Chris Gethard on ‘Career Suicide’s Journey from the Stage to HBO
We are all familiar with the old adage that “we laugh to keep from crying.” But what’s wrong with a healthy dosage of both? You’ll experience plenty of laughter — as well as some cathartic tears — while watching Chris Gethard’s new HBO special Career Suicide, a hilarious and heartbreaking one-man show framed around his failed suicide attempt and mental health struggles.
You may ask how Gethard could possibly pull off making suicide and depression palatable, let alone funny. Well, the 36-year-old comedian/talk-show host/podcaster/actor possesses an uncanny ability to infuse an electric bolt of empathy into his riveting storytelling, which welcomes the audience with warm, open arms. Gethard manages to mine the mirth out of the macabre, highlighting the inherent absurdity of life while always remaining sensitive and respectful to the heavy subject matter. There’s a trustworthiness embedded in Gethard’s comedy, an honesty which allows us to watch him detail his tragic experiences with depression and addiction for an hour and a half and feel that it’s okay to laugh with him.
Career Suicide contains some bleak moments, but it refuses to be defined by them. Gethard’s story is a hopeful and redeeming one, yet he never romanticizes his illness. Throughout the special he painstakingly walks us through his failed suicide attempt, the screwball relationship with his therapist, and how the ebb and flow of his depression affected his relationships and comedy career (a squandered SNL writing gig and a live UCB meltdown are especially devastating). And yet through the hyper-specificity of his personal experience, a universal truth emerges. This special serves as a love letter to all those suffering from mental health issues, and it’s a reminder that we’re not alone. There’s solidarity in taking the piss out of the thing that makes us feel powerless. Gethard wants us to laugh at the pain with each other.
You performed Career Suicide as an off-Broadway one-man show yet it has the rhythm, structure, and tension of traditional standup. In an era where comedy specials are more experimental than ever — take Bo Burnham’s Make Happy or Reggie Watts’ Spatial for example — is there even a difference between standup and a one-man show anymore?
It’s funny because, even though I now don’t consider Career Suicide standup, there was a time when I did. I was fighting really hard to make sure it was standup. I was like, “I need it to be punchy. I need a ton of punchlines in this or it’s not real standup”. I had this hang-up on what was “real” standup. It was until Judd Apatow got involved —well before he wanted to produce it — and he asked me if he could give notes on it. He had heard I was doing the show and he had watched some video of it. I was like, “I really need to make sure it is as funny as everything else I’m doing.” And Judd said, “You’re talking about sad stuff. You have to be okay with the fact that there will be long stretches that are not funny.” He recognized standup was in the DNA of my show in a big way, but it is its own thing now. So that really readjusted my thinking.
But at the root of your question is that idea of where do the boundaries exist in comedy now. At the end of the day, what’s cool about a lot of the stuff other comedians are doing that gets very experimental is that that comedy bubble has grown big enough that more fans are starting to say, “Eh, who really cares about those boundaries?” There’s standup inside of Career Suicide but it’s not totally defined by it. There’s more wiggle room to explore those various elements of what comedy can be. The special is sad, which isn’t a feeling most people are accustomed to with standup. But I had to stop worrying about that and get out of my own way about whether or not it was real standup.
Career Suicide is a tragicomic exploration of your own struggles with depression and the stigma surrounding mental health. It brings a new literal meaning to “comedy should be medicine and applesauce.” Was that something you thought about when creating this special?
You know, I don’t think comedy has any responsibility. There’s a ton of comedians who I watch that are great at setups and punchlines and you know it’s not coming from an honest experience, but they are insanely well-crafted jokes. I’m actually jealous of them, the people who can sit down and write straight-up jokes and just crush ’em. I’ve never been good at that. Everything with me has to come from personal experience. And Career Suicide directly reflects that.
