Chris Gethard on Listening, Being Vulnerable, and Doing a Bad Trump Impression

June 7, 2017

Photo Source: Michael O’Brien Entertainment

On his website, comedian Chris Gethard proclaims he is, among other things, “a guy you’ve seen on television and in movies from time to time but can’t quite place!” That description is apt—he appears in everything from Parks and Recreation and Broad City to the 2013 summer blockbuster The Heat—but does little to reveal how much this guy actually does. Besides being a long-time standup, Gethard has recorded a comedy album (fittingly named My Comedy Album), written a collection of essays entitled A Bad Idea I’m About to Do, and just premiered an adaptation of his Lucille Lortel-nominated one-man show Career Suicide on HBO in May. He’s also the host of the wonderfully weird variety talk show The Chris Gethard Show which features a character called The Human Fish.

One of Gethard’s latest ventures is hosting Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, a popular podcast. The premise: random, anonymous callers talk with Gethard for one hour about anything they choose. Technically a comedy podcast, the show tempers humor with humanity and Gethard proves a game listener, eager to engage with a conflicted nurse, a couple of swingers, and a self-identified “Anglican bipolar blacksheep.”

The Voice had a phone call with Gethard ahead of his show at the Arlington Draft House on June 10. The early show will be a live taping of Beautiful/Anonymous and the later show will be standup.

You can buy tickets here.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The Voice: You just began this tour in Vancouver on May 30. Do you like being on the road?

Gethard: I do. It’s like one of those things where it’s really easy to get caught up in the comedy world as far as TV stuff and specials and writing gigs but at the end of the day, there is nothing more gratifying than just being in a room with a bunch of people where you can look them in the eye and you’re all in it together. So getting out on the road to me is such a joyful thing. That is, at its core, what comedy is. Especially with the podcast side of things right now, it’s usually just me in the studio. It’s a cool, interesting thing to see that there are actually living, breathing human beings out there.

The Voice: Instead of just a live taping of your podcast Beautiful/Anonymous, your June 10 show at Arlington Draft House will consist of an early show taping and a later stand up show. Can you give a brief summary of what audiences can expect?

G: I did the Draft House probably a year or a year and a half ago and it was so fun. It was one of those gigs where I had been there before, the people were so nice. I’m doing two shows there and I’m trying to make it feel like a party, hang out all night. And that’s the standup: go big with the jokes and have fun.

The Voice: How have you found that taping a live show is different from having those typical, very vulnerable one-on-one conversations with your callers?

G: Yeah it’s been fun. There’s definitely some concern. This is an experiment; is this going to work in a live setting? I put a lot of thought into it. It’s definitely not “People Sit In A Room And Listen To Me Talk On The Phone.” The last thing I want is to ask people to sit there and listen to a disembodied voice. What I’m really trying to build is an environment where it feels like the person calls in and talks to me and a few hundred people who are all sitting there supporting them and not judging them. We built in all sorts of internet stuff where people can use their phones to send me questions as the show is happening and I serve as a go between.

Even last night, the caller we had in Seattle was thinking about taking a promotion even though they really love their current job and the crowd was cheering for the option they wanted. It didn’t feel too aggressive. It was like, “Oh, yeah. We’re in a conversation where the whole city of Seattle gets to show up and offer input.”

I knew it was an experiment. I knew people had concerns. But I just really thought the people who listen to this show are all about empathy and connecting with other human beings and supporting them. [The live shows have] really managed to prove that that’s what going on.

We tweet out the phone number and every time we tweet it out we get five thousand people trying to call in the show. It’s really like playing the lottery in a way. And it’s so fun and exciting to be in a room full of people when they realize, “Oh, this is legit. This isn’t produced. This isn’t a trick.” I put out the number and I get to tell [the audience] how many calls are rolling in. One of these people is going to tell us a story and none of us know what it is and we’re in it together. There’s a lot of excitement there. The worst that can happen is that it’s a total train wreck. And even then, one of my favorite forms of comedy is a train wreck. Best case scenario the call is really great and everybody has fun and we all feel like we were a part of this big risk and got to experience something together. Worse case scenario: they get to sit back and just watch me sweat it out. And that’s a pretty fun experience for a live crowd too.

The Voice: Something I love about Beautiful/Anonymous is that awkward moment at the beginning of the call where you both say hello like five times because you don’t know where to begin and then you just dive right in. You know it’s not an act.

