Entertainment

Chris Gethard's New Special Is an Ode to DIY

The comedy-special-slash-documentary required a favor from the legendary band Jawbreaker, an alligator, and a performance at a pancake breakfast.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
June 2, 2021, 6:52pm
Chris Gethard comedian at Gatorland Orlando
Photo Provided by Comedy Dynamics

There aren’t many comedy specials that dangle the main character—or anyone—in front of a live alligator. But in Chris Gethard: Half My Life, that’s exactly what happens. It’s a decidedly punk ending to the special released on June 1 by the 41-year-old New Jersey native, who credits the musical genre for his scrappy style and approach to his work. 

Chris Gethard grew up listening to punk music, thanks to his older brother who was plugged into the Jersey punk scene and “always knew about the cool stuff.” When Gethard was 14 years old, he received a VHS copy of the 1984 documentary Another State of Mind, which documents a 1982 summer tour the historic punk bands Youth Brigade and Social Distortion, with a short appearance from the hardcore punk group, Minor Threat. At the time, Gethard was struck by the punk rock mentality and the documentary’s depiction of youth disillusionment with the American dream. Little did he know this documentary about punk music would provide a blueprint for his latest special, Chris Gethard: Half My Life

Before he was a comedian with an HBO special, a podcast, or a public access TV program, Gethard was attending punk shows in New Jersey that would inform the comedy aesthetic for these endeavors. (In 2016, he hosted a segment in which comedian Pete Holmes tried a DIY bidet on Gethard’s television show.) And now, Half My Life, is a joyful ode to that DIY culture that inspired and incubated his indie brand of comedy, directed by Kate Sweeney and produced by Lexi Tannenholtz. Part tour documentary, part comedy special, it’s an affectionate look at a side of the comedy scene that Gethard has immersed himself in for half of his life. 

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“My material is not about depression anymore,” Gethard said, referencing his 2017 HBO special, Career Suicide. Once an underdog, Gethard is now a comedy institution of sorts himself, helping other oddball comedians into the industry with his platform while figuring out his own new role in the space. “I don't have that same anger I had when I was making the Gethard show. I'm raising a 2-year-old, and a lot of my new jokes are about lawn care. I've had to take a deep breath and be okay with that.” 

Gethard credits his DIY ethos to his early introduction to the punk music scene. He was just as inspired by the basements-turned-music-venues as he was seeing teenage artists sell their own merch and press their own vinyl records. This approach showed him there was always a “back door,” which he translated into finding his own entryway into comedy. His first exposure to live music, which he thanks God for, consisted of three local Jersey bands in the basement of a church. The camaraderie of these shows, which showcased underground art in unlikely places, became part of Gethard’s DNA. 

“All of all of my art, even during the stretches when I was least connected to the music scene, I've always felt I have this safety net a lot of other comedians don't see, because I know about that side of the world,” Gethard said.

In Half My Life, Gethard performs at small DIY and indie spaces around the country, ranging from a small pancake breakfast in Buffalo, New York to a mixed crowd of alligators and vultures in Orlando. Like a tour documentary, the special is interspersed with scenes highlighting the unglamorous life of the road, including some up-and-comers on the New York comedy scene.

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Gethard’s punk roots also instilled in him a responsibility to spotlight new comedians, as headlining acts do for their opening bands. By doing this, Gethard has created his own “comedy family tree,” which is one of his proudest accomplishments. In Half My Life, Gethard features some of those comics, like Carmen Christopher, who has starred on the show Chris Gethard Presents and now has his own comedy special on NBC’s Peacock. You’ll also spot Martin Urbano, the host of the game show “Who Wants $2.69 with Martin Urbano” that got its start on Gethard’s Planet Scum platform, which VICE has described as a “extremely—almost obscenely—positive” space. Urbano has since morphed the show into ticketed and in-person events. 

“Anytime I'm in a position to hire people, bring people on the road, give them opportunities, help put a little rent money in somebody's pocket, I'm always happy to do that for other comedians,” Gethard said. “Because a lot of people did that for me.”

This sensibility also extends to the special’s musical selections. Even if you watch just 10 minutes, Gethard will have introduced you to the song “Pulp” from the band Spowder, from New Brunswick, New Jersey. Later, you’ll hear songs by power pop band Bad Moves, punk musician Jeff Rosenstock, and the legendary Bay Area punk band Jawbreaker, which Gethard was able to use thanks to a personal relationship with Adam Pfahler, the drummer for the band.

The performances in Half My Life were shot in the fall of 2019. After more than a year spent in a pandemic with various social distancing restrictions, watching Gethard perform in the small crowds is a welcome transition back to live comedy, while the sight of packed arena may still feel physically unsettling. And Gethard prefers the intimate audiences. 

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“I've been to shows at arenas. And they're never quite as good as shows that I see in a room with 150 other people, elbow to elbow. It's just a different energy. I'm also perfectly willing to admit that there's some level of rationalizing here, because I can't sell 10,000 tickets.”

Instead of Gethard ending his special at a venue like Madison Square Garden, it concludes with a visit to Gatorland, an Orlando-based alligator amusement park that met Gethard’s sense of humor and punk scrappiness with equal enthusiasm. The visit also afforded Gethard an opportunity to present Gatorland resident, “Chester the Dog Eater,” with a long-overdue apology.

Gethard had been joking about Gatorland—and Chester—for seven years, earning him Orlando press coverage in the process, a multipart drama that he summarizes in Half My Life. When he returned to the park in-person, he was surprised how amicable they were to collaboration, and how well they took a joke. In a fitting end to the special, the staff of Gatorland were just as down for the DIY cause as Gethard.

“Gatorland just let me just walk in the front door. We did what we wanted all day. It was rad,” he said. 

Despite a close encounter with an albino alligator—no blood was drawn—Gethard was grateful that Gatorland embraced his quick-moving approach. (He also wanted to point out that many gators would be euthanized if not for Gatorland rescuing them.) 

“Thank God there's still a handful of places in this world that don't even bring up liability insurance. I think that's actually a really good thing.”

Chris Gethard: Half My Life, is streaming now, distributed by Comedy Dynamics on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Spectrum, Tubi, Peacock, Samsung TVs, DirecTV, YouTube, Pluto TV, Spotify, Sirius XM, Amazon Music, Apple Music and more. 

Follow Ashwin Rodrigues on Twitter.