Talking to Chris Gethard About His New Album, His Comedy Central Pilot, and More
Chris Gethard has an exciting few months coming up. His debut standup album, entitled My Comedy Album, comes out today, his Comedy Central half-hour special is airing this summer, and he’ll soon hear back on whether Comedy Central will be ordering his pilot of The Chris Gethard Show to series or not. He also recently returned to doing weekly episodes of the public access version of The Chris Gethard Show, which will soon be ending whether the Comedy Central version gets picked up or not.
I had the chance to talk with Gethard a few weeks ago about how focus groups reacted to The Chris Gethard Show‘s Comedy Central pilot, season two of Broad City, and leaving improv behind to focus on standup.
Can you tell me a little about the album?
Well. I’ve been telling the stories on stage for many years now, and I’ve never really done anything to record them. Especially in the past five or six years, I’ve been focusing on getting to a place where I’m happy with standup, not just as a storyteller, not just as an improv guy who goes up on stage and tells stories sometimes. I’ve really worked hard to craft it into something that I think is fast-paced and hard-hitting. That’s been starting to really pay off for me. I just did a half-hour taping for Comedy Central, and I’m starting to become known as a standup. This is really a lot of material that got me to that place where I have that respect in the community. This is kind of the raw, uncensored version of all that.
For anybody who buys the album on vinyl, I just put together a thing where I have a bunch of more experimental stuff, probably stuff that’s more in line with the mentality of The Chris Gethard Show. Just trying stuff, seeing what works. There’s a second bonus disc that has a lot of conversations between me and some of my musician friends about whose lifestyle is more depressing, I have a track on there where I get heckled pretty horrifically and I was lucky enough to get it on tape. This very drunk, very pleasant middle-aged lady wouldn’t pipe down, so I just really tried to involve her in it, and the audio’s pretty good. So that second disc, I really just tried to give a look at what it’s like to be a comedian in New York City circa 2013 when I taped all this stuff. The first disc I think really represents my output as a comedian. All that bonus material, I think shows off what it’s like to be someone who lives in Brooklyn and does a lot of shows and meets a lot of other artistic people along the way.
When did you start doing standup?
I started doing standup around like 2006, 2007. I’d been doing improv for six or seven years before that and was really experienced with it, had some status in the UCB world. I started a show at UCB called Nights of Our Lives, kind of one of the early storytelling comedy shows in New York. There was The Moth and things like that. But we started inviting a lot of the more storytelling-based comedians around town. [Mike] Birbiglia did that show, Joe Mande, John Mulaney, Nick Kroll, Chelsea Peretti, so a lot of the standups who had storytelling as part of their acts would come through.
They started inviting me to do their shows, and I would go and just eat it. I would bomb just trying to tell these real long stories because they just felt like standup with no punchlines. So I just kind of committed, I wanted to get good at it. It was something I always wanted to do. I grew up being pretty in love with standup and found improv along the way. So I really dedicated myself to doing it right. I knew I wasn’t going to be good. I did tons of bars in the East Village and open mics, things like that, and really just kind of saw that New York City had so much stage time and tried to do it the right way and paid my dues like anyone else.
I feel like a lot of improvisers and sketch people don’t do standup and vice versa. Do you feel like it’s uncommon amongst your peers?
Yeah, I do. I think [standup] is much harder, and I think it also is more depressing. Improv and sketch, they’re inherently collaborative. The worst show you have at the very least, you have someone to commiserate with afterwards because they were up there with you. With standup, it’s a much more desolate, isolating sense of what went wrong, and also, a lot of the time, with improv, you can chalk it up to the fact that you and your partners didn’t connect that night or the audience just wasn’t receptive. But with standup, when it doesn’t go well, it oftentimes really feels like that audience didn’t like you. Like, those were your jokes, they were your ideas. you were telling them in your voice.
For performers who have done more sketch and improv stuff, it’s maybe even more scary than people who just started as standups because you get used to having the safety net of being able to fail with other people. So, once you’re used to that safety net, it’s a very hard thing to break away from. It very much was so for me. The early days, just bombing over and over again were brutal. It wasn’t like I could go to the bar with Will Hines and Shannon O’Neill afterwards and we could go like, “That was a rough one, huh?” “Yeah, well, we’ll get it next week.” You’re on the train on your way home, alone. Like, ‘Man, why do I do this? Why did I think that was funny?’ It gives you thick skin. It really is the only way to get good, I think.
