Splitsider

Friday, October 28th, 2011

"No Cool Kids": Inside the Insane, Unpredictable World of 'The Chris Gethard Show'

There are about a million different ways to describe The Chris Gethard Show: it’s a viewer-run panel that doesn’t hesitate to cast complete strangers as regular on-air guests; It’s a weekly dance party-slash-costume ball that counts Bananaman, Flashing Glasses Guy and a giant bunny as regular attendees; It’s an exercise in diffusing the awkward moments that inevitably arise when fielding calls from crazies, comics, kids and characters. But mostly, it’s really, really fun.

A weekly public access call-in series described as “the most bizarre and often saddest talk show in New York City,” The Chris Gethard Show got its start as a monthly, themed stage show at the UCB Theatre, known for memorable stunts like the Night of Zero Laughs (where attendees were removed from the theater for laughing), the Paintball Punishment Stand Up Challenge (where unfunny comics were shot by paintball guns) — even convincing Diddy (yes, that Diddy) to appear on the UCB stage. Early last year, Gethard and his cast took their show on the road with a twelve day, Kickstarter-funded trek from New York to LA; with no set plan, the crew made stops based on Twitter prompts from strangers and made it clear they were willing to do pretty much anything on the road.

This past May, Gethard announced that he was taking things to the next level, switching to a weekly schedule and making the show — a cult hit with fans who enjoy recounting “you had to be there” moments — accessible to a much larger pool of potential viewers. Now, the show broadcasts live on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, while simultaneously streaming online (it’s also available as a video podcast through iTunes).

It’s also gotten a lot more interactive; while the stage show included plenty of audience involvement, the public access version is more or less completely controlled by viewer participation — literally anyone can call or tweet, and it’s likely they’ll end up on air. Fun? Yes. Awkward? Oh, yeah. Boring? Never. There’s humor in watching regular, relatable people rise to unexpected occasions, and the show’s commitment to inclusion and acceptance makes it so heart-warmingly earnest that it’s hard to avoid getting sucked in. Plus, anything can happen — anything. It’s public access! Shit gets weird!

Who are some of the people you might end up talking to if you get through?

Chris Gethard: The show’s namesake and host, Gethard is an improviser who regularly performs with The Stepfathers and ASSSSCAT. He has a reputation for agreeing to questionable bits (see the video of him voluntarily getting kickboxed, below), and for being an ardent defender of awkward outcasts everywhere, particularly in the comedy scene — if you’ve got drive, he’s got your back. When things get weird on air, count on Chris to expertly alleviate discomfort with a pointed one-liner.

Shannon O’Neill: One of Gethard’s best friends, Shannon’s responsible for some of the show’s most absurdly awesome (and deliciously offensive) bits; when she co-hosted for Chris in Episode 6, she introduced a game called “Catch or Snatch,” where panelists had to guess whether a close up photo was of a fish, or…the other thing.

Don Fanelli: A cast member since the second stage show, Don is notoriously competitive and can’t turn down a challenge — he’s gotten both a full-body wax for charity, and wasted in Vegas for comedy.

The Human Fish: AKA Dave Bluvband, The Human Fish is the show’s most absurd element, a half-man, half-fish hybrid who “recently emerged from the sea,” speaks in riddles and observes the show, shirtless and goggle-clad, from the back row each week. While he’s the quietest cast member, The Human Fish has his share of fans — and he gets recognized from the show more often than Gethard himself.

Bethany Hall: The show’s stage manager, Bethany has been involved in the stage show, the cross-country tour, the current show, and pretty much everything Gethard-related. She’s often the show’s voice of reason (or at least, voice of sweetness, balancing out fellow panel-members attitudes at times).

Will Hines: Will has been a part of the show since day one, though he only occasionally appears on the current public access version. He and Chris have a longstanding prank war that’s included Chris taking Will’s girlfriend out on the best date of her life, and Will breaking into Chris’ apartment on multiple occasions to secretly rub his ass on things.

