(Photo courtesy of Chris Gethard)

Chris Gethard sure keeps busy. He’s a veteran of stand-up and UCB Theatre, the honcho of Fusion’s The Chris Gethard Show, featured actor in Broad City and this summer’s ode to improv, Don't Think Twice (in which he exposes a more dramatic side), host of the popular Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People podcast, and part-time rock star. Quite the resume indeed. And now a Judd Apatow-backed run of his one-man show Career Suicide, in which he dives deeper into the mental struggles that have helped shape his comedy, has been announced. The show, which opens at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in October, has already found great fanfare from sold-out shows at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, so we chatted with Chris over the phone to get a hint of what we should expect here in the States.

cgetflyer.jpgHow did this show come about? Well, I’m really dependent on Mike Birbiglia. I was going on the road with him a lot, opening for him. And when you’re on the road, you just wind up talking just about anything and he was asking me, “I know you’ve talked a little bit about some of your depression stuff. What are the real stories?” I told him a couple of stories that I thought were super dark and he was like, “Dude, you have to talk about that on stage!” And I was like, “No! Absolutely not! Those are the darkest stories I have.” And he was like, “Dude, if you can make those funny, you’ve got something really special on your hands.”

So I took that as a real challenge, and started doing some standup bits that revolved around this stuff, and it was getting a good response. Soon I realized I had enough pieces of it that I could maybe figure it out as a show and I did it a few times at UCB and then really sunk my teeth into it at Union Hall in Park Slope and they took really good care of me. So I’ve been working on it over two years. But it really did start with Birbiglia in the middle of the night while driving through the Midwest saying, basically, “I dare you to talk about that stuff on stage.” He’s a very smart guy in many ways, especially when it comes to storytelling, so I never should have doubted his instincts on that.

You’re in his new movie Don’t Think Twice as well. How did it feel to be a part of this film in particular? It was a great experience, because Mike and I are friends, and I do trust him so much. I’ve done OK as a character actor and I’ve done a lot of parts where I play weird nerds. I’m really psyched about that, but I knew he was gonna come at it from a different angle than that. It was some actual heavy lifting. He gave me some of the more emotional parts to actually fill out some of the plot. It felt good to be challenged, put my best foot forward. You try to do things your own way, try to build your own thing in life and not go the traditional route and what happens is you meet some allies along the way who are doing it with a sort of similar mindset and I think he and I have been that for each other.

Going back to the show, the title Career Suicide, was that a title you had in mind for awhile? Yeah, that actually came about pretty early. It was something I was brainstorming some potential titles with a few friends, Birbiglia among them. I know I’m painting this whole interview as though I’m a weird puppet democracy under the dictatorial rule of Mike Birbiglia. I promise not. [The show] obviously deals with some depression stuff and I talk about some experiences with suicidal thoughts and situations. Trying to build one of the bigger things you’ve ever done in your career around the idea of suicide is, in itself, career suicide. To put the rest of my creative pursuits on hold to get on stage and talk about depression for an hour, it’s not always the most appealing topic to people but I think it’s one that’s worth talking about and I’m happy to get in there and go for it.

Were there any stories that you tried to discuss on stage, but it just didn’t work out? Maybe because of how emotional they were for you? Yeah. To be honest I thought there were going to be more that I was just going to be too shaken up to tell. For the first six months I did this show, maybe the first sixteen or twenty times I did it, I would get off stage and consistently be shaking and just need to go sit by myself. This kind of feeling like, “I can’t believe I’m sharing this type of stuff I haven’t told my own family, and I’m telling a room full of strangers about it.” There are a handful of things that just go beyond being a comedian at a certain point. I really need to be a comedian. I really want this show to be unpretentious, I want it to be something that anyone can have access to. I very much identify as a native son of New Jersey and that attitude is to really keep it open to everybody. I never wanted to get on a soapbox, I want to put on a comedy show. Just so happens that I have a lot of honest things to make jokes about that come from a dark place.

