It's hard to find one defining moment from the first new episode of The Chris Gethard Show, but this might the closest:
The titular host, in a "genital chamber" along with Broad City's Ilana Glazer, is on a video call with a fan who is showing the duo his over-inflated testicles. Since the audience (both in studio and eventually on cable TV) can't see the video feed, UCB artistic director Shannon O'Neill and Broad City's other half Abbi Jacobson are acting as sketch artists based on Gethard and Glazer's dictation. Jacobson's in particular is strikingly accurate — "If that thing had a hat on, that would be it," quips Gethard, which prompts Jacobson to jump and scream, "I am a genital wizard!"
There is no show on TV like The Chris Gethard Show — that, I can say with confidence. A talk show in the loosest sense of the term, it’s more in kind with experimental fare like Comedy Bang Bang than a traditional late night variety hour. The format can vary wildly from episode to episode, but in general Gethard and celebrity guests — primarily comedians — take phone calls around a specific theme (e.g. weird body parts) and partake in improvised segments. Traditional jokes are few and far between; it mines its humor from uncomfortable truths and unplanned moments of awkwardness, but it always embraces the positive — nothing here is framed as exploitative. The set itself, designed to look intentionally grungy, is lined with fan-submitted art and other trinkets. Gethard is flanked by dozens of fans who sit on stage the whole show, along with his usual crew that includes O'Neill, announcer Murf Meyer, house band the llc, "internet liaison" Bethany Hall (who hangs out in the online chat room from the stage during the entire taping), perpetual hoops dancer Mimi, and the Human Fish, an incredibly hairy individual who occasionally chimes to answer absurdist "This or That?" questions.
To put it another way, The Chris Gethard Show is a show that encourages weirdness. Gethard has been shepherding the passion project for four years on a New York City public access channel (TCGS has a devoted following online and is planning to livestream its tapings in full). In many ways, it’s a reflection of the host himself, who, in addition to the show, has released a handful of books and a comedy album. Gethard has never been shy about his ambition to bring TCGS to a national audience, and this Thursday he'll finally get his chance when it premieres on cable channel Fusion.
A week before the first taping of the new show, I sat down with Gethard for a wide-ranging chat about TCGS and his career up until this point. Some highlights are below, but we'd recommend you listen to the full audio interview (available here and embedded above).
The Chris Gethard Show will play Thursdays at 10PM on Fusion starting this week (May 28th) through the end of the summer. The tapings will be livestreamed in their entirety each Tuesday prior to the premiere. Full episodes will be released online the next Friday after (so... June 5th for the first one). Cool? Cool.
I'm curious about how this version of The Chris Gethard Show is going to be different than before. At least in the build up to the first episode, does it feel any different for you? Is the pressure different?
I think the pressure's definitely there. By and large it's been very healthy and very motivating and positive. There's definitely been a few moments of stress where I've been like, "Oh my God, can I pull this off?" Not even "can we", because the people surrounding the show and the people who kind of help lift it up and get it to where it needs to go — I have really a lot of faith in them. It's mostly just in myself.
We did this show on public access for about four years. We were at the UCB Theater for another year or so before that. For like five, six years, I've been talking a real good game about get me on TV, give me a real chance to do it and I'll just prove a lot of people wrong. I'll prove a lot of things. Now I have to actually go do it. It's like, I talked a lot of smack along the way. Now I have to actually deliver.
How would you describe The Chris Gethard Show to a complete newcomer?
At the very basic level, I'll tell them, it's a really weird talk show. I think the things we try to do that make it really different are twofold. It's all about audience accessibility to me. Interactivity-wise, I want them to really feel like they can leave their fingerprints on it. We just relentlessly try to think of ways that some kid watching at home can have an actual effect on the show. Not in a small way; in a really direct, discernible, visible way.
Now I'm going to get excited and start to ramble, but I think TV is traditionally, "They send it out and then you watch it in your living room," and that's the experience. That's not really how young people experience things today. Now they get to comment, they get to interact, they get to guide it. I want to be a TV show that embraces that.
I think the other major difference between us and other talk shows is we really try to do things that disarm ourselves and the audience at times. I want to present something where it's clear we don't know exactly what's going to happen, it's clear that the celebrity is really letting their guard down and experiencing something… It's not guided by a publicist, it's not guided by a pre-interview, you get to see these people and how they really react to things.
With public access, you had surprisingly few limits and a devoted internet following, but now you’re going to cable. Is Fusion giving you any limits beyond what cable access gave you, which was surprisingly little?
A very small handful of limits. Public access, there were really no rules. Really the only rule we had was just don't get naked in the studio. If you need to get naked, pre-tape it. We don't want naked people putting their naked parts on our stuff in the studio. That really was the only rule. There were a few others, and they didn't even hold us to them.
Fusion, there's a few more. Fusion I think is the right place for us in many ways. They are clearly an underdog network, and we're an underdog show. I think they're really staking out their claim, and I'm really psyched to be a part of that because that's always been my attitude. At the end of the day, they are co-owned by Univision and ABC. That ABC thing kicks all the way up the chain to Disney. Technically we are under the same corporate umbrella as Star Wars now.
There are no jokes in the show, which is maybe a testament to where you come from in comedy. But there's a lot of humor just by merit of being in an awkward and honest situation.
I don't like jokes. I don't like a thing where it's like I know you want me to laugh and then I have to laugh or not laugh. I'd rather give them something else. I really started years ago ... When I was an improviser, this started. I think it extended when I converted and became a stand up. I really loved the idea of making people laugh. At the end of the day that is what I crave when I get on stage or on camera in any way, but I like the idea of trying to give them laughter plus something else that's less certain.
