Entertainment

Chris Gethard Is the Future of Late-Night Television

We talk to the people behind 'The Chris Gethard Show' about making late-night TV worth watching.
August 3, 2017, 7:47pm
TruTV

There isn't an all-encompassing way to describe Chris Gethard and The Chris Gethard Show. For years, the multi-faceted comedian and his namesake show have happily existed in the underground comedy scene—all while proudly embracing their self-prescribed label of the weirdest (and, occasionally, saddest) variety show on air. Now, in an era of so-called prestige TV, former VICE contributor Gethard and his band of misfits have managed to reach the big leagues of cable television (again) by mixing high-concept comedy and low fidelity aesthetics.

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TCGS began as a monthly stage show at the revered Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre back in 2009, moved to New York public-access television in 2011, was picked up by Fusion in 2014, and is now gearing up for its latest iteration on the newly revamped truTV. Since inception, the offbeat-yet-heartfelt show has earned the praise of critics and comedy aficionados alike—the former scoring early writeups and profiles in major magazines before ever hitting cable airwaves, and the latter leading to a devoted following of online viewers. (Diddy's been a fan since the start, too.)

"We keep getting to these platforms that are bigger and bigger without changing too much about the show," says Gethard. "So our approach has become 'how far can we take this public-access vibe before it dies?' I keep thinking the show is going to die, and it just doesn't."

Beyond an affinity for the bizarre, TCGS also operates in frequencies of emotional sincerity and comedic chemistry, and is perhaps at its best when mixing the two. This blend of authentic and absurd is where the show thrives. For the 100th episode on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network run, cast members gave impassioned reflections on the show while under the unpredictable control of a voice-jamming machine.

"So many of the current cast and crew are from the public-access days," Gethard says. "I can speak for every single person when I say we'd rather have [this show] go away then do it the wrong way. And that's a pretty good source of strength when it comes to approaching a new season."

The bond between Gethard and the show's core cast and crew—many of whom came up improvising together in the New York comedy scene—is unlike anything usually seen on the late-night block. Their friendship runs deep, giving the iconic banter between Letterman and Shaffer a run for its money. Unlike the major players of the genre, TCGS isn't about the eponymous host or the celebrity guest, it's about the group—and that includes their interactive audience. One of the guiding principles of improv is the group mind will create something together that's greater than the sum of its parts, a concept that's present in every episode.

"What I love about the show is we don't take the [late night] format too seriously," says David Bluvband, who plays the beloved TCGS character known simply as the Human Fish. "We always remember that we're still just people talking and hanging out."

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By now, TCGS has honed an exceptionally earnest take on the talk show template, largely avoiding the monologues and predictable gimmicks of the current late night landscape in favor of its own comedic punk rock ethos. Gethard isn't one to remain idle and often speaks of never wanting TCGS to feel stagnant, so the cast is constantly trying new things. The show has never hidden from its imperfect past and as it's grown and evolved, for better or for worse, it's never lost its way.

"There is so much TV right now and what I like about what we do is that we're not trying to cater to everyone," says Shannon O'Neil, the show's effortlessly vulgar and always hilarious sidekick. "We embrace [the show's voice]. And we're not going to change it. If we fail, then we fail, but we're going for it with our voice."

Indeed, they'd rather do nothing than do something that stands in opposition to the show's original intent—and in a late-night era where skits and games earn millions of video views, pushing to do something truly outlandish or oddly heartfelt is riskier than it's ever been. In one TCGS episode titled "One Man's Trash," he and the panel spend the entire 42 minutes guessing what's inside of a dumpster sitting on-stage. (It was an Academy Award–nominated actor, a longtime fan of the show.) In another episode aptly titled "Loser Is the New Nerd," the panel passionately put a positive spin being a "loser" while callers share candid and often painful stories from their adolescence.

The willingness of TCGS to go to these extremes is a dedication to the craft that is hiding in plain sight. Gethard often cites the unpredictable entertainer Andy Kaufman as an influence. If Kaufman's currency was unflinching commitment then TCGS deals in a similar integrity—the bits might not pack the same wayward punch as the late star, but the comedy is just as daring.

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The show's public-access era resident poet Phil Jackson, who has since risen as an in-demand TV writer (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Key & Peele), offered a sentimental takeaway from the show's earliest days that has stuck with him: "No idea is too daring, no topic is too sensitive, and being yourself is celebrated instead of judged."

And after two seasons of pre-recorded episodes on Fusion, TCGS is finally returning to its live-on-air origins for truTV. Much like improv, live television—even when it's semi-scripted—relies heavily on impulse and instinct. Luckily, the cast has no shortage of experience when it comes to dealing with quick-witted callers and guests or off-the-wall characters.

"I don't ever want to mess with the legacy of our public-access days, and I also don't want to overestimate either," says Gethard. "I still want to attack the show, be creative and come up with new ideas. I don't necessarily feel bound to that past, but at the same time, I don't want betray it."

His commitment to the show's history is unwavering. Despite Gethard's newfound successes—including Beautiful Anonymous, a popular Earwolf podcast where anonymous callers bare their souls to him; Career Suicide, an admired one-man off-Broadway show about depression turned into a HBO comedy special; and a standout performance in Mike Birbiglia's latest film, Don't Think Twice—the comedian has never lost sight of TCGS or the people who have helped him build this impossible world of comedy. Even when the careerist Hollywood choice would be to move on to a new project or development deal, he refuses. "This show changed my whole life, and that's why I won't give up on it—I just can't," he says. "They're going to have to kill it first because I can't seem to walk away."

Throughout the show's entire run to date, Chris Gethard and the TCGS crew can't seem to decide whether their show is too out there, too personal, or too something. And episode after episode, as long as it's funny, audiences don't really seem to mind.

Follow Tyler Watamanuk on Twitter.