Chris Gethard is a mainstay at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. His anti-talk show, The Chris Gethard Show, began on the UCBT stage in 2009 and moved to Manhattan Public Access in 2011. While the theme of each episode changes drastically from week to week, a typical show will involve viewer call-ins, tazing, and some sort of emotional catharsis. We talked about positivity, failure, and the Cult of Gethard.
The College Hill Independent: You’re from an improv back- ground—how has working with UCB people on The Chris Gethard Show informed your decision not to plan the end of each show?
Chris Gethard: Even though the public access show is an hour, the most planned shows are still only about 75 percent, and those are the ones that we really sit down beforehand and know the most about what’s going to happen. Because every- body is from an improv background—the people on camera, the people in the control room, the writers of the show—I think we all feel that it works best for us not to be locked down. One of the things we’ve discovered with our show is that callers can call up and affect things so much, the micro- phones can break because the studio’s unreliable, but pretty early on we realized those things were some of the best mo- ments. The unexpected stuff plays to our history and strengths as improvisers. Setting a goal of “A, B, and C will happen” and then A, B, and C happens is a very good thing, but I think it’s more interesting and risky and ultimately funnier if it’s A, B, and C will happen and the D, E, and F we’ll figure out along the way. To me, that’s the next step; I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think that’s part of what the audience likes.
Indy: The audience has a lot of power on the show and rep- resents a larger following that’s become a real community— what role do you play in that cult?
CG: Well, I feel like I’m sort of a curator of that community. The Gethard Show evolved from its earliest intention of mak- ing it a parody of a late night talk show at the UCB Theatre, and it quickly turned into something else at UCB. Public Ac- cess has changed that more and more. You know it’s a comedy show, but it’s also a strange art project in its own right. I think a lot of that is the community that we’ve built up via the In- ternet, and I do feel like it’s my job to challenge that commu- nity and to curate it, and to set the tone of what it is through helping find its interactions that I think are positive and lead to humor and creativity. I really like it. I really like designing shows that use the community as well. They are obsessive. One of my favorite shows was where audience members could submit characters for the show, and we were going to try to find new recurring characters that were fictional because we didn’t have enough of them. We invited people to submit names of characters, but they couldn’t describe anything about them. We were getting all these names and then our writers took those names and came up with basic premises, then gave those basic premises to different improvisers of New York. The basic premises we gave to actors who were improvisers and they filled out the rest, and by the end of the show you could be a kid in Ohio who turned in some random name, and you might see what happens when it shows up on your computer screen later that week. To me, that’s a pretty amazing thing that we get to do now, and I don’t think enough people are doing stuff like that. I’m glad to be one of the early experimenters with it, but none of it would work if we didn’t have a community that cared about the show and what it is.
Indy: I think that because of your role in the show, it is easy for people to think you are the persona you play on the show. What is the line between you, Chris Gethard, and Chris Gethard as curator and host?
CG: That’s a really good question and a very astute thing that a lot of people don’t realize, which is that I’m Chris Gethard and I host the show, but on the show all those characters have amplified aspects. Shannon comes off as this tough, intimidat- ing person, and she has that side to her, but she’s also a really sweet person. It’s just the show’s medium bringing that to the surface hard core. Murf comes off as this badass wild man, and he has that side to him, but he’s also a really loving guy in a committed relationship who also loves his friends. I think that the characters on the show are us, and I’m that guy that you see, but I have a more well-rounded life than the show presents. That’s an hour of my week with the camera pointed me and an adrenaline rush in a specific environment. It’s a very interesting thing in how people read my book and sense that I’m an honest person, and I am, in my work, but it’s still not my whole life. I remember I actually once got in a fight with my brother where I said something on the show that was nasty to a caller because the caller said something nasty to Shannon and I went off on the guy. My brother was like, “You’ve gotta be careful, man, because you’re supposed to be the nicest comedian in the world,” and I was like, “Well, I’m not that, I’m not.” I mean, maybe in certain instances I’ve been seen that way, and that’s a very nice thing and I’m glad I’m a nice enough person to get that going. But, I’m also the dude where if you mess with my friends, I’m gonna yell at you. If you say something mean to someone I care about, I’m gonna go back at you. I think that was an instance where a part of my life that usually doesn’t show up on TV showed up on screen and was kind of jarring to my own brother. Yeah, it’s a very strange line we walk being that we wander on screen as ourselves, but those are characters. Those are people who have 23 other hours in their day and six more days in their week. The hour you see them on the show, as much as we do connect with our fans, is still entertainment. It’s still comedy, and it’s been very trippy to deal with that and see how it turns out.
Indy: How would you define your relationship to positivity? “Loser is the new nerd” is kind of the mantra of the show, but does that mean being positive about failures or being satisfied with no success?
CG: I think the whole thing started because a lot of people were wearing non-prescription glasses, and to me it’s funny that all of a sudden you can wear a sweater and a bowtie and that’s a very hip thing. You’re in a certain class of kid if you’re left thinking, “Well, now what do I have,” and so I call myself a loser and encourage other people who feel like losers to feel okay with it. One of the things that I always say to people when I teach improv and respond to people who ask for comedy advice is that you have to get good at failing. Failure is very much a skill, and I think the whole idea of “loser is the new nerd” extends that to life in general, rather than limiting it to artistic pursuits. I think a lot of people have connected with that idea because it allows you to stop apologizing for being someone who fucks up and doesn’t necessarily have positive moments all the time. I think you can release a lot of pressure in your life if you do sort of say that it’s not easy for anybody. You asked what my relationship to positivity is, and at this point in my life I’m a pretty positive person, but there’s a real chip on my shoulder about getting there. There’s been a lot of anger in my early life that led me to being a very positive person. I had to fight through a lot of negative stuff and a lot of anger and feelings of bitterness and managed to let that go, and I’ve become a pretty happy guy with a pretty good outlook on things. I think that whole side of the show is encouraging people younger than me to drop the negative side of it and just embrace it. Everything good that’s ever happened to me, every girl who’s ever liked me, every professional success I’ve had has been rooted in the things I used to be ashamed of. Everything bad has made me work harder to- wards bigger goals, and it was the flaws that wound up paying off. It was the things I used to want to hide about myself that became the things people embraced about me, and I think that’s a pretty positive thing to put out there.