"Our Show is Held Together by Chewing Gum and Tape": A Look at The Chris Gethard Show
This fall, TV Hangover will be premiering some new columns. In “Overlooked” we’ll look at the best television shows, web series, and Netflix gems that you’ve yet to fall in love with. First up: The Chris Gethard Show.
It’s not a stretch to say that The Chris Gethard Show might be the weirdest thing I’ve ever watched, which isn’t an easy crown to win considering I regularly watch the Adult Swim lineup and maybe even CW’s extreme musical chairs (?!) reality competition. But The Chris Gethard Show is weird from beginning to end in the best way possible. Originally at UCB and hosted by Chris Gethard, who may very well be Tumblr’s favorite inspirational comedian, the show made the move from the comedy club to a Manhattan public access network a little over a year ago. I’ve found that it’s a hard show to explain to people — it’s part talk show with an in-house band and viewer callers, part variety show, and often just completely indescribable.
Within just a few weeks the episodes can vary between a guide to learning about women, a comedy show where no one is allowed to laugh, a large game of truth or dare, speed-dating, or just a full hour of people sharing sad stories. No matter the topic, every episode is full of this infectious manic and punk rock energy that you can’t take your eyes off and can’t help but admire even when (especially when!) things go awry. But for the most part, the show just resembles a weekly party thrown by and for all the uncool kids, whether you’re a high school student, comedy nerd, or a lost adult. Afterall, the show’s motto is “Lose Well” and they once dedicated an entire episode just to celebrate the self-proclaimed losers of the world. There’s a recurring theme of failure throughout the series but also a constant reminder to keep going. If you fail at turning yourself into a human crane, wait a few weeks and try again!
The emphasis of the bizarre and uncool is actually what makes the show so endearing. The panel on TCGS is reminiscent of the Island of the Mistfit Toys — and considering I was once the jack-in-the-box in a truly awful junior high production of this, it makes sense that I gravitated toward the show immediately. The resemblance is only emphasized by weekly characters such as a Human Fish, a guy in a banana costume, and Mimi, the woman who impressively hula hoops through the entire show. The episode that TV Hangover attended a few weeks ago had even more of that vibe as we watched a parade of potential new characters including a magician for cats, a watermelon policeman, and the winner: The Guy Who Likes Cream BUT NOT TOO MUCH CREAM.
The audience also plays a huge role in TCGS. Anyone and everyone is welcome to to head down to the studios and attend a free taping to sit cross-legged on the floor, sing-a-long and watch the spectacle in action with a handful of like-minded peers. They are sometimes invited to participate in things like ruining the entire show or lining up to spank the host. And, of course, to dance like a maniacs to the musical guests (which have included some awesome performers such as Ted Leo, Laura Stevenson & the Cans, and Night Birds). Even if you can’t attend, the show takes as many callers as possible throughout the night — one regular caller, a high school student named Alyssa, even eventually had an episode dedicated to her. Many people tweet directly to Chris Gethard as the tweets are often read and responded to on air.
Basically, The Chris Gethard Show is one of the most truly original and fun shows in existence. Even if, most likely, you don’t have access to it on your cable, every new episode is streamed live on the site Wednesday night at 11pm — and I highly suggest checking out tonight’s episode where they’ll attempt to throw a party worthy enough of guest panelist Andrew W.K. (!!) All of the episodes are available on the archive of both blip.tv and iTunes, as well.
As an added bonus Chris Gethard — who was recently “adopted” by IFC, the same network that ordered a pilot based on his hilarious book — was nice enough to answer some questions asked by a few of our readers. Read on to learn about vetoed episode ideas, his idea of success, and more!
TV HANGOVER: Are there any episodes that you really wanted to do but were vetoed by the rest of the crew?
CHRIS GETHARD: This happens constantly! There are three writers and myself who are part of every episode brainstorming session and we constantly [throw] out ten ideas to get to one. Which if you watch the show seems insane, since we do episodes about things like “Let’s make cardboard robot suits and fist fight on public access tv.” But we do put a lot of time into it and think long and hard about what kind of ideas work. On my end, I constantly want to do episodes that revolve around nothing but the cast enduring actual violence. In the early months of our show there were a lot more of these. I think they’re funny, plus I have emotional problems and this punishment plays into them. There are a lot of ideas like that, and our director JD in particular is always like “Come on, guys, it can’t just be the cast suffering physically for no reason.” And he’s right! But one time, I’m pretty sure it was JD that said “We’re trying to put on a comedy show, not make Gethard into a Christ-like figure” and it was either me or Noah who was like “WE HAVE TO DO AN EPISODE WHERE I GET CRUCIFIED.” I was really into that idea, me getting crucified on public access. I remember Noah was too, so one of us probably thought of it. We got all giddy. But Dru and JD pointed out that it’s really fucked up to crucify yourself, so we bailed on it. Typing this makes me want to pitch it again.
