Chris Gethard and the Little ‘TCGS’ That Could
It’s been a long road out of public access, but tonight, The Chris Gethard Show finally makes its cable debut on Fusion at 10:00pm. Since January, Gethard and his team of cast mates, writers, and producers have been hard at work translating their MNN show into Fusion’s new half-hour late night fixture, but if you watched Tuesday night’s livestream of the premiere taping, you already know that Fusion’s TCGS is still full of the old-school DIY charm and chaos of its public access years. Ahead of the premiere, I spoke with Gethard about what it’s like to work with Fusion, what he’s learned from connecting with his fans, and his thoughts on the present and future state of late night talk shows.
The last time we talked was back in January right after Fusion picked up TCGS. How’ve you been since then, and what’s the process of moving the show to Fusion been like?
The process has been exhausting, but I can genuinely say that I don’t remember a five-month stretch of my life where I’ve been this consistently happy. When you get a show like this the pressure’s on, but we’ve already produced about 200 hours of content for public access, and that was much more difficult in a lot of ways. The theoretical pressure is bigger here because it’s a bigger platform and we’re spending other people’s money and we don’t wanna make them regret it, but an actual support system and infrastructure exists for us now that never existed before. We have offices, we’re all together, we’re no longer brainstorming episodes over email for an hour and a half on the weekends when we’re all free, and then there’s the fact that we have producers who, if we’re like “Hey we wanna try this thing, can you guys research if it’s possible?” ten minutes later they walk back down the hall and can actually tell us if it’s doable and we actually have some money to try to make it happen. Actually, the process has been very liberating in a way. I mean, I am working 14-hour days every day, so that’s been nuts, but that’s just because we’re not gonna fight this hard to get here and then drop the ball now.
You mentioned in January that people at Fusion were bringing up ideas that made you think “Whoa…we can do that?” Is that still the case?
Yeah. We’ve been doing these rehearsals onstage at UCB, and they come watch them and see how the crowd reacts and everything. And after the first one, we had worked really hard and were like “Great, now let’s clean up our act, let’s really make this thing bigger and better than it’s ever been,” and they pulled us aside and were like “Oh no, we want the public access show. We wanna be really clear: We know what we’re getting into, we want public access. Bring the public access to our network.” [laughs] We were trying to polish the thing, but that’s not what they wanted — they wanted our show and they’re still maintaining that. It’s been pleasantly eye-opening every time we realize that no, they’re legit, they want us.
You’ve gone all the way as far as the interactivity element for the Fusion show — you’ve had live chat rooms and cameras on your office all throughout the development phase, right?
Yeah, we livestream from all over our office. We have a chat room at our website now and it’s got 15 webcam slots, and we have people all over our office who just sit on the webcam while they’re doing their work. The thing I love the most about that is that it’s very typical of our fans — they tune into that, they saw what it was, they liked the chat rooms, they liked the webcams, and then they quickly were like “I don’t know if we just wanna see you guys sitting at a desk working or turning the mics off while you pitch each other ideas.” So they sit in it for like 24 hours a day, but they all just talk to each other, and they’re doing all this cool stuff with it and getting to know each other and building this whole community, and we are kind of the most boring aspect of that, which I think is mission accomplished.
So that’s one of the early things that makes me happy, but one of the other things I’m really happy about is that we have this budget and there’s a temptation to pour it into certain areas like making the set nicer or making things look better than they ever looked on public access, but we kind opted to not do that, and most of the infrastructure has gone into the interactive stuff like building a really cool Skype system so that we can let people actually appear on our show while it happens. A lot of the effort has gone into, like, “How do we involve people in the experience of watching TV in a way that gives them more access than they’re used to getting? How do we make their TV this thing that they can be inside at the end of the day? How can they watch a show where they actually wind up being in the show while they watch it?” It’s a little trippy to think that way, but that is where we’re pouring a lot of our energy and a lot of our budget.
Don’t you ever feel a little awkward, or at least extra pressure, with cameras always on you at work like that?
If you work on this show — cast or crew — you basically are volunteering to live inside The Truman Show in a way, you know? We kind of forget that we’re always broadcasting and there are people watching us, but it does keep us really honest. And we get instant feedback; there’s been a whole bunch of times where we were brainstorming ideas in the room and we have a bunch of stuff and we say “I don’t know, is it good?” and then we’re like “Oh wait! 50 of our fans are sitting in a chat room right now — let’s just say ‘Would you guys be excited if we did something like this?'” And they’ll just tell us honestly yes or no, so it can be a little disconcerting, but creatively it’s got a lot of benefits too.
It’s also nice just to be a little cheesy, like “Oh right, that’s who you’re doing it for.” There are always these people reaching out back and forth, and it’s a good reminder that it can’t be ego-driven, it can’t be about us becoming cool kids now, and it can’t be about me personally being a host on cable instead of public access. It’s about the fans. That’s what it’s always been about, and having them have a constant presence during the whole pre-production via the internet has really been a constant reminder of who we’re doing it for — the kids who sit in the chat room and talk to each other and build their group of friends out of the community that surrounds our show.
I love that you brought up how it can’t be “ego-driven,” because you’ve always seemed genuinely interested not just in “sharing” TCGS with everyone, but using it to connect with viewers who are struggling or just need an ear to listen. I’ve always wondered: How much of that is that you wanted and found that role, and how much of it is that the role found you?
