Philadelphia Is the Scariest Place to Do Comedy

By Chris Gethard

Image via Take My Country Back.

It’s a fun uphill struggle, making health insurance as a comedian, actor, and author. But it’s hard to explain to people how I make a living. In New York, most people know enough creative types that I make some sense. But when I’m talking to someone like my suburban cousins or my mom’s friends, it doesn’t always go smoothly.

“I just sort of get a gig, then wait until the next one.”

“What kind of gigs?”

“Sometimes acting.”

“So you’re an actor?”

“Well yeah, but some years that’s not how I make my salary. Like, one year most of my money came through a book deal.”

“So you’re an author?”

“I wouldn’t say that by a long shot. Not all of my writing is for books either. Last year I got a development deal.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s when a television network pays you to write a script, but they give you a bunch of time to write it.”

“So you’re a television writer?”

“Kinda. They have to make it first for me to feel comfortable saying that. Also, I’d act in the show if they made it, so I’d be an actor on that as well.”

“What’s the show about?”

“It’s based on that book I wrote.”

“Your life is like a fucking M.C. Escher painting. Is there anything you actually do consistently?”

“Shows.”

Shows are my saving grace. In between actual jobs, the only thing that keeps me sane is the knowledge that I can go up on stages. As a stand-up, as a storyteller, as an improviser, I’ve done thousands of shows. They allow me to workout new material that might turn into something later. They let me keep my muscles sharp for when the rent paying gigs do come along. They keep me sane.

After I tell people I do hundreds of shows a year, they often ask, “What’s the worst show you’ve ever done?”

And I always tell them, “It’s debatable, but I guarantee you it happened in Philadelphia.”

I feel like a lot of performers’ worst shows happened in Philly. There’s something about that town. Kids there have a real chip on their shoulder and are always ready for a battle. One of the most inspiring stand-up performances I’ve ever seen is a video of Bill Burr lacing into a Philly crowd that won’t stop relentlessly booing. Keep in mind, they’re not booing because they dislike Bill Burr; they’re booing because they think it’s fun to be aggressive assholes. 

I’ve had a few rough experiences in Philadelphia. At one live edition of my public access show there, I admittedly antagonized the crowd by titling the show “New York is Better Than Philly.”  I thought These guys are going to be aggressive anyway. They love being aggressive. Let’s have fun with it. The show started with an audience member lighting a copy of my book—which has my face on it—on fire, and throwing it on the stage. My first few minutes of stage time were spent franticly stomping on an image of myself, hoping I wouldn’t be responsible for comedy’s version of the Great White tragedy.

On another occasion, I did a show with a group from the Upright Citizens Brigade at Villanova University. None of the performers were aware the show was a benefit for research into children’s’ leukemia. This is a great cause and we were all happy to support it with no notice. What was less embraced was the show opening with a Catholic priest interviewing a cancer stricken child and his verbally abusive father.

Dad: Jordan, tell these people what the hospital was like.

Adorable kid: Well, there were pictures of giraffes on the wall—

Dad: Jordan, stop being stupid. No one wants to hear about giraffes. Tell them about your cancer.

Priest: Alright, thanks guys. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome the Upright Citizens Brigade touring company!

I then took to the stage and did a sketch that involved me being kicked in the balls 100 times in a row. It played to silence. The silence of a confused crowd of people who raise money for cancer witnessing a sketch about cancer-stricken children and a performance by me.

But I think my worst experience as a performer actually came a couple years later, at the Theater of Living Arts. It was once again with the UCB touring company—only the venue had advertised it as the UCB. One thing to keep in mind is that the UCB is a four-member group. The UCB Touring Company has a rotating cast that operates out of the theaters those four people own. One of those four owners is Amy Poehler. So when you advertise the UCB, the crowd thinks they’re getting Amy Poehler, when instead they’re getting Chris Gerhard. I am pretty confident in my abilities, but I understand why people would not be down with seeing me instead of America’s funniest and most charming comedic force.

The place was packed, no seats, just hundreds of agro Philly dudes in hoodies drinking and yelling shit before the show even started. Only in Philly does the crowd make an effort to heckle a completely empty stage.

Sensing the potential fiasco we were walking into, my friend Brian Huskey took the stage first and worked the crowd. Brian is one of the most electric sketch/improv style comedians in the game, and he got them really riled up and on our side.

We started the show, and they were into it. But as a performer, you learn how to read the rhythm of a crowd, and this one was having a good time with a very visceral negative energy just under the surface. The show felt like a high wire act; they were down to enjoy it for what it was, but the second they saw the potential for a slip, they were going to be cheering for our death instead of our success. It was like a Roman Coliseum environment, only next to Camden.

We managed to make it through the whole show, and it was exhausting. Doing improv well is already a taxing experience. That’s why 98 percent of improv comedy is terrible. It’s physical, and a big part of it is staying mentally ahead of the crowd. The good shows are performed by comedians who put a lot of time into figuring out how to make improv watchable and appealing, not annoying. When the crowd wants you to fail so they can cheer on, it requires more focus and exertion.

When we hit our final stretch, the red light came on, and I was more than happy to find our ending and get the fuck out of there. Instead, one of my fellow performers brought up an audience volunteer.

That’s weird, I thought to myself. This is pretty late in the game to be dragging someone on stage.

Then I remembered: A kid had emailed us a day prior to the show. He’d told us he loved comedy. He explained how he and his girlfriend initially bonded over their shared obsessions with comedy. He said they often traveled from Philly to New York to check out shows at the UCB.

He told us it would mean the world to him if he could propose on stage.

As it hit me, I could only think, No, no, no, no, no. We’d managed to survive the battle. Now it was like we were hanging out on the battlefield. I felt like everyone was saying, “I know our nations have come to a truce, but you guys wanna just keep shooting at each other for shits and giggles?”

My friend Eli started asking the guy questions on stage. We managed to get his girlfriend up on stage without anyone smelling what was coming. Then out of nowhere, he got down on one knee.

He gave a very nice speech—there was nervousness, as both speaking in front of crowds and proposing can bring out anxiety, but it was sweet. Unfortunately, a few sentences were interrupted.

The room had gone silent. When most crowds witness a proposal and go silent, they do so out of respect for the moment and a desire to be positively affected by a couple expressing their love in public.

Not Philly.

In the vacuum of that silence, some hooded mook realized what was going on. And he realized he could shout anything he wanted, and a room of hundreds of people would hear it. What did he choose to shout?

“SAY NO TO THAT FUCKIN’ FAGGGOOOOOOOT!”

The crowd started cheering the sentiment, then booing the couple. The guy kept talking to his girl, but he was drowned out by the heckles of Philadelphians. 

I walked off stage, unable to be a part of it. I exhaled and immediately felt that odd pseudo-PTSD one can feel after an incredibly tense stage performance.

The next time I performed in Philly, I titled the show “New York Is Better Than Philadelphia.” I stand by the sentiment. I’m sure I’ll perform in Philly again sometime in my life. If you have a problem with what I’ve said here, feel free to light a picture of me on fire and throw it on stage.

@ChrisGethard

Previously – The Least Aggressive Fight in New York City

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