stuff definitely has an effect on a guy. I think I have a very odd voice on stage, and am known for being kind of out of the box with events I stage, and in my stand up I think I can get kind of dark, and I think a big part of that goes back to Weird NJ, throwing myself into some real unusual, strange, and at times terrifying situations – and always finding the humor in them.
During its long run at UCB,The Chris Gethard Show often relied on social media to create several of its more notable events (Fesh on youtube, Cross-country Travel through Kickstarter, booking Diddy through Twitter). Do you think that new social media outlets are changing the nature of comedy? Or, are these just fads and the basics rules still apply?
I do not know that any of these things are changing the nature of comedy. But I am also pretty certain that they are not fads. The thing I have found most appealing about social media is that it’s insanely democratic. If you do something interesting, people can find it. And very often, stuff spreads around simply on the virtue of being good. That’s very much new. Even ten years ago, you might do the best show in the world, but if people of influence weren’t in the city you were in and free to come to a club or theater when it was up, it didn’t gain you that much momentum. Now you can film your own stuff and distribute it potentially to the entire world. That’s very exciting. Just the nature of comedy as a product is changed very much so by the internet. As far as the content of comedy, I’ve definitely had some interesting times with the projects you mentioned, trying to figure out how to let the interactivity of the internet drive the comedy of things I do. That stuff, who knows how long it will last or how successful it could ultimately be? I’ve been glad to be one of the people experimenting with it. I have no idea if that will all fade away. But yeah, look at my friends in Derrick Comedy for example – they made sketches when they were in college that tens of millions of people watched. The internet and social media helped their talent get discovered in a way and on a timeline that would have been impossible even a few years ago.
In 2010, you starred in the Comedy Central sitcom Big Lake. How was your experience on the show, and what did you take away from it in?
I was flattered and excited and overwhelmed to get my role on Big Lake. It definitely felt like a victory. I’ve been working very, very hard for many years and to have people of the caliber of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay sign off on me validated that hard work more than I ever thought would be possible.
The show did fail, though, which has been rough. It’s not an easy thing to go through. But, life isn’t easy. It did teach me an insane amount though, and I hope if I keep working hard I can put a lot of the things I learned into action. Besides just learning more about how to act, and about how to be on a set, how to deal with people, and seeing how a television show gets made more up close and personal than I ever had before, I think being on the show also made me realize that my personal path will hopefully involve something in the future where I get to define it for myself. One of the most interesting things about being on set was seeing how many decisions were being made at all times. I want to work hard and put myself in a position to be a decision maker over time, meaning – writing, producing, conceiving of ideas, being at the helm of things. Being an actor is a very fun thing, but I’ve always been motivated to create and my experience on Big Lake reiterated to me how many levels there are to this show business stuff and how much I’d like to get my hands dirty at all of those levels.
Earlier last year, you generated considerable buzz when Sean “Diddy” Combs guest-starred in an episode of The Chris Gethard Show during its time as a live show at NYC’s UCB Theatre. How did you finally convince him to attend? Did the event live up to your hopes?
Myself and many fans of the show just went on Twitter and asked him and a few days later he said yes. From there, it was a year of trying to find a date that worked and trying to figure out how to get back in touch with him, since he is a very unattainable person. The event itself lived up to and exceeded my hopes. It was a very fun thing to be a part of, and I think a lot of people in attendance felt like they got to be a part of something unique and very positive. I can safely say that I won’t do anything else like that in my lifetime, and I bet a lot of the people in attendance feel like it was a once in a lifetime thing as well. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. So many people worked so hard to make that event happen, and I’m just so glad that I got to be the guy leading the charge on it.
Can you talk a little about the transition of The Chris Gethard Show from live theater to public access television? Why did you select this new medium?
Well, after Diddy, the stage show felt like it was slowing down. The crowd for the stage show had been amazingly devoted and dedicated, and for 14 months of our nearly two year run, Diddy was this goal hanging over the entire production. Once it was attained, I think a lot of people, both in the cast and in the audience, felt like there was some finality to that show, that the arc of this odd variety show had wrapped up. I didn’t want it to lose momentum and peter out, since it had been a very special experience to me. I was thinking about ending the show.
