In 2011, comedian Chris Gethard decided to move his eponymous Upright Citizens Brigade show over to public access television. What started out as a variety show resulted in this bizarre collective of fans and comedians outcast from mainstream media who took solace in each other for being weirdos and losers. Fast-forward four years, almost 200 episodes and a rejected Comedy Central pilot, Gethard and his team are making their cable debut on Fusion on May 28th.
Inspired by the legacies paved by Jake Fogelnest’s ’90s reign of public access and MTV and Tom Scharpling’s The Best Show, Gethard crafted a fun, esoteric and accepting place that even tested the limits of public access. The Chris Gethard Show’s idiosyncrasy stems from a desire to increase interactivity of late night comedy and giving a voice to viewers, a vast range of offbeat musical and comedic influences and riding out bizarre nonsensical ideas until they become normalised and canonical. Whether it’s throwing birthday parties for turtles and writing hour-long songs to having characters that range from a radical Christian jerking off mythical beasts to a half-human, half-fish navigating the world around him.
The world of The Chris Gethard Show is insane, immature, brutally honest and unlike anything you have ever seen.
Congratulations on the jump to cable. Without giving too much away, how would you sum up The Chris Gethard Show on public access vs. The Chris Gethard Show on Fusion?
The Chris Gethard Show on public access was pure chaos; a lot of episodes were disasters, but there were also a lot of those good moments and I think people really rallied around it. Maybe they respected that it was vulnerable and willing to take some risks. Fusion is really allowing us to try to do things our way — I don’t know if there’s gonna be all that many differences to be honest with you. There’ll be some; there are actual lawyers and standards and practices now so we have to scale certain things back. When Fusion decided they wanted to do the show, they went out of their way to say to me, “We want to be very clear, we want the public access show. We know what we’re getting into.”
We have a budget and we get to do it right. It’s up to us to change what we want and they’re letting us decide that. I think it’ll still be chaotic; I think it’ll still fail sometimes but when it does fail, it’ll still be in a way that is in the spirit of experimentation. Let’s see what happens when television is a less-controlled environment and is just allowed to go where it wants — what happens when it goes off the rails.
Some of the most charming moments during the public access years were those times when you would just retreat, sit there and panic because the show was stagnating, but you had the freedom to do that. Now your time slot has essentially been slashed by two thirds, how has the creative process changed? How do you condense that public access ethos and DIY aesthetic into 22 minutes?
There’s a few things that make me really hopeful that we can do this the right way. We want people who have enjoyed the public access show to watch it and genuinely say, “This is still the show I love.” If the network wanted to do the show in a way that I wasn’t comfortable, I would not do it. I wasn’t looking to sell the show just for the sake of it. The show is really important to me and I’d rather let it be what it was than watered down. One of the things that the Fusion developers said to me really early on was that “We’re a network. We need scripts, we need outlines and all that stuff but one of our favorite things is if some kid calls and asks, “Why don’t you pick up your chair and throw it through the wall?” you guys will actually do that! You’d let some kid tell you to do that and you just see what happens and we want that. We want you to just follow the most interesting thing.”
We’re putting in a lot more effort to brainstorm what a perfect version of these episodes will be — we’ve never had the luxury of that time before. All of that is being done with the knowledge of a strengthened safety net to fall back on when we take big chances. It’s weird that they’re so trusting because television is controlled down to the second and we control it very little; we intentionally lose control of it and they were into that.
The other thing that I think speaks very highly of the network is that they’re letting us stream our tapings live online every Tuesday night. You’ll still be able to watch a completely chaotic version of the show and you’ll still be able to attend that taping online from anywhere in the world. That’s an interesting challenge for us because we don’t want to use the editing process to control the show more. We want to make it an experience where Tuesday is still the Wild West and it’s still complete chaos but Thursday is this calculated way to say, “How do we take all this stuff we did and just squeeze as much juice out of it as we can? How can we get as many laughs as we can out of that taping?” We’re really treating it as a process where the chaos leads to this wholly formed episode of a TV show that’s still more chaotic than anything else you see on TV and you get to be a part of every step.
