Growing up in working-class West Orange, New Jersey, Chris Gethard didn’t expect to spend his life in comedy. “I had these quiet artistic dreams that I didn’t think were possible for people like me,” he says. But when he came to New York City in 2000 as a 19-year-old Rutgers University student and discovered the young Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, he set in motion a career performing in the City’s clubs and bars, on Manhattan public access, on national cable TV and now in a Judd Apatow–produced Off-Broadway show, Career Suicide, that tackles his personal struggles with mental health.
Gethard has taken full advantage of New York’s array of venues, shows and fellow comedians, not to mention an audience open to almost anything that could fit the “comedy” label. He hasn’t just “made it”—he’s made it on his own terms, doing some seriously weird stuff. Like, building-a-burrito-on-his-body and performing-for-an-audience-of-dogs weird.
With Career Suicide set to premiere at the Lynn Redgrave Theater on October 5, Gethard took some time to talk about his Off-Broadway debut, the New York City comedy scene and whether any joke topics should be off-limits.
For tickets to Career Suicide, visit careersuicideshow.com.
What’s different about preparing for an Off-Broadway run, as opposed to a long stand-up set?
Chris Gethard: Judd Apatow, when he first started giving me notes on the show, said right away: “You have to get out of your head that this is stand-up. This is a show. This is something different.” It incorporates stand-up and is built on stand-up but is its own thing at the same time. I figured out the meat of the show through stand-up: which stories held their weight in a comedic way right out of the gate. But then finding all of the connective tissue and the themes that come and go was a much different process.
In a stand-up club where people have paid high ticket prices and are forced to buy two drinks, they don’t really let you pontificate and go off in directions like that. One of the fascinating things for me is figuring out—OK, now I can bring in other emotions, let it get a little quiet, a little soft, a little sad, and how do I use that to make the laughs even bigger when they come back. That’s where the comedian instincts kick in.
You workshopped this show at the UCB and then Union Hall. What’s the main difference between performing in New York City and elsewhere?
CG: New York is just the comedy town. I feel the iconic image of the stand-up comic is in New York City, in places like the Comedy Cellar and Carolines. You think about the great comedians that come here—from the clubbiest comedians to the most artsy alt-comedians. New York audiences do not suffer fools and they do not suffer pretentiousness.
What I found was, workshopping a show that is comedic but also has serious themes, the New York audience was not going to let me get away with tugging at the heartstrings in a way that might be a little cheap. If you’re doing something in New York and you call it a comedy, it has to be funny. I don’t care how artsy you’re trying to be—if it ain’t funny, a New York comedy crowd is going to let you know that.
And what’s different about NYC for a comedy fan?
CG: There are so many shows, so many clubs, so many alternative spaces. Comedy has started to show up in the theater world. I think Mike Birbiglia [of Sleepwalk with Me and Thank God for Jokes] led the charge on that. Nick Kroll and John Mulaney are now doing a Broadway show [Oh, Hello].
As a comedian, you’re competing for the attention of the audience. I think it leads to a real respect for audiences. In New York, we know: they don’t have to give us their attention. There’s somebody else just as good or probably better, and their show is probably six blocks away, tops. I go to other cities and maybe see a little bit more of a clubhouse vibe—comics just want to hang out with each other—or maybe a little aggression toward the audience if they’re not responding.
If you’re a comedy fan in New York, you can see the best people in the world put their best foot forward. You go to a club like the Comedy Cellar, you’re not seeing people mess around. There’s no laziness there. People are bringing it.
I don’t care how artsy you’re trying to be—if it ain’t funny, a New York comedy crowd is going to let you know that.
You came to the UCB very early in your career and in its development as a comedy school. Why did it click with you?
CG: Back in 2000 when I started doing classes there, the UCB was in an old strip club that Rudy Giuliani had shut down—a very underground place. I look back on it now, and this is not something I would have been able to verbalize when I was a kid, but it was a very blue-collar sort of comedy. Improv, sketch, stand-up—it’s like working-class theater is what I realize now, and I think I needed that. I think art felt a little inaccessible to me.
