INTO THE LIGHT
Chris Gethard Talks Turning Depression Into Comedy with ‘Career Suicide’
Between the HBO special and the return of his talk show, New Jersey-born comedian Chris Gethard is bracing himself for a new level of fame.
Chris Gethard isn’t that famous. But he’s getting there.
Nobody seems to recognize him when we meet for breakfast at his hotel in West Hollywood, despite his guest appearance on Conan the night before.
There’s something about Gethard that seems a little out of place in Los Angeles. Despite the balmy April morning weather, he’s wearing a red-and-blue Letterman jacket. His thick-framed glasses are firmly in place and he feels like he might be getting sick. The New Jersey-born New Yorker opts for a plain bagel with cream cheese and black tea over some of the restaurant’s more quintessentially Californian options. “Keep it simple,” he says.
The Upright Citizens Brigade alum has a popular podcast and an unconventional late-night talk show, but nothing in his long, circuitous career has resonated with audiences quite like his off-Broadway one-man show Career Suicide, which premieres as an HBO special this Saturday night.
Early in the show, Gethard shares with his audience a story about driving on the highway one night and realizing he is in the blind spot of a truck that is moving into his lane. “He does not see me. And I have time to think to myself, you should hit the brakes,” Gethard says, his voice growing quieter.
“And then I think, no, don’t,” he continues, “because this way it’s just a car crash. And this way, your parents don’t have to go around town being the parents of the kid who killed himself. We don’t judge people for dying in car crashes. But we do judge people when they die of suicide. It’s one of the strangest things I think we’ve given ourselves permission to do as a culture.”
The first real laugh comes when he breaks the tension by saying, “Honestly, I think it’s really mostly a branding problem.”
It’s a true story he shared with fellow comedian Mike Birbiglia several years ago, “not in a funny way, just as a friend.” Immediately, Birbiglia, who has written and performed three similar one-man shows off-Broadway and around the country, replied, “Dude, that’s so funny, you’ve got to tell that on stage.”
When he decided to start sharing stories like that one with his stand-up audience, Gethard jokes that he was really just trying to prove Birbiglia wrong. “Dude, this isn’t going to work,” he remembers telling his friend. “And then to my surprise, it worked.”
“I never really set out to do a show based on suicide,” Gethard says now. “It was really more seeing if I had enough material that revolved around that stuff and it turned out there was enough material there.” Over the course of 90 minutes, the comedian manages to find humor in some of the darkest moments from his life, including the moment he finally told his mother that he had considered taking his own life.
Unlike the other comedy he has done in his career, Gethard acknowledges that there is a “barrier of entry” for a show about suicide and depression. “Some people just don’t understand what this stuff feels like.”
One of those people was Ira Glass, the creator and host of This American Life, where Gethard has served as an occasional contributor over the past three years. When Glass first saw an early version of the show, he told Gethard he found something “off” about the dramatic arc of the piece. “I don’t get why you didn’t learn,” he told the comic. “You made the same mistakes so many times.”
“I was like, Ira, that’s why I take medicine,” Gethard told him. “You could have that stuff happen, learn, reflect on it, grow, have it set in. That’s why you’re not medicated like I am. That’s probably one of the fundamental things. I don’t see it coming, I don’t see the pattern. He was like, ‘Oh…’ That was a very eye-opening moment for both of us.”
As open as he is about his life in the show, Gethard says, “I definitely kept a few secrets.” He jokes that if “this is the stuff that’s out there,” then one can only imagine what those secrets must be. But there were also some moments in the show that got laughs he “didn’t feel great about.”
If something felt “a little cheap” he would ask himself, “What if someone else is out here who has been through some of this stuff or lost someone to it?” The more people came up to him after the show to share their own mental health struggles, Gethard says he realized, “I have to be willing to stand by every single joke.”
“It was one of the things that made me realize this is not really stand-up,” he says. “I’m a pretty empathetic guy, but when I’m doing stand-up I’m not so worried about [things like], has the audience been affected by this? If they have, they have and if they haven’t, they haven’t. But this one I had to really pump the breaks. It was one of the early indicators that this was really something different.”
Another mentor along the way was Judd Apatow, whom Gethard ran into while doing stand-up in New York one night. He decided to send the super-producer and comedy fanatic a tape of the show. After watching it, Apatow told Gethard that if he ever wanted any help “going bigger” with the project to let him know. “Next thing I know I get an email one day that says the president of HBO wants to make a deal,” Gethard says, prompting him to think, “Wow, your life is very different from mine. He makes things happen.”