G: In Seattle, the first six or seven minutes was just the caller going, “So, hi!” and you’re like, “Yeah, hi! What’s up? How’s it going? You’re here; it’s me and a bunch of people in Seattle.” And they would cheer. And then she would go, “That’s weird. How are you?” And I would go, “I’m good, I’m good.” And that went on for like seven minutes. Finally, she was like, “So should we get into it?” And I was like, “We can or we can just keep saying hi back and forth and just really piss off this crowd in Seattle. Whatever you want to do, I’m into it.” So there is an element of “What am I getting into here?” that is really appealing. I can’t make any promises. And people who like that are going to love the live show.

The Voice: Obviously the callers on Beautiful/Anonymous are trusting you with extremely personal and private details of their life. I’m really curious to know if you think consciously about ways to best navigate uncomfortable or sensitive topics or do you just go at it?

G: There are a couple basic things that I think I’ve learned doing the show that have served me well. The first one is I have to make sure I listen more than I talk. Because it’s really about that other person and about their comfort level and about them being able to put something out there. There is that feeling of “I’m a comedian. This is a podcast. This is entertainment. I have to make sure it’s funny.” And what I’ve learned is that if that gets in the way it becomes this ego-driven thing for me and I steamroll the conversation and make everybody uncomfortable. I try to take a deep breath and remember that this is not about me.

The other thing I’ve learned my own shrink actually yelled at me about. She listens to the show and one day at one my sessions she just began with, “It’s really cool what you’re doing. Just remember  you can’t actually help anybody. You can give them a platform to talk but you can’t help them.” At the end of the day, I have to remember I am just a dummy from New Jersey. So as far as giving people a place where they can use that veil of anonymity to put stuff out into the world—that is the thing I can provide. I can’t actually solve anybody’s problems. I can hear out your story. I can listen really well. And that’s about it. As long as I stick to those two things, I generally find some room to play to figure out what [the call] wants to be.

The Voice: You’re very open about your struggles with depression and anxiety and constructed your one-man show Career Suicide around those topics. How did it feel to put yourself out there like that?

G: I really approached it comedy first. I didn’t really have any issues putting it out there if I really believed it was funny. I didn’t want to think too hard about it so I wasn’t trying to take on some social issue. I kind of knew from the start the best thing I could do to foster this conversation is to make good jokes anyways. If I make the funny parts really funny then I will earn the right to talk about the rest. As far as how if felt to put it out there, it was definitely kind of terrifying. Especially with the internet which doesn’t really embrace male vulnerability. So I was really bracing myself to face a lot of backlash — people calling me names or judging me. It was actually such a pleasant surprise when it was the opposite. It was very largely positive—people saying that they got something out of it. I was pretty shocked; it’s not something that we are used to talking about and I thought that putting it out there might be getting me in over my head a little bit but it was actually met with with a lot of kindness.

The Voice: I would imagine that would be extremely terrifying, especially because, unlike your Beautiful/Anonymous callers, you did not get to hide behind that veil of anonymity.

G: When [Career Suicide] got to the level where HBO wanted to do it I was like, “Okay, well this is a bit much”. I’m kind of an underground guy and to go from public access to HBO is a pretty big leap as far as the scope of the platform. This is probably the thing that people are only going to know me for for the rest of my life and that was pretty daunting. But anytime I thought about bailing, anytime I got scared I was just like, “If I get an opportunity like this to actually help a few people out there I’d just be a jerk to not do it if I was scared.” That’s just my ego and it wouldn’t be cool at the end of the day.

The Voice: You mentioned the HBO adaptation of Career Suicide which was presented by Judd Apatow. When I watched Georgetown alum Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, it struck me as very Apatowian. It’s funny, but also very real and honest and sometimes sad. Forgive me for summing up your life’s career in such few words, but I get the sense that this is where your work often goes, especially with something as vulnerable as Career Suicide. Does that seem accurate or am I totally off base?

G: Yeah, that seems down on the money. It is a funny thing. I came up in New York when I did. I was at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater which was kind of exploding. I was seeing all these people get these cool jobs and I definitely had some moments of soul searching where I was like, “I’m never going to be the funniest comedian in the room. But I do think I can be one of the most honest. I do think I can be one of the most open. And maybe that’s what I need to dive in and explore.” And I think I’m really lucky that Judd Apatow’s style of comedy really exploded and grew while I was also figuring out my voice as a comedian so a guy like me made a little more sense in the world. It’s a very powerful thing to realize you don’t need to get as many laughs per minute as the other people there. Just do something that’s honest and true to you and be unapologetic about that.

