Q&A with Comedian Chris Gethard
There’s a good chance you’ve seen Chris Gethard’s face. Maybe it was on Broad City, or in Don’t Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia’s movie about struggling improv comedians. There’s also a good chance you caught his funny and affecting one-man show, Career Suicide, on HBO recently. Of course, there’s the wildly unpredictable talk/variety program The Chris Gethard Show which started at the UCB theater in NYC, then moved to public access TV and Fusion. It will re-launch on Tru TV in August.
And then there’s his popular podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, where — at least until he took the show on the road — he doesn’t show his face at all. And we know even less about the identity of his guests. It works like this: Gethard tweets out the phone number. About 5,000 people immediately try to call in. One caller wins. He talks to that unnamed person for an hour about life, the universe and everything. He’s not allowed to hang up.
Like just about everything Gethard does, Beautiful/Anonymous (as it’s known) is both funny and humane and kind of a highwire act. Favorite episodes include “Escape from a Cult,” “The Most Amazing Destruction” “I Cry When I Run” and “What Not To Ask A Trans Person.”
The live version of the show (which comes to the TLA on Saturday) has Gethard taking a call onstage while being fed questions from the audience via smartphones.
“I have a feeling that fans of the show will be down to take an experiment with me,” he says on the phone from a tour stop in Seattle. “I lay it out up top, I’m like ‘It’s gonna be a good show in one of two ways: Either the call will be very interesting and we’ll all have a good time with that — or it will be a disaster and you will have the fun experience of watching me … try to sort out a disaster for an hour in front of you.”
How’s the tour going so far?
I was definitely a little nervous heading into it about what it was gonna be. We’ve done the first two and they were weird, you know. Wildly different, but both really fun. The first night was a woman who told us what it was like growing up as the child of an alcoholic. The second night was a lady who hated her co-op board, and the crowd was urging her to go out on her balcony and bark like a dog to bother her downstairs neighbor who kept reporting her to the co-op board for having a dog she did not have. So, one of them was really serious. One of them was really dumb. The crowd got into it both ways. And it has proven to be a viable show, which is nice because when I set out on the road, even I wasn’t sure.
It’s a risky premise for a live act.
It’s funny, because all my instincts as an improviser kick in. It’s my job to kind of take care of this person on the phone, to hear what they’re going for and try to bring it to the surface in an interesting way. I try to take what they’re giving me and bounce that out to the crowd in a way where, even if they’re a little nervous, … that it’s always clear that if it goes wrong, it’s on me.
It’s not unlike your talk show. For a guy who has anxiety issues — as you discuss in Career Suicide — you’re certainly willing to take risks in a public place.
I think it’s pretty clear that my effort to make things is really an effort to direct my anxiety into a positive direction. Doing a show that might fail gives me a creative thing to focus on. That’s a much better version of anxiety than just being curled up in the fetal position in my room. I don’t think it takes a psychology degree to see that my efforts to be a comedian are also my effort to sort out my world.
I feel like most of my work is like pretty open-ended. A lot of it at the most is like 70 percent planned. I just think that’s fun. I love doing standup too, I love doing things that are a little more crafted, a little more intentional. But at the end of the day I think it’s really fun for an audience to know, “Oh this guy’s not bullshitting us. He really doesn’t know how this is gonna end.” There’s certainly a lot of risk there, but there’s also the reward that if it turns out well, everybody knows they were there, they were part of it. …
When I watch late-night TV now, it’s all clearly planned. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been a guest on some of the late-night shows and it’s this super weird thing where a producer calls you and asks you a bunch of questions and then you go there the next day and they’re like “alright, here’s the questions we like and here’s your answers” and they like actually write down your answers that they want you to say. And I’m like, I don’t know, I don’t want everything scripted and stale and handed to me. Let’s take some risks and let’s fall on our face, and if it goes in that negative direction where things don’t work out well then let them see you sweat and let them have fun knowing that at the very least, something real is happening.
I am old enough to remember, when I was a kid, Letterman in particular definitely had some things where — he’s just working at the drive-through in a Taco Bell. That’s the whole bit. Let’s see what happens. He’s sending a camera to the deli across the street, to see how they deli guy’s going to react if he harasses him with a camera. …
I always loved that. And I think that’s maybe gone away a little bit. I miss the chaos. I think with a lot of my comedy is about that. If the other talk shows aren’t going to have any of the chaos anymore then my show is going to be all chaos. I’m going to try to fill that void, every episode.
And you’re going to be on Tru TV soon?
Yeah, in August. Thursday, August third, we premiere. We’re going live. I can’t believe they’re letting us do it live. Real high potential for disaster there. it’s gonna be pretty bonkers.
Generally speaking, we live in a culture where people use their anonymity to be there worst, but you find a humane use for anonymity. I wonder if that’s something you think about.