As far as medicine and applesauce, I think in the case of this special for sure. I had that chip on my shoulder of like, if I can get them to laugh hard enough then they have to listen to the rest of what I’m saying. Nobody hates laughing. I thought if I could make the jokes funny enough then they’ll absorb the sadder parts. That was specific to this show. In general though, I don’t think comedy has to be that. But the thing that is cool about the comedy spectrum is that it has been. You look back at —and I’m certainly not trying to equate myself to their level — what people like George Carlin or Lenny Bruce did with censorship. Or comics like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle and this lineage of comedy that’s really funny but also creates a dialogue about race. Of course I’m not on that level, but there were a lot of those elements that inspired me while writing Career Suicide. I don’t think comedy has to have a point. This special has a point and there are certainly plenty of examples throughout history of comedy having a point that’s still really fucking funny. So that felt pretty empowering to realize that there’s this legacy of comedy sometimes giving you that medicine.
You’ve dedicated a lot of your career to mental health advocacy and combating stigma. You’ve even provided safe spaces for strangers to speak to you about them on your talk show The Chris Gethard Show and your podcast Beautiful/Anonymous. While no one would ever question your intent, did you ever think to yourself “What if I get this wrong?” when performing the special?
There’s a lot more responsibility to this compared to anything else I’ve ever done. You have all these theoretical fears. What could go wrong? What might go wrong? But as I started doing more standup nights and slipped these kinds of stories in, I noticed how quickly people started waiting for me after shows to encourage me to keep opening up. Complete strangers saw the show and would tell me a certain story spoke to them. I remember one time after a show a lady telling me that her brother had always been depressed and my show helped her understand his struggle a bit more. And that’s exactly what I’m hoping will happen even more now.
In a special that mines humor out of tragedy, did it feel like a high-wire act of balancing sensitivity with truth?
At first I had to get out of my own way about the personal, ego-driven things that could go wrong. I had all these paranoid thoughts: Is this gonna make me look bad? Are people gonna judge me? Are people gonna think I’m exploiting this? But really, the only fear that I felt an actual responsibility to address was that there were times when people would see the show who I came to learn had suffered or tried to hurt themselves. Or they had family members who died. I got messages from people who came and saw the show who had lost their kids to suicide. I had to do right by them.
So that was the real balance. I had to be mindful of making the right jokes — no cheap laughs in this one. And there were things throughout the workshopping of this show that always got a laugh but I knew were a little cheap. I knew I couldn’t keep those. If that laugh is a tipping point to where someone feels really bad, I gotta be respectful of that. I don’t want anyone who has suffered to watch this show and feel worse. I want them to feel that it’s okay to laugh. I want them to feel a little less alone.
I’m glad you mentioned the workshopping of this special. How the hell do you workshop something so traumatic without triggering a Russian nesting doll of buried anxieties and insecurities that your brain has tried not to dwell on?
Oh man, it was totally brutal. [laughs] For the first six months or so of performing the show I would get on stage and start shaking. There were times I would cry. There were times I’d get off stage and realize I made a joke about something that I never even talked to my wife about. Workshopping it was really intense. Even in New York where it’s easy to talk about going to therapy, it was still tough. So I took it on the road and went to a few different cities. I even went to a few different countries. I was just trying to see how anyone would react to it and no two audiences ever really reacted the same way twice. It was very unpredictable.
What did this special teach you about your ability to perform?
So much of being able to do the show is just about developing a very thick skin. One of the things I feel about comedy over the years is that you’re training yourself to dictate how an audience responds. That’s a big part of the magic trick of standup, right? It’s that it all appears spontaneous, but a good comedian knows exactly when you’re gonna react. They know which half of the room they want to react. But with this show, I realized I don’t get to dictate how the audience feels about it. There are nights where they might be a little more upset. There are nights where they might rightfully have their guard up. There are nights where they’re gonna laugh at certain things I wish they weren’t laughing at. There are nights where the parts that I wish would get laughs are being met with fear. Sometimes the parts that are usually met with sadness are getting big laughs and applause breaks. That can make me feel bad and mess my head up while performing. This show, more than anything else I’ve done, made realize that all I can do is send it out there but I have no ability to predict or dictate how they choose to react to it.
One of my favorite through-lines of Career Suicide is how you push back against the rampant romanticizing of the “sad clown” trope in the comedy world.