Other people you might encounter:

Random Andrew: The most recent official addition to the cast, Random Andrew replaces Random Jean, in a recurring bit that exemplifies the show’s open-arms policy. “I was just flipping through the TV,” says Jean Lee, aka Random Jean, “and I saw The Chris Gethard Show. So I called, and Chris was like, “Why don’t you come down?” Jean took him up on his offer, and became a regular panel member—until recently, when a move to the West Coast ended her tenure as the show’s “Random.” TCGS held a contest, with fans competing for Jean’s empty seat. While Andrew had his fair share of detractors, he ultimately won the spot, which he’ll hold for 15 weeks until the next Random steps up.

Random George: A first-round competitor for the Random spot, George is an anonymous, baffling (possibly Greek?) guy who shows up at the studio shrouded in black and with a translator in tow. He might be the only person who’s visibly freaked the panelists out a little, and he’s becoming a regular fixture in the audience (and sometimes, if he feels like, it, on the stage).

Alyssa: One of the show’s regular callers, 16-year old Alyssa got involved with the show online and now has her own recurring bit, Checking in with Alyssa. “Chris asked for fans of comedy who lived in the suburbs on Twitter, so I responded that I was all the above,” says Alyssa, who usually has to field lewd comments from Shannon O’Neill when she calls in (she assures us that her parents are totally cool with it all).

Gethy: The official Gethard Show mascot, poor Gethy never makes it more than a few minutes on air without disaster striking.

The show itself is hard to describe; usually, I tell people “just watch it,” because trying to recount notable moments to TCGS virgins doesn’t do justice to the way bits play on air: “This one time, a wiffle bat gang came on and attacked people who said the secret word!” doesn’t sound remarkable, but the episode itself was characteristically odd, with the gang staging a faux-attack on a caller bleating out racist slurs (and plenty of great moments from guest Bobby Moynihan).

Truly, the only way to “get” TCGS is to tune in on Wednesday nights (or, if you’re feeling adventurous, heading down to the Manhattan Neighborhood Network studios to join the live audience). While you’ll never know what to expect on upcoming episodes, there are plenty of moments from past broadcasts that show how Gethard and co. have a knack for spinning completely random, sometimes shocking moments into experiences that the cast, crew, live audience and online viewers all feel equally a part of.

When Hurricane Irene derailed an appearance from The New Pornographers’ AC Newman, the crew didn’t panic; instead of booking a replacement act, they encouraged audience members to bring instruments and create their own melodies, live on air. “This was my favorite moment on the show, by far,” says producer J.D. Amato. “Everyone brought these weird instruments and got up on stage, in costumes, making up this bizarre thing together that ended up being—in my mind—this insanely beautiful, weird, mystifying song. It’s like a weird symbol for what the show’s all about: all these bizarre people playing instruments that, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t have worked together, but then making this really weird, cool song. That was the moment I was like, oh, this is what the show’s about. A bunch of weirdos that shouldn’t be making a song together making a song together.”

Between fielding calls from strangers, participating in inane challenges and playing seemingly impossible games, the only way to navigate the obstacles that inevitably arise is to approach without pretense—which sometimes means letting the audience see you lose your cool. In Gethard’s world, that kind of honesty is as entertaining as a scripted bit. For example: during a guessing game, cast member Don Fanelli was stuck trying to identify the bewildering snapshot taped to his forehead. Hilarity ensues.

As with any public access show, Gethard’s fielded his share of actual crazies (like the time a caller probably actually masturbated to Don Fanelli on air). Last week, an unexpected new demographic was represented when a 5-year old called in, giggling and demanding to see The Human Fish dance. It’s one thing to make a crowd of late night comedy fans smile, but making a little kid chortle uncontrollably is a next-level accomplishment. “Honestly, it felt amazing, it was super surreal,” says Dave Bluvband, who plays The Human Fish. “I’d never dealt with anything like that before, it just felt fun, it felt really fun.”

Sometimes watching people take a shot is funny. See above.

Truth and humor blur together in Connor Ratliff’s ongoing presidential campaign, an effort launched in August on the platform that Ratliff meets the Constitutionally mandated age requirement for eligibility to run. Since, he’s celebrated a birthday, making him not only one year older, but one year more qualified for office.

