To the casual observer, it might appear that The Chris Gethard Show is squatting in its studio, rather than working in it. The set is made of barely constructed wall frames, decorated with objects seemingly taken off the street, loose sheets of paper and a mix of backstage junk. This is a welcome sign for fans of the many incarnations of Chris Gethard’s cult talk show. Though TCGS has moved from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre to public access channel MNN (Manhattan Neighborhood Network) to Fusion before landing at TruTV for a sixteen week run of live episodes, if the set is any indication, the show has brought along as much of its underground past as it can possibly saddle. Every bare spot has been filled with a trophy of weirdness from a previous season.
The show is also carrying the weight of the tradition of absurdism in late night comedy, from Andy Kaufman (whose death this show has promised to avenge) to David Letterman. Several set pieces scavenged from the Late Show’s dumpster populate the set as well. Both the George Washington Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge hang out behind Chris, though he points out other Letterman items stored backstage. “Hunks of metal and stuff,” says Gethard. “Stuff that doesn’t have sentimental value,” but is good to keep around out of respect and karma.
“I’ve already gotten questions about ‘how are you going to maintain the DIY authenticity of the show,’” Gethard says to the assembled crowd. “And I understand the irony of that happening at an event where we’re giving you free crab cakes.” The crab cakes are part of a meet and greet organized by the network, as well as a final opportunity of the cast to decompress after a long promotional week before the premiere. Gethard’s sidekick (and artistic director of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre) Shannon O’Neill is in a trademark hoodie, and Connor Ratliff (Don’t Think Twice, Search Party) has donned the suit he sports as the show’s warm up comic, but Riley Soloner is taking a brief vacation from his character Vacation Jason, and Dave Bluvband has set aside the flippers he wears as panelist the Human Fish. Guests are greeted by an unconventional soundtrack as far as crab-cake-meet-and-greets go—a soundtrack that both reflects Gethard’s punk rock background and tips the hat to friends of the show, cycling through AJJ, Laura Stevenson and the Cans, the Mountain Goats and Jeff Rosenstock. Mikey Erg, a member of Gethard Show house band the LLC, approves of the playlist, and not just because Gethard included two of his songs as well.
But the pervading sense in the studio is that it’s still a little crazy this is happening in the first place. “I thought this show was going to die multiple times,” says Gethard. “Our experience with Comedy Central: I thought it was dead after that. I thought it was dead coming out of the Fusion era. It just keeps managing to survive… Going back to public access, too. We once did an episode of the show called ‘Should We Keep Doing This Show?’ And that’s legit with us—we all wanted our fans to let us know what they thought, because we were all stressed out.“ It took a pep talk from Jon Vafiadis, guitarist for the LLC, to convince Gethard to keep going when the going got particularly rough, citing how much the show means to people.
And it’s impossible to overstate how much this show means to people. There are hardcore fans of TV shows, and then there are the hardcore fans of The Chris Gethard Show. A list of names was once drawn up in the early days of the show with instructions that it be given to the police in the event of Gethard’s death. “Some of them are still involved,” Gethard admits. The public access years of the show were all-access years for the fans as well. That had to change when Gethard got married (to LLC front woman Hallie Bulleit). “If someone stalks my house, that’s fine,” Gethard clarifies. “I can’t have someone stalking my wife. I gotta draw a line somewhere.”
But, to Gethard’s credit as far as his fans are concerned, he draws the line much closer to himself than anyone else in his position probably would. “I was once eating at a diner and someone tagged me in a picture on Facebook and I checked my phone and it was a picture of me eating in the diner. Freaked me out so bad,” says Gethard. “I’m not used to that. I’m used to fans who go in the other direction of inappropriateness, which is to say ‘You’re eating alone? I’ll sit down and talk with you for two hours while you eat.’ I’m okay with that. I love that.”
It’s unclear at the moment how the influx of new fans and the heightened exposure the show is receiving will fit into this tradition, an experiment Gethard finds exciting. Since the last episode aired on Fusion, Gethard has had a heartbreaking turn as an improviser in Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, premiered his one-man show Career Suicide on HBO and seen his podcast Beautiful/Anonymous skyrocket in popularity amongst new audiences. “A lot of those people have no idea that this is what I really do,” says Gethard. And some of them may not even be comedy fans, he notes, referencing a Facebook group for Beautiful/Anonymous fans where a user responded to a screenshot of Gethard on The Office by saying he doesn’t watch that show—it’s too edgy for him. “The Office: great show, proud to be a part of it,” says Gethard. “But if you think The Office is too edgy, I can’t imagine what you’re going to think of my show where we use bidets…”
The hope, however, is that new audience members coming over from other Gethard projects will recognize the common ground TCGS shares with Career Suicide and Beautiful/Anonymous. “It’s a strange show with a lot of moving parts, but I think it’s in the spirit of the other things I’ve done,” says Gethard. “I’m pouring the same stuff into different shaped containers at the end of the day.”
I ask Gethard about a show from years back that I felt epitomized his approach to each of these mediums—an improv show called Mike Birbiglia’s Dream where one audience member, in telling the group about a particularly bad day, unpacked her feelings about running into her estranged father while driving a cab (an incident that would later be dramatized in Don’t Think Twice).The story gave way to several scenes before Gethard stepped off the back line and effectively hijacked the show, checked in on the audience member, and gave her the fierce words of encouragement she needed before pulling her into a group hug with the other performers.
“One thing I really obsess over is: there’s a lack of humanity, and we justify it in all different ways, “ says Gethard. “And it just kind of drives me nuts. And that was a situation where there was someone who was sharing a lot… We can make jokes about anything and we will make jokes about this. But before we do… I’m going to stop this show and make sure this girl’s actually okay, because everybody’s gotten their five dollars worth of entertainment… At the end of the day, all this entertainment shit stops. That might be in six weeks. I don’t know. God willing that’s in thirty years when I want to retire, but it might all be over in a month… I never want to put ego, or the validation of a crowd or the potential to earn money ahead of the fact that I’m a human being who wants to be a good human being.”
This is the quality of a Gethard project that supersedes any other obligation to the audience. “If anybody feels like that undercut what they wanted out of that show,” says Gethard. “I’ll give them their five bucks back personally and tell them that maybe they should look in the mirror when they get home.” The worldview reflected here, he notes, is born from the level of involvement fans have in The Chris Gethard Show—the love people have worn on their sleeve. “Fans of the Gethard Show would always tell me ‘this show did so much for me, this show got me through so much,’” says Gethard. “They never believe me when I look right back at them and say ‘it got me through so much, too.’”
Watch our interview with Chris Gethard from the Paste Studio.
The Chris Gethard Show airs live on TruTV at 11 PM ET on Thursday nights.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.