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Chris Gethard: How TV’s Most Unconventional Talk Show Host is Bending the Rules of Space and Time

The host of the "The Chris Gethard Show" talks about bringing the live call-in show's craziest ideas to life on a new network.

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“The Chris Gethard Show”

Celeste Sloman

On Thursday night, Chris Gethard is going back home.

Sure, home is a set at a Midtown Manhattan studio, made of leftover material from the set of David Letterman’s old show. Some of it’s been repurposed into The Diddy Door, a walkway reserved for Sean Combs.

“It’s oddly emotional for me to walk in and take a deep breath, because I always think about how for four years on public access, I did not have access to the trunk of my own car because it was full of our set,” Gethard said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “We’d have to show up, set it up, every week, knock it down every week, put it back in the trunk. The idea that we have a set now that’s a semi-permanent thing is just so mind blowing. It feels like an odd little victory.”

That set will once again serve as the live headquarters of “The Chris Gethard Show,” the uniquely unclassifiable talk/variety show hybrid that’s a kaleidoscope of positivity. Headlining a familiar cast of characters, including show announcer Murf Meyer, sidekick Shannon O’Neil, live moderator Bethany Hall and the enigmatic Human Fish, Gethard is the host that helps mediate the week-to-week dynamic between callers from around the world and the show’s roster of celebrity guests. After a pair of seasons on Fusion, the show begins its newest season Thursday on truTV.

“We’ve been in the writer’s room for six weeks, and it’s this very hilarious process of just coming up with the dumbest ideas. Our writers tend to pitch stuff that’s really funny, but it actually defies the laws of space and time. That’s how big we start to think,” Gethard said.

That no-limits approach has led the show to some of its most indelible episodes. Seth Meyers dropped by for an episode that Gethard hosted after going 36 hours without sleep. John Hodgman and former NBA star John Starks dunked basketballs during a poetry reading. Those and the show’s breakout episode “One Man’s Trash,” where Gethard, Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas discuss the contents of a mysterious dumpster, all come from the drive to make something that burns bright from week to week and starts again from scratch.

Now that the show has a new network, Gethard’s not afraid to let those brainstorming sessions get wilder than ever.

“We have an episode that I really want to do that would involve people building the set ten feet higher than we normally do, and then having random parts of it that are unmarked that you can fall through. And then if you fall through it, you have to fight subterranean creatures to survive. There’s going to be mazes, there’s going to be riddles, and monsters — really ‘Clash of the Titans’-inspired. I don’t know how to do that on a basic cable budget. I don’t know if anybody would like that, I don’t know how you shoot that. Do you need to have double the cameras? But that’s the type of idea that’s coming out of our writers room, where I’m very proud that we’re still facilitating ideas like that,” Gethard said.

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As he’s done ever since “The Chris Gethard Show” made its way to cable, Gethard acknowledges that there’s a little bit of sanding down that comes with having a show on a bigger platform. What started out as a no-rules TV experiment still has the engine of unpredictability, but there are practical necessities that come with a new delivery system. But Gethard continues to hope that the truTV framework leads to a better show in the long run.

“At the end of the day, being the public access kids is really fun, and I love that we came from some place lawless. But I also have a massive amount of respect that the network’s putting a lot of effort and money and time having people work on this thing,” Gethard said. “We’re not just lunatics, we also work very hard at this, so it’s a nice way to let everybody know that we’re not just sitting around waiting to throw our middle fingers up and cause trouble. We put a lot of time and effort, trying to execute some stuff that could maybe actually go well. Who knows?”

That time and effort is paying dividends outside the walls of the set. Aside from growing a steadfast following among fans, the industry at large is starting to take notice. Previous “The Chris Gethard Show” writers Julio Torres and Jo Firestone have landed on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Tonight Show,” respectively. Gethard explains that last year, the show opened up their writing staff to outside submissions. (They’ve since received packets from over four hundred hopefuls.)

“I’m very proud that our show is one that protects creativity and is maybe becoming a place where the real actual experimental weirdo actors, writers, artists are. I think it’s becoming known as a little bit of a stepping stone where if you’re looking for the weirdos, come raid our staff. And I say that with pride and encouragement for people to do that,” Gethard said.

It’s been an emotionally packed 2017 for Gethard, whose recent special “Chris Gethard: Career Suicide” delved into his experiences in dealing with depression. Both the lead-up to “Career Suicide” premiering on HBO in May and the period after it was available meant that Gethard went through an emotionally taxing period, reliving tough chapters from his own past and connecting with fans who had been through similar experiences.

“That was so much work, heavy lifting, soul searching, sticking my neck out. The idea that I can get back to just doing totally absurd stuff that doesn’t matter is so exciting. Still let it have heart, still let it be honest, but just come up with dumb ideas and try to knock them down,” Gethard said. “I’m glad it’s that order, right? Let’s kick off this year with an incredibly difficult thing emotionally, and now have some fun. I’m even more grateful for the opportunity than I normally would be.”

It’s not to say that “The Chris Gethard Show” isn’t still its own challenge. Going back to live airing takes away a little bit of the safety net that two seasons of a more condensed, edited show offered.

“We’ll plan about half of it, and then see what a celebrity wants to do, and then, by the time we go live, we’ll know about 70 percent of it. It’s a pretty fun process, also pretty nervewracking,” Gethard said. “It feels like we’re walking a tightrope a little bit, but I would have it no other way. We managed to hang on and survive long enough that the world can actually make sense of something like us.”

“The Chris Gethard Show” airs Thursdays, live on truTV at 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.

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