Ratliff is taking his campaign very seriously; two weeks ago, he formally invited all current candidates to the MNN studios for a presidential debate. Producers planned a bit centered on Ratliff being rejected and ending up alone on a stage full of empty chairs, but — perhaps the best example of the show’s complete unpredictability — fringe candidate Jimmy McMillan (better known as “The Rent Is Too Damn High” guy) accepted Ratliff’s invitation.

The result? Wednesday night’s mind-blowing Great American Presidential Debate, an entire episode (above) devoted to the Ratliff/McMillan campaigns — with brief bits from costumed audience members who “didn’t get the memo” that the previously scheduled Halloween Spooktacular theme was cancelled. The completely weird event couldn’t have gone any better, with house band The LLC mock-apologetically busting in with “Pet Sematery” after each candidate’s remarks, a song from the ghost of Dom DeLuise and TCGS poet laureate Phil Jackson bombarding the candidates with a spoken word-style barrage of questions. McMillan seemed not only comfortable but downright excited to be there, singing along and joking with the audience while predictably launching into some political — and also generally nonsensical — monologues. (For example, using toilet paper symbolizes being controlled by the government. Fact!) Ratliff defended his platform admirably, maintaining that he is, indeed, 36 years old, and revealing that he’d totally let everyone come party at the White House, if elected.

While any given episode may feel like it comes together second-by-second (and, really, it does), the cast and crew have a very clear vision for the show’s general direction — in talking about the way they approach each week, the words “embrace,” “failure,” “weird,” “honesty” and “truth” come up an awful lot. It’s easy to see that the show’s not so much about entertainment, but about creating a space for experimentation that welcomes literally anyone with ideas and an open mind.

Fittingly, few fans of the show are casual watchers — it’s the kind of thing that inspires near-fanatic devotion. It’s partly because the unpredictability can be addicting; it’s also partly because the show welcomes complete strangers as eagerly as old friends. And that element is as important to the crew as it is to the viewer.

Noah Forman (Writer): Chris is a good host, and he puts people at ease and invites them in to his world, whatever that is.

Don Fanelli: He’ll have a topic that’s just weird for a call in topic, like “tell us about a time you’ve been on drugs and how it’s affected you.” There’s this kind of late night talk show feel to it, but it’s totally bizarro.

Dave Bluvband: It has this depraved part to it, where you get to see someone fail at something every week. It’s in the back of everyone’s mind that something fucked up is going to happen, and we have to see what that is.

Matt Besser (Co-founder, UCB Theatre): It’s not ruled by the bounds of comedy, but the chaos of the real world.

J.D. Amato: At the end of the day, if you want to be a part of the show, you become a part of it. Even if you watch it, you are a part of the show, because most of the show is determined by our audience and by the weird stuff that happens.

Dru Johnston (Writer): I think there’s something about the show the embraces the people who always feel a little outcast. Our motto is “no cool kids,” and I think that we embrace that. If you see that we’re having fun, and we’re not being judged, it’s contagious, it spreads.

Caroline Anderson (Earwolf.com): Everyone’s really nice and really giving. It’s like a nice party — it’s what a party should be, people being silly and fun and enjoying each other.

Connor Ratliff: I would regret this pitch five seconds after I say it, but if someone asked me, I would say, “This is the Oprah Winfrey Show from Mars for the 21st century.”

It’s not all hyperbole; though it’s only been airing since July, online viewership has been steadily growing, and many fans are becoming more invested in the show, pitching segment ideas, organizing post-show parties and bombarding feeds with pleas for friends to tune in.

Chris Gethard: It’s really starting to feel like it’s a community, people feel like they have a say in it.

Dave Bluvband: When Rocky Horror Picture Show first premiered in the 70s, people would get in costume and go see that, and the audience itself became their own vibrant, weird culture. It had it’s own cult following and it became this bizarre phenomenon, this weird gathering of people that would dress up then go see midnight showings. And now people come to our shows dressed up in costumes and then go out and talk about it.

Noah Forman: The audience will wear the same costumes every week, they develop their own characters in a way.

