'The Chris Gethard Show' Offers an Interactive, Subversive Approach to Late-Night TV
The veteran UCB performer brings his brand of off-kilter comedy and public-access-honed disruption to Fusion.
On Tuesday night, Fusion's newest late-night host Chris Gethard was standing inside a homemade silver tent dubbed "The Genital Chamber." With him was Broad City co-creator and co-star Ilana Glazer. The two comedians watched on a small monitor as a man in Pakistan disrobed via Skype.
"I've had this growth on my dick," the voice explained to an attentive audience of about 60 seated on the Manhattan studio floor. The occasion was a taping (and live-streaming) of the debut episode of The Chris Gethard Show—a final, edited version will premiere on Fusion tonight. Gethard and Glazer—who call the gentleman "a hunk" and "gorgeous," respectively—then described his penis to two sketch artists, the show's Shannon O'Neill and Glazer's Broad City co-star, Abbi Jacobson. Jacobson was totally up for the job of translating the narration into caricatures, having proclaimed earlier in the episode, "I'm a genital wizard!"
The Chris Gethard Show's prior four years gestating on public-access was more than enough time for Gethard and his collaborators to come up with kooky gags like "Genital Chamber," which subvert the standards and practices of traditional TV. The set during the first episode of TCGS on Fusion was equally unconventional, littered with people dressed as a banana, a racecar driver, and a "human fish." A woman hula-hooped nonstop in the background. And there was the LLC, a five-person band fronted by Gethard's wife, Hallie Bulleit. The shoddy green walls resembled a suburban basement and were decorated with other people's trashed artwork.
TCGS unique approach is also right inline with the audience Gethard's trying to reach. "The target demographic for this show is goons, ghouls, freakazoids, blookies, oddballs, the sexually confused, dingbats, dinguses, the socially awkward, people with mild depression, dorks, asthmatics, underdogs, dweebs, people with severe depression and jabronies," Gethard told the camera at the beginning of the show, citing his desire to "take what makes us different" and "put it in a pedestal."During the taping, Gethard (whom VICE interviewed last year and who is also an occasional contributor) asked the question, "What's weird about your body?" Instead of shying away from the topic, Skypers and audience members literally lined up to flaunt physical quirks that most people downplay in polite society.
"I think the kids who support our show, they really trust us, and not in a token way," Gethard told me in his office after the taping. "Kids are willing to get up and on a camera—that's already a scary thing—let alone say, 'Let me show you how I can turn my leg all the way around.' Getting on Skype on TV and taking out your teeth when you're a young person? That feels like a thing that's really hard, but they know that we're not bullshitting them when we say that we got their backs and we're doing it for the right reasons. Hopefully all those kids walked away tonight feeling an adrenaline rush or feeling positive that they participated."
Both Glazer and Jacobson raved about the courageous guests afterwards. "I loved it. It was a real happening and an authentic weird moment," said Glazer. "It made my week," added Jacobsen. "It really felt like an old-school UCB. You just don't get to be around that kind of energy very often."
UCB is the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv/sketch group founded by Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh 25 years ago, eventually spawning two theaters each in New York and LA. Gethard is a veteran UCB performer who gained a following co-starring in UCB's marquee show, ASSSSCAT 3000, teaching improv classes (his students included Glazer and Jacobson), and hosting Chris Gethard's Magic Box of Stories , a solo show where Gethard told bizarre true tales from his life (many of which made it into his 2012 book, A Bad Idea I'm About to Do ).
The ascension of TCGS began around the time Sean "P. Diddy" Combs made a celebrity cameo during its public-access era. After that, the weekly show transferred from UCB's digs in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood to a studio operated by the cable-access channel MNN. Comedy Central ordered a pilot in fall 2013 before eventually passing on the series.
"I've kind of had some near-misses along the way with bigger things, and I've had some situations that I think I kind of opted out of along the way as well," Gethard said. "I was on a sitcom once, and that came and went." (The sitcom was Comedy Central's Big Lake, in 2010.) "That was the one where it was really eye-opening for me because I was like, Wow. I thought that was going to be really painful, and it wasn't . I also thought when I got it, it was going to kind of solve all the problems in my life, but it didn't."
Following the Comedy Central pilot, The Chris Gethard Show producers presented the show to several other networks before finding a home at Fusion. Alex Fumero, the network's director of programming and development, is a former UCB student and a longtime Gethard fan.
Will Ferrell, executive producer of 'The Chris Gethard Show,' calls in
With Gethard's unique comedic sensibility, he is poised to shake up late night the same way David Letterman did more than 33 years ago. Letterman ended his late-night career last week, and Gethard hopes a very prominent piece of his idol's set will bring good fortune to TCGS. "We have the George Washington Bridge, but we don't know if we're allowed to use it so we have it covered" with a red and white tablecloth, Gethard said. His team was tipped off to the unceremonious dismantling of Letterman's scenery earlier this month, and they bested bloggers in a race to the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Fumero compared Gethard to both Letterman and Andy Kaufman, calling his show, "smart, avant-garde comedy" with "so much heart to it."
"[Fusion] went after guys like Paul [F. Tompkins] and Chris because we wanted, as our first foray into the industry, to send the message out that we understand the craft of comedy. And what better way to do that then to bring in the people who are carving new paths?"
During their initial meeting, when Gethard began talking about his passion for making TV more interactive with help from the internet, Fumero and Fusion's chief programming officer, Wade Beckett, "just looked at me and they go, 'I think we know how to help you cause this kind of trouble,'" Gethard recalled. "When you're talking to a TV network and you say things like, 'I want to show everything for free online before it ever makes it to your network,' it doesn't really make much sense to people who think traditionally. These guys are kind of trying to think ahead of the curve."
Both the producers and Fusion immediately agreed that there needed to be a way for home viewers to feel part of the studio audience. So on Tuesday nights, the entire lengthy taping is streamed live on fusion.net, allowing for callers and commenters to be addressed in real-time.
"Because you're interacting with the show," Fumero said, "you'll want to tune in on Thursday to see what happens: What made it? What else did they add? We don't believe this is a show that runs for one [half] hour. This is a living television show."
The Chris Gethard Show premieres tonight on Fusion.
Jenna Marotta is on Twitter.