Film

In “Career Suicide,” Chris Gethard Mines Misery for Laughs

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Every New Jersey native keeps a mental tally of famous people from home, as if their accomplishments somehow belong to all of us. I’m from New Jersey, and Chris Gethard, a “big-time Jersey guy,” is high on my personal list. I met the comedian, writer, and actor in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, where we were seated at a round table, as opposed to the Round Table, legendary home to New York’s sharpest tongues and quickest wits. In fact, ours was just to the left of the replica of the long-lost original, which feels like a good metaphor for growing up a bridge or tunnel away from the action.

“I ramble a lot, I apologize,” Gethard told me early on. “And I’ll probably apologize like four more times throughout the course of this interview.” 

Gethard’s one-man show, Career Suicide, enjoyed a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run from October to January. Now it’s been reborn as an HBO special, airing May 6 — an idea the underground darling is still getting used to. A comedy about depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and, yes, the ultimate form of self-destruction, Career Suicide is drawn from Gethard’s own lifelong struggles with mental illness. He tackles the stigma surrounding psychiatric medications, reviews their side effects (no bodily function is off limits to his descriptive powers), and shatters the “bullshit myth” that suffering is necessary for art. “I’m significantly fucking funnier on medication,” Gethard observes onstage. Career Suicide is a painful, generous, and moving ninety minutes, which is to say nothing of how funny it is. It is significantly fucking funny.

Gethard, 36, calls himself “mild-mannered” and wears thick-rimmed glasses befitting both a superhero’s secret identity and an alt-comedy favorite. If he’d made more conventional career choices, he’d be playing “somebody’s weird friend” on some sitcom — not that there’s anything wrong with those jobs — but his career has been far from conventional. Gethard has close to two decades of improv experience, both as a performer and as an instructor for the Upright Citizens Brigade. You’ve seen him on Broad City (as Ilana’s put-upon boss) and The Office (as an aspiring assassin), but his defining role is as the host of The Chris Gethard Show. The cult-favorite weekly variety hour aired on public access from 2011 to 2015 and now runs on the Fusion cable network.

Originally a live show at the UCB Theatre, TCGS is joyous, anarchic chaos — and may be where Gethard first elevated self-deprecation into an art form. His high-concept stunts include having his nipples clamped by a dominatrix while his friends recite their grievances with him; hosting an “Under the Sea Gender-Fluid Poly Prom”; and surprising one audience with a bus trip to Asbury Park. Past celebrity guests on TCGS include Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm, Lena Dunham, and Sean Combs, who has his own on-set entrance, the “Diddy Door.”

Gethard also hosts the podcast Beautiful/Anonymous, in which he has an hour-long conversation with whatever unnamed stranger happens to call in (as the rules have it, he can’t hang up first, and the caller can talk about anything). But whatever the medium, the comedian has an uncanny ability to put people — an anonymous voice on a phone line, a lonely teen seeking advice in a 24-hour TCGS chat room, Diddy — at ease. The Career Suicide set is like a cozy living room, with additional seating in the form of comfy armchairs and couches lining the stage. He makes a point of addressing the audience directly. “We’ve known each other for 45 minutes,” he’ll say, relating some out-of-character behavior. “You guys know: That’s not me.”

Gethard’s depression took hold in childhood, when he never knew if he’d wake up manic, mad, shy, or scared. He had a happy family life but witnessed violent bullying with “no real consequences” in his hometown of West Orange. Being raised Catholic probably didn’t help, either.

Gethard started working on the material that would become Career Suicide in 2014. He’d been opening for Mike Birbiglia, who’d later cast and direct Gethard in Don’t Think Twice, his 2016 comedy-drama about an improv troupe. The comic and storyteller insisted the grim anecdotes Gethard had told him privately were worth trying out in front of an audience. Gethard was less than convinced.

“A lot of this was rooted in my effort to prove Birbiglia wrong,” he said. “I didn’t think anybody was going to find this stuff funny.” But they did. “And even on the nights when it bombed, I’d get one or two people who’d say something like, I have a brother who that reminds me of, or I lived through something like that, thanks for doing it.

Career Suicide may be a one-man show, but two supporting characters figure importantly. The first is Morrissey, whose emotional brand of Mancunian grit resonated with a sensitive kid growing up in blue-collar Essex County. The Smiths frontman’s music has scored Gethard’s life, and his signature is tattooed on the comedian’s right shoulder. A lyric from “I Know It’s Over” (“It takes strength to be gentle and kind”) is inked on the same arm.

The second is Barb, Gethard’s therapist. For all the invaluable insight and support she’s provided over the decade they’ve worked together, she has her eccentricities. “It wasn’t the most comfortable conversation in the world when I was like, ‘Hey, I’m writing a comedy show that some might say is about you, in certain ways,’ ” Gethard recalled. “She was sort of excited, sort of trepidatious. Then it went from, ‘So I’m doing it in bars’ to ‘Now I’m going to do it at a festival’ to ‘Now I’m going to do it Off-Broadway. Now it’s going to be on HBO.’ She had mounting concerns.”