The Voice: A Rolling Stones blurb describes your forte as “neurotic despair”.

G: I think that’d be a pretty cool album title some day.

The Voice: In an episode of Beautiful/Anonymous called “Up All Night” you speak with a nurse who isn’t sure she’s a good person. You try and convince her that she is a good person, by, among other tactics, saying that you are, and I’m paraphrasing here, just a comedian who makes people laugh. Do you think there is anything noble about comedy?

G: I don’t think comedy has a responsibility beyond just making people laugh. At the end of the day, funny is funny. Making someone laugh is the whole goal of comedy. I do think there are many comedians who have managed to say something a little bigger and connect with people a little more. As a fan, that’s always something that’s meant the world to me and something I’ve responded to. Comedy is a really fascinating thing in the sense that everybody likes to laugh. You don’t meet too many humans who go, “I don’t like the physical sensation of laughing.” That would be a very concerning thing. There are certain people who can make you laugh so hard that they can then also talk about  something that makes you think a little bit harder too. I’m certainly not as good as any of these people but you see how George Carlin and Lenny Bruce took on censorship. Or how Richard Pryor took on race. Or how even Mel Brooks — who does a lot of goofball comedy — makes a lot of points. Comedy is often the first way that these conversations get had in American culture. I think there are some things that are very hard to talk about and the first way they get talked about is that a comedian makes some jokes funny enough that the cat’s out of the bag. That’s a very cool phenomenon that I respect a lot about my favorite comedians.

The Voice: I think especially in this day and age there is maybe more of an urgency when it comes to comedy and addressing tougher issues in our culture.

G: Yeah. I think as long as a comedian’s priority is comedy… it’s like the one-liner that makes you laugh harder than anything else. As long as your jokes make me laugh as hard as the best one-liner in the world, than yeah, I’ll listen to the other stuff.  

The Voice: What is the the Beautiful/Anonymous episode you are most proud of and why?

G: There’s an episode where a young lady called in who was on the other side of a heroin addiction. She had gotten pretty deep. It was just so nice to hear that she had come out on the other side. Now she’s working hard, living life, stable, pretty happy. I was proud of that because I actually grew up in an area that the heroin epidemic has quietly hit pretty hard. One of my best friends growing up died of an overdose. I think [addiction] is still a thing where, if someone starts going down that road, we forget that they’re human and forget that they’re struggling as hard as they are. I got to hear someone’s first person perspective of “Here’s what it was to live that life. Here’s what it was to get through it. And here’s what it’s like to come out on the other side.” On a personal level, having lost a few people… that’s probably the one I’m most proud of. I think the endgame of the podcast is about remembering that everybody is an actual living, breathing human being. So that episode is pretty near and dear to my heart.

The Voice: Do you think this podcast has changed your outlook on life in anyway?

G: It’s been a very cool thing in my life. Even in a very basic way where once a week I get to have an hour-long conversation with another person. That’s pretty rare. When you stop and think, when’s the last time you turned off your phone and just talked to someone for a whole hour? Let alone someone you don’t even know? Even my best friends in the world, I communicate with them largely via text. It’s a breath of fresh air to remember, “Oh, there are other people out here, living their lives, stressed out about their own things.” And you can take a breath and say, “You’ve got stuff going on too. You’ve got stuff to say.” It’s a very humanizing thing and I feel very lucky that I get to do that.

The Voice: Last question: In Don’t Think Twice, there’s a scene when all the characters are doing impressions of Trump but your character, Bill, just sounds like JFK. Can you give me your best Trump impression?

G: That really was it. That was an improvised scene. Mike Birbiglia told us, “Everybody should do their best Trump”. And I’m telling you, there was no joke in the script that said, “Chris’s character sounds like JFK.” That was not a written thing. My Trump impression actually sounds like a really bad JFK impression.

The Voice: Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.

G: That’s a person whose mind I would rather not live in anyways.  

Amy Guay
Amy was an American Studies Major and a staff writer for the Voice. In her tenure, she served as Multimedia Editor, Leisure Editor, and Halftime Leisure Editor. One time she saw Cate Blanchett on Broadway.

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