Meet the next comedian to change late-night forever: Chris Gethard, talk show renegade for the Tumblr generation

How does a radical, anarchic show go from public access to Will Ferrell's desk? By changing the game completely

Published May 26, 2015 10:29PM (EDT)

Chris Gethard    (AP/John Davisson)
Chris Gethard (AP/John Davisson)

It has been a long time since the talk show format experienced a real shock to the system. David Letterman, the last great talk show revolutionary, took his final bow on Wednesday, while his network counterparts, all of them a generation younger, seem happy to tweak the model slightly to suit their own personalities from behind the same style of desk.

Enter Chris Gethard. With his self-titled, interactive talk-show “The Chris Gethard Show" -- which premieres on Fusion May 28 with special guests Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer and musical guest the Front Bottoms -- the New York-based comic is building a new kind of talk show in his own image, one that isn't so much a reaction to the Internet as borne out of it. "TCGS" is a fully immersive experience that severs the boundary between viewer and performer, a show that owes as much to the interactive world of the Web and the absurdist rhythms of improvised comedy as it does to the traditional network talk show. Gethard admits that early Letterman had a huge influence on him, and he shares some of the great man's subversive, anarchic spirit: a talk-show renegade for the Tumblr generation.

The show is hard to describe, but essentially it’s an interactive talk and variety show, featuring a regular panel of comedians who interact with callers and Internet participants, along with a larger game, theme or physical challenge. It's mostly improvised, and all manner of absurdity occurs along the way — from hosting a live fetish party to giving haircuts to members of the studio audience. Anything can, and does, happen: After a woman named Jean called in to ask what the show was about, Chris invited her to join the cast, where she stayed for the entire season under the moniker "Random Jean."

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Yet along with the wackiness comes a deep humanity, as Gethard and his panel work to experience moments of real connection with their fans. As he explains, “The stranger we get with the comedy, the more our audience is willing to talk to us as human beings.”

The show began at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, where Gethard is a longtime staple, then moved to public access, where it quickly picked up a cult following, celebrity guests (Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis, P. Diddy, Sleater-Kinney), and a whole lot of buzz (the New York Times referred to it as “an often riveting experiment in seat-of-your-pants broadcasting”). Now it’s finally hitting cable, where it is poised to find a much larger audience after being picked up by producers Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis and Adam McKay.

We chatted with Gethard — who will be recognizable to non-improv buffs in his stints as Ilana's harried boss on "Broad City," or from Amy Schumer's "12 Angry Men" parody — to talk about the future of interactive programming, finding the show's "emo side," and doing right by his younger self.

“I’m making a show that I would have liked when I was a 15-year-old little weirdo," he explains. "And some of these people who are finding it, they are really responding to it. Maybe it’s like they need it, in a way.”

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For someone who has never seen the show, how would you describe what it’s all about?

It’s a talk show that very actively walks away from the familiar structure of what a talk show usually looks like. We really try to make it interactive, we try to involve the viewers, try to let calls happen, try to let things on the Internet happen that we actually use and react to in real time, and really let people — while the show is happening live — be able to push it and pull it in the direction they want. Ultimately, to me, the mission statement of the show is it’s a talk show that really actively experiments with what you can do on TV. What can we get away with.

The show feels like it owes a lot to the Internet, in that it takes the speed and playfulness and interactivity of the Web and folds it into the more traditional talk show format.

I just really think it’s weird that TV is still a one-way experience in 2015. I don’t think that’s how young people or hip people experience entertainment anymore. I think they’re used to having a comment box underneath most things they watch, they’re used to being able to offer input to things right after it happens or even while it happens. They’re used to what they tweet being part of what entertains their friends while they all watch a show together. So it feels, to me, like TV traditionally is a very rigid thing, where it’s like, you sit down on your couch, something comes on your TV, you react to it at home. I don’t know that that’s really the way the world works anymore, so I want to see how much can we blend all that other stuff with TV. Can your TV experience be a two-way thing? That’s the thing I’ve always been quietly obsessed with, with this show. 

I wonder if it will be the vanguard of a new type of more interactive programming.

Well, one can hope. But I do feel — I feel really good saying this, [even though] it sounds self defeating — but I feel like it’s either going to go down as something in that conversation or it will be a total strange blip on the radar and go away. Either way I’m totally fine with, because I feel like we’re taking a big chance and we’re trying some new stuff. I feel like at the very least people will look back at my show and be like, “They did some cool stuff that was ahead of their time.”

Do you think there’s a different kind of humor in TCGS than what we’re used to seeing on television, something a little more culty and fringe?

Part of the goal of a lot of TV is to make things easier for the viewer. You want it to be easy. You want to watch something and go, “This feels familiar, I know what this is. Let me settle in and eat my dinner while I watch it. Oh yeah, this is where they want me to laugh.” Everything has a format, everything has a structure and I think our show demands you invest in it. I think you need to really sit and figure it out. I don’t think we make it easy on our viewers.

