BY ERIN BLEWETT Comedian/actor/writer Chris Gethard has struggled with, and prevailed over, many unfunny things: manic depression, substance abuse, suicidal ideation. When he finally got a handle on his issues and started discussing them candidly in his stand-up act — striking just the right balance of humor, heartbreak and insight — things went next level. Exhibit A is Career Suicide, his hilarious new, Judd Appatow-produced HBO comedy special. Straight outta West Orange, NJ, Gethard got his start with the Upright Citizens Brigade where he birthed The Chris Gethard Show, a gonzo blend of meta and improv that caught the attention of Funny Or Die’s leading lights: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Zach Galafianakis. Gethard starred in Mike Birbiglia’s latest film Don’t Think Twice, about a sad sack troop of improv comedy shouldabeens. He plays Todd on Comedy Central’s Broad City. His other TV credits include Inside Amy Schumer, The Office, Parks and Recreation and Louie. In 2012, Gethard published a collection of personal essays called A Bad Idea I’m About to Do, and turned the titular essay into a beloved segment on public radio’s This American Life. In addition to all that, he is the host of the popular Earwolf podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People. He is currently in the midst of his Beautiful/Anonymous stand-up tour which stops at the TLA on Friday. Last week, we got Mr. Gethard on the horn. DISCUSSED: Andy Kaufman, suicide, heroin, the lie that mental illness and creativity are connected, the terrible social cost of Trump jokes and the secret of comedy.
PHAWKER: You have spoken out against the practice of romanticizing mental illness as the source of creativity, citing your own fears that medicating your manic depression would kill your art and how it resulted in you suffering from a condition that could be effectively managed with meds and therapy. And that you were in fact a better, more productive and creative artist when you finally got your demons under control. All true in my experience, but would you agree that creative types seem more prone to depression and addiction and other mental health issues than non-creative types? And if so, why do you think that is?
CHRIS GETHARD: I don’t know the statistics, but I will say a couple things. One, I think that creative people by nature are putting stuff out in the world so they’re probably talking about it more. My guess is that there are probably a lot of people who suffer quietly who aren’t talking about it because they aren’t people that write songs or jokes or paint things that put their issues on display to the world. I think there is something valid to be said that artists are people who spend their time processing the world and commenting on it via creativity and I think there is probably some validity that people who are prone to making art are also prone to feeling like outsiders. I would also say that I bet there is not a higher percentage of artists who are depressed, it’s just that their lives involve being more public about it. I bet it evens out when you get behind closed doors.
PHAWKER: Excellent. So, in your stand up you’ve also riffed — quite effectively, I might add — that contrary to conventional wisdom, suicide isn’t cowardly, it’s sad, “and nothing but.” But I’m just curious as to what your thoughts are about the notion that people should have the right to end their lives at the time and place of their choosing? An odd question to ask a comedian, I know, but you started this…
CHRIS GETHARD: Yeah, I know I’ve opened myself up to this. I definitely think my opinions come from a mental health perspective and there are certainly who suffer from physical conditions who are in a great amount of pain where suicide takes on a different meaning to them. I think there are people who view it as a humane medical procedure for people who are in great physical suffering. That is something that I do think very differently about it as opposed to people who are driven to it by mental illness.
PHAWKER: Ok, continuing on- you host the podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People where you select a random caller and give him or her an hour to say more or less whatever they want. What is the most beautiful story you have come across in the process and why is it so moving to you?
CHRIS GETHARD: Hmmm, that’s a very good question.
PHAWKER: Take a second, think about it. I know there’s been a lot.
CHRIS GETHARD: Yeah, there’s been so many to process. You know, I think at the end of the day I’ve heard from a lot of people who have dealt with some hard stuff and there’s one that jumps out. There was a young lady who called and told me she had been addicted to heroin for many years. And she really went in. She told me about many of the really grim aspects of living that life, but she also told me that now she’s on the other side of it. She’s working a job, her job isn’t easy but she’s really proud and she holds her head up high. That is one that jumps out to me because I’ve lost a few friends to heroin and it is such an epidemic especially in the area I grew up. Hearing her say that she went very deep into something that’s that scary and that brutal and is ok now, that really shook me up emotionally. I also think that that was a story that made me feel really proud to have the podcast be what it is because I think a lot of times someone falls into that world and we go ‘Ok, they’re a drug addict.’ And we write them off and we judge them. It’s rare to get to hear from somebody who is willing to say to you, ‘No, I can actually tell you what it was like to live it and it was much harder for me on the inside than those on the outside. Even though that was incredibly difficult as well.’ That is the one that really stood out to me. I have enough personal experience seeing people fall into that specific drug addiction and hearing from her and hearing that she was ok and how she fought through it. That one is very special to me.
PHAWKER: Do you find that you have trouble getting people to talk for a whole hour or does it just kind of flow naturally?
CHRIS GETHARD: No, I have trouble getting people to shut up if I’m being totally blunt about it. I think that as the reputation of the podcast has spread, it’s definitely taken on this life of its own and people are ready to share some secrets and get into it. Getting hem to talk for an hour is not the problem at all.
PHAWKER: This question is a little like ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ but I’m going to ask it anyway: What is the secret of comedy? What is the secret of making a roomful of strangers with completely different lives and life experiences and world views all react to a series of precisely arranged words in the exact same way: with involuntary laughter?
CHRIS GETHARD: Well, I think at the end of the day it all comes down to honesty. If you can make something that feels true then you can get a crowd to laugh. I try to do stuff that’s very honest and wears my heart on my sleeve. I’ve managed to get a couple laughs that way and a lot of times people are surprised that my favorite comedian growing up was Andy Kaufman. All he does is he goes really deep into characters and people are like, ‘Well you’re all about honesty and he’s all about this antagonistic character stuff, how does that work?’ The one thing I always think about is that the reactions he was getting were so honest and he’s getting real reactions from the room. I think at the end of the day- the common shared quality to that is the sense of honesty and creating something that feels real to some extent.
PHAWKER: I definitely get that. I’m going to bring it back to the subject that none of us can seem to escape. Is Donald Trump a goldmine for comedians or do you think the Age Of Trump is such a terrifying and anxiety-riddled shit show that nothing will be funny until it’s over?
CHRIS GETHARD: It’s definitely the second one, for sure. I know I’ve talked to a lot of comedians and many of them have had the experience where people have said, ‘Well at the very least, you’ll get a lot of jokes out of this now.’ And every comedian I know says that they would give back all of those jokes if we could live in a world that is a little more stable and a little less scary than this one.
PHAWKER: Do you have anything you’d like to add or any final thoughts?
CHRIS GETHARD: I think in general I would just say that TLA is a really big venue and it would be really depressing if it was empty so I really hope people buy some tickets and come on out. I think we’ll have a bad time.