The last time we spoke with Chris Gethard, the veteran UCB man and longtime New York stand-up was preparing for a Judd Apatow-backed HBO special—a "big break" for a guy probably best known for his eponymous cult variety show that spent years on New York's public access.
Now, after a brief stint at Fusion, The Chris Gethard Show is moving to truTV, returning to its live broadcast roots and bringing its brand of haphazard comedy anarchy to a national audience. It's a trainwreck waiting to happen, according to the host himself, but that's the whole idea. On the morning of the show's premiere, we caught up with Chris Gethard to talk about David Letterman's trash, imposter syndrome, and the exceptional, enduring weirdness of New York comedy.
So, in 12 hours The Chris Gethard Show will be broadcast live to a national TV audience for the first time? Are you nervous at all? Trying not think about it to be honest.
Should I not ask about it? We could talk about something else? Yeah if we could talk about anything else, actually. No but really, there are some nerves about how it's going to go on a platform this far-reaching. There's a lot of people who've never seen this thing that we've been doing for eight years and I'm wondering how they're going to react to it. There's also a lot of people who've found me in the years since we've done the show. I'm wondering what fans of my podcast and my HBO special are going to think, because it's such a different thing. So there's some nerves with that stuff.
But as far as actually getting up and executing the show, one thing I've found just with dealing with it for almost a decade in some form or another, is that myself and the people involved in it really take a lot of confidence from each other. It just feels good to have the gang back together, and if it fails, it fails. We've been lucky to do it this long, so we're going to go out there and do what we've always done, and if it falls on its face, it falls on its face. I have to just be OK with that, so that helps swallow the nerves.
The exciting thing, from the audience's perspective at least, is that if it falls on its face, we get to watch that happen live. That's the real experiment, right? I do not guarantee it'll be a good show. But if it's a bad show, I promise to make it such a disaster that you like that even better. I think people are ready for it. My gut instinct is that people like watching others suffer and deal with failure on live television. In my mind that's good, watchable TV.
What about truTV's mind though? How'd you get the network to come around to the idea that this bizarre variety/call-in show—a show where you're liable to have a shirtless beef-off or an appearance from a teenage Twitter nemesis—should be broadcast live (albeit with a 10 second delay)? I was blown away. It was actually their idea to do it live again. When we originally signed our deal with them it was for an edited taped show, and in my mind it was a pipe dream to do it live. I never thought we'd be able to go live again. But they brought me out to a lunch and it was with all the heads of the network, and they were like, "Hey, we've been thinking, do you want to do it live again?" I was like, "That's a really great idea," but immediately in my head I was like: Uh, that might be a really terrible idea for you guys.
And I'm driven so much by my Catholic guilt and anxiety that I actually started feeling like it wasn't responsible to take these people's money and not be upfront about this, so I actually said to Marissa Ronca, one of the higher-ups, "You know, a decent number of these are going to be total trainwrecks, right?" She was like, "Yeah we think those are going to be people's favorite ones." So, who knew, after all these years that someone would actually believe in it at its most core basic level, that failure is part of the process and not hiding our flaws might actually make people feel like they could connect with it better. It's really bizarre.
When we crossed paths at a press event earlier this week, you were talking about how this is a New York show at its core, and that this new season and format would be "more New York than ever." Could you elaborate on that a bit? Yeah, I'm so thrilled about this. First of all, we were on New York public access for years. We spent almost half a decade there, on this hugely liberating creative platform at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, which was just by far the most creatively fruitful time in my life.
Beyond that, it was really cool to realize that New Yorkers were actually watching us on public access. I'd always thought that people just flipped through those channels, but I'll never forget, I was walking through Washington Square Park with my now-wife, and some guy walked by us and was just like "Hey, Chris, what's up?" And my wife pointed out that I was becoming one of those New York guys where people feel like they know you, all because of public access. There were two different times in my life where I was walking with David Bluvband, who plays the Human Fish on our show, and people recognized him and not me. One time some guy came up to us on 8th Avenue, and he was like, "You play the fish guy on that show, right?" He didn't even recognize me from my show. Another time, some guy was walking across the street from us, kind of a shady-looking due, and he was like "I know you, I know you." I was looking at Dave and we were trying to figure out if he was going to fight us, and this guy just yells out, "You're the motherfucking fish-man," then jumps in his car and drives away.
There's like this weird culture in New York, and this appreciation for public access that I didn't know existed. Fusion kept us alive—I'll never sneeze at that—but one of the things that was frustrating for us is that they weren't carried on Time Warner (now Spectrum) so New York, which was originally the one place you could see us on TV, was all of a sudden the one place you couldn't see us on TV.
I'm so happy to be back and have New Yorkers be able to watch the show again. I want to double down on that. We are a New York show in a big way. I always think of Letterman as a massively New York show. I think of Conan's New York days. So I'm proud that I've kept it here. A huge part of why I've never moved to Los Angeles is New York's creativity and the weirdness and appreciation for the bizarre counter-culture stuff.
Well, we've now got this camera system that I'm so excited to play with. Basically a guy with a camera and a backpack full of modems, and we can broadcast live and just cut to that on the streets of New York. I plan on utilizing that pretty much every episode to do something that takes place on the streets of New York. If you're on the street between 11 p.m. and midnight on a Thursday, and you see a very sweaty camera man carrying a giant backpack and a camera, odds are, if you jump in front of him, you'll be on The Chris Gethard Show that night. Our studio's on 37th street, so it's like we're close to Bryant Park, we're close to the steps of the library, we're close to the Empire State building. We're going to find the places with foot traffic, people hanging out at night, just total weirdos.