I remember the first time I did standup, Joe Mande invited me to come do a show at Rififi in the East Village. He was like, “Dude, you’ve gotta try it, man. You’re telling all these stories. Come do my show. Me and Noah Garfinkel host it. We’re all friends, we’ve got your back.” And I went up, and I don’t remember a single joke I told, but I was so nervous that I kept inexplicably putting my hands in and out of my back pocket. Physically, it was a very uncomfortable set. Joke-wise, I remember feeling okay about what I wrote, but physically, I was all over the map. Joe Mande, who was one of my best friends then and still is now, went up on stage afterwards. He was like, “I really hope Gethard found what he was digging for back there because I could not stop looking at it.” He kind of gave it to me. As the host of the show, I think he needed to adjust it for the audience’s comfort level, but I don’t think I did standup for nine months after that. I think I did it once and then it was almost a year before I did it again because it was scary. It was straight-up scary.
How often do you do standup and improv these days?
I barely improvise anymore. The team The Stepfathers at UCB, I’ve been on hiatus with them for probably about year now. I was actually hosting ASSSSCAT for many years at UCB. I’ve been on hiatus from that. That was to focus on standup. I’m doing like five or six shows total every week. For a New York standup, I think that’s kind of a slow pace, but that’s just how I like to work. Mike Birbiglia has a improv show at UCB called Mike Birbiglia’s Dream. I do that. That’s fun, and I do a two-person improv show with Tami Sagher. I do that once or twice a month when our schedules allow. That’s the most fun thing in the world because Tami’s a really good friend of mine, and she’s really brilliant. To have an hour up there by ourselves, it’s been a really good time. But I do improv in very, very limited doses these days because I just want to focus as much as I can on standup and The Chris Gethard Show. More time doesn’t exist beyond trying to pull off a transition between public access TV and basic cable and also trying to push myself as hard as I can as a solo performer. So, improv, sadly, as much as I love it, it’s kind of a thing of the past for me now. It’s been kind of sad to accept, but it’s also exciting to do something new that feels really difficult in comparison.
So you don’t intend to go back to improv in the future? You’re just focusing on Gethard Show and standup from now on?
Well, the Gethard Show stuff is very much going to dictate itself in the next few months. We don’t know if we’re gonna get picked up by Comedy Central or not. But if they do pick it up, then that’d be my whole life over anything else. I imagine I wouldn’t have time to do anything. The real question for me becomes that if they don’t pick it up and The Gethard Show goes away, what do I do with all that time? I do just think it would be more solo stuff. It’s also the kind of thing where I’m 33 years old and I just got engaged. Improv is the most fun thing in the world, but I was doing shows every Friday and Sunday night for like 10 years. I kind of wanted to have my weekends back to take this pretty girl on dates, and that worked out. Also, with improv, you need to get eight people together and there’s set times to do it. With standup, I can kind of define my own schedule. There’s a lot about it pragmatically that I really enjoy. I don’t need four or five other people. If I want to try a new joke, I can just go to The Creek, I can find an open mic, and I can try it and do it. I kind of just love the freedom of that, as terrifying as it can be at times.
It’s very frustrating for me too because I’m known primarily as an improviser. Even before I did any press leading up to my half-hour taping for Comedy Central, people were like, “You’re an improviser. You’re not even a standup. How did you pull this off?” And I’m like, “Well, I’ve been doing standup multiple times a week, every week, for like seven years.” At what point am I also a standup in addition to an improviser? I’ve crossed that threshold. A comic friend of mine who was congratulating me was like, “Dude, that’s awesome! You have a half-hour and standup’s not even what you do.” I was like, “Well, I like to think I do it in that I often do it.”
How’d your half-hour taping go?
The taping was super fun. I really had a great time. I worked that material out really hard. [I] went out there, really worked them hard, and felt good about it. I felt really solid. I hope it comes out well. But yeah, it felt good, and it was also nice. I was sharing the bill with my buddy Joe Wengert, who’s another improviser-turned-standup. He was in New York forever. He’s in LA now, so a lotta UCB people from New York came out to support the two of us, which was really nice. A lot of fans of the public access show from the New England area showed up in Boston for it. It really felt like a warm room, and I was super psyched to get a chance to do it. It was cool.
How does that album differ from the special?
Things crossover. The special and the album share a lot, but you’ll be able to see differences. Like, the Comedy Central special has, I think, two stories that will also be on the album, but on the album, I can kind of curse and dwell on the darker parts of that story a little bit, kind of squeeze more laughs out of those. I have a story about Bonnaroo that’s in both the album and the special, but on basic cable, I couldn’t talk about eating butt. The only place people can get the very extended set of jokes about eating butt in a weird hotel room is in the album. I think anybody would accept it as appropriate on TV, but if you want that sweet, sweet butt-eating material, then you’ve gotta pick up the album.
Do you have an official date when you’ll hear about the pilot from Comedy Central, or are you just kinda left hanging in the breeze?
