Something’s up with Chris Gethard. He’s rarely making eye contact, looking up from his plate of cold fries only now and again to scan the room like he’s casing the exits.
The comic’s star has been on the rise for a decade and a half, blazing a trajectory that took him from his years with comedy superstardom’s farm team at the Upright Citizens Brigade to a recurring role on Comedy Central’s Broad City to, now, his own talk show. Its second season set to premiere March 30 on Fusion, the show is nothing but high-octane weirdness. One episode featured Will Ferrell helping to officiate a series of wedding ceremonies live on set; part of another was devoted to telling human secrets to dogs (“Sleeping and being put to sleep are two very different things”).
“Chris dominates [at being] a nerd,” says Ilana Glazer, Gethard’s Broad City co-star and a former student of his at UCB. “With Chris, you’re not afraid to be enthusiastic. That’s part of the market he’s got cornered there.”
So maybe it’s just the setting that’s making him nervous. We’re holed up in the back of Chelsea’s Peter McManus Café, a place Gethard knows all too well. Fifteen years ago, when he was beginning his comedy career in New York City, UCB was headquartered a few blocks away, in an abandoned strip club on West 22nd Street. (For years, hordes of drunken sailors would stumble into the theater during Fleet Week searching for one of Manhattan’s “raunchiest” topless bars, only to find Gethard and his cohorts onstage.) UCB’s performers would often congregate at McManus after rehearsal or a show — at one point Horatio Sanz had his own key to the building. “I had some of the best nights of my life in this bar,” Gethard says, eyes widening beneath his trademark horn-rims. “But I also had a couple of the worst.”
Now 35, Gethard remembers drinking so heavily at McManus in his early twenties that he once vomited and passed out facedown on the place’s bathroom floor. “I was in that booth one night and I drank way too much,” he offers, nodding at an empty table in the corner. “A friend of mine made a joke that I reacted really poorly to, and I started crying. I was screaming and yelling and making a real spectacle of myself in front of all these people I respected.”
Gethard’s battles with mental illness and alcoholism stretch all the way back to his childhood in West Orange, New Jersey. “It was a real Outsiders-type situation,” he quips, describing growing up in a rough blue-collar neighborhood in the otherwise tony Manhattan suburb. He was an angry kid with a chip on his shoulder who found solace in the underground punk rock of the Nineties; to escape bullies he became one in his own right, later telling NPR that he used to lurk in AOL chatrooms looking for people to terrorize other than himself.
Like many lonely nerds, he discovered himself on vacation. Gethard remembers taking a family camping trip to Cape May one summer, the only annual jaunt his parents could afford. There was a terrible storm one night and Gethard awoke to his mother and brother huddled amid the glow of a small TV set, laughing hysterically as the rain beat down on the roof of their trailer. “They were watching Letterman,” says Gethard. “I remember I woke up and I watched it and I was like, ‘This is the funniest person in the world.’ Then my brother got David Letterman’s Book of Top Ten Lists and that was my initial comedy bible.”
It wasn’t until he was in college at Rutgers and found himself sideswiped by a black depression that he began plumbing his own life for material. The experience helped lead him to the world of sketch comedy, first as part of his school’s improv troupe and later traveling across the river to study at UCB.
Gethard quit drinking shortly after that particular meltdown at McManus in the early Aughts, and over the years since, he’s made something of a comedic brand out of his struggles. “Career Suicide” is a recent project, an hour of stand-up that centers on issues of suicide, depression, and alcoholism and routinely features bluntly put stories like the one about McManus.
And really, who can resist a one-man show expounding on the sexual side effects of antidepressants or the time he intentionally crashed his brother’s car, nearly killing himself? “I didn’t want to become the suicide comedian; it gets romanticized a little too much,” Gethard explains (humorlessly, it should be noted). “For some reason comedy is one medium where it’s OK to talk about being depressed and being suicidal.”
For almost a decade Gethard looked on longingly as his peers landed high-profile acting and writing gigs — which didn’t exactly help with his anxiety and fears of inadequacy — but gradually he earned his stripes in the community, eventually becoming an instructor at UCB and launching the first, live incarnation of The Chris Gethard Show at the theater in 2009. Success or something like it arrived when the show made it to public access television in 2011, and in 2015 it moved to Fusion, your destination for crowd-surfing in banana suits and debates over what’s better: hand sanitizer or Hitler?
It’s no great secret that comics often mine their struggles with illness, mental or otherwise. But it’s different with Gethard. When he’s not getting his nipples clamped in front of a studio audience, he seems to be after something in particular — to ease others’ suffering at the price of baring his own. In 2012, he made headlines after an anonymous fan wrote to him on Tumblr about having suicidal thoughts. Gethard replied immediately, providing detailed accounts of the sorrow and misery he experienced as a teenager and how his life had steadily improved after he sought help. “I don’t even know who you are and I promise you that I love you,” he wrote, fearing it might be the last chance to reach a troubled kid, much like the one he had been.
“There are peers of mine who said they were worried about me, family who said they were worried about me, but I just knew I’d rather fall on the sword doing it my way than go do a bunch of shit just for ego,” Gethard says. “I’m pretty proud of the fact that I managed, more than most in my chosen profession, to do things on my own terms.”