Chris Gethard was only in Los Angeles for one day, but he’d gotten a hotel room at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood to prep for his appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” that night; a hotel room that, having apparently been skipped by housekeeping, contained several empty beer bottles and a cordless power drill. “Those aren’t mine,” Gethard said, and I believed him. Because so much of Gethard’s comedy career has been established by the man pretty much always telling the truth.
Gethard (who was waiting on a grilled cheese sandwich from room service) has become a bit of a legend in the New York alt-comedy scene thanks not just to multiple appearances on shows, including “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Broad City,” but also his long-running talk/variety anarchy series “The Chris Gethard Show.”
Beginning as a stage show at UCB in 2009, “The Chris Gethard Show” moved to live public access television in 2011, using the opportunity to blend live audience interactivity with madcap stunts and near-complete authenticity. Now, Gethard and his team have made the leap to non-public access television thanks to upstart network Fusion, which has found a way for “TCGS” to maintain its indie cred and live audience engagement.
While Gethard ate his grilled cheese, he told Indiewire about the comedians who have supported his journey over the years, what ideas from the public access days he’s looking to try in the future and why all the major talk shows these days have become a place for playing games.
What was the back story behind this most recent episode [where you stayed up for 36 hours straight]?
We just thought it would be funny. It went pretty well. I cried. I was talking to Seth Meyers and started crying. So…that’s comedy. I think that’s comedy.
Why did you start crying?
Well, we met at UCB over 10 years ago, and I didn’t have much confidence. And he really looked out for me and he gave me a couple of jobs along the way. and it was one of the prime motivators where I was like, “I should really be going for it.” Because if this guy believes in me, then I have no right to not believe in myself, you know? Then he was the head writer of “SNL,” so obviously he was a good judge of talent. So I was like, “Oh, man if he’s looking out for me, I need to step up a little.” I started telling someone that when I haven’t slept in 36 hours [and] the emotions just poured out. It was pretty rough.
That can’t be the first time you’ve cried in the course of doing the show.
It’s the first time I cried on Fusion. I’ve cried multiple times on public access. Some from physical pain, some from emotional pain [laughs]
When I talked to you last, you were saying that you were “going to burn down the [public access] show.” How did we get from there to here?
Well, I think it was weird. I really wanted to end the show around that time, I was feeling a little bit down. But a couple of guys who worked on the show could sense that and kinda gave me a pep talk. Actually, one of the guitar players in the band — my friend Johnny — pulled me aside, and he’s like, “You can’t quit now. We’re still really close. Don’t get discouraged,” and that helped a lot. And we just started experimenting with the show again.
And I think we settled into a groove, we knew what people liked, and it was never really our style to give people what they liked. So I think we started messing with that again, and that woke me up. And then it just became one of these things where I ran into Zach Galifianakis doing stand-up one night, and he had heard about the show. He was like, “Can I come be on your show? I hear it’s really weird.” So he came onto our show. That got attention, and then a week or so after that he was like, “I keep thinking about your show, if I can help pitch it around I’d love it.”
Right around that same time, I actually forget who came first, I booked a very small part in “Anchorman 2.” I’m actually only in the second edition of “Anchorman 2,” the re-release. And Adam McKay was talking to me about the show, and he called over Will Ferrell and he was like, “Have you seen Gethard’s show? It’s really great.” And Will said “no,” and then they checked it out, and they said they wanted to help out, too. So, it went from this thing that I was giving up on, to three of the most well-known subversive people in comedy all of a sudden put their weight behind it. And that helped a lot.
That’s great. And I know you had the Comedy Central pilot. Was that before or after Funny or Die?
The McKay/Ferrell/Galifianakis stuff led to the Comedy Central pilot, which came and went. We started taking meetings with other people. It was a little bit like our heads were spinning, of “oh man, we got this cool show, it’s got a cool audience.” I felt like the pilot for Comedy Central was really good, but it wasn’t a fit for them, so it was definitely this thing of, “Oh, now what do we do?”
