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Chris Gethard: “The first times I performed Career Suicide, I’d get off stage shaking and think: ‘Why am I doing this?'”

| Comedy, Theatre | 26/01/2017

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This week Chris Gethard has brought his acclaimed one-man show, Career Suicide, to Soho Theatre until Saturday 4th February 2017.  The New Jersey comedian has been a fixture on the alternative comedy scene for years, but – through his popular talk-show and successful podcast – he’s now gained a foothold in mainstream entertainment.  But don’t expect non-stop humour from this show.  It’s a brutally honest, valuable and – at times – very funny monologue about the struggles he’s encountered with depression and suicidal thoughts.  This week, Ian Cater caught up with him to explore these issues and discuss the other exciting projects on his horizon. 

Chris Gethard is an extremely interesting individual.  For an American – let alone an American comedian – he comes across shy and unimposing offstage, carrying his doubts and concerns like a well-worn backpack.  He’s a huge fan of punk rock, boasting two Morrissey tattoos, but dresses with the extreme orthodoxy of a run-of-the-mill children’s clothing outlet.  And now, as he finally gains traction in network television, he’s taken time out to tour a one-man show, Career Suicide, which focuses on the mental illness that twice led him to the brink of taking his own life.

gethard-fusionThe show smashes through the myth that suicide’s for cowards – a point reaffirmed by the risk Gethard took in taking on such a heavy subject.  “The title, Career Suicide, obviously applies to its content,” he says.  “But it also refers to my concern at spending a couple of years focusing on stuff that could be detrimental to the rest of what I do.”

So why do it?  “As a challenge to myself,” Gethard admits.  That challenge was laid down by comedian Mike Birbiglia, who told Gethard that his stories – relayed candidly and almost apologetically one day – could make audiences laugh.  At first, Gethard was unsure, as were others: “Lots of people don’t think of depression, suicidal thoughts and medication as funny.  So I had to work very hard to reach that tipping point where it works as a comedy show.”

That work was aided, latterly, by leading director Judd Apatow’s hands-on involvement and promotion.  “He gave me many rounds of notes, things to cut and new jokes to try out.  He’s really helped with the crafting of the show.  On top of that, when someone like Judd Apatow puts his name to something, it buys you a lot of freedom to do things your way.  He’s been so prominent in making comedy more emotional in the States, so I couldn’t ask for a better champion.”

Barbed comments

Yet when the show was in its infancy, and the balance between tragedy and comedy wasn’t so finely tuned, there was a real risk of failure.  “Every comedian bombs – if you don’t, you’re not challenging yourself enough.  But bombing with this material is a particular brand of loneliness I hadn’t known before,” he grimaces.  “It was tough.”  There was another danger: that reliving such difficult moments would drag Gethard back to that dark place.  “Early on – probably the first ten times I performed it – I’d get off stage shaking and think: ‘Why am I doing this?  Why am I saying this out loud?'”

image2Even then Gethard saw signs for encouragement: “From the start, I’d get people waiting for me afterwards saying it spoke to their experience.  That really lit a fire under me; it made me think there’s something very honest to this and encouraged me to keep going.”

While he downplays his capacity to help people going through similar problems – “I’m just a comedian” – he’s gratified by the number of men and women who tell him the show has helped them address their issues.

“But what moves me most is when people say: ‘My brother’s like this too but I’ve never known how to talk to him.  I get it more now.’  Hearing from people near those having to deal with this stuff is so touching, because I remember how lonely it felt going through it.  Being able to facilitate people bypassing that loneliness is an amazing feeling.”

Gethard achieves this in two main ways: encouraging his audiences to be more like Barb, the wonderfully flawed but caring shrink who features heavily in the show; and making them face the stark reality of where his depression took him, which – for most – would be incredibly hard to relive night after night.

When I first saw him at the Edinburgh Fringe, it struck me he’d found a way to distance himself from his younger antics.  “That’s true,” Gethard agrees.  “Writing the show was odd.  I’m talking about things that happened 15 years ago, so at times it seemed like a character I’d made up or just knew in some way.  That made me reflect on what my mom went through and I felt very emotional when she first saw it.  I said to her: ‘I get to do this now, but you were the one dealing with it when it was nothing close to a comedy show, so thank you.'”