TVH: What is your pre-production/writers room process like throughout the week?
CG: Well, first things first: we don’t have an office, so we have nowhere to meet. That’s why our writers’ meetings are just myself, JD, Noah, and Dru. We meet at my apartment and it’s hard to get to and there’s not much room. So there’s no writer’s room, board of ideas, interaction between the cast/crew/infrastructure guys at any point leading up to the show. We’ll usually try to leave any given Saturday meeting knowing how the next episode is going to work and what the general theme/name of the one following that is. Then we meet the next week and nail down the specifics of the name we’ve had floating around for a while and also figure out the name of the one after that. It’s not a great way to write a weekly hour of content. I maintain that if we ever get someone to take a chance on us, they will marvel at what is going to happen if we get a writer’s room where all our contributors can be in one place at one time. I’m proud of our show right now and it is no one’s job, myself included. Most of the people working on it have full time 9-5 jobs. It’s nuts.
So we have those meetings, then we start emailing. I send dozens and dozens of emails to different people on the show. Some weeks we’ll need more web stuff built for interaction, like the character contest poll we had. Sometimes we’ll solicit contributions and our Tumblr guy and the dude who runs our audience ticketing need to be ready to receive all that and get it to whomever is organizing the bit. Sometimes we’ll have a physical thing going down, so our crew members who are sort of general hands on deck need to be filled in on what it is and what’s expected of them. Sometimes there will be a lot of audio or visual things necessary to execute an idea and all of our technical staff needs to be ready to rock.
Then we get to the studio on 59th Street. Our whole crew and cast and a lot of our fans wait in the lobby, then as soon as the show that’s using the studio before ours clears out, we need to get in there, set up the entire studio as quickly as possible, sound check our house band, musical guest, as well as my mic and the phones, and then set up whatever needs to happen for that actual bit. So for like the Robot Fights episode, that means we’ve got eight people with giant elaborate suits that need to be rebuilt and positioned and we need crew on hand to help them so no one gets killed falling over before the episode even starts. For something like the Milkshake of Death it means that whomever is in charge of all the ingredients needs to figure out where we’re setting the whole station up and that there’s power cords that reach it and that the camera guys all have the coverage they need. This all needs to happen in about 40 minutes.
This probably reads as unnecessarily chaotic, but another thing to keep in mind is that we’re not allowed to store anything in the studio. So the entire set needs to fit in the trunk of my Ford Fiesta, and any bits we do we have to transport everything we need for it there ourselves. I keep harping on the Robot Fights episode, but like that one, all of the cardboard boxes were in the garage of our intern who lives in Scarsdale. So I had to take three trips back and forth to get all the cardboard, drop it off with all the contestants so they could build their robots, then help make sure they could all get their robots to the studio in time. It is just nuts and a lot of work and very haphazard, but we love it.
Sometimes I wonder if we had a writers’ room and a studio that we could store stuff in, would those things take away from the vibe of the show? Like is the fact that it’s always on the verge of being a train wreck part of the fun? Then I think, no, that’s self-defeating - we need to remember that with the stuff we do now being stuff we’re proud of, if we could actually do it RIGHT it would only get better. I think. I hope. Maybe someday we’ll get a chance to see.
TVH: Have you encountered any problems with MNN?
CG: MNN has been great to us! They are a true punk rock organization and they really believe that creators should be able to fulfill their creative vision. They love us because we work hard and come correct and we love them for giving us a home that allows to get as weird as we choose.
As far as problems go? Sometimes they’re not the best communicators. There’s dozens of people making shows on their airwaves they need to take care of, and I think since we’re pretty autonomous and bring a huge crew sometimes they feel like we can take care of ourselves and our concerns don’t get answers the quickest? There are very occasional scheduling mishaps or communications. And sometimes they say they’ll buy new equipment or replace old equipment and it becomes back burner and then things we were banking on haven’t happened?
I keep putting questions marks because really none of those are a big deal at all. MNN is a great organization and the problems we’ve had are insanely nit-picky. Really the overall concerns for the show as far as public access goes are that we can’t store anything in their space, we have no permanence there, and it makes it hard to organize. And obviously since its public airwaves we can’t get sponsors, and money stuff is stressful always, but who cares? They give us a 40x40 foot studio, live streaming capabilities, call in capabilities, and the overall ability to build an audience that I really appreciate and love.