Giving old and new audiences a platform to be involved in the creative process is groundbreaking, especially for late night. Like the Crowd Sourced Character Contest which saw your audience contribute names of potential characters and brilliant improvisers to expand on that; giving them this absurd, rich depth or sometimes a lack thereof. How will new audiences be able to contribute?
Jumping into a new network meant that we wanted to push the reset button and really make sure it was a thing that made people felt like they could get in on the ground floor on. We want to make the people who supported the show when it was on public access still feel like it’s their show in a big way; they absolutely helped get it here. We also want to get more people to come play and be a part of this world.
The spirit of the thing will still be very much intact in the sense that we want to build this whole world of stuff and we want the people watching the show to guide it. The Crowd Sourced Character Contest is a thing a lot of people praise us for but I don’t even know if the individual characters that come out of it are the most important thing; it’s that we really put the power in our viewer’s hands. You get to write it — what do you want to see? What do you want this to be? We will turn it into that. We’re brainstorming so many ways to replicate that; how can we put the viewers in control?
When I used to watch David Letterman, there were so many moments when I found myself saying, “How is this gonna end?!” That’s such a rare question to ask when you’re watching TV, especially considering TV is so formatted. So the fact that he could get you to ask that was really brilliant to me. We live in a world now where people participate all the time; they leave YouTube comments, they tweet at celebrities, they Periscope themselves live from their kitchen. There are all these different ways to involve yourself with the world at large and I want to find dozens of ways to make TV a two-way experience that reflects all these technologies.
You often note that fans of the show stumble upon it during a dark period of their lives and helped them get out of it. In a way, The Chris Gethard Show allows fans to express their creativity and, even if it’s in a small way, its impact is significant. I called once….
Wait. You did? You called in once?!
Yeah, I did.
That’s amazing, do you remember what the call was?
I was the awkward British girl who had phone sex with Hannibal Buress.
Oh my GOD!
That’s amazing! That is incredible. Did you even tell me that before this interview?
No, I introduced myself as “an awkward one-time caller”!
Wow. You are maybe the most awkward one-time caller. You’ll love this story. Fusion are giving us such a fighting chance, they’re saying “We want you guys to be successful. We don’t know if it can be, we can’t predict it but let’s do it.” They licensed 20 of our old episodes to show on their airwaves to get their viewers used to us and get them in a rhythm of knowing who we are. We submitted a whole bunch of episodes and our show can be pretty crazy; on public access there’s no rules. The network came back saying “This one’s good, we’ll get to work on it.” And for others they were like, “Well, this has this problem” or “We have to edit this section out because it’s probably not appropriate for our network.”
For the phone sex episode, they just wrote back the word “No.” It’s bonkers! I don’t really go back and watch the episodes because I get so self-conscious watching myself on TV; I really hate it. I went back and watched that one because I was mad, I was like “It can’t be that bad! Why are they being so skittish?” Then I watched it and I was like “Oh my God! This is pornography. This is not okay. We took this way too far. All of us as a community took this phone sex idea way too far.”
It was 4am-5am U.K. time and I was procrastinating from packing. I was very tired and nervous. I interview awesome people all the time but phone sex with a hilarious hero of mine made me blank.
That’s a beautiful moment in the history of my show and I thank you for it! I’m just getting giddy now that I know you’ve called the show. One of my favorite things on the road as a stand up is always being able to tell who’s a fan of the public access show; they’re all visibly very shy people. I could be in Portland, Oregon or Iowa City and some kid will come up to me and say, “I called your show once and I said this thing.” And I’ll remember.
I really feel like I am a facilitator; if the show was just me, I don’t think it would be interesting it all and it wouldn’t have survived. When people call in and are willing to actually have late night phone sex with Hannibal Buress just to see what happens?! They make the show. That’s the show.
One of my favorite calls ever was in an episode where we took calls and built a burrito on my belly. This guy calls up and he was like “Hey, you seem a little sad. You seem a little out of it.” and I explained that I wasn’t having a great day, I was a little down. He asked me “What’s up, man?” and I started to say “Well, if I’m going to be honest, this is going on.” and he just interrupted me and goes “Alright, whatever, you got any salsa?” and the crowd went nuts. We couldn’t write a better joke than setting me up to talk honestly about depression and then undercutting me to ask if there’s salsa.
