Jersey kid never gave up.
That’s comedian Chris Gethard’s life story in five words—the theme of the episode of The Chris Gethard Show I attended. The show has built a reputation for its madcap, no-budget scrappiness and penchant for the spectacular since its inception at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in 2009. It’s a party where everyone’s invited, and you better believe there will be some audience participation—in fact, the audience is what makes TCGS a truly standout talk show.
Audience members were encouraged to come up with their own life stories, one of which would be chosen at random and published—along with their picture—on a billboard in Tatum, New Mexico, a town of 839 just 72 miles east of Roswell. Some ranged from simple lists of nouns; others were tight sentences that summarized a particular moment or feeling.
I had wanted to see TCGS live for three years, and I figured my first in-studio experience with any show taped in New York should be with one that brings the audience along for the ride, even if that ride lands you in Tatum, of all places.
I arrived at the East Midtown office building that houses TCGS in the basement studio at 7pm, roughly 90 minutes before curtain, and about 50 diehard fans were already lined up, filling out their release forms. All appeared to be in their mid-20s, some younger, and my ears drummed with the sounds of their enthusiasm, occasionally cut through by the beeps and hums of Second Avenue traffic.
In the plaza, I was looking for anyone who seemed to be in charge when I ran into Fred, a TCGS crewmember I met on Twitter through our shared fandom of The Best Show, a three-hour call-in podcast once on the New Jersey freeform radio station WFMU. I first heard Gethard on an episode in 2012; that’s how I found out about his show.
This studio was more reminiscent of a stripped-down Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
Fred and I had never actually met in real life, so he told me to look for the “brown dude with an ID.” He was easy to find, though—not because he was the only person of color in the plaza (not counting myself, he was)—but because he was dressed in a full-body dog costume. We greeted each other with a handshake and a hug as if we’d already known each other for years. Our brief interaction encapsulated the atmosphere perfectly. This ragtag band of misfits found each other through their shared fandom.
Never having been a part of a studio audience, I figured the experience would be very regimented. The only other time I had been involved in filming a TV show was during the finale episode of NBC’s Friday Night Lights in Dallas. For $12 an hour, I was a part of East Dillon High, cheering for the Lions along with 400 fans (or at least pantomiming my personal investment in the gridiron). Production assistants corralled the extras, announcing through loudspeakers where to go, what to do, when to stand, when to cheer, when to feign excitement and disappointment. We were very much at the mercy of the producers for 10 hours. Six months later, in the final minutes of the final episode of the series, the fans in the stands so blurry, they may as well have been added in post-production.
My experience with The Chris Gethard Show was the polar opposite.
The studio itself wasn’t nearly as barren as I imagined it would be. Traditionally, the set only consists of what’s in frame, so there isn’t much to look at other than the stage. This studio, however, was more reminiscent of a stripped-down Pee Wee’s Playhouse, with hints of MTV’s Remote Control—exposed plywood and door jambs, disembodied heads and emptied costumes. In the true participatory spirit of the show, the set had been built with materials sent in by fans. As we filed into the space, my body shook as my adrenaline rose. The house band, the LLC—fronted by Gethard’s wife, Hallie Bulleit—vamped as comedian Connor Ratliff chanted, “Pack it real tight,” in time with the bass and drums. The audience seemed to have done this before: They knew exactly where to sit—on the floor in front of the hosts, on the platform behind them just beneath announcer Murf Meyer and the “creature from the sea,” the Human Fish (David Bluvband).
Gethard opens the show dressed as the late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, in a ringer tee and red kilt. His monologue lays out the show’s theme, standing in the center of the set, surrounded by the audience. Mimi, who’s been on the show since the first season of the MNN days, stands behind Gethard under an exposed door frame, twirling two hula hoops for the duration of the taping—she only stops if production stops. Excluding minor technical glitches, the taping felt like an all-ages punk show in your friend’s garage; it didn’t feel like you were on TV at all.
TCGS first started as a live show at the UCB Theater in New York, before moving to the public access station Manhattan Neighborhood Network, and livestreamed since 2011. Many of the cast members still on set today had been involved with the show in those early days. The current iteration of TCGS, which airs on Fusion, while still anarchic and a seeming free-f0r-all, is divided into segments to be cut down to a 22-minute episode, as opposed to the previous improvisational hourlong panel format on MNN. Meyer kicks off every episode with, “Good evening, weirdos!” which he commands with the charisma of Bob Eubanks, the “Hey-O!” of Ed McMahon, and the madman growl of Macho Man Randy Savage—all while wearing a sharp vintage suit.
The taping felt like an all-ages punk show in your friend’s garage.
“I first became part of TCGS after taking an improv class Gethard taught at UCB,” said Meyer. “We hit it off, he liked the cut of my jib, and invited me to join the panel of the public access show around episode 8 or 9.” When Meyer started the show, the format was much looser, he explained. The show’s Internet liaison, Bethany Hall, would likely agree.