I think the rumors that New York isn't weird anymore are vastly overrated. I still think there's a lot of weird, cool stuff and I want to get out there and point a camera at it on live TV. Totally uncensored too, they can't edit it out. This idea that New York is lame—no way, no way. I want to put the weirdness in New York back on TV, in the middle of August heat, in the middle of the night, we're going to find some oddballs.
You've also written about the differing approaches to experimental, boundary-pushing comedy in New York and Los Angeles. What's your take on the city's comedy scene right now? You know the comedy scene in New York is just so strong. There's always these waves of exodus where comedians head to L.A.. I get it. There's tons of opportunity out there, it's relaxed, you get more space. But creatively, if you're looking to be experimental, if you're looking to go big, I just believe in my heart that New York City cannot be topped. I want to embrace that and celebrate that on this show.
Beyond comedy, you have roots in the city's DIY music scene, and I've always felt the show has had an impressive grasp on up-and-coming artists in New York, and has given platforms to bands that you don't necessarily expect to see on television. What can we expect from the musical guests this year? I'm always so thrilled with our music bookings. You know, we are a low-budget show at the end of the day, we always have been, but our music booking is the one thing I get cocky about it. I feel like when it comes to actual underground stuff, our bookers do a better job than anyone. We've got a lot of people confirmed this year—I don't know how much I'm supposed to announce, but I also kind of don't care.
One of the things I always loved with the show is that music booking gives me the excuse to have on some people who've been heroes to me in the past. Last season we had Kool Keith and They Might Be Giants on, which was so rad. This season we have Atom and His Package, who was one of my heroes in high school. We have Bash & Pop, which is Tommy Stinson's newly reformed band. I hear RVIVR is coming. Pup is coming. We've got a lot of cool acts coming down the pipe. Our music cannot be trifled with, and I challenge anyone to say otherwise.
I also had a chance to see the new set during a press tour earlier this week. It definitely looks like a sweaty DIY basement space, even more so then it did in the public access days. Our set is comprised mostly of actual garbage that our fans sent us. And we did want it to feel really DIY, but then you get into a rumor that it's being brainstormed with development people and set designers, and it kind of becomes a cartoonish thing. But being that I'm someone who actually spends time in DIY spaces, well you don't want a fake version of that. We decided if we wanted it to feel like someone's basement with people just hanging out, we could just have people mail us actual stuff from their basements, and make our whole set out of that. We also stole big hunks of David Letterman's set, so we even have David Letterman's garbage, which is nice.
It does sort of feel like someone could be living there. But you also have an actual home in New York, presumably? I actually just bought a co-op out in Queens. Me and the wife were living in Brooklyn, but we wanted to buy a place, and turns out that's completely impossible in Brooklyn. If you're an artist on artist wages, even as someone who's having a good couple of years, buying in Brooklyn just isn't happening. So we have a little co-op out in Jackson Heights, which is a beautiful neighborhood that I'm pretty obsessed with. Although when we renovated, it was like eight weeks of living without a toilet and shower, which was pretty rough.
But I love the neighborhood. You never know who you're going to run into. The amount of different people just on top of each other in the streets, it's really inspiring. I also really love that it's like a lot of hustlers. There's a lot of people figuring out their grind out in Queens, and it works really well for me. It's a good reminder for me to always work hard.
You've long been considered one of the hardest-working comics in New York, and it seems like your output grows every year. How do keep up that energy after so long in the scene? My system has always kind of been that I work as hard as I can until I have a panic attack. Then I take some time off and rebuild my life. And I know that's a sad answer, but it's a truthful one.
I've been going pretty hard for the past couple years, and a lot of that is paranoia, because I've never been the funniest comedian in the room. When I started at UCB 17 years ago, right away I was like, man, there are people that are just powerhouses. What do I have? Well I have the fact that I'm willing to be really honest and I have the fact that I can just work harder than anyone else. So if the next guy is working harder than I am, then that person deserves everything and I don't deserve shit. My philosophy has always been that I'm not good enough at this to slack off, like I'm not funny enough or talented enough to take a day off. Especially with the opportunities I've had in the past year or two, I'm smart enough to know it's going to go away at some point. That's not self-defeatism, that's realistic. For most artists, it's not a long career, so everything I want to do I better do now.
Our show debuts on truTv tonight and I hope it's really great and it leads to hundreds of episodes and years of critical success and a growing audience, but it could also mean that tomorrow morning they're like, "Hey this was a bad idea. We're out." I'm very, very lucky to do what I do—I think about that everyday—I'm also well aware it could end tomorrow. Who knows?
Give us the elevator pitch for why everyone should be watching The Chris Gethard Show? At the end of the day, I think it's a talk show that's not scared to fail. It's TV that's not trying to pretend everything's perfect all the time. It's not overproduced. You see us make mistakes. On top of that it's really funny. You get to see some people you've seen in movies doing things you don't expect them to do. It's a show made by real people that tries to resemble real life in ways—it's absurd and it's strange but at the same time I think, quietly, you're not going to find a realer show on television.
The Chris Gethard Show (season 3) premieres on Thursday August 3rd at 11 p.m. EST on truTV.