We took a bunch of meetings after that, and the meeting with Fusion was just different. You could feel it immediately. A lot of times we’d take meetings and people would respond to the side of the show that was more physical, more like the “Jackass” side of things, but Fusion was responding really as much to the social networking and as much to the community-building aspect of the show, more than the show itself. And that was really exciting, because I was like, there are people who have appreciated what we’ve done. They were the first ones who really made it clear, like, “We get what you’re doing.”
The fact that they let us stream our things online, they let us put it up on YouTube, it’s just like right here are kindred spirits — these guys understand the type of fan we’re catering to. These internet kids. Most of our fans could be described as people who probably use Tumblr too much. That tends to be our demographic, and I think Fusion really wants to help us play right into that. And not make the TV show kind of compete with that, which I think TV usually does.
The fact that you guys are still live-streaming is really fascinating. What service are you using?
We’re streaming it through YouTube. I’m not 100 percent positive on all the infrastructure of it, but I know it goes through YouTube, and then that heads right through our site to our Fusion site. We also have this chat room where kids go, and there are like 15 webcams and they can stream it right in that room and all watch it together. So you can sit in a chat room with other fans, watching the stream of the taping. And the taping, we start and we stop, and we get pick-ups like a normal TV taping would, but I think by making it that accessible, we’re encouraging the fans to feel some ownership over it, letting them see how the sausage is made and make them feel like insiders. So it’s really cool that they’re letting us do this. It’s kind of unbelievable.
That seems like that’s always been a part of your aesthetic — real transparency about how the show’s made, and what’s going on behind the scenes.
Yeah, which ultimately is a net positive. There have been a couple of times where maybe I’ve shared a little too much? But I just like involving the fans. It’s also interesting too, because it’s like, well, if you let the fans get involved in the process of creating it, you’re getting feedback along the way. It’s an interesting thing to think about it, but it’s like, yeah, they’ll tell you what they want. Rather than making it a guessing game and taking a stab in the dark and hoping that they’ll like it, they’re kind of letting us know along the way, and then they feel appreciated and hopefully rewarded if it goes in the directions that they’re suggesting. So, I think there’s something to it. I mean, hopefully in the long run.
I mean, Fusion seems really excited about that element to it.
Yeah, I think so. And I think they kind of refer to themselves as a television network and a digital network at the same time. I think they put a lot of thought and time into all the things that surround their programming. It’s a very new network — it’s not even carried on all the cable carriers yet — and I think they just really think outside the box in terms of how to drum up attention for their stuff, and how to create some waves even though they’re kind of boutique right now. So I’m happy to be a part of that.
I want to talk to you about the distribution strategy because it’s really interesting. I was looking at the site today, and you’ve got one episode up, one episode that’s been taped but will not be online until a certain point; talk to me about how that came together. Did that come from their end, or was it collaborative?
They’ve been collaborative about everything which is super cool. They don’t dictate stuff. They really strongly urge some stuff, and they really ask us to make do them some solids and think about certain things creatively in infrastructure, but they’re collaborators first and foremost. As far as that schedule goes, my understanding of it is that they really like putting things up on the internet. They have a deal with the cable companies that that can’t happen for eight days, so it has to live on the network for eight days, and then it goes up on Apple TV, on YouTube, and they just try to sort of let it debut on the network, let it live there for a week, and then let it just get it to go wide in any way we can.
How much of doing the show now feels like when you were doing it back in the public access days?
It feels very similar. When the cameras are on and we’re going, it feels very very similar. It’s weird to stop the taping in the middle, and say we need to pick up that throw to commercial. Stuff like that, where it’s a little more of a real TV taping? That’s a little strange because it was always like 58 minutes, GO. You’re not going to stop for an hour. And that was a little more addictive. But, as far as the actual tone, once the cameras are on, it feels like more of our show.
