Last Wednesday, I finished a beer at The People’s Improv Theater in New York City and told my friend I had to head out to do something for work. He was confused because it was almost 10 p.m.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m going to this like, crazy public access TV show by this comedian guy and there’s a bunch of weird stunts and it’s like, an underground cult hit…You know what? I can’t explain it properly. Do you want to just come with me and see for yourself?”
I feel like this is a common entry point for new fans of The Chris Gethard Show.
Though hard to nail down in a “three-second pitch,” comedian Gethard’s TV show strives to be one thing: not boring.
And it’s definitely not.
Gethard, a New York alt comedy staple and a long-time beloved performer at the legendary Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, hosts a cacophony of randomness every Wednesday at 11 p.m. on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. (Archived episodes can also be watched here and there’s a livestream to watch online.) The show started in 2009 as a live stage show at the UCB and moved to cable access television last year.
I’ll do my best to describe it: The Chris Gethard Show is part-talk show/part-game show. There’s a house band called The LLC, a motley crew of bizarre panelists and a live musical guest — all corralled by the ringleader Gethard, a slight mad genius, who half-blushes with disbelief/half-delights in each non-sequitor of the show.
Panelists include (among others) a hairy, shirtless man in swim goggles known as “The Human Fish” (played by UCB performer David Bluvband), Gethard’s best friend, the quick and angry Shannon O’Neill, sweetheart producer Bethany Hall, and a hidden Twitter fiend called — in David Lynch-ian style — “The Man Behind The Plant.”
In the opening of the show, Gethard described TCGS as simply “a home for creative people and weirdos.”
As an improv comedian, I’ve known of Chris Gethard since I first came to New York in 2009 and saw him perform in UCB’s Sunday night celebrity-infused improv show ASSSSCAT 3000. He solidified his place as one of my favorite comedians by being super hilarious on stage, but became one of my favorite people after I read a fantastic interview he did with The Onion AV Club to promote his appropriately wild and weird book, “A Bad Idea I’m About To Do: True Tales Of Seriously Poor Judgment And Stunningly Awkward Adventure.”
Gethard takes the outlandish ideas that most people suppress and then actually goes through with them. As described on the show’s website, Gethard is known for “using Twitter to book Diddy as a guest, staging a show to make a depressed teenager from Ohio have the best night of his life, and pulling off a cross-country tour, its route largely defined by people on Twitter while it was happening.” He’s also starred in a Comedy Central show, ‘Big Lake,’ and when it was cancelled, he interviewed one of his biggest Internet haters face to face.
Gethard has no problem being the butt of the joke or the “loser.” His campaign “Loser is the New Nerd” started as a way to take back the social implications of both words in a world where Zooey Deschanel and Lebron James identify as “nerds.” In an interview with Thought Catalog, Gethard said the chic appeal of nerd-dom makes some things easier, but doesn’t eliminate bullying.
“That doesn’t change the fact that some of these kids don’t get to choose,” he said. “There’s kids with asthma and allergies and eye patches and back braces all over the country who really have it rough for being who they are. The ‘Loser is the New Nerd’ mantra was basically saying — nerd doesn’t necessarily refer to those types of kids like it used to, and those kids, myself included, should empower themselves by boxing out the word ‘loser’ for themselves, by drawing a line in the sand and saying ‘We can all be nerds, but you have to be born into being a loser.'”
At Gethard’s show “loser” is actually kind of the new “winner.” The packed audience was a crowd of mostly college students — young people with dyed blue hair or long flowing floral skirts: hippies, weirdos and yes, nerds. Next to the panel, a monitor showed Twitter in real-time with tons of Tweeting fans, but the sole video sketch was a self-deprecating tale of Gethard’s trek to Washington Square Park in search of his biggest fan only to find no one actually watches The Chris Gethard Show. When he finally found a young guy who’d actually heard of him (though not of his show specifically), Gethard was so excited, he bought his “fan” a Spiderman ice pop.
The show is comedy, but the first episode of The Chris Gethard Show I ever watched made me cry. In it, Gethard brought on Alyssa, a 16-year-old girl, who described herself as “biggest comedy nerd in the suburbs” and showered her with presents, compliments and special guests like Seth Meyers, Kay Cannon, Tina Fey, Jack McBrayer and Bobby Moynihan. A mostly speechless Alyssa started crying at one point, and that’s when the floodgates opened for me.
That’s what makes Chris Gethard awesome. In his world, everyone is special. To Gethard, his show doesn’t even start for him until the calls come in or the Twitter monitor starts updating — until in his words “the people get involved.” Fans of the show have created T-shirt designs, original animations and Spotify playlists inspired by TCGS.
“I really don’t want this to feel like a standard TV show, where you watch the show and we give you what we want to give you and you take it. I want this to be something that the community of viewers gets to shape and mold and make their own,” Gethard said. “I want to sort of set the parameters, but then let the viewers of the show point it in whatever direction they want.”
The show I saw last week featured a game called “The Multiple Choice Cavalcade of Fiascos” where callers from places like Brooklyn and Long Island, but also North Dakota, Illinois and Sweden, answered questions about the panelists. (One caller told Chris, “I met some of my best friends through The Chris Gethard Show.”)
Punishments for wrong answers included a group of grown men in diapers quoting Charles Manson, a mermaid who thankfully didn’t have to eat a live goldfish, a guy in an Arnold Schwarzenegger mask doing a strip tease, and a 30 second dance party to the sound of a baby crying (to which panelist Shannon O’Neill hilariously asked, “Is this dubstep?”).
Watching the show live, I kept thinking about myself in high school — cast out and alone — and how I would have completely latched on to a show like this: one that shows it’s not only okay to be weird — it’s standard procedure. Gethard is particularly proud of that aspect.
“It’s important to me to honor that,” he said, “and really try to build the environment of the show as an inclusive, interactive, accessible place that kids from all over can participate in.”
The show last week ended with a group of men spitting on Gethard’s face, while he joyfully yelled, “Is this really how we’re ending this week?” Then, the studio audience burst into enthusiastic cheers, blowing soapy bubbles while The LLC sang Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” It was perfect — and impossible to describe.