I’m working with a director now, Kimberly Senior... if you look her up, she’s just a true badass and I can’t believe she’s giving me any of her time. Having worked on the show for two years, I kind of thought I had taken it as far as I was willing to take it. I did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Kimberly came and met me out there and she was like, “Nope, you gotta cut deeper, go further.” The most recent iteration of the show and the one that’s heading towards the Lynn Redgrave Theater, it’s definitely as personal as it’s ever been and I’m sticking my neck out further than I ever have.

You seem pretty available to your fans. Did anybody come up to you and really commiserate with a lot of what you were feeling? Oh, every single night! That’s one of the most beautiful things for me doing this show, just connecting with people and hearing some of the things people had to say and their reactions to it. I think I did the show twenty six nights, and every single night someone came up to me and told me their story, their story of having dealt with some of this stuff. Even stretching back to Union Hall, the thing that means even more is people who come up to me and they’re not the one suffering. I remember a girl came up to me and said she had dated a guy who was suffering from some really sick depression, and she was like, “I found it to be just kind of really irritating and unfair to me. I kind of just bounced, just left one day and I feel really horrible right now cause I watched your show and it was really funny, but I realize now that he was actually dealing with a lot.” And she asked, “What can I do? What should I do?” And I was like, “I don’t know!” Like I’m just a comedian, but I did say, “You know, I bet if you just reached out to him and told him some version of what you just told me, that might go a long way.”

I really have it in my head that, if I could have made a show that would have made it easier for my parents to deal with what I went through, that’s kind of more important to me. My parents are really great, loving people. They weren’t neglectful at all, they didn’t have bad intentions. But it’s just hard to hear that your kid is messed up in this way that nobody really wants to talk about. My parents are blue-collar people from northern New Jersey, they’re Irish-Catholics, we don’t talk about stuff like this. If I can make a show that maybe puts some cracks in that kind of attitude, it would really mean a lot to me.

Did you find that it’s easier once you started comedy to talk about this stuff or were you sort of liberated to talk about it before you got into it? Comedy was really a big factor in me becoming comfortable with myself. Anyone who comes to see the show, you’ll see it’s sort a thing I explore about how comedy was this thing I found as pre-existing therapy. I didn’t see a shrink until I was twenty-two, and I started doing comedy in New York when I was nineteen. I think it was the very first thing that allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin and confident in who I am and that went a long way. I started as an improviser at UCB. I spent many years where my focus was improv, it was not stand-up or solo work of any kind. I remember being a kid, nineteen, twenty years old and playing characters who had depression or playing characters who wanted to figure out how they could talk to their parents in a more direct way. It was a lot of me pretending to be someone on stage, but not actually making them that far away from who I actually was. I don’t know if that’s always been the healthiest thing that comedy’s been what I lean on but it has been a running trend in my life, for sure.

In your eyes, since you’ve been in it a long time, how is New York comedy shaping out? New York is the only place in the world that has this many shows and this many types of comedians. I always tell people, the most beautiful thing about New York comedy is that if I come up with a new joke, I can do so many shows in front of so many different kinds of audiences that I’ll know if that joke is legit within three or four days. In the same night I can go do a club where the whole crowd is going to be Australian tourists, and I can do another club twenty minutes away where it’s going to be blue-collar Jersey and Long Island people coming in for a night on the town, and I can head out to Brooklyn and do something where everybody in the room is probably an artist of some sort in their own right. And I can do the same joke in front of all three of those crowds within a couple of hours and I can know if that joke has legs and if it’s universal or kind of bullshitty. You can do that every night.