It’s kind of twisting in the wind now. When I got up to Boston, I ran into one of the Comedy Central execs, and he was like, “Man, I’m really sorry that we’ve got you just waiting.” I was like, well, it’s better to still be waiting than to know it’s not happening. There are many versions of this conversation that are more grim than this one. We’re just waiting to hear. We turned in the pilot. We’re really happy with it. The taping was so much fun, and people were really supportive.
We sent it to focus groups; they didn’t love it, but anyone who’d seen our show knows that it’s probably not the type of thing that’s built for a focus group. Everyone involved was kinda like, “Yeah, well, it woulda been nice if that did go well, but none of us expected it to.” We have a bit in the pilot where we’re just being electrified by dog collars over and over again, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s probably a little bit more on the fringe than what you usually see if you sign up for a focus group in LA.” These people were probably expecting sitcoms with jokes, but instead, they’re watching me and Michael Cera fistfight a pro wrestler in the first act. So I’m trying not to overthink that or freak out, but I am a very panic and anxiety-driven person. It was scary, but we’re still in the fight and hopefully, it turns out we’ll get to do that show many times to greater audiences. I love it more than anything. Right now, it’s just a matter of “Let’s sit and wait and see how it goes, you know? See where it goes.” Or I can just pull a Hannibal and claim it’s happening, but I don’t want to rip off Hannibal’s bit. I don’t want to start making claims that it’s happening because Hannibal’s already been there, done that. I’ll just cop to the fact that we’re waiting to hear.
Are you still committed to your promise to host Sandwich Night for the rest of your life?
I would love to, yeah. I’m really proud of the fact that we invented a holiday. Like anything from The Chris Gethard Show, there’s really a handful of people who even know about Sandwich Night but they’re really passionate about it. I remember for the second Sandwich Night, a group of girls actually traveled from Texas to New York City to come to Sandwich Night rather than spend Thanksgiving with their families, so if they’re gonna invest that much in it, I feel like I need to step up and really honor this thing as a holiday, even if it’s only a holiday for like 1500 kids. I also have to imagine if Chris Gethard Show ends and I keep doing Sandwich Night, that already small number is gonna drop off severely. There’s a part of me that thinks it would be really, really funny if I was like 50 years old and still hosting Sandwich Night on public access once a year the night before Thanksgiving and that’s really all the world remembered me for. That would be sad and it would mean that a lot of my hard work didn’t pay off, but there’s also something really hilarious to me about going up once a year at public access when I have to put kids through college and stuff.
There’s an ever-growing crop of podcasts that have been built around The Chris Gethard Show. Do you have time to listen to many of those?
Oh, no. I don’t listen to most of the podcasts about The Chris Gethard Show. But one of the things that makes me love our fans is that this show has attracted this really hardcore group of people that are both creative and ridiculous. The fact that there’s, I think at last count there’s now about 15 podcasts either about the show or about the other podcasts about the show. It’s super ridiculous. I think anyone involved in any of those podcasts would say it’s a bit that immediately went out of control and is pretty dumb, but the cool part that’s really inspiring is that some of those podcasts are actually good. Some funny people made some podcasts just to be part of this big joke that there’s too many podcasts about The Gethard Show.
There’s one called Teens Talkin’ TCGS. It’s a group of our fans who are all in their teens. They get together on Skype and talk about life; they don’t always talk about the show. I think it’s really cool. You actually get to hear these teenagers talking about what’s cool to them in 2014. That one I can really listen to. I can get down with it. I don’t know. There are way too many podcasts. And just today, someone is publishing a fanzine about The Chris Gethard Show too in reaction to all the podcasts, saying that there’s too many podcasts and we need to go back to print. There’s now a public access show that really only a few thousand people watch that has over 15 analytical podcasts and a handmade magazine about it, which is too much. Almost every single person who watches our show is now making something analyzing the show.
I didn’t realize there were 15 podcasts. That’s insane.
Something like that. Someone counted them up. There’s Talkin’ TCGS, Talkin’ Talkin’ TCGS, Teens Talkin’ TCGS, Anything But TCGS, which is a podcast by TCGS fans where they talk about anything except the show, and then there’s other ones that are by members of the community. Murf [Meyer] and Diana [Kolsky], who are both performers on the show, they have a great podcast called Ménage à Trois. There’s a guy called Mark Levy who comes in every week who has a show called Hit the Mark. They’re not necessarily focused on TCGS, but the fans all lumped them into this large group of TCGS podcasts. I think it’s the one that’s just called Talkin’ that’s the most bizarre. That one I tried to listen to, and I was like I think this has gotten to a point of shame that even I can’t totally opt into.
Is there anything you’d like to do with The Chris Gethard Show that you would only be able to do once it’s picked up by Comedy Central? Stuff you couldn’t do on public access?