A lot of my favorite comedy hasn’t done that. I’ve always been really obsessed with Andy Kaufman and I feel like I would watch his stuff when I was a kid and I would be like, “This is really funny and I’m laughing, but also sometimes it makes me uncomfortable or sometimes it even makes me mad. He shouldn’t be treating other people that way, but I am laughing even though I’m mad at him.”

I was always obsessed with Letterman when I was a little kid and I think it’s the same thing. I feel like you watch a lot of pieces of his show and you find yourself going, “Wait, I don’t know how this is going to end.” I think that’s such a rare thing to feel during TV. It all fits within these traditions and these formats that work and have worked for decades, and I think that’s cool, but we have actively tried to walk away from those things. So I think that does build a cult audience because it’s an audience that’s willing to maybe sit through some confusion or sit through some uncertainty and still be with you on the other side.

There was a piece in the Atlantic where you talked about the show being picked up by Comedy Central and that not working out, in part because Comedy Central was "less interested in the fact that the show has a bit of an emo side."

The show is intensely absurd, and can be really strange at times. It can get pretty out there visually and with some of the bits that we try. But what I’ve found over and over again is that the stranger we get with the comedy, the more our audience is willing to talk to us as human beings. It’s a really strange phenomenon, but I think they see us in these situations reacting like real people, and people will call the show and let me know how they're doing, or they’ll even ask how I’m doing. I’m willing to have an honest conversation with people, so if somebody calls me up and they tell me they're having a really bad day, I think, just as an empathetic, compassionate human being, my instinct is to stop worrying about the funny or the weird things about the show and say, “Wait, why are you having a bad day? That’s not good, can I help you have a better day?”

I don’t do that because it’s a talking point, I do that because I try to be a nice guy. I’ve found that these callers are really willing to tell me how they’re doing and I’m also willing to tell them how I’m doing. It’s a way that we really connect. It has a lot of value for me in my life and a lot of these kids have reached out and told me that it means a lot to them that I’m willing to be vulnerable and talk honestly. But that’s not a calculated decision on how to make the show a thing people will like. That’s just very much rooted in, if somebody’s on a telephone with you and they tell you that they’re sad, the nice thing to do is to ask them if you can help. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a TV camera on, you should be willing to slow down and talk to another human being.

So I think that did lead to a real emo side of the show, but it’s a little unpredictable and that’s not something that’s really standard for television. It can be a little cringey or a little risky and it can maybe slow down your laughs per minute, but it’s not a thing you can contain or predict. To me, it’s worth it. If a kid who’s 16 years old calls up and he’s having a funny phone call, but then he goes, “I’m not really feeling this because my parents are getting divorced,” I don’t want to just hang up the phone because I’m scared it won’t get laughs. That kid opened up to me, so I’m down to talk to him and I’m really glad that the show has landed in a situation [on Fusion] where that’s still fair game. It makes me feel like a decent human being to have these conversations. I’m really happy I get the opportunity to keep having them.

I know you’ve written and talked a lot about coping with depression, as well as the experience of being bullied in high school and how that affected your comedy. Is creating the show part of a healing process for you?

One of the major things I had in my head when I started this show is what’s the show that me and my brother would have loved when we were 15 years old and we spent most of our time sitting in our basement in New Jersey, watching comedy, playing Nintendo, playing Ping Pong, and when we went to school we got picked on for being the weird kids -- what’s the show we would have loved when we were those little weird kids in the basement trying to find weird comedy? I’ve managed to make that show. I think I’m making a show that I would have liked when I was a 15-year-old little weirdo.

And it’s probably not a coincidence that some of these people who watch the show, some of them who are 15, and some of them who also grew up that way, they’re really comfortable letting me know that they’re that type of person too. It’s one of the things that kind of makes me keep going with the show. It’s one of the things that has made me not give up on it, is that I really get the sense of, oh, I’m making a show that I would have really liked when I was a kid. And some of these people who are finding it, they are really responding to it. Maybe it’s like they need it, in a way. Maybe they feel that I am like them, they feel that I am someone who identifies with that frustration or feelings of isolation, or whatever it was that made me seek out comedy in my own life when I was a kid.

You started at UCB [New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater] then moved to public access, and now Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis and Adam McKay are producing the show. How does it feel to make that leap?

I tell ya, it feels really good. The fact that it is Adam McKay, who I think is such a genuinely subversive guy in so many ways, the fact that it is Will Ferrell, a guy who I respect so much, Zach Galifinakis, a guy who has met with a ton of mainstream success but also, I think, really is a guy who experiments onstage still and really loves probing around and seeing what kind of trouble he can cause onstage, the fact that it’s those guys in particular, makes me feel like: OK, I don’t know if I’m doing something that’s going to massively successful -- that’s impossible to predict -- but I do get the sense that these guys are really going to help me do something that has a lot of integrity. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express to those guys enough how much that chance means to me. I don’t think you get too many opportunities in your life to really do something the way you want to do it; it doesn’t happen all that often. But there’s a lot of people teaming up, rallying around this public access show, who really want to see it get a chance in a bigger way, and I think it’s because they see it and they respect the way I’ve done it. I just I hope I don’t fail and I want to make them proud.

