Chris Gethard opens up: “I’ve spent too much time growing up feeling like I couldn’t talk about this stuff. And it almost killed me”

Chris Gethard

Chris Gethard (Credit: Courtesy of Chris Gethard: Career Suicide)

Chris Gethard is very funny guy who often begins with very painful subjects, whether his own childhood nerdiness, his teenage alcoholism or the sometimes crippling anxiety and depression that he’s dealt with for much of his life. These become the material of his show “Career Suicide,” which begins previews Off-Broadway at the Lynn Redgrave Theater on Oct. 5.

“This is a subject that isn’t often addressed in comedy,” Judd Apatow, who produces the show, told Salon via email. “It means so much to people when someone like Chris can speak so honestly and hilariously about their experiences. It helps people understand what some of their friends and loved ones go through and it lets the people who are struggling with these issues know that they are not alone and that there is hope.”

Apatow added, “Chris has developed a really big following recently because he has had the courage to open up to his audience and share his struggles and his triumphs. “

The comedian is probably best known for “The Chris Gethard Show” on Fusion, but he’s also appeared on a handful of television shows (regularly on “Broad City”) and recently in the movie “Don’t Think Twice,” about the improv comedy world. Gethard  is a product of the Upright Citizens Brigade and developed some of “Career Suicide” there.

Salon spoke by phone to Gethard, who was at his home in New York; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Your new show turns heavily on subjects like depression and anxiety. These are clearly some things you’ve gone through yourself. But does it seem to you that they are far more common among people in the arts and entertainment than we typically acknowledge? Do a lot of the comedians and musicians and so on you know deal with various kinds of torments?

Well, I’ve though about this a lot. And I think it’s probably just more common in general. I do think there’s been a history of artists who suffer from this stuff and sometimes that comes out after bad things happen.

But I don’t know that artists are more prone to dealing with it — it’s probably swept under the rug in most people’s lives. I’m very resistant to the idea of the tortured artist. Do you have to be messed up to be funny, to be creative, to be musical?

It’s probably that artists tend to be public people and they process their feelings in public.

To me it’s very concerning that the perception is that artists have this more commonly — because I think there are more people behind closed doors dealing with this, not ready to deal with it.

I guess by saying [mental illness] is mostly something that artists and musicians and whatever deal with, it allows the mainstream to shrug it off, push it into a corner. “It’s just something those people deal with.”

I know for me, the whole show has been about examining my own experience. . . . I don’t get on a soapbox and preach. But so many people have come up to me after the show and said, “I’ve dealt with similar stuff” or “My mom has dealt with similar stuff.” Or “What you’re saying seems to speak honestly about this.”

The idea of the tortured artist is trouble to me because I think a lot of people avoid getting help because they think it’s going to kill their creativity. I was one of those people for years. But when I got medicated, my career got better because I wasn’t a manic person, running all over the place will all sorts of unrestrained energy and unrealistic ideas and an inability to focus.

I get it. We all want part of Kurt Cobain’s legend to be that he was so sad. But I wouldn’t mind personally if part of his legend had been that he stayed alive and jumped the shark eventually.

You told a Scottish paper when you played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that “I can safely say with no hyperbole that if I wasn’t a comedian I’d be dead in a grave already.” You really mean that literally, right?

Yeah.   I was in very, very rough shape when I first discovered comedy. There is no part of me that’s trying to build an image as a depressed guy, trying to corner the market on this.

I was in a very, very bad place. And then I discovered the UCB Theater, and that gave me something to feel passionate about, something to be excited by. I think comedy got me through a couple of my toughest years there.

Comedy was what kept my head above water.

You came up through the improv world of Upright Citizens Brigade. But do you have models or influences in earlier generations of standup comedians?

It’s funny. the people I point to as my biggest influences are not people known for wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Andy Kaufman was a god I worshipped growing up, and he obviously does so much stuff in character or that’s absurd or performance-art based. Especially on “The Chris Gethard Show” I do things like that, but still.

And David Letterman — he was known for cynical detachment and not bearing his soul. But one thing those two have in common is creating a lot of honest emotion in the room. Andy Kaufman could make the people around him mad or upset. If you look at Letterman’s interviews with Madonna or various reality stars or Paris Hilton, these could be really tense and honest. The stuff I respond to tends to be really, really honest.

Another touchstone for you has been the band The Smiths and the singer Morrissey. Tell us a bit about what they meant to you.

The Smiths mean a lot to me still. A lot of people would say that Morrissey’s lyrics maybe spoke to them when nothing else does. That was true of my experience. To feel that sense of isolation when you can’t figure out how you fit into the world.

And to hear someone who can say it so eloquently and humorously. It was eye-opening to me. He could say it with a knowing nod and wink.

I’ve thought a lot when I’m writing my comedy that I never want to lose sight of how music made me feel when I was young. Music tended to slice through all the static and all the noise.

Morrissey has become the kind of guy we all roll our eyes at these days. I think it’s a real shame because he’s someone who still tries to just do what he believes in, to stand by what he says.

He’s certainly stood by his principles. No doubt about that. He’s certain stubbornly ethical.

And there were a bunch of articles last week, because he was at [Riot Fest] in Chicago, and he came out late because there was still meat cooking. I don’t know why people make fun of him. He’s been a passionate celebrity since 1982. He was probably the first celebrity to make it cool to be a vegetarian. He views animals being killed as actual murder.

I don’t get why we’re all giving him a hard time. He doesn’t always say popular or easy things.

Comedians have complained over the last year or so about political correctness in comedy, that we’re such an oversensitive culture that comedian can’t be honest or can’t be funny anymore. Does this problem really exist? Does it limit what you can say?

Well, I really go back and forth on this stuff. You’ll see someone’s act being videotaped, and it will lead to a blog post, and then a backlash.

Comics have this stance of, “We’re comedians, we have to get onstage and say things that are uncomfortable, to hold a mirror up to something.”

I agree with that — comedians do have the right to say what they want. But people also have the right to get offended by it. You have to be ready to take it on the chin if you say something unpopular. Do I think the PC stuff is a little extreme these days? I definitely do. I think there are people coming to comedy clubs looking to be offended, looking to be upset, looking for things to write a think piece about.

That’s not the social contract you’re signing up for. You should be looking to laugh.

Some people were very mad at me for making comedy about suicide. I don’t think there’s anything funny about it, but I’ve spent too much time growing up feeling like I couldn’t talk about this stuff. And it almost killed me.

A lot of the best comedy makes people uncomfortable. I think audiences need to remember that that’s part of the deal. And comedians need to remember that if people get offended, that’s also part of the deal.

Every profession — whether jazz musicians or scientists — has its own inside dialogue and subcultural style. I wonder if when comedians get together — when there are no civilians around — if they are more outrageous than usual. Pushing each other to go as far as they can. Is there a kind of arms race quality to comedian-to-comedian banter?

There are definitely situations where comedians get together are busting on each other and saying shocking things. That’s part of it.

But the more shocking thing that people would be surprised is how boring comedians can be when they’re around each other. A lot of time the most boring, dry conversations I’ve had are with other comedians. It oscillates between showoffs trying to one up each other, even if it gets a little offensive, and the least funny conversations in the entire world.

The amount of times I’ve told people I’m a comedian and they look me in the eye and say, “You don’t seem funny” . . . it’s both astounding and entirely accurate.

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