Calibrating the levels of dark and light throughout Career Suicide required “constant tinkering,” not unlike a three-year science experiment. “It’s a comedy show first. I don’t really want to put on an after-school special, you know? But more importantly, there are some people who still aren’t comfortable talking about this stuff. I thought if somebody watches this, they might say to their friend, ‘Hey, this show is weird, but it’s really fucking funny. Check it out.’ It’s like the laughs are the sugar that makes you take the medicine.”

The comedian needed the sugar, too. “Sometimes, especially when I first started doing the show, I’d get offstage and I’d be shaking,” he said. “I’d realize, ‘Oh, I just said something as a joke that I’ve never told anyone in my life, including my shrink or my wife.’ ”

There was a time in his life when building a monologue out of his mental health issues would have been unthinkable. Gethard enrolled in improv classes with the UCB the week he turned 20, in 2000, while still a student at Rutgers. He didn’t see a shrink until he was 22. Before that, his depression had been something he was desperate to handle privately. It would take another four or five years for him to feel comfortable alluding to it onstage.

A friend of Gethard’s recently overheard a couple of other comics saying that he was “trying to corner the market on this depression thing.” Gethard laughed, bringing this up, but it’s clear it bothers him. “When I was cutting myself, was that me trying to craft an image so fifteen years later I could have a show? I can say, definitively, there’s no part of me that strategized to make this my thing. I’m praying this isn’t always my thing.”

As enthusiastically received as Career Suicide has been, there’s a part of Gethard that’s dreading its HBO premiere. It’s one thing to share these stories in a room with two hundred other people, some close enough to touch, and with the freedom to change the show every night if he felt like it. Now the finished product is bound for the biggest platform he’s ever had. “It’s weird to spend three years writing a show about your issues, occasionally having very low self-esteem and high levels of anxiety, and then that show itself fucks with my self-esteem and my anxiety,” he said.

But, Gethard insists, for all the ways Career Suicide is literally about him, this isn’t about him. “If the rest of world decides they hate it, but there’s one person who’s like, I decided to stop fucking around and went on medication because I knew I needed antidepressants, then screw it, I’m going to go for it. I’m OK with that ratio. I want to make the show that I could have used when I was 15.”

Gethard lives in Queens with his wife, musician and dancer Hallie Bulleit, who serves as lead singer for The Chris Gethard Show‘s house band. He couldn’t be more grateful for the city where he workshopped Career Suicide. “The comedy fans of New York rallied around me doing this,” he said. “I’m so fucking lucky that the people of this city have decided that I’m one of their guys.”

Still, Gethard’s relationship with New York City wasn’t always so rosy. He remembers plenty of stressful nights stuck in Lincoln Tunnel traffic, running late for shows and feeling like he had something to prove on behalf of the entire Garden State.

“When you’re from New Jersey and you’re driving in, or taking NJ Transit in to do art, you have to really commit, because it’s such an intimidating city,” Gethard said. “It’s so hard, logistically and emotionally. It beats the shit out of you. I’d come up here and be made fun of because I talked like I was from New Jersey. Hawribble, cawfee, dawg. I’d go back to Jersey, people would make fun of me for trying to be an artist in the city.”

Maybe that’s part of what defines so much art from New Jersey, what makes it so irresistible — that it is, as Gethard offers, “really unapologetic. That’s why Springsteen songs are what they are. And even comedians. Jon Stewart is from Jersey. That guy just said a lot of stuff that he felt like saying. And I think a lot of that is because you have to break away from how you were raised and come to a place like this, where people are just going to make fun of you to your face for years.”

Barb — who, not for nothing, is also from Jersey — came to see Career Suicide Off-Broadway, a “terrifying” experience for Gethard. When she didn’t come backstage afterward, he texted her to check in. Barb responded a few hours later: “I’m doing much better now that I’ve had a few shots of tequila.” That’s fair, he thinks: “Someone’s talking about their ten years of experience with you in front of an audience and manipulating it all for humor.”

But she watched the HBO trailer, and she approved. She’s good. They’re good. And so is he, although there are new challenges to face.

“I’ve been seeing Barb for ten years,” Gethard said, “and the first five years it was almost all career anxiety. ‘How come I’m not making it? How come I’m not bigger?’ And she kept telling me, ‘If you just keep doing the work, it will happen.’ ”

The past few years have proved Barb right. “Now,” the comedian said, “it’s shifted, where a lot of it is me going, ‘I don’t know how to handle actually being successful.’ And I think she’s rolling her eyes pretty hard: ‘It took me half a decade to get you to this point, and now I’ve got to coach you through it, you baby.’ ”

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