Chris Gethard and ‘Hollywood Handbook’ Transformed a Short-Lived Sitcom Into a Psycho-Sexual Mind-Fuck

biglakecast
Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.

The Best Show inhabits occupies multiple layers of reality. The podcast exists both in the fictional universe of Newbridge as well as the real world, where Scharpling is a longtime broadcaster, TV writer, and cult comedy legend and Wurster leads a remarkable double life as a sought-after rock drummer and one of the funniest men alive. In much the same way, beloved Earwolf podcast Hollywood Handbook also exists in multiple layers of reality.

There’s the reality where hosts Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements are television writers and beloved podcasters, sure. But there’s also the fictional universe of the show, which, perhaps not surprisingly, also involves frequent guest Tom Scharpling as well as Julie Klausner. Sometimes the show’s multiple realities overlap, as in an unforgettable episode where Hayes Davenport and guest Chris Gerhard revisit a project they worked on together earlier in their career called Big Lake.

The quickly cancelled sitcom is remembered, if at all, for would-be star Jon Heder exiting the project two weeks before filming; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay executive producing through their powerhouse Gary Sanchez production company; and beloved podcaster, actor, comedian and author Gethard getting an opportunity to headline a sitcom, albeit one that did not reflect his unique comic sensibility.

In the real world, Big Lake sounds like a groaningly conventional sitcom, complete with the disembodied guffaws of a braying laugh track. I have not seen it, but from what I’ve gathered, it seems to have done a terrible job of showcasing Gethard’s idiosyncratic charms. In the world of Hollywood Handbook, however, Big Lake becomes something else entirely. It becomes, if anything, a television show that was too powerful, that took control of Gethard’s fragile psyche and unleashed evil into an unsuspecting world.

In the hands of Gethard and co-host Hayes Davenport (Sean Clements sits this one out for the most part, as he was not part of the Big Lake experience), Gethard’s experiences on Big Lake were a cross between Fight Club, A Scanner Darkly, Shocker and Raising Cain. The episode is a brilliant satire of the hoary old show-business trope where a role is so intense and so dark that it ends up completely inhabiting the mind and soul of the actor or actress playing them, with sometimes dark and disturbing results. Think Heath Ledger as The Joker or Kevin James as Paul Blart.

In this instance the role that drives an actor to the point of madness and beyond is Josh Franklin, a disgraced Wall Street hotshot who returns to his small town looking for a fresh start and another chance in Big Lake. Josh Franklin may have been a hackneyed TV protagonist in the real world but here he is a demonic spirit that essentially takes over the mind, body, and soul of Chris Gethard and forces him to do horrible things.

What kind of horrible things? Well, as Gethard casually mentions, “Josh loved paying for pussy” and shares an anecdote where Josh/Chris finished with a prostitute, who then told him, “It’s my father’s birthday.” According to the faux-confessional Gethard, Josh made a point of having intercourse with the crew and much of the top-of-the-line talent. He was obsessed with psychosexual domination and didn’t interact with the rest of the cast and crew so much as he terrorized them.

But Josh/Gethard wasn’t just someone who chose to develop a sex addiction. He’s also a hopeless drug addict who begins with “the small stuff, like PCP” before graduating to marijuana, which he of course injects, as he does all his drugs. Josh isn’t a television character so much as he is a ferocious force for evil in the universe, a demon inhabiting a fragile man’s body and soul and twisting and contorting it to fill its own depraved needs. He’s also a physical danger to people around him, since he carries a gun with him at all times and is deeply involved in the world of underground fighting tournaments, something he shares with Big Lake cast-member Chris Parnell, who he used as a weapon while fighting.

As a podcaster and comedian, Gethard radiates soft-spoken gentleness, intelligence, and sensitivity, so it’s hilariously incongruous to hear him utter lines like “I would stay warm as an actor by beating this elderly man” or hear him talk about how Josh’s racism would manifest itself by constantly agitating for a white answer to The Harlem Globetrotters. Gethard and Davenport play this psychosexual roller-coaster completely straight, as if Gethard making a sordid and long overdue confession, with Davenport as his unlikely Priest/confessor.

At several points in the podcast, actual clips from Big Lake are played and the WASPy banality of the show’s actual content adds a whole new element to the comic book universe of transgression, insanity, and control at play in their weird, warped, funhouse mirror version of a show that lived and died as a forgettable mediocrity.

Sean and Hayes are two of the funniest people alive but here Davenport expertly plays the straight man, yes-anding Gerhard’s cartoonish parade of depravity to sicker and sicker ends, until they’re discussing what they refer to as “the incident” where Josh, in full demon/anti-Christ mode, kidnaps the child actor playing his younger brother and takes him on a multi-day plane ride into the bleak unknown.

Gethard and Davenport keep building up the universe of Big Lake until it’s so huge and so destructive that it eventually poses a threat to television itself, since the show is so devilishly satisfying that after watching it, viewers would be tempted to destroy their televisions, since the medium had been perfected, leaving it nowhere to go but down.

To listen to The Big Lake episode of Hollywood Handbook is not just to tempt madness, but to actively invite it. But it’s worth it.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

From Our Partners