Are there ideas you’re planning on revisiting from old episodes?
Sometimes, we got a few in our back pocket that we’d like to get to. I always like that episode where we’re blindfolded. I feel like you don’t really see people vulnerable on TV that much. Especially talk show hosts, you’re supposed to be like an alpha male. So the idea that you’re blindfolded and people are tormenting you, that really makes me laugh.
We did an episode — the second episode we did on Fusion — we played a game called Human Duck Hunt, where I was swinging around from the ceiling on ropes dressed as a duck. We did an episode on public access, we tried it twice, called the Human Crane. The idea was I would be hung upside down like an arcade claw game. We never got it right. Both times were real train wrecks, really embarrassing, didn’t go well. That’s a good example.
We are repurposing some old ideas. I have a couple things in my head that I’d like to get right for the first time, that we tried on public access. That was one of the big ones. I was like, “I wanna do something where I’m hanging from the ceiling.” I don’t know why, but I think that’s a funny idea.
Something that is so interesting that we’ve been seeing lately — I’ve heard at least one person refer to it as the “game-show-ification” of late night — where it’s like every late night show has a game component. As someone working in that genre, why do you think it’s become such a big thing in the last couple of years?
I’ve actually thought about it a lot. And i’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but we started doing our show at UCB in 2009. And I think we were maybe… I think really hard about this stuff, and I think I’d like to have on record, I think I saw that coming in a weird way. I sensed that was coming six years ago. And I was really playing at that.
I think what it is, and the thing that’s made me really want to make stuff that has a little more game theory inside of it, is that I think young people today — most of their entertainment from a young age — you watch something online, you’re allowed to leave a comment right now. If you want to say something sucks, you can type it right there, and it shows up right underneath the thing you’re watching that you think it sucks. I think that’s a very powerful thing. It seems like a small deal, but I think it’s a big deal. I feel like part of why Twitter is so massive is because, in its early days, celebrities were using it and you could go on there and be like, “Hey, what did you have for breakfast?” to a celebrity, and they probably won’t answer, but they might write back and say, “Bacon and eggs.”
And it becomes this thing where people are accessible, and people have to deal with the fact that there is not as big of a wall between the viewer and the participant anymore. In my mind, what I sense is that people who watch TV want to feel like those people are regular, just like they are. Because I think regular people are a little more empowered than they ever have been. It’s because of social networking. It’s because of the way people consume on the internet. It’s a two-way street.
Television traditionally is a one-way experience. Sit on your couch, we’ll show you a thing, and you laugh at it, and we’ll kind of indicate when we want you to laugh at it, to the point where we will sometimes even have a laugh track, so you know exactly when we want you to laugh. And I think to me, young people just aren’t buying it because they reserve the right to participate. It’s what they’ve grown up knowing. So I think games on late night shows are reflective of the fact that it’s like, well, that person’s doing something that’s on my level. You see people on “Fallon” smashing eggs on their heads. And it’s like, well, that’s a regular person in a weird way. That’s a much more regular person than a Carson interview ever was. I think people in the suburbs don’t wanna feel that separation. They actually wanna feel more included. And I think games cut that distance between Hollywood and real life.
That’s a really good point. It also has more authenticity to it because everyone at this point knows that your basic “pretty lady sits on couch talking to host” bit is largely pre-packaged.
One-hundred percent. I feel like most interview shows, a producer has asked the person being interviewed those questions, they have answered them, and then it’s almost at that point they’re kind of scripting it based on what those answers were. And I think that wall is coming down a little bit, and I’m really happy about that. To me, I’m just much more interested in hearing about the mundane details of someone’s life than feeling like, “Oh, they really worked on polishing and packing this anecdote for me.” it feels like there’s more work to do it that way, and it’s something that people are responding less to. So I’m kinda glad that people are loosening their belts on late night. I think it’s a really great thing.
Speaking of mundane details, you’re going on “Kimmel” tonight. How’s that working?