Who are some people you’re still working with from your time at UCB?
CG: Owen Burke was one of the guys who was really leading the charge [on the UCB’s absurdist style] when I first started. He was a guy I looked up to immensely as a performer and a comedic mind, and he’s now an executive producer on my TV show—and a lot of the other cast on my show is UCB. I’ve done acting work on Broad City, where Abbi and Ilana were students of mine at the UCB. I did work on Parks and Recreation, where Amy Poehler was an owner at UCB, absolutely the person that we all looked up to the most. It’s just a world that kind of exploded and unfolded in a way that all of my professional pursuits connect back to it somehow, and I feel like being there as early as I was I can look back and realize it was kind of a “big bang” moment for comedy in America. I’m very lucky that I was there on the ground floor for that.
How about the other NYC improv theaters?
CG: It’s amazing to me that there are four or five houses of improv that New York can support now. It’s very cool. I have a lot of friends at the Magnet, and I really admire it. I get the sense that a lot of people showing up at [the Upright Citizens Brigade] are very career ambitious. The Magnet is much more about the art. And I’m a huge fan of the Annoyance Theatre. They’re doing some of the craziest, most aggressive comedy in the city right now.
Outside of that, there’s all sorts of places that aren’t improv theaters—you have Littlefield, the Bell House, Union Hall and all these places that are performance spaces or rock clubs that also support comedy.
It’s not like dogs are a demographic that’s spending money at stores.
The Chris Gethard Show is now on Fusion—but it ran for a long time on Manhattan public access, where there are basically no rules. Did you have trouble getting any ideas past the network bosses, like “The Gethminster Dog Show”?
CG: That was one that took a lot of convincing, if I’m being honest. I should also say, I don’t think anyone else has had dogs in the audience for a talk show, but we give credit where credit is due. We did, in researching that bit, find that Steve Martin once did stand-up for dogs. It’s really amazing.
I’ll never forget having a conversation with the network where they kept going, “Why do you want to do this?” We had to kind of make up a fib and say, “We aim to be the most inclusive show on television, and we want to really put our money where our mouth is and make this one inclusive even for nonhuman viewers.” And that was enough in the language of the network development executive that they went, “Oh, OK, we’re expanding our audience.” Which is a little bit silly, if you think about it. It’s not like dogs are a demographic that’s spending money at stores.
A lot of the work you do has a punk energy. Where does that come from?
CG: When I was a kid I remember going to see punk bands and thinking, Wow, they just did it. They just went and made their own thing. I guess you’re allowed. Even Career Suicide—a lot of people don’t really love talking about mental illness. They think it should be dealt with behind closed doors. To me, that moves back to the punk rock I grew up with, because punk rock is all about if people don’t like hearing something, you almost have to say it. You’re bound by honor to say something if it’s what you believe and you feel it isn’t out there.
Have you run into trouble telling jokes about something as serious as suicide?
CG: For sure. There have been a lot of think pieces about how certain jokes don’t have a place in culture. I think if your jokes are actually funny enough, then you can say whatever you want because it’s clear you put thought into it.
It’s distressing for me. Sometimes online people will say, “I don’t think you should be joking about this.” I want to say to these people, “You’re the ones who need to see this show most of all, because it all comes from my personal experience.” The last thing I’m going to do is make fun of suicide. The last thing I’m going to do is make fun of depression. But I feel like if I can get people laughing, maybe they’ll be willing to let their guard down and talk. And anytime someone says to me, “You shouldn’t be joking about that,” what I get out of that is, “You’re not supposed to talk about that publicly.”
I feel like—this is going to sound very pretentious, and I’m certainly not saying I’m as skilled as many of the comedians who have done this in the past—but look at topics like censorship and race relations, and the first time some regular people let their guards down to talk about that stuff was because of comedians. Think about Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and the way they took on censorship. Think about someone like Richard Pryor. Think about Chris Rock. I’m not saying I’m as good as those people—I’m definitely not—but I think culturally there’s a tradition that comedy can be the thing that cracks open an uncomfortable conversation. If my show were part of that, I’d be really proud.