North career

Gethard’s mother was the first to see his talent for entertaining when he began to imitate Elvis around the house.  But in his blue-collar New Jersey neighbourhood, the idea of getting paid to make people laugh was laughable.  That changed in high school, when a teacher decided to channel his ‘wise-ass’ tendencies into improvised comedy.  “You spend all this time getting yelled at for trying to be funny, then someone finally said: ‘That’s a good thing.  It could be a useful talent.’  I relentlessly tried to make it work after that.”

After enrolling at Rutgers University, he fell in with the improv crowd at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade, whose performers included Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen.  Despite that pedigree, things went south for a decade – internally and externally – as Gethard tried to gain a foothold in television.  His stand-up was solid while sit-com roles (including parts in The Office and Broad City) made him a familiar face rather than a household name.

ClgXgyCUgAEEI99“For years I was an ‘underground guy’,” he says.  “That went on so long I became a folk hero of alternative comedy, but I knew that credibility was routed in consistent failure.  It’s only been the past two years that things have turned around for me.  The path I walked to get anything resembling success was frustrating, but it empowered me to do things my way.  I’d taken a pretty traditional route into comedy: I went for parts that weren’t me and ended up with bad reviews.  After a while I thought: ‘If I’m gonna get slammed, at least it has to be for work I stand by’.”

Trusting his instincts served him well with The Chris Gethard Show which – despite network interest – he chose to launch on public access TV.  “You don’t have it over here, but it’s like the wild west of television, sort of a dead medium.  It looked like a strange thing to do, but I wanted to retain control of the output so it seemed the best way.”

Gethard admits his talk-show is “strange and chaotic”.  Having watched three episodes, I’d describe it as an entertaining mishmash of Wayne’s World, TFI Friday and The Mrs Merton Show.  Cable channel Fusion commissioned two seasons with cult – and then mainstream – success: in its most recent series, guests included Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm and Lena Durham.  No wonder a third’s on the horizon.  “I’m very excited by that,” Gethard admits.  “After spending so long talking about suicide, I can’t wait to get back to being a dummy with my idiot friends for an hour.”

American idiot

Speaking of idiots, Gethard seems relieved to be in London while Donald Trump finds his feet in The Oval Office.  “It’s a confusing nightmare,” he groans when the President’s name is mentioned.  “I live in New York City and I’m an artist, so I literally don’t know anyone who voted for him.  I still have faith that my country’s not half full of people who endorse racism, sexism and homophobia.  There’s a lot of that, but I think his election happened because some workers felt they had no other choice.  The next person in charge can learn all those lessons – from the Left and the Right.”

47-elgIt’s a hopeful outlook, hinting at just how far Gethard’s come in managing his depression.  And then, remembering his role as a comedian, he adds:  “But I am worried.  This guy’s just so defensive.  What if someone in China says he’s got a small dick?  Is he going to launch a nuclear bomb?  It’s gonna be a tough four years.”

An ardent fan of Saturday Night Live, Gethard acknowledges its success in pricking the ego of America’s Commander-in-Chief.  However, he’s unsure whether comedians have any sort of responsibility to keep Trump in check.  “Our only job is to make people laugh, although that removes stress and tension from people’s lives, which is really needed right now.  I don’t know if anyone would buy it if I start ranting about what Congress is doing, because I’ve never done that.  But I can make my work as empathetic and compassionate as possible, and spread that message wide enough to reach people who don’t think the way I do.”

This is the approach he’s taken in his succesful Beautiful/Anonymous podcast, inviting a broad range of people to express their viewpoints in a tolerant, accepting environment.  “I think you’re going to see a lot of comedians doing that: maintaining their style, but finding ways to poke holes and speak truth to power, via what they have to offer the world.”  Amen to that.

Chris Gethard is performing Career Suicide at Soho Theatre at 21.45 until Saturday 4th February 2017 (excluding 29th January).  For tickets, head here.  Or for more information on Chris’ various projects, see his official website and follow him on Twitter @ChrisGethard.  

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