Chris Gethard is one of those rare comedians who has been able to blur the lines of improv, sketch, alt comedy, and stand up, all while staying true to his voice. Comedy fans recognize him as the quirky host of his own talk show, The Chris Gethard Show, and the pushover boss on Comedy Central’s Broad City. They may have even listened to his Earwolf podcast Beautiful/Anonymous, or seen him perform stand up live. For New York-based improv nerds who have studied at UCB, however, Gethard is revered as somewhat of a legend. As a regular performer, popular teacher, sought-after Harold team coach and eventual Artistic Director, Gethard’s influence has left a lasting impression on the school long after his departure. Current UCB teachers still talk about the glory days of studying under him, how he pushed performers beyond their comfort zones and rallied behind his favorites.
But the New York comedy scene tends to divide stand-ups and improvisers, especially those who have risen so high in the ranks of an improv school like Gethard had at UCB. Many comedians feel pressured to pick a lane and stick to it, lest they deviate off that path and self-destruct their own careers. Gethard, on the other hand, has eschewed any preconceived notion of what his comedy career is supposed to look like. After dedicating more than 10 years to UCB, the seasoned performer knew it was time for a change.
“I could feel my growth stopping. I was only going to get so good at improv,” he tells me over the phone. “Any time I’ve felt that feeling, where I’m starting to feel maybe a little content, or a little complacent, as an artist, that to me is a massive red flag.” His solution? “You better go do something that scares the shit out of you,” he told himself. That “something” turned out to be stand up, which Gethard says has been his complete passion for the last few years.
“It’s definitely the scariest type of comedy I’ve ever done. I can’t imagine a scarier type of comedy than stand up. I’ve been able to put myself in so many environments that feel really challenging.” Taking that challenge head-on has paid off. Gethard has appeared on Comedy Central’s The Half Hour series, released a full comedy album in 2014 titled My Comedy Album, and can be seen performing on various stages throughout New York, the city he credits for helping him get good at his craft.
“If I want to go out [and perform] 10 times in a week, that’s like low by some comedian standards,” he explains. “I can’t imagine a city where you can go up more times with more different types of crowds: Harsh crowds, nice crowds, artsy crowds, tourist crowds, just everything.”
There’s not much you can argue about the availability of stage time in New York City; there’s a reason it’s a destination for anyone looking to hone their stand up chops. But as with any pop culture sect, comedy too has an annoying obsession with nostalgia. The jokes were somehow funnier, the comics somehow more authentic, and the material somehow edgier 10, 15 years ago. It’s a sentiment some of Gethard’s peers may share, but not him.
“There’s just wave after wave of cool stuff that comes here,” he says. “I think sometimes, it’s this cynical side of our brains that’s easy to feel like ‘man, I missed the cool stuff,’ but I think really what happens is, we missed the old stuff. And the new stuff is just as cool as the old stuff ever was.”
He seems to be one of the last advocates of an authentically weird New York, which, among all of this rapid gentrification and faux hipsterdom, the comedian insists still exists. “Say whatever you want about Giuliani cleaning up New York; it can still be a very strange place,” he says. “It’s a place where people still really appreciate strange stuff. [On] The Chris Gethard Show, we can get real weird sometimes. I think New York to me is an integral part of that.”
He views his show as truly a New York show, similar to David Letterman and Late Night-era Conan O’Brien. Where Letterman was known for screaming at Rupert the Hello Deli guy and accosting randoms on the street, Gethard has carved a path opening his stage, quite literally, to fellow New Yorkers. In his public access days, Gethard invited an unimpressed caller to cab it to the studio and join the show for the rest of the taping. She ended up being a series regular.
For as much success as Gethard has achieved in the comedy world, he has not only retained the emotional vulnerability that makes him so relatable; he’s expanded on it. Gethard took a lot of calls on his public access show, and thanks to the loose format, could talk to callers sometimes for 10 minutes. Then his show moved to the Fusion network, and got trimmed down to just a half hour. Even though season two is back to a full hour, most of the calls are over Skype and still need to be mostly brief and lighthearted.
“I think I got pretty good at talking to strangers on the phone, and I missed it, so I just wanted to build a podcast that revolved around that,” he says. Thus, the Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People (Beautiful/Anonymous for short) podcast was born. It’s a platform for him to connect with nameless, faceless strangers on a personal level. The goal isn’t to make anyone laugh, or add shock value, or even entertain. It’s much more basic than that — an opportunity to talk to everyday people.
“We live in a culture of celebrity, and I get it… but I also think there’s something to be said for the fact that regular people are incredibly interesting,” he says. The true anonymity of the callers also makes it an open playing field for people to come and lay bare their most interesting stories and honest anecdotes.
“There’s kind of almost an emotional exhibitionism that’s been coming into play with the show. It’s something that a lot of people are going to hear… and I think the people listening are absolutely voyeurs as well. It kind of feels like you get to peek through the window of a house you’re not supposed to. That’s the tone that’s been set.”
It may be that the biggest reason for Gethard’s success is because he never really feels like he’s achieved it, despite his popular cable TV shows, podcasts, books, and stand up performances. It’s that starving artist mentality that prevents him from ever sitting still, or slacking on his work.
“One thing that I’ve learned is that it could all end tomorrow, and then it’s back to the drawing board, back to the grind,” he reveals. “So I’m always of the philosophy that I have to be a workhorse, I have to put stuff out into the world. Because at the end of the day, that’s the thing that no one can take away from you — no one can take away your ability to be a creator.”
You better get as good at as many things as you can, so you have as many weapons in your arsenal as possible so that nobody can deny you.
“You better be ready to diversify because nobody owes you anything, and not everybody gets lucky. You better get as good at as many things as you can, so you have as many weapons in your arsenal as possible so that nobody can deny you,” he advises. “It’s all just about creating, being able to put yourself out there in as many ways as possible, and making it so that your destiny is in your own hands. I’m a really big proponent that you need to create for yourself, and not wait for other people to hand you opportunities, because there’s no guarantee.”
Catch Chris Gethard’s Beautiful/Anonymous podcast live on May 21 at Casper Podcast Lounge in NYC as part of Vulture Festival. He’s also appearing live on Sunday May 22 at the 92 Y in conversation with friend and TCGS co-host Shannon O’Neill. The Chris Gethard Show airs Wednesday nights at 10 pm EST on Fusion.