Chris Gethard: I think, with this show specifically, we’re really trying to build a world. And not fake it, not have it feel invented, but organically. I don’t want our show to be like a regular comedy show. I want something you can invest in, that has people that come and go that you root for.

Public access has turned out to be the perfect fit for TCGS; in addition to providing equipment and a venue, podcasting means there’s no limit to the number of people the show can reach.

J.D. Amato: I realized quickly that the public access community is very similar to the comedy community, a bunch of sort of misfit people that found this outlet for expressing themselves and came together with that.

Dave Bluvband: I actually sort of like the crazier calls more, it always gets me on my feet when there’s someone who’s a little unstable on the show.

Don Fanelli: It shouldn’t have shocked me, but once a dude just randomly called in and dropped the n-bomb on TV. It’s like whoa, come on—it seemed so mean, and I was shocked in the moment, but a minute after I was like, well, we have the forum to do that.

Chris Gethard: The calls we get, the way that the callers interact with the bits—that dictates where each show goes. There’s some weeks where, literally right before we go live, I’m like, “And also, there’s a gang of men with wiffle bats who are going to be attacking people throughout the show tonight.” And we just sort of see what happens.

Matt Besser: You don’t know what chaos is going to happen, which you couldn’t say about an improv show. With an improv show it’s just chairs and improvisers, there’s only so many possibilities within the realm of reality. But he has people from off the street, and bands, and sincerely crazy people, so you really don’t know.

J.D. Amato: We’ve really been trying to take a step forward, pushing towards the weirder, more chaotic stuff we’re known for. I’d rather have people up and running around and dealing with chaos than sitting around, quietly taking calls in their chairs. My gut is to always move forward into the unknown, see what boundaries we can push.

While TCGS is, at its core, a comedy show, you’d be disappointed if you tuned in expecting non-stop banter and gags. There are plenty of serious moments, and lots of personal stories, and the point is that those can be humorous, too; we’re all in this together, so why not celebrate the fact that we all feel the same weird way? That’s what the show’s really all about.

Chris Gethard: There’s a place for weird performers, for weird audience members, people who want to come and be a part of it. This show is built for that.

J.D. Amato: For better or worse, our whole thing is “no cool kids,” so we’re not allowed to be the cool kids. It’s not our choice to tell anyone they can’t be a part of it.

Noah Forman: People who have felt that they’ve lacked creative freedom, or that entertainment has been packaged for them, are drawn here.

J.D. Amato: It’s nice every now and then to have people say, “this show has changed my life in a positive way,” or, “it’s made me feel better about myself.” You want that to be the goal, and we’ve learned that the only way to do that is to be honest and be forthcoming.

Chris Gethard: I’d love to write on a show or be on another sitcom, but I would love more if I got to be a weirdo professionally, you know? I’d love more if I could turn that into a job.

Connor Ratliff: That whole aesthetic, that whole handmade feeling, combines the best of what television was when it was starting out, when it was just like a giant toy box. Orson Welles said, about making Citizen Kane, something along the lines of, “it’s like being given the greatest toy railroad set in the world,” and I kind of feel like that’s Gethard’s approach to the show—like he’s been given this great train set to build whatever he wants out of.

Photos by Sandy Honig.

Samantha Pitchel is voting Ratliff 2012.

  • AMarie

    I try to go to as many shows as possible and more recently have made friends with other audience members, even running into one recently downtown. It was sort of an odd interaction, like, how do I or should I acknowledge this person outside of the odd microcosm that is our Wednesday nights sitting Indian-style (forgive me PC'ers) on the floor of a public access studio. TCGS, by nature of its format, has created a community within a community. It's inclusive and sort of feels like nerd-bleacher section during the Thanksgiving Play scene from The Addams Family movie. And makes me feel less dorky for having gone to a theater camp growing up. These were the people I hung out with when I was 13. There are no "strange birds" there, everyone's just…there.

  • Joe Martin@twitter

    TCGS reminds me of all of that was once good about MTV in the early to mid 80's (minus music videos of course). It has that live exciting anything can happen vibe that is sorely missed on TV.

  • Joe Martin@twitter

    …also, grammar/typing are not some of my strengths.