Hall greeted fans with a zestful energy before the we entered the studio, high-fiving each individual as she skipped through the hallway, channelling the excitement we all felt. “I saw the first-ever show at the UCB and [told Chris] that it was really disorganized,” Hall said. To help the show, she offered to be the show’s stage manager in order to pull everything together. “At first, [Chris] said he’d rather not expose me to the craziness. Then, days before the second episode, he took me up on my offer.” Hall had taken classes at UCB with the show’s original cast members, including Gethard and co-host Shannon O’Neill, who is also the artistic director of the improv theater. Gethard’s only caveat, Hall said, was that she had to manage the show while performing onstage.
Pulling from its UCB roots, improvisation played a key role in the show’s format on MNN; despite the fact that the team now has time devoted to planning the show, they still rely on unpredictability to shape an episode within the confines of the cable format. “[P]art of what people really enjoyed about the public access show—watching it, and part of what I enjoyed doing it—is that there were a lot of times when things fell apart,” Gethard told the Daily Dot in June, “and there’s something very fun about watching somebody have to deal with that while a camera’s pointed at them.” If they planned an entire show, he continued, perhaps it would go too well, “and that might not be the best thing for our show.”
Sitting on the studio floor with the Gethard fans, fighting pins and needles in my legs, I felt like an outsider only in the sense that I hadn’t met anybody else yes; many of the fans were either there with a group of friends or simply knew each other from attending so many episodes. “I’ve been coming since episode 11 [of the public access days],” a fan named Julia told me. “The first time I came was because I wanted to see A.C. Newman [of the New Pornographers] in concert, and he didn’t show up, and he never showed up again. But I just kept going, being like, ‘Maybe he’ll show up.’ And then I just became friends with everybody!” By sheer virtue of continued attendance, Julia became friends with a large portion of the audience, as well as the crew of the show—in no small part thanks to the exceptionally blurry line between “fan” and “crew.”
“He’s an actual guy… he talks to people on a very real level,” Eric, a New Jersey baker, remarked about Gethard. “He’s kind of a symbol of… even weird people can make really cool things happen.” Eric—tall, with a perma-five-o’clock shadow on his face—had been a fan of the show since its days on public access, but he hadn’t been able to make it to the late-night tapings. The move to Fusion brought with it earlier tapings, check-ins, and Eric could finally join in on the fun. This was his third time in the audience, and he brought cookies.
“A lot of people who work on [the show] just started kinda as fans,” Gethard said. Indeed, Fred, my costumed friend, had started working for TCGS after moving to New York from Hawaii over a year ago. He worked in pharmaceutical packaging but had an itch to pursue comedy. Fred was a regular caller to TCGS when it was on MNN, and Gethard invited him to attend a pilot taping. After receiving a warm welcome from the comedy scene in New York, he knew a move to the city was the next logical step. Fred credits Gethard with giving him his first break in the comedy world.
“Even weird people can make really cool things happen.”
Bluvband, the Human Fish—wearing only swim trunks, goggles, and slippers—is one of the staple characters, who’s just “figuring out world of man,” he tells Gethard during the episode. “I absolutely believe the community that’s grown around the show plays a big [role] in its success,” he said. “I also think that when your modus operandi is to celebrate [nerds, freaks, weirdos, underdogs]… you are going to attract a lot of cool, amazingly talented people.”
There’s a feeling of solidarity, a call-and-response rhythm, as the audience freely cheers and laughs. TCGS has no in-studio “applause” sign; the audience knows what to do. As most fans volunteer their five-word life stories—one clever fan’s life story was, “Always comes up short”—Gethard returns their honesty with a vulnerability of his own, sharing his insecurities (“Big-headed weirdo, mildly amusing,” “How’d he marry that girl?”), and talking openly with a Skype caller about handling his depression.
It’s clear everyone—audience and performer, crew and viewer—is in this together.
“These fans have supported us so passionately that I really need to make sure, on my end, that as we make this jump to a bigger spot that it’s clear we’re still in it for them,” Gethard told the Dot. “That’s still the reason I do the show.”
By the end of the episode, the moment of truth arrived. Gethard’s guest, comedian Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), randomly drew the winning five-word life story from a “money wind tunnel,” which proved a hilarious moment of its own. Nanjiani looked horrified and overwhelmed inside the wind tunnel as handfuls of life stories and pounds of streamers enveloped his body. Ultimately he drew the name of Brian Levy, a kid dressed as a vampire, whose life story read, “Spooky stuff, comedy, and antidepressants.” And now the people of Tatum, New Mexico, will know about Levy’s life, and they will know his face, pictured with O’Neill and Gethard.
— Chris Gethard (@ChrisGethard) August 10, 2015
The shameless atmosphere, that feeling of absolute safety fostered by Gethard, the cast and crew, and the audience all make it clear why anyone, whether they are nerds, freaks, weirdos, or underdogs, would keep coming back. If you’re in the audience of TCGS, you’re more than just an applauding space-filler. You are the show. After experiencing this for myself, I came up with a couple five word stories for the evening:
This TV show is bonkers.
It is so much more.
Clarifications 1:33pm CT: The latest version of this story has clarified the timeline surrounding Fred’s move to New York.
Screengrab via The Chris Gethard Show/YouTube