Yeah, having a budget for a lot of our bits would really help. It sounds like the most basic thing in the world, but we’ve done it for 120 episodes. Having a budget for the one pilot, it was like, ‘Oh, if we need stuff, it actually just shows up.’ You can ask the producers to provide props and things like that and they actually just appear.
One big one for me is we have this episode — we’ve tried to do it twice now — it’s called “The Human Crane.” The idea is that it’ll be a big arcade claw game where you try to win stuffed animals with the claw, but my idea is always that I will be dangled upside down and will have ideally a celebrity guest bring a bunch of items and those will be on the ground and callers will call up and say, “Move him a little left, a little forward. Closer to the camera. Now, drop him.” Then I have to try to get those objects in my mouth. And if I do, we’ll mail them to your house ’cause you won them just like an arcade claw game.
We’ve tried this twice now, and it’s gone really horribly and been unwatchable television, unfunny comedy, and actually truly dangerous. The first time, it was just guys holding me by my ankles. If you watch that episode, they keep dropping me on my head off this platform we were standing on. It was one of our worst ideas. We tried to do it again where I had a big metal pole and a bunch of chains and my hope was that people were gonna hoist me up with these chains, but it probably went worse than the first time. There is a part of me that thinks it would be the most amazing thing in the world if we get picked up by Comedy Central and make our first episode “The Human Crane” and to do it right with a budget and to just immediately have this episode that if you’ve never seen the show before, there’s this dude getting hung upside down and you can call up and control him like a video game. If you are a public access fan, it’ll feel like the ultimate victory because we’re actually doing the human crane in a way that obeys the laws of physics and works. I think that would be a really fun thing that we could do with a budget that we’ve never been able to get right before. But I want to do it first. Because if they were to cancel us, that would be such a badge of honor if we pulled off the human crane if we did it right and pulled it off one time. [Laughs] I want Comedy Central to give me money so I can correct past mistakes.
Have you figured out whether or not you’d be able to have a call-in element to the show?
The pilot had calls. We had a whole second room in the facility, where we had people, many of them who were callers from the show and some improvisers from New York, were calling in. I think it would be really rad to have a call-in show on Comedy Central. There’s such a passionate fanbase on that network and especially right now. The idea of Workaholics fans having a place to call in, South Park fans knowing they can call, let alone the types of people who watch Nathan For You. That’s one of my favorite shows. My guess is there’s a lot of really strange, creative people watching that show who have something to say. I’d love to be on that network right now to take phone calls because I bet we’d hear from so many really sort of strange, creative, cool kids. I just think that people watching it would really take to a call-in show right now, and I think they’d have a lot of interesting things to say, and I think we’d be able to connect with them. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about is the idea that they might actually let us do a call-in show on their network. It could be super exciting for us and for the people who find it. I think it could be a really interesting time.
For people who haven’t checked out the public access show yet, do you have an episode you’d recommend as being a good one to get started with?
Zach Galifianakis did an episode where he cut people’s hair live on the air, Amy Poehler did an episode where she predicted people’s future, those are really good ones, I think, because those are people that a casual fan would know better and they can see them letting their guard down in our environment and see how it works. We also have an episode called “The Crowdsourced Character Contest.” That’s one that really shows ourselves at our best. The basic idea is that we let the viewers write the show. They email us names of characters. Our writers pick 10 of the names, they assign those names to improvisers and guest comedians from around New York who we think are really great, and those actors come in and present a fully-formed character and the audience gets to vote on which character they want to come back and become a more permanent part of the show. To me, that’s the type of thing that I really love that we’ve stumbled into with the show. We’ve got these creative weirdos in New York waking up to many different communication methods — email, Twitter, phones — all the different ways that they can communicate with the show and we let them actually build the show and we let it go where it wants to go. Those episodes, I think, kind of show off a lot of the interactive elements but generally, I think they’re really funny.
Those are the ones that I tend to point people to now. We have some that are really, really strange, and when people find the Twist Magazine episode, that’s the first one they do or the very first one they see is the Hour Long Song episode. Those ones are pretty trippy. Some of the ones that are more driven by celebrities tend to be a little more digestible and a great place to start.
Are you back on Broad City for season two?
I haven’t heard yet. I hope so. It’s a cool show. My brother called me up, he was like, “That show’s the best.” I was like, “Keep watching because I’m on it.” He was like, “Right, right. I saw you on there.” My brother called me up to talk about how much he liked Broad City, he didn’t even mention the fact that I was on it. It’s cool to see it grow as much as it has. Abbi and Ilana I’ve known for years and I think they’re the best and they deserve it all. I would love it if they read this answer. So please, Abbi and Ilana, if you’re reading Splitsider right now, hook it up. I had a lot of fun the first time. Let’s make the magic happen again.