I feel like there’s this whole new version of the alt scene out in Brooklyn where you’ve got people like Jo Firestone, Brett Davis, and Julio Torres who are leading the charge on doing experimental work. And they’re all young people who have come on in the past handful of years. It’s super inspiring to see. I’m buddies with Tim Dillon. He’s loud and brash and so jarring to the audience and he’s nothing like me but I get to do shows with him and I get to turn around and the next night I’m on stage with Jo Firestone who’s doing these gentle, weird high-concept performance art things. How do you beat that? I’m like really grateful that I get to do this where I do it. I was gone for six weeks, and I land back in New York and I’m like, “All right, OK. This is my home.” Nothing is going to be handed to you, you have to go stand out in front of the crowd. You can just be better and faster here than you could anywhere else. The city will work you to the bone, and just make you keep up with everyone else who’s working even harder somehow. It’s a beautiful, challenging thing.

You’ve definitely benefited from a hard work ethic. Do you think that comes from your blue-collar upbringing? My dad was a complete workaholic. My parents are both funny people. I think I got a little bit more of my mom’s humor, but I’m really blessed I got my dad’s work ethic. That dude just broke his back for years and years and years to take care of his family, and when I was a kid, he would just work such long hours and be tired all the time. I saw how hard he worked and how things got better. My parents didn’t let me know how much of a struggle it was until they kind of got past the struggle and were able to make some jokes about it. They were scraping by. They were scared, and my dad just worked his ass off. It was pretty inspiring. I came up out of UCB as it exploded into this thing. I was always doing shows with Zach Woods and Bobby Moynihan. I remember when I started doing AssssCat on Sunday nights, the line-up would honestly be Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Jason Sudeikis, Rachel Dratch, Jack McBrayer, Horatio Sanz, Chris Gethard. It was like, this is impossible. I committed from a really young age, I’m never going to be the funniest one but I can probably be the most stubborn and work the hardest. I’ve just tried to live and die by that.

With TCGS, is anything coming up with that? Is that going to come back to Fusion? I hope so. Everything looks good. They’ve been super accommodating, all those discussions are happening. There’s nothing I can say yet, but I’m feeling extremely positive. I also felt so great about season two of the show. I really think it’s the best the show has ever been. Our first season on Fusion, a lot of the old school fans were like, “We miss public access!” And I think season two, they were all like, “Fuck public access!” If you’ve never seen the show, there’s an episode where Jason Mantzoukas and Paul Scheer are the guests and they have to just guess what’s in the dumpster and that’s the whole episode. And I know that sounds completely idiotic but it has been widely embraced as the best episode we’ve ever done. I feel so positive about what we did creatively and everything with the network still feels so positive that I hope we get to come back and build on the momentum because we have even dumber ideas than that. And I really hope we get to do them.

One last thing before I let you go: The Smiths cover band. I just want to know where that started and where that’s going. (chuckle) There’s this festival in Gainesville every Halloween weekend called The Fest, appropriately enough. It’s a lot of punk bands, and I really quite enjoy that genre of music and I enjoy a lot of those bands and a lot of them played on my show. I started going down there to do comedy, and they do this thing because it’s Halloween where they’ll let bands play cover set, you can pretend to be another band. And I asked if I could head up a Smiths cover band because I’m a big Smiths devotee. I got Alex from Hiccup who’s a great guitarist, Mikey Erg on drums - one of the things I’m most proud about in season two is that we got the Ergs to reunite - and John DiNominice on bass. These are legit, pro-level guys who can play and I can’t sing so it’s just me screaming as Morrissey. I dress up, I dye my hair every show and we did the one at Fest just as a gag and people really kind of flipped out. We did another show back in Brooklyn, Chumped’s final show, and we’re opening for a big show at Rough Trade Records in September, which is like so dumb. We put a lot of heart into it. Back to Career Suicide, it’s a real look at how some of Morrissey’s lyrics have helped me out over the years so it all ties together in my head.

I’m just glad I get to be a part of so many dumb things. A lot of the Gerhard Show is intentionally very goofy and bizarre. And [Career Suicide] is really just from the heart and trying to just attack it from that angle in a hard way. So I hope people come out. I’m really hoping that people come on out and it means a lot to me to stay in New York and do comedy on a bigger level in New York. I hope it goes well, we’ll see.