All the time. As a guy whose last name spells the words “get hard” I see it all the time that people love to take a good potshot. but what I think they have in common is — I think people on the internet who know that there’s the ability to be anonymous they will say things that they feel like they’re not supposed to say in everyday conversation. I think that my show at the end of the day is a more productive version of that.
How has the Beautiful/Anonymous experience affected you?
It’s been really uplifting and really unexpectedly this massive positive in my life. …
I turn off my phone. I don’t even feel the texts coming in. I’m not aware of if an email pops up. I just sit down. I have an hour-long conversation uninterrupted with someone I don’t know. That doesn’t really happen anymore. I don’t have an hour-long conversation with anybody. It’s not how our world is built. Most of my best friends, I communicate with them one text at time and when we meet up it’s mostly in public and there’s all sorts of other people there. How often do we sit down, look another human in the eye and say hey tell me what’s up with you for an hour?
It seems to me that with Career Suicide you’re in your head, talking about your experiences with alcohol, anxiety, therapy. Whereas with Beautiful/Anonymous, you’re in somebody else’s head.
Both of them are sort of a desperate Hail Mary pass effort to connect with another human being. Career Suicide is the one side of the coin where I’m like, “If you laugh at this then I’ll feel less alone. like I’m just gonna start shouting to the hills and see if anybody identifies with this because man does it feel lonely.” And whenever I performed that show, if people did react to it I’m like, “Oh good, thank god, other people get it.”
I almost feel like Beautiful/Anonymous is the opposite side of the coin. Okay if I stop and slow down and open myself up to it, is there actual humanity out there that I can see and feel and connect with. And just feel rooted in something that doesn’t feel like an insane, fast-paced world that just never stops throwing stuff at you.
Okay, so I went to La Salle around the same time as your brother Gregg — also a comedian, based in Philly — and he told me to ask about a time you visited him at school.
I have a number of visiting La Salle stories. … We went to a 40 store. Which, even that, it was like there’s a store that just sells 40s? There was a guy in there, he was like a shirtless dude and he had like this — it was like a weed wacker. A lawn-pruning tool. And he was just hanging out in the store and everybody who bought 40s, he was like “give me your change” and there was no one who was going to argue with the shirtless guy with the electric tool. Also keep in mind I was 15. No questions asked about me being in the store at all.
And then at night, trying to sleep in a dorm room and just hearing gunshots and stuff. I was like what is up. And then my brother would drive someplace and he would just park his car on the sidewalk and I’d be like “What are you doing?” and he’d be like, “no it’s just like — there’s no rules or consequences here.” I was just like this town is nuts. This is really bonkers. I just had this impression of Philly as like an extremely rough place. …
I live in new York now and like every band from Brooklyn has moved to Philly. Our music scene has absolutely lost to Philly’s music scene. I went down to Philly, I did a show at the Golden Tea House a few years ago and I was like this is the most supportive group of artsy, thoughtful indie kids. Did a show at PhilaMOCA last year, same thing. It was all receptive, open-minded, empathetic people. And I couldn’t believe it. For years I had it in my head that Philly was just like a rough, kind of scary place. It has that vibe where it’s definitely rough around the edges in a cool way, but it’s also become like the arts hub of the East Coast. It’s head-spinning for me to think about it when I was a kid, getting harassed in a store.
Okay, so in Career Suicide you talk about your Morrissey tattoos so I have to ask: What’s happened to Morrissey, man?
It’s tough to say. It’s tough to say. Some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth, I try to give him the benefit of a doubt. Some of it is just indefensible. All of it, at the very least I’m like “Moz, your timing has become very poor.” His ability to say something within hours of a tragedy that’s just tone deaf has is becoming remarkable. I don’t even know at this point.
I will stand by the fact that he, especially in the ’80s, wrote many songs that — the legacy of the songs will never be tarnished. But he’s working really hard to confuse us about his own personal legacy every day. I have his signature tattooed on my arm so. … Okay, I gotta be the one to defend this guy even though he’s saying something really and truly crazy right now. I was a handful as a kid and my parents always talk about how sometimes they had to grin and bear it. I’m not a parent yet so I feel like Morrissey’s the closest I know to that feeling.
I guess the TLA will be the biggest place you’ve played in Philly?
Very big venue. I hope people come out because it’ll be pretty depressing if it’s empty.
Well, with the HBO special, maybe you’re not a guy people have to go looking for now. Your name is getting out there.
Between like Mike Birbigila’s movie and the podcast unexpectedly blowing up, and then HBO — it’s like, “Oh wait, I’m not the public access guy anymore.”
I’m at the point where now, there’s all these people who don’t even necessarily realize that I spent that many years in the trenches. And it’s weird. It’s strange to figure out. I’m trying to enjoy it, and roll with it. And I also just kind of assume it’ll all be over in sixth months and I’ll have to get back to work doing my underground stuff. But for now it is nice to kind of come up for air and let the mainstream see me a little bit.
That’s as close to optimism as you’ll give yourself? A six-month window?
It’s really out of character for me. You can tell I’m really flying high.