Gethard first met Apatow during a live taping of comedian Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird podcast in 2011 at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Also on the panel that night was Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani. In the six years since, Apatow not only produced Gethard’s special, but also helped bring Holmes’ Crashing to HBO and produced Nanjiani’s upcoming film The Big Sick. “It’s like the most productive podcast episode that’s ever happened,” Gethard jokes. “I was not angling for anything during that podcast—except not embarrassing myself.”
“Stand-up is so much about quietly dictating the way the audience reacts,” Gethard explains. “Whereas with this, I just sort of had to put it out there and step back and let them react how they want to react.” Apatow urged him to embrace the parts that might feel a little “sad” or “quiet.”
“I definitely approached it as comedy first,” he says. But he felt a shift from the early audiences, which were mostly made up of his comedy fans, to the theater crowd that started to show up once the show received rave reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere. As some of the laughs became more “subdued,” Gethard says he started to feel “insecure” that the show wasn’t going as well. He ultimately had to come to grips with the fact that people were just experiencing his show in a different way. “I had to get my ego out of the way to be OK with that.”
Bringing in director Kimberly Senior, who previously helmed the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced on Broadway, helped push the show more in a theatrical direction. “It was very strange for me,” Gethard says. “I’m not used to working with a director and handing over the authority of my work to someone else, but she was really great, really no-nonsense.” More than anything else, Senior helped Gethard slow down and find moments to interact with members of the audience, many of whom are seated very close to the stage, one-on-one.
“There were nights where it felt really awkward in New York,” Gethard says, “and New York is the place where that conversation about depression and therapy is wide open. So I’m very fascinated to see how it plays in places where this conversation isn’t open at all. I would imagine that the internet feedback is going to be very eye-opening and intense at times.”
He’s already trying to force himself not to read some of that feedback in the comment sections on YouTube and the like. “Usually, I read the comments, but on this one I feel like it’s a bad idea,” he says. If he can avoid seeing someone call him a “cuck” or a “snowflake” online, he will. “Even if I fit the bill on those,” he jokes.
Towards the end of the show, Gethard shares a story about a time he performed at UCB and one of his improv teammates made a particularly cruel joke about his physical appearance. It sparked a panic attack that forced him to leave the stage in the middle of a scene. “People always ask me, ‘Who said that thing about you?’” Gethard says. He gives the audience “one hint” about who it was: “He played a character named Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock.”
As it turns out, by random coincidence, Gethard’s fellow guest on Conan last night was none other than that actor, his old friend Jack McBrayer. “I’ve done so much improv with him over the past 15 years and he’s featured in my show, so it felt like kind of a full circle moment that we’d both be on Conan the same night,” Gethard says, insisting there are no hard feelings between them.
“The first night I did that joke was at [the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre] in New York,” Gethard adds. Shannon O’Neill, the theater’s artistic director, told him, “That’s a great joke, but you can’t tell it again until you have Jack’s permission.”
When Gethard called McBrayer to make sure he was OK with the joke, he was “gracious” but had a few requests to make sure it didn’t make him look like a “total jerk.” At that point, there was no way McBrayer could know the bit would become central to a major off-Broadway production and HBO special. “But he was very nice about it,” Gethard says.
Gethard’s time at UCB served as the foundation for Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 movie about the New York improv scene, Don’t Think Twice. “My DNA is definitely in that,” he says.
The two men were touring together a few years ago and, as Gethard says, “There was a stretch where he started asking me a lot about, ‘So what was it like to be at UCB when this happened or when this person got this job?’” He remembers finally asking in return, “Why are you so interested in the early days of UCB all of a sudden?”
Birbiglia finally admitted he was working on a new movie in which he would play a character largely based on Gethard. It took place around the time when he was still working at UCB, while some of the comics he came up with, like Bobby Moynihan, were being cast on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere. (In Don’t Think Twice, it’s Birbiglia’s character Miles who gets left behind while Keegan-Michael Key’s Jack lands a spot on the lightly-fictionalized “Weekend Live.”)
In real life, while his friends reached the next levels in their careers, Gethard stayed and taught improv at UCB to a remarkable number of future comedy stars. “Yeah, I’ve taught a lot of people who have gone on to bigger things,” Gethard says. Among his former students: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Ellie Kemper, Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom.
“I taught everybody, man,” he says. “I really loved teaching. I don’t really improvise much anymore, but I think I actually miss teaching more than I miss performing.”
“I just really liked seeing people get excited about this thing that I got so excited about when I was younger,” he continues, describing himself as a “bit of a rabble-rouser” compared to some of the other improv teachers he worked with. He often pushed students to see how far they could take the “yes and” philosophy of the UCB program. “I just wanted to see what happens when you don’t blink and refuse to slow down and overthink it or rationalize it,” he says.