Well…that’s a really interesting question, no one’s ever asked me that one before. I don’t think that’s a calculated thing. I don’t think when I first took an improv class I was like “I wanna be really low status and have nobody respect my authority!” I was really young when I started improv and I’ve always been really goofy-looking, and people really enjoyed picking on me. I was always like the kid brother. I tried to play high status, and it just never worked — I was much, much better at low status. And I came up at UCB during an era where all the people were powerhouses; I think I’m funny, but I’m not a powerhouse, so I needed to find my own way. Bobby Moynihan’s one of my best friends in the world, but doing improv with him, you’re not gonna outfunny Bobby, so you better learn how to facilitate and you better learn how to pass the ball and kind of be a point guard and help him. And it’s weird, because that’s the type of thing where when I was younger, sometimes I’d get offstage, and to be totally honest, my ego would be like “Ah man, I’m never the funniest one.” I’d be on the stage with guys like Bobby and Zach [Woods] and Brian Huskey and Billy Merritt — I was on a team with Jack McBrayer when I was 22 years old — but it was just like “I’ve always been in the situation where people don’t see that I’m funny.” And there was a lot of ego in that, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really tried to chase the ego out of my life. But then I do think I’m pretty good at creating an environment where the funniest people can be at their funniest and where the fact that I’m a confident performer but also very at peace with the fact that no one totally respects what I say onstage [laughs] …allows things to move in a direction you don’t expect.
The perfect example of that with our show is that Shannon O’Neill is my sidekick. Shannon O’Neill is, on her worst day, ten times funnier than I am and a far more powerful presence, but she’s the sidekick. So we are setting this thing up where I am going to fail as the host with authority. I’m surrounding myself with people who have more power and status from the start. Almost every single person on the show is someone who is totally comfortable with bossing me around and also telling me to fuck off when I try to boss them off — that’s onstage and off, to a certain degree. [laughs] So it’s a weird thing to kind of embrace the fact that you’re not very powerful and then try to use that as a source of strength.
You’ve connected with a lot of TCGS viewers over the years, and when it comes to kids who might feel unheard or depressed or lonely, you’ve sort of been a guide for some of them. What have you learned about connecting with those kinds of fans — the kind who want to come out of their shell but maybe don’t know how?
I think that at the end of the day, that comes from trust and it comes from honesty. As a performer I get anxious and I ramble a lot and I can be a little manic, but if there’s anything I’m good at, it’s being able to stop and listen. And I also think that our show is very absurd and we try to do stuff that’s a little out of the box, but if somebody calls up and sounds like they’re not having a good day, I’m totally happy to put the brakes on this stupid thing we built to talk to you about why you’re not having a good day. That’s not a calculated thing or a thing we sat down and brainstormed and said “Let’s do that!” — I think that’s just what being a good human being is. If somebody calls our show and says they’re not doing well, well, maybe building a burrito on my belly can take a backseat to the fact that this is a human being who needs some help. And I also think that now that we’ve been off public access for a few months, we can kind of take a step back and see it with some distance. We did manage to produce a show where there’s no consequences, where if it’s not funny because we stopped because some kid called and said his parents are fighting and he doesn’t know what to do, we can walk away from the comedy and talk to that kid and we don’t get canceled. So I think that’s it: They trust it, they know it’s honest, they know I’ll listen, and I think that goes a long way.
It’s weird — there’s this kid who called our show all the time. He was like the first caller of the show, forever — for like the first 15 weeks in a row the first call was this same kid, and he used to mess with us. He used to call up, and they weren’t like prank calls, but he was definitely messing with me. He was givin’ me the business and being a dick to me to make himself laugh. Many years after he started calling, Griffin Newman and Riley Soloner were making a podcast about our show, and they interviewed this kid and were like “Why did you keep calling? Why did you call every week first?” And he was like “You know, I look back at it…my parents got divorced and I didn’t know what to do and I was in high school and I was really young, and I started calling the show, and it was fun to mess with Gethard and he would kind of let me get the laugh. It was weird though because three or four weeks in I started to realize ‘Oh, this is a grownup who is actually listening to me.’ Most of the grownups I have in my life have other stuff going on — they don’t listen.” And I heard that interview, and I was crying. The little boy made me cry — he won again.
TCGS is premiering in the wake of the Late Show with David Letterman finale. As the newest contender out there, what do you think of late night these days?
I love late night TV, I always have. Loved Letterman from when I was nine or ten years old, obsessed with Conan all through his run, and I love it. Jimmy Fallon has figured out how to use a late night show, which is a medium that existed for many many decades, and he’s completely nourished it with the ability to go viral and appeal to a crowd that looks at other platforms. I watch Jimmy Kimmel and I really like him — I like what he does, I like the way he talks to people, I like his whole attitude. Seth Meyers has always been one of the most razor-sharp guys in the game and that’s good — he’s great at it. And Stephen Colbert’s coming to late night! That’s amazing. I cannot imagine what he’s gonna do, and then you hear that he’s hired someone like Brian Stack and you realize oh, it’s not just gonna be politics anymore; he’s reaching out to Conan guys, he’s reaching out to absurd people, like what is about to happen?!
So yeah, I think it’s in great shape from my perspective. I guess I just feel like I do have a chip on my shoulder and I kind of feel like maybe things aren’t as chaotic as they were — maybe that is in a lull in a little bit, in my opinion. And I almost feel like, well, if the chaotic nature of late night is in a little bit of a lull, maybe my show should just be all that? [laughs] Some parts of me just want it to be all the batshit stuff. Like if my show could just be David Letterman dumping rubber balls off a roof while they bounce off the Masturbating Bear, that to me is the perfect merging of my influence, so I kind of wanna see if I can build a show that really hits the gas on being the show that fills in that blank, you know? So I don’t know…late night TV is still my favorite thing, and I think all those people are way better at it than I’ll ever be. But maybe I can kind of fill a niche that’s a little underutilized these days.
The Letterman rubber ball/Masturbating Bear combo sounds like perfection.
Maybe we should do that? I wonder what the copyrights on that are.
The Chris Gethard Show premieres on Fusion tonight at 10:00pm.