Right around that time, a friend and former student of mine filled me in on public access, where he works. I was picking his brain and it had so much to offer. The studio facilities, the time on the air, all of it just sounded so cool and so fun. And on top of it, I was raised on a lot of local access programming. I was a huge fan of Uncle Floyd growing up in Jersey. Howard Stern’s show on Channel 9 felt like such a home made, cool thing. The early shows on MTV that felt sloppy and thrown together and fun were some of my favorite shows growing up. And even living near WFMU radio growing up, another outlet of very much do it yourself creativity, I think I was just built to embrace the good sides of public access. It’s definitely been weird – I have to imagine I’m the only person in human history to go from starring in a sitcom to hosting a public access show in less than a year, but I know my personality and my tastes and I think public access fits into those things pretty well.
How much preparation goes into each week’s episode of The Chris Gethard Show? Do you see it as a structured performance, or do you set the stage and allow things to unfold?
I would say the show is outlined. We keep almost everything about it intentionally open ended. We pick call in topics, but have no idea what sort of calls we’ll get or how they’ll guide where the show goes. We have guests but no set interview questions. We have bits, but most of our bits don’t have set endings, just starting points. Most of the people doing the show come from an improv background, so we have the convenience of knowing that when things are loose and unstructured a lot of the people involved are actually at their most comfortable. I think it makes the show feel alive and versatile and fun.
Have you been pleased with the way The Chris Gethard Show on Public Access has been received so far? What are some of your goals for the show? Who are some of your dreamguests? Is the run open-ended, or do you have an end-date in mind?
I love it. I think we’re doing some cool stuff. I wish more people were watching it, but I would do this show for zero people. That being said, I’d prefer a million people. But it is a labor of love. Some of my goals are to have fun and do stuff that no one else is doing. And also to give comedians a platform to try stuff they might not normally try. I tend to do weird stuff, and my show therefore is a place where comedians tend to try their own weird stuff. I like that, I’m happy about htat. Some of my dream guests would be Ghostface Killah, Kool Keith, Amare Stoudemire, Marian Cotillard, Howard Stern, and a million more. The run is open ended. Right now I’m still living off Big Lake money, so my guess is that when I run out of money I’ll move to Los Angeles. I’m hoping that’s not for a few more years. Basically as long as I’m still in New York and don’t book a job that’s too time consuming, there’s no reason I wouldn’t do this show. It’s too much fun, too fucked up and interesting.
Do you have any advice for young comedians just starting out?
Fail more. People spend so much time fearing failure and trying to dodge it. You learn one thousand times more during the shows where you fail than you do during the ones where you succeed. People think of the skills it takes to be a comedian – being funny, being confident, generating material and testing it out endlessly on stage. I would argue that one of the greatest skills all comedians have is the ability to fail. All the good people fail, spectacularly and often.
If you are someone who is funny and wants to be a professional funny person, that’s awesome. There are scores of people who want that, though. The ones who separate themselves from the pack are the ones who aren’t scared to take chances, aren’t scared to mess up, basically they’re the ones who aren’t scared. It’s great that you’re funny. Go out there and fall on your face and see if you can get back up and try again. Being the funniest guy in your family or at your office or amongst your college friends is awesome. It really is. But until you’ve played to humiliating silence on a Friday and still managed to get back on stage on Saturday, you haven’t really tested yourself. If you can do that, and thicken your skin and build up an immunity to the immense depression that experience evokes, and do it over and over and over again, you might then also get insanely lucky and make it. Good luck. I hope I don’t sound like a jerk. It’s just hard! But also fun. Just do it. Have fun and take your time and give yourself ten years of being bad to eventually get good.
Chris Gethard’s weekly public access show can be found at www.thechrisgethardshow.com.
He can be followed on twitter: @chrisgethard