During one session, a student grabbed his coat and walked out of the room, and the rest of the class followed him. They all got on the elevator, and started walking around the city together, Gethard remembers. The “scene” ended with the whole group standing outside of a police station chanting, “We are a gang, you cannot arrest us!”
“And I remember feeling like, I’m going to arrested and fired,” Gethard says, wistfully. He says his approach “wasn’t for everybody,” but those who did embrace it, he believes, became more adventurous comedians today. “When you’re doing comedy, it’s always a trial by fire.” If there is a “dark side” to improv training, Gethard thinks it’s the desire to do something “correctly” instead of “creatively.”
When I ask if not moving on while others became famous was hard for him, Gethard says, “It was and it wasn’t. There definitely were a lot of moments of questioning, a long time where people kind of regarded me as the next guy who would bust out of UCB.” The fact that it “just wasn’t happening” for him filled Gethard with self-doubt. But he also says he was always “proud” to be part of the machine that helped so many others reach the next level.
“I feel like I helped build that place in a way,” he continues. “Also I was so psyched for my friends.” The “main difference” between Don’t Think Twice and his real life, he says, is that he was “insanely happy” for Moynihan when he landed a spot at SNL. “So supportive and just thrilled. There was certainly some insecurity, but we weren’t getting into fistfights or yelling or anything like that.”
When we speak, Gethard still isn’t allowed to say what the future holds for The Chris Gethard Show. Since then though, it’s been announced the show has found a new home on truTV, which has recently rebranded itself as a comedy network.
Produced by Funny or Die, the talk show began its life on public access TV in New York before moving to Fusion and then truTV, where it will air live later this year. When Gethard appeared on NBC’s Late Night this past week, host Seth Meyers called The Chris Gethard Show both “certifiably insane” and “the most inventive talk show out there.”
With more and more late-night shows on the air, competing with each other for eyeballs, especially online, there is a feeling that the old conventions have been thrown out the window and anything is possible. “As far as ‘you can do anything you want’ goes, I think my talk show has taken the ball and is running with it,” he says. The “other guys” can have their polished, smooth presentations, but Gethard says his show will “go in the far-opposite direction.”
“I always really idolized Letterman,” Gethard says, but it was Conan O’Brien who was really his guy growing up. He remembers being at college parties where students would turn off the music and put on Late Night with Conan O’Brien when it came on. “I just love how chaotic it got,” he says.
Near the end of Career Suicide, Gethard talks about the responsibility he feels as someone who has opened up about his own depression and suicidal thoughts in a public way. He already gets a steady stream of emails and other messages from those who have gone through similar experiences, but with the show about to premiere on HBO, that message is about to reach a much broader audience. He’s bracing for the onslaught.
“I’ve always been an underground guy. And HBO is not underground,” Gethard says. “It’s very overwhelming and intimidating,” he adds, deliberately slowing down his words. “But I am bracing myself for it, yes. I’m very happy people feel like they can reach out, especially after they see it. That means a lot to me. At the end of the day, I’m trying to make a thing that would have been useful for me when I didn’t feel like I could reach out to anybody.”
At the same time, he says, he feels a bit “heartbroken” because he knows he can’t help everyone who reaches out to him. “It’s not actually possible,” he says. “It’s very intense and draining and I don’t have all the time.” Anyone who’s “looking to pick my brain about depression” can now “do so from the convenience of your own home on your own schedule,” he says. All they need is an HBOGo password.
“I’m very much looking forward to telling some jokes that aren’t about that stuff,” he says. “I’m so proud of the show, so happy I did it, but it’s a weight off the shoulders.” He worries for a moment he may sound too “melodramatic” about the whole thing. “I feel like I’ve done my part, said what I’ve had to say and it’s time to move on.”
Between the HBO special and the return of his talk show, Gethard is also bracing himself for a new level of fame, something that doesn’t exactly fit in with the “brand” he’s already established. “It’s definitely happening,” he says.
Though he can still mostly go unrecognized in public, Gethard says it really “weirded him out” recently when someone surreptitiously took a photo of him on their phone while he was eating in a diner and then tweeted it out without saying hello. “I was like, this sucks, I feel like I’m being stalked.”
“For years, I’ve been very underground, had a very small, cult fan base that supported me,” he says. “I know who they all are. It’s very familia. I’m so grateful that more people are actually finding my stuff, but I also have to make sure the old fans know that I love the ones who stood by me.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll pass up the opportunity to “sell out” if he gets the chance. And he hopes his die-hard fans would be happy for him. “If any of my fans ever saw me do something that’s a ‘sell-out’ move, I think they know me well enough to know that I must be getting a real boatload, like a game-changing amount of cash,” he jokes.
That being said, Gethard adds, “I don’t have much of a desire to go do bigger stuff. I’m very happy with my life right now.”