“Comedy does not exist to save me,” Chris Gethard reflects in Career Suicide, the Off-Broadway play chronicling the veteran New York comedian’s lifelong struggle with suicidal ideation. Yet the taboo-smashing honesty he brings to the stage may well save his audience.
A one-man show about alcoholism, anxiety, and chronic depression might conjure a morose evening of clichés and black turtlenecks. You probably wouldn’t expect ninety minutes of howlingly funny anecdotes from a dude in a Where’s Waldo–esque tee, or a theater lined with the beige plaid armchairs and clunky wooden lamps reminiscent of the Eighties North Jersey living rooms Gethard grew up in. Never maudlin, he wrenches hilarity from snippets of his life: his chats with an endearingly unprofessional shrink, the perils of masturbating while on antipsychotics,
the time he drifted into a truck’s blind spot so his parents wouldn’t have to bear the stigma of having a kid who killed himself.
“Suicide has a branding problem,” Gethard declares. Its “shitty and condescending” tagline heaps scorn where only empathy is due: ” ‘Suicide: The coward’s way out.’ …A tagline is supposed to get you, like, ‘Yeah, I know what the product is,’ ” he says. “Like Nike — that’s a good tagline: ‘Just do it.’ Not that I’m saying suicide…although Burger King, ‘Have it your way,’ that kind of works.”
You may already know Gethard as Ilana Wexler’s sad-sack boss on Broad City. Or as Bill, a talented, wounded improviser who brings emotional authenticity to Mike Birbiglia’s film Don’t Think Twice. Perhaps you’re among the self-described weirdos devoted to the comedic anarchy of Fusion’s The Chris Gethard Show, or a fan of his Earwolf podcast, Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People. Or maybe he just cracked you up during his sixteen years as one of the UCB Theatre’s standout minds.
With a performer this prolific, it’s easy to believe you know his story. Career Suicide, produced by Judd Apatow, goes deeper, breaking open the places Gethard kept hidden for years by staying so frenetically busy that he wouldn’t have to face needing help. By finding the funny in his self-medication with Mad Dog 20/20, the realization that writing for Saturday Night Live didn’t magically erase his mental health issues, and the time he walked off the stage mid-show to drive to Weehawken and contemplate jumping off a cliff, Gethard gives us permission to bring our own demons into the light.
Gethard, now having achieved an equilibrium through medication, therapy, and a loving marriage, seems motivated to reveal himself to help people battling depression. Of the Smiths lyrics he sings throughout the show, Gethard says, “When you hear that, you’re like, ‘Someone gets it. …There’s one person in this world who understands me. It’s weird that it’s Morrissey, but I’ll take it.’ ”
Likewise, it’s easy to imagine his audience thinking, “It’s weird that the one guy who understands me spent an entire TV episode asking people to guess what was hidden in a dumpster — but I’ll take it.”
The Lynn Redgrave Theater
45 Bleecker Street
Through November 27