Chris Gethard doesn’t want you to worry about him, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t nervous.
“Permanence is not my usual M.O. and it’s pretty terrifying,” Gethard said, sitting in the Hollywood offices of Funny or Die last month. He smiled, but even he’ll admit that behind that grin, there’s the reserved bit of trepidation that comes before releasing a bit of yourself out into the world.
On Saturday, his comedy special “Chris Gethard: Career Suicide” will debut on HBO. In it, over the course of an hour and a half, Gethard details his decades-long relationship with depression, recounting his first experiences with a sinking sensation he couldn’t quite identify, all the way through impulsive suicide attempts, pieced-together blackout spells and the process of finding healthier, constructive ways to deal with all of those conflicting feelings and ideas.
Though the set is minimal, it might be the most ambitious project Gethard’s ever put out. The culmination of a two-year journey that has spanned multiple continents, it’s the final product of a process of revisions and breakthroughs that saw Gethard do “Career Suicide” shows at comedy clubs, off-Broadway theaters and even a bar on the Jersey Shore.
For a memoir-style comedy special, even in such a personal storytelling exercise, most of these anecdotes in the special are reflections of the adjacent experiences of other people. Gethard begins and ends “Career Suicide” with tales about the women in his life that are focal points, his wife Hallie Bulleit and his therapist, Barb.
“It’s one thing to say ‘Hey, this is my story,’ but I also like dragging other people along the way because it maybe spreads it out and reminds people that it’s not just about me, it’s about the world at large,” Gethard said. “I do like to put other people up on a pedestal quite often.”
Another group you can feel had an invisible hand in shaping “Career Suicide” is those audiences, the thousands of people who saw the show in its various forms as it evolved from Gethard’s writing to a piece that made its way around the globe.
Kimberly Senior, who directed both the theater and television versions of “Career Suicide,” was on the ground for a grueling, pivotal stretch at the show’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival run, where things really took shape.
“Those ten days were so exciting, because I would watch him perform the show each night. We would do an hour and a half of notes after the show and then the next day we would spend four or five hours together trying out new sections, playing back what he had done the night before, talking about the relationship he had with the live audience,” Senior said.
Few comedians are better prepared for audiences to have that kind of an influence. Through his rise among the UCB world and on the heels of his cult-favorite public access show, Gethard has become a champion for the outsider. His comedy always feels like a safe place, and has succeeded largely because of his engagement with his loyal fanbase.
“To me, I think I’ve always just felt like a very regular person. I always want my comedy to be for regular people. For all of my work, I think no matter how weird it gets or whatever I’m experimenting with, I want them to feel like they have all access to me. I want the audience to feel like I represent them. And that I’m in the trenches with them as much as possible,” Gethard said.
You can feel that in Gethard’s storytelling, but also in how these various shows are structured. Watch an episode of “The Chris Gethard Show” on Fusion and, once you stop marveling at the kinetic energy of the house band The LLC (of which Buliet is the lead singer) or the legendary Human Fish kicking his feet from the rafters or the hula-hoop-twirling expert Mimi Fischer in the background, the first thing you really notice is how close Gethard is to the audience. The show may have jumped from public access to basic cable, but that proximity remains.
Senior wanted to bring that same feel to “Career Suicide.” So, where space would allow, the usual single seats of a theater gave way to couches, like ones straight out of the living rooms where plenty of GethHeads will be watching the special in the weeks to come.
“I would open up my arms and say ‘I want the audience to hug him. It should feel like a hug,’” Senior said. “I want people to feel like they’re with Chris in his room so that it opens them up to receive the story in a different way. I also wanted Chris to feel an embraced, safe space in which to tell this story.”
Up next: How a podcast helped Gethard connect to an audience in a whole new way