I love Andy Kaufman. I always feel like you weren't exactly sure how you were supposed to react. David Letterman, I feel like a lot of his stuff, like you're laughing — but also, he seems like he's being kind of mean to this guest. Why are you hassling your deli guy? I find it really funny, but that's really just the deli guy. I don't know exactly how to feel about that. TV in particular, so much of TV is structured in a way where it's like "here's the joke and now you laugh." Here's the laugh track to remind you to laugh ... I'd rather put trust in our audience.
"I don't like jokes... I'd rather give them something else."
It also feels just feels like that's kind of a progression of where we have seen comedy go in the last few years — single camera, very few laugh tracks, standup comics that are getting big, more storytellers. I think the monologue is one of the last bastions of the talk show format. Even to an extent, Twitter has kind of become the replacement for that.
I think so in a big way. That's like I was saying before. I think just modern viewers, younger people than me, they grew up where almost all the entertainment they consumed in their formative years had a box underneath where they could leave comments on it. Most of the celebrities they really love, they follow on platforms where when the celebrity says something, 10 seconds later they can write back and be like, that wasn't funny. That's just part of the enjoyment for them.
[Before Fusion], were there other offers? There's a near-mythical Comedy Central pilot that some comedy circles still talk about.
Yeah. We shot a pilot for Comedy Central. I was really proud of it, think it went really well. I watch it and there's a lot of things I really like about it. I think ultimately it was not a Comedy Central vehicle. The idea that we're going to take calls and it was going to be totally chaotic, I don't think it was quite something they were ready to take a chance on. That's fine. A lot of the people there have been very kind to me, and I don't begrudge them. [Still,] I was a little surprised. I felt like the pilot went really well. Our pilot taping, a girl flew from Brazil, kids came from San Francisco, from Honolulu, from Canada to attend a pilot taping. All the Comedy Central people on the set were like, what's going on? I was just like, we are not trying to create buzz when we say we have a cult audience. We don't have a huge audience, but they will fly from Brazil to come do this thing.
It was cool. They were impressed. Then I think you start to send it up the chain where corporate people and marketing people see it. They're like, we don't know exactly what to do with this. It makes sense to me, it's a very new thing. It's very different. I'm proud of that. I understand it. Ultimately it wasn't for them. We had meetings with so many other people.
Can you name any of them?
IFC actually gave me this big development deal where for a year they made me their public face of their marketing and optioned me to write a script based on a book that I wrote a couple years ago. They wouldn't ... They had us pitch the Gethard show three times. Even a company that was making me their public face for a year — me, Chris Gethard, they wanted to be the face of their advertisement. They called it an adopt-a-comic program where they were adopting me for a year, making me their guy — would not do The Chris Gethard Show, which to me felt so crazy.
They basically gave me a salary for a year where I kept working on it on public access and didn't feel that total financial [fear] ... So many times where I was like, "I need to move to LA just because I can't pay the rent," IFC saved me. I give them so many thanks for that. I kept working on the show for a year while they did it. I did a lot of other stuff for them too. I wasn't just stealing their money. IFC was a big one.
There were a bunch of [networks] that were very nice and tried to maybe workshop their version of the idea in a way that I appreciate, but ultimately wasn't right for me. Then there were a few other networks that were just like, "This is really out there. This is not our thing."
Let's look farther in the future. If this doesn't get picked up, is this the end of The Chris Gethard Show? Is this where you move [into] standup and storytelling?
I feel like if it doesn't get picked up, it is the end of The Chris Gethard Show only because... I think I kind of legendarily have thrown myself against the wall trying to make it happen for five years now. It's finally happening in a way that I always hoped it would. I actually feel like it would be reflective of mental illness if I kept trying to do it after this. I feel like I will be at peace with how this goes.
A lot of that is because Fusion is cool enough — they're letting us do it our way in a real sense where I won't walk away from this being like, "Well, that wasn't the show I really wanted to do." This'll be the show I really wanted to do. They're not trying to interfere with that at all. They're empowering me to go do the show I want to do. I'll be able to walk away.
I feel like if it doesn't get picked up, the real question for me is do I keep doing comedy? Do I go to Los Angeles? Do I do more stand up? Or... Do I just disappear and move back to New Jersey and try to have a couple kids and be happy — just work a regular job and let this be my legacy and know that I tried? That, to me, is the big question.
My wife is like, you talk a good game. She's like, you would go insane if you didn't get to be creative. I think I've kind of gone insane while I've been creative so I don't know that there's a way out of that.
"This was always the safety net. This was always the long-term goal."
I don't know. Maybe it's easy to get caught up in [everything], but... I kind of feel like this show is the reason why I got into this. Looking at from when I started when I was 19, 20 years old until now, this show really has helped connect me with people. I think it's given people something. I don't know if I'll ever do that again, I don't know that I have the energy or the ideas to do that again. Maybe this is all I needed to do — in a hopeful way. I don't want it to be a bummer and sad. I want it to be "mission accomplished. I did this thing that I wanted to do."
It was weird. When I started at UCB when I was 20, I remember feeling like, "I just want to be able to make the type of thing that I would've loved when I was 15." This is that show. This is a show I would've loved when I was a sophomore in high school. I don't know what else I can do after this or what else I want to do after this. This was always the safety net. This was always the long-term goal. I don't know.
[Maybe] they give us 100-episode pickup, and I just do it for a year, and then it goes into syndication, and it becomes a cultural cornerstone, and people see it as this next great step in the evolution of the talk show, and I become a piece of American culture, and I represent something larger than myself. That's the other option.
It's really one or the other. There's no middle ground on this one.
That or I disappear and live in the woods.
Photographs by Sean O'Kane