I thought really hard about this. There’s such a long list of names who have been incredibly funny who have dealt with mental health issues. But I think romanticizing it just provides an easy excuse to not get help. It drives me a little nuts, to be honest. Just on a personal level, and I talk about this in the special, but for years I resisted medication and therapy because I thought my craziness was part of what was making me funny. Maybe in some way that was true, but I found that when I finally made the effort to clean up my act that I was able to be so much more thoughtful, funny, and organized. All those little things that help you have a career in comedy. And it’s such a regret of mine that I bought into that myth, so I really want to fight back against it.
And I think there are some people who probably say that their mental health struggles are a major part of their creativity. I’d say to them, more power to ya, but I’d prefer to be alive and unfunny than funny and heading towards certain death. Once I got the help I needed and practiced some self-care, I soon realized that I didn’t trade one in for the other. So why did I spend all those years in complete fucking misery because I bought into that sad clown story? [laughs] I just don’t think it’s truthful or healthy. I think that a lot of comedians, when we are younger, we fall into walking these “hero’s journeys” in our heads. We think we are blazing these paths on our own through this hard-to-navigate world. And that is a thing that’s melodramatic we tend to romanticize. But I think that piece of the hero’s journey is way overblown.
It’s interesting to watch Career Suicide as a companion piece to The Chris Gethard Show. One is a nuanced meditation, the other is a manic circus of comedic anarchy and energy. It’s almost like the superego vs. the id.
It’s definitely two sides of the same coin. I think part of what’s fun for me in my career is figuring out how my brainwaves fit into different spaces. The Chris Gethard Show and Career Suicide both come from the same place within me. One is thoughtful and smart, and one is completely bonkers and a far less cerebral unleashing of emotion. I’ve actually done a lot of soul-searching about that, and one thing I can say is this: If you watch the first two years of our public access run of The Chris Gethard Show —2011 and 2012 — it’s definitely bizarre, absurdist comedy, but you can also see a guy who has some mental issues and he’s sorting them out through his comedy. I talk so much in Career Suicide about how my self-esteem wasn’t great and how I often doubted and didn’t like myself. Watch those early Gethard Show episodes and it’s probably not a coincidence that one episode I have a dominatrix beating the shit out of me. [laughs] Lots of self-torture stuff. You don’t bring in a kickboxer to beat the hell out of you on public access TV unless you’re sorting through some personal things.
My creativity has been one of the pieces of the puzzle that helps me sort out these feelings. Career Suicide is the most pronounced commentary on my mental issues. But I think it’s also fair to say that The Chris Gethard Show is a reflection of those same mental issues that I aimed to turn into something more positive. I think that’s how the special and the TV show are companion pieces. There’s gonna be Gethard Show fans who don’t like Career Suicide, and there will definitely be fans of Career Suicide who have no clue what is going on with Gethard Show. But if you like both, you’ll see that one is talking calmly to the craziness that is reflected in the other.
You use an interesting framing device in Career Suicide where you cite different Smiths lyrics to describe your mental state at three stages of your life: your teens, your 20s and your early 30s. What lyric would best describe where Chris Gethard is right now?
Well, I always shift. The Smiths’ lyrics will hit me at different times in life. There are some songs that never worked for me, but then five years after I first hear it I’ll be like oh my God that’s brilliant. There’s a song that I’m really enjoying that was never really one of my favorites until now called “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” Every lyric in that song hits home to me now. Basically, what it’s about is how we shouldn’t make jokes that dismiss people’s feelings or throw them under the rug for who they are. This whole idea of this joke that isn’t funny anymore. The lyrics go: It’s too close to home / and it’s too near the bone / more than you’ll ever know.
We say things thoughtlessly and callously without regards to how they affect other people around us. Maybe it’s because our political atmosphere is reflecting a total lack of empathy between humans more than usual lately. I think a lot of my work is empathetic and I think that song is all about embracing empathy and caring about other people. It’s about not getting a laugh at their expense just because it’s an easy thing to do. That’s a song that’s really been jumping out at me lately as empathy becomes more and more of a focus of mine.
Career Suicide airs on HBO tomorrow night at 10:00pm.
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.