Good. They called me yesterday, I did one of those pre-interviews. I think also they understand I’m kind of a chaotic human being. And they actively were like, “We just wanna let this one fly a little bit, see what happens.” I’m happy to go on. I’m happy to check it out. I feel like Jimmy Kimmel wears his influences on the sleeve, and he’s obsessed with Howard Stern and David Letterman, and those are two people I point to as well. So, I’m excited to meet him and see what happens, and we’ll go from there. These things are hard to predict.
With regard to “TCGS,” one of the things you couldn’t do on public access was any kind of advertising or sponsorship. And now you can!
Yeah, we got a sponsor! We’re all really psyched. AT&T is sponsoring the fourth act of our show. We all in the office kind of froze, like what? AT&T wants to sponsor our musical guest? That’s a big corporation, you know? So it made us feel a little more for real. Which is nice. It was the sort of thing where it was like okay, yeah, we’re selling out. We can’t be underground forever if we wanna keep doing this.
But the nice thing is, I think everybody on the network side is very understanding of that our show survives because it has a sense of authenticity. People feel like it’s genuine. So we have to do that the right way. We sat down and had a bunch of discussions about involving a corporation which doesn’t necessarily shout compatibility with the idea that we’re these rebel underdogs. We really had to sit down and say, “How do we really do this? Are we really comfortable with it?”
I’m into it. As long as nobody makes me say anything that I don’t believe in, then I’m happy to advertise, finally. Though it’s a weird feeling. I’m just psyched. It kind of feels like a romantic comedy where all of a sudden the football player is asking us to the prom.
[laughs] You took off your glasses, and now you’re beautiful!
Yeah, we let our hair down and now the sponsors are involved. It’s cool! It feels cool.
The fact that you guys are taking something that was theoretically live, and you had to cut it down to something run on broadcast; how tough has that been?
It’s been the hardest part, definitely. I think we’ve been doing a good job of it. I’m proud of everything we put on the network. But yeah, we’re used to public access, it was like your feed is live for 58 minutes and you never stop. And now we’re doing a 22 minute show. So just trying to wrap my head around 22 minutes as opposed to a full hours, that’s really tough. It’s exciting because on the one hand it’s really daunting, because how do we retain the feel that this is live? Because we still take calls, we still do all this stuff; it’s part of why we live-stream the tapings, so it has this live feel. And it was like, how do you chop this down and make it convincingly feel live? Luckily our editor is really a wizard, who I think is doing a pretty good job figuring that out.
You’ve never lacked in the ability to get great guests. I’m curious if being on a “real network” now has affected that at all?
Well, It’s been really nice. I’ve been kind of shocked because we felt like we got the chance to do this and I wanna do it right. And I’ve been around a long time, and I know a lot of comedians, and started emailing some friends of mine, and acquaintances of mine. And so many people got back and said some version of, “Yeah I wanna come help out. You guys kind of fought hard for this and I really wanna help out now that you got a real chance at this.” Which is like a really touching thing. It’s made me realize that people are ready to help out and come on the show right now. It’s made me realize that there are some people who have seen that I just kept fighting for this thing, and they respect it. It’s a nice feeling. It helps that the network can reach out to people.
The network hired a publicist for the show. That helps because it just gives you access to more people through that world. But by and large, most of our guests have been booked because I’ve just emailed and been like, “I’d love to have you on.” And they’ve said yes! So we just had Seth Meyers on. Next week is Bill Hader. Week after that, Will Ferrell is coming on our show. So it’s kind of crazy to get all those heavy hitters back-to-back-to-back. But it’s really nice.
What kind of episode order do you have?
Last night was our third, we have seven more. They ordered 10 upfront which is really great. And then hopefully, I would love it if they were like, “We want to order enough so this can be your job for the rest of your life.” I would love that, but that’s not how it works, to my understanding. I don’t really know how actual TV works. I just got here.