The show is named after me but I think my job is to take the blame when things go wrong and let all the kids on the phone take credit when things go right. It’s just the most fun aspect of the whole show.
Entertainers are supposed to embody some sort of perfection; endlessly confident and charismatic. The beauty of your show is that you say, “No! We don’t have it together and we’re going to embrace that and love it.” I think that’s why the show has resonated with so many people.
Well that’s really nice. Ninety percent of the time, TV is made up of people who seem kind of perfect having interactions that go really smoothly. I watch that and think, “This doesn’t seem like how my life works!” Almost everyday I feel like an idiot at some point, so I want to be the voice of people who often feel like idiots.
The Best Show was actually how I got into your show. You noted that portions of your show are unscripted, whereas Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s calls are around 90 percent scripted. Do you feel like you lifted elements of absurdity and built upon that in a visual format? How do you feel that The Best Show’s legacy has influenced you?
Tom and I have so much in common. We’re two dudes from New Jersey with a chip on our shoulders. Our show was at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade initially and it was very different. When we first started the call-in aspect of our show, I emailed Tom and I got his blessing. I told him I listened to him take calls and I think he’s the best at it, but I didn’t want him to feel like I was ripping him off. He wrote back saying, “I didn’t invent phone calls, you’re gonna do great! Don’t worry about it.”
Stylistically, what Tom and I have in common is that we both have created something that feels like it should be one thing and it intentionally breaks it almost in an inverse way. My show is a talk show, and you know what a talk show is supposed to be: the host is supposed to be wearing a suit, tell a bunch of jokes about politicians and celebrities and then he does a bit and interviews somebody. My show is a talk show, so why is everybody rolling on the ground? Why is the crowd chanting and not letting the host talk? This guy is supposed to be in control. Our show is a subversion of that. Tom is almost the inverse of that; he does a call-in radio show which is supposed to be chaotic and can go anywhere, but without letting anyone know he’s doing it, there are pre-planned calls that totally manipulate your reactions and emotions. If you haven’t figured who the fake call is, you don’t know what’s going on, you just think something really strange and bizarre is happening.
One of the things I’ve always admired about Tom is that he does it his own way and he gives you comedy that subverts an existing form. He does my favourite kind of comedy; comedy where you laugh but on top of that, you’re not quite sure how you’re supposed to react. That’s why I’ve always loved Andy Kaufman and David Letterman. When I watched their comedy, I think it’s so funny but sometimes I’m getting mad, confused and angry or I feel lied to. I think Scharpling executes that in a big way and what I’ve always really admired that about his show is that he doesn’t tell you how you’re supposed to react. I think it’s a beautiful thing because it’s really respectful of the audience: they can figure it out and stake their own claim in it. So much comedy tells you “Here is where you’re supposed to laugh, now laugh.” and to me that feels condescending because it holds your hand. Tom is a shining example of someone who is never condescending to his audience. It’s a two-way experience and he leaves them to figure out exactly what it is; how they want to feel about it and how they want to participate in it. What he does is just a really beautiful thing.
I’m excited to see what kind of comedy the people who have been influenced by your are going to make.
Comedy has been such a growing influence on our culture the past few years. With things like Twitter getting so much acclaim for being a haven for comedians, it’s also opened up this idea that people want to involve themselves in comedy a lot more. It reminds me of music in a way, especially when I was growing up; you found your band, you identified with them and you wanted to be a part of what they were building. I feel lucky that a lot of young kids who may be experiencing comedy a little bit differently than I did growing up and they’ve gone out of their way to let me know that they want to be a part of this thing I’ve built and I don’t take it lightly. I want to get this new version of the show off the ground and I really want to make those kids proud. I have no problem with failing, as long as I do it with integrity.
The Chris Gethard Show premieres on Fusion, Thursday 28th May at 10pm.
Sarah Sahim is a freelance writer based in the West Midlands. She cohosts the intersectional feminist podcast Not All Women and tweets about rappers, the Kardashians, and white dudes. You can legally stalk her here.