The ups and downs of life mean that comedians have no shortage of material to pull from—the sky's the limit when it comes to what can be made funny. These days, it's no secret that anxiety, depression, and substance abuse loom large over the world of comedy. Those struggles have always lurked in the undercurrents of comedy, but can fundamentally dark topics ever be the joke? Chris Gethard thinks so. The New York–based comedian, who's struggled with mental health issues since adolescence, may not be the first to perform stand-up about depression—but he's only one of a few who has made it the centerpiece of a mainstream comedy special.
"When I started focusing on stand-up, I noticed I wasn't a very good joke writer," Gethard notes of his on-stage style. "I'm the first one to admit that I can't really set up punchlines, but I can tell a very honest story." His knack for storytelling has led to his one-man off-Broadway show Career Suicide (releasing May 6 on HBO), which was billed as a "comedy about suicide, depression, alcoholism, and all the other funniest parts of life."
The show's narrative oscillates between darkness and humor. Somber storytelling and pointed punchlines quickly blur into a definite prose, as Gethard lands in a unique space of performance that few comedians have previously inhabited. Finding the right balance between reality and farce took some time though; like most comedians, his impulse was to always be funny, but his executive producer Judd Apatow steered him in a different direction.
"Judd told me, 'This is not stand-up. This is something different. You've got to let it be what it wants to be'," Gethard elaborates. "He said, 'Sometimes that means it's going to be sad, and there will be long stretches where you won't get a laugh.'"
Despite the very personal nature of Gethard's special, it was actually someone else's struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts that pushed him on this creative path. Back in 2012, the comedian received an anonymous letter via Tumblr from a suicidal fan. Without hesitation, he wrote a lengthy, heartfelt response that ended up going viral. "I think if that had never happened then Career Suicide wouldn't exist and a lot of this stuff would still be very private," he mentions.
To this day, you can still feel the effect the letter had on his sense of self and his comedy. Gethard is modest when speaking about what change he thinks he can affect but one quick look at the online community surrounding his eponymous show The Chris Gethard Show and the profound effect he's already had on fans is hard to miss. The series—which went from a small improv theater to public-access television, was eventually picked up by Fusion, and just today announced its new home on truTV—has been a meaningful and impactful source of silly solace to its loyal viewers.
He tells a story of befriending about a group of college students when he was still starting out at UCB Theatre in New York. "I was connecting with these kids in a way that is cutting deeper than just a joke here and there," he remembers. "They're not responding to me because I'm the funniest. They're responding to the honesty." It's clear this revelation stuck with him as his sincere sensibilities and capacity to connect with audiences has long had a presence in his comedy. Career Suicide is just the next step in his journey of using humor to make the sad and isolated feel less alone.
Dive further into Gethard's work, and it becomes clear he believes comedy can be more impactful when it's rooted in truth. That realness is what makes it funny and relatable. The New Jersey kid has gone through hell and back to be standing on that stage. "One of the things that I realized in the course of doing the show is how much my coming to grips with stuff was realizing that I'm not gonna beat this [depression]. I'm not gonna win," confesses Gethard. "I don't get to erase this part of my brain. It's there, so I just have to learn to live with it, face it down and navigate my life with it."
Not the picturesque ending one might expect, but that's comedy. The comedian has accepted he's never going to defeat his depression. Instead he chooses to talk openly about it. He still finds humor while living under its shadow and defiantly smiles as he breaks antiquated norms by speaking freely about mental illness. On the stage, Chris Gethard holds nothing back. He's got absolutely nothing to lose, and as his audience, neither do we.
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