In short - there are always going to be problems with any organization you work with, but our complaints are minor as well as seldom, and I think MNN is the best.
TVH: Would you ever consider moving the show to a cable network or do you think that would cause you to lose total creative control?
CG: I have a dream that maybe we can have our cake and eat it too. I actively want this to be my job. I don’t apologize for that. I’m all for punk rock and doing things our way, but I also don’t feel shame saying I love this more than anything and if an entity that could make it my job was willing to do so, I’d flip out for that chance and work so insanely hard to make it go well.
We might lose creative control if that goes down, but my philosophy is that they’re kind of making us force the issue and that actually has some benefits. Like, I’ve promoted the show on Fallon and Conan, we got reviewed positively in the New York Times, NY Mag called me “The Carson of Cable Access” and the blog world loves us. It’s really cool and fun. But it is sort of like - why is it so hard to get cable networks to take us seriously? We’re doing a show that’s almost impossible to find and that has no money behind it and still thousands of people are watching it and the people who love it really and truly love it. What else can I do to get the cable guys to take us seriously? I’m honestly not sure. So I just try to work hard and make the show as good as possible.
Now that’s frustrating, but the benefits are - the longer we do this, the bigger our cult audience gets, and that means that when they do finally take a shot on us it will be due to the fact that we’ve gotten that audience large enough or executed something notable enough that they would be stupid not to take a chance on us. And if they want to make us force our way into the bigger picture instead of working with us on it, it means that the shit that’s really in our actual voice will be what gets us there. Basically - the longer it takes to get there, the less they can fuck with our creative control by the time we do. If someone started developing the show now, they’d have a right to say a lot. Every month that goes by where we keep growing and making noise is another month where our credibility grows and therefore their potential to boss us around when the day comes lessens.
TVH: In terms of the show, what is your idea of success?
CG: Success? Put on a good show that people connect with. Use the fact that I feel like I’d be dead if I didn’t try to be creative in a way that feels honest to me to build something that people feel like speaks to them and their lives and their viewpoints. That’s it right there. When I get calls from teenaged kids in Kentucky saying they all get together and watch the show, that to me is success. When I get emails from people saying that our show is so open and honest and that I personally talk about my own struggles on the air, and that allows people out there who also feel like underdogs and losers to feel like they have something that brings them amusement or that they’re a part of, that’s success. I get emails like that a lot - people who have had it tough who say our show strikes a chord with them. That’s success. I already view this experiment as a success.
That being said, there’s another layer which is - I have been acting and writing professionally for many years. It’s how I’ve paid my rent and health insurance for many years, and I’m proud of that. And the show is the thing I’m most proud of, and I do want it to be my job. And I want all the people who have killed themselves to make this thing what it is to have it as their job if they want that as well. That would be fantastic, if this show was how I paid my rent. I think it’s doable but we haven’t caught the break yet.
So yeah - creative matters is how I think of success. And we’re doing it, getting there, achieving it occasionally already and constantly looking to do more of it. Connecting with people via creative outputs - that’s success. But there’s also that side of things which is - if myself and my friends can buck the system and get to a point where this is what we do? That wouldn’t be success, that would be the dream.
Then there’s the fantasy ultimate success which is - every weekday night at 11:30, baby. Throw out the monologues, kids don’t care these days. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are already doing that. Throw out the traditions and recognize that a talk show nowadays needs to be accessible - we live in a world where 11 year old kids can directly send messages to the celebrities they love on Twitter. It’s all access all the time. Our show is held together by chewing gum and tape and we’re figuring out ways to get completely interactive, to use tv cameras and telephones and the internet to build a show that feels so much like a two way experience that it’s at times disconcerting. In a world of ultimate success, our dumb, weird show that not too many people who have decision making power believes in becomes the next iteration of the talk show in general and helps destroy some of the old stale tropes of the genre that remain seemingly only for traditions’ sake, and replaces them with stuff that speaks to the experiences of a generation that grew up being smart and discerning about what they love and that most importantly is accustomed to having a say. People these days can tweet. They can leave comments. They want to be a part of it. They don’t want to be talked at anymore, they want to be talked with. In my dream world version of success, our show somehow becomes the one that proves those things to be true and changes the game.
ALL OF THAT SOUNDED ARROGANT. THAT’S WHY IT’S IN A FANTASY WORLD. I AM FULLY AWARE NO ONE ELSE SEES OUR SHOW THAT WAY.
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