How much do you attribute the show’s success to the network you made through your time at UCB?

I owe a ton to UCB. UCB was a great place to learn, a great place to be around people who are talented in comedy and a great place to kind of realize how competitive the comedy world can be. It was just a place where you gotta learn how to step up, gotta learn how to be aggressive and put your voice out there.

I feel like one of the luckiest breaks in my entire life was that I started taking classes at UCB theater when I was 20 years old because I was just kind of too young and dumb to realize that I should have been way more intimidated than I was. I just managed to get in there at a time when I was young and hungry and that place supported me and I have met a ton of people through it who would later have my back. I do not ever scoff at that. It’s definitely been home to me over the years.

It's incredible the level of success that has come out of UCB in recent years.

Yeah, it’s crazy. You can imagine -- I don’t want to be a sad sack about it because I’m really proud of what I’ve done with my life -- but you can imagine that coming up with all these people and being the guy who wound up on public access, there were definite nights where I was like: Why am I doing this, exactly? There is a pipeline of people getting really great jobs off of the same exact shows that I do with those people, and I’m opting out of all of it to just do this public access show. There were many, many times where I was like: I don’t even understand why I’ve chosen to do it this way. But at the end of the day, I think it just felt right in my gut, even though it was definitely scary at times. Fusion’s given me a job, at least for this summer. I feel validated in that way.

You had a lot of celebrity guests when you were doing the public access show. Have you got some good people lined up for the leap to Fusion?

Yes, for sure. Once of the nice things about being a guy who stuck to the underground is that, I think, people respect it. People look at the way we did it on public access, and they’re like, "Wow, you really built something in a pretty organic way." We do, we have a lot of guests who are going to come out. Our first episode is Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer from "Broad City." I’m really excited to come out of the gate with them, because they’re old friends.

You guys do some pretty crazy things on the show; you'll do these punishing physical challenges or have a fetish party or give each other haircuts or do a whole show blindfolded, just to give a few examples. Is it going to be toned down at all or is all that stuff staying?

I don’t know. Our network is really pretty good about letting the show do what we want. They have not shut down too many ideas for content reasons. I think we’re still going to be able to go big, but to me the thing that’s important about those crazy ideas is that, what I’ve always found is that when you do stuff that is pretty out there, physically or conceptually, that is when you start to get the most honest reactions out of people. That’s when you start to see people actually behave like human beings -- when they don’t know what to expect.

You don’t really see people on TV letting their guards down. To me all that chaos is really calculated in a way that’s meant to make the show as honest as possible, because I think when things are honest that’s when they are funniest. I think the funniest things in the world are all rooted in honesty. Having a fetish party on public access TV sounds really crazy, but I promise when you watch that episode, every reaction is pure honesty. Nobody knows what’s about to happen.

Recently you were part of Amy Schumer's incredible “12 Angry Men” parody. What was the experience like shooting that? 

I’ve met Amy many times through the stand-up world -- we’re not the closest in the world -- but I cannot stress how much respect I have for her and for what she’s done with her show. I don’t know if I remember a show that’s taken so many stands on things that I agree with, but has never sacrificed being funny while doing it. I was so proud to be in a sketch that was that overtly feminist but that never once traded in a laugh. As soon as I read it, I was like: Oh wow, these writers really crushed this comedically -- and on top of that it makes a point! That’s amazing. You’ve earned the right to make a point when you are as funny as Amy Schumer. I think she’s one of the bravest performers going. I didn’t really got the chance to say it to her that day, but I really have an immense amount of respect for her and I’m so lucky that I was included in her show and I really admire everything she does with it.

Your show has very progressive instincts as well.

Yeah, I think so. Any time we think of an idea, the point is: What’s going to be funny. There’s only been like a couple times where the show has talked about -- we have talked about depression a lot, bullying a lot -- I can only think of one or two episodes where that was the focus. It was only because I personally was in such a bad mood that I couldn’t host the show and be funny, so I just said that upfront. We really focus on making it a funny show. But the fact that we’ve also managed to maybe talk about some things that people don’t usually talk openly about and that the people who seem to need that message have found the show and it’s meant something to them: I’m proud of that. I don’t feel that it’s pretentious. I don’t feel like it’s something I need to apologize for, because it’s rooted in honesty.

It's like improv comedy, which is all about trying to find honesty in even the craziest scenarios. 

The book that is kind of the bible of UCB comedy is called “Truth in Comedy." That idea of trying to find things that are true, it’s just always been a real guideline of how I approach being in front of a crowd or of being in front of a camera. I’m glad that we’ve had some moments on the show that veer that way. I think it’s not the most traditional thing in the world, and maybe it makes the show real hard to figure out at times, but I think at the end of the day, it’s the right way to treat people. That’s a priority for me, trying to treat people how I’d want to be treated.

By Anna Silman

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