Fans, phone sex, and more behind-the-scenes bits from Chris Gethard

Chris Gethard wrapped in cellophane and covered with a burrito

Jason Eppink/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Leaky sewage pipes? Home sweet home.

The Chris Gethard Show is a talk show unlike any other.

After its start as a live performance at the UCB Theatre in New York, TCGS has now existed in some iteration or another for six years. It lived at UCB for two years before making a jump to Manhattan public access television on the MNN network, which would house the show for four years or 180-plus episodes. (That’s over 200 hours of free content, which you can access on YouTube). Whatever the incarnation, though, no other show gets the audience this involved (they’re right on the floor with the hosts), and no other show or fan base takes such joy in watching madness unfold. 

Gethard has been sometimes compared to David Letterman in his early years, but that doesn’t even begin to describe Gethard’s style. There’s a finesse to the unplanned moments, an art to the improvisation, that makes it impossible to really compare him with accuracy to any forerunner. Sometimes, the whole ordeal feels more like an experiment than a weekly television show, but, no matter what, the experiment is always a success—even when it isn’t (and the audience loves when it isn’t).

The only two constants for the show, over those six years, were the chaos itself and the fact that nobody working on it got paid anything.

That’s all changed now: Fusion TV has picked the show up, and TCGS has moved into an all-new studio, where the folks who had been doing the weekly show for nothing more than pure love are now fully paid, working-every-day staff members.

But fans needn’t worry about the show losing the lo-fi charm they’ve grown accustomed to. Yes, the staff now works 14- to 15-hour days all week (as opposed to two hours every Wednesday), but Gethard has thought long and hard about how—with all this extra time, help, and money—to maintain the spontaneity and undercurrent of shittiness and mayhem in this transition to the Big Time.

We talked with Gethard over the phone about the pressures of finally getting paid to do the show, the upsides to having a real office, the origins of Bananaman, and the power of an online army of cult fans having your back.

What would you say has been the biggest difference working with Fusion, as opposed to working with MNN?

Well, there’s obvious differences… It’s my job, now, which is very nice, for the lifetime of the show and the audience, as well as for my own personal self-esteem, so that’s a nice thing. But I think the most active differences that we’ve had are that, for every episode, I used to meet with a couple other guys every Saturday—we’d meet for like two hours before the episode, and then we would just do it on Wednesday night—and now we’re all here, like every day, five days a week… Some of us are working 14-hour days, 16-hour days, getting these episodes right, so… It’s nice to have everybody in the same facility; it’s amazing that we can be in the room brainstorming and can just walk three doors down and see if something’s possible, whereas that used to be… not even a thing. That wasn’t even close to feasible.

So you can just easily ask, say, “Hey, can we get a piece of a spaceship to use for a bit?”

Exactly. I think we’ve had a really strong crew of people. Almost every single person that works on the show is somebody that did work on the public access show, and that’s something that I’m intensely happy about. It’s just nice that we’re all together, all the time, and that we’re not just all showing up at 10:15pm, and have to go live with the show at 11pm, and just pray that it goes well. We actually get hang out all day, every day, strategizing this stuff.

Is it difficult to keep the looseness of the show, with having more time to plan? How do you walk that fine line between making sure that the chaos is there and not over-planning it?

It’s a great question, and I’m very happy that I kinda asked myself the same question pretty early. We did a bunch of rehearsals on stage, leading up to the show, and it felt very tight, and I started to realize, like, “Oh… just because we have more time to plan everything, doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to plan everything.” I started realizing that part 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 times when things fell apart, and there’s something very fun about watching somebody have to deal with that while a camera’s pointed at them. We started to realize if we actually plan it all, then it’s gonna go well, and that might not be the best thing for our show. It’s a very strange paradox: Our show’s probably not actually at its best when it’s actually at its best. It’s at its best when it has to deal with some adversity along the way.

I started intentionally planning into the episodes, like… there’s gotta be at least, like, 20 percent of this that we don’t know. There’s gotta be time unaccounted for, that we just don’t plan, and we have to see what happens. And maybe it turns out well, and maybe it doesn’t, but that’s really the only way to actually honor the show that we’ve been building all these years.

I just watched the sleep deprivation episode, and that was almost like a case of, like, a thoroughly planned episode, but where you intentionally threw in this element that made it, like, 600 percent harder than it needed to be. Like, the sleep deprivation itself made it to where almost anything could happen—somebody could start having a breakdown at any moment, you know? It kept that sense of danger there.

It’s an odd thing to say, but it’s like… I don’t have much interest in being successful. Like, I want to be happy, and I want to have this show, and I want the show to be my job, and I want people to watch the show, I want the show to spread… But as far as the actual ideas that we do on the show, I don’t care if they fail or not, as long as we’re honest about it. Like… we did that Human Duck Hunt idea, where me and Wyatt Cynac were dressed as ducks and swinging from the ceiling, and people were shooting at us, using the camera as a gun to shoot at us, and it’s like ‘Well, this could really fall on its face, but as long as we just really roll with the punches, and own it… if it falls on its face, I’m OK with that. The actual ideas that we come up with don’t need to work, as long we kinda let the audience see us process the failure.

You’ve created a way that the audience is really in on the process. Like, they’re literally on the floor with you, and in the chatrooms with you, and they’re very much in on it, so if you fail, they’re very much laughing with you, rather than at you. People get very excited when things go wrong.

They do, indeed! … It’s actually been really empowering, as a performer. In the public access days, we’d do things that wouldn’t work, or I’d talk about how I felt like a loser, personally, or sometimes I’d have these meltdowns on air where I’m like, “How did I wind up being a public access guy? Like, what’s going on?” But what I realized was that the crowd, they kinda liked when things went wrong. They kinda liked when I’d have those meltdowns… Which, when you think about it, it’s actually very liberating.

That’s very much a win-win situation.

I think so… except that so much of the ‘win-win’ revolves around me actually losing hard.

You guys are still filming in New York, right? Are you still in the Manhattan area, or did you have to move very far to the new location?

We used to be way out on the west side of town, and now we’re on the east side of town. … There’s not a single window, and we were here for a few weeks, and we came in one day and … there had been a rain storm, and a pipe burst, and it smelled like a toilet bowl. And that’s now happened twice, that the studio has flooded and smelled like human sewage. Which is, like, you can hear I’m laughing while I say it, because to me it’s like, “Great, perfect, that’s where we belong; it keeps us humble.” I know we had real fears, and the fans have real fears of, like, “Oh, you guys are selling out, you’re going Hollywood,” and it’s, like, “No, no—we are in a windowless basement that smells like shit. We’re maintaining the underground integrity, I promise you.”

Have the fans followed you from the old show to the live tapings of the new show?

Yeah!

Is the Bananaman guy, like, a permanent fixture in the audience?

There’s an interesting story. … A lot of people who work on [the show] just started kinda as fans. Bananaman started just showing up dressed as a banana and dancing. And then a few of the people who worked on the show with me were like, “You know that kid went to NYU with us?” Like, he’s a film graduate; he works in TV. He’s a badass, actually. … And we found out “Oh, this guy’s, like, making film and making videos, and he does all this production work on TV shows”… And then, yeah, he started working on the show, and he’s actually one of our two central performers.

Oh, I had no idea.

He’s officially one of our main producers now. He’s very high up in our chain. It’s him, and this guy Jersey Dave, who also just started appearing on the show a bunch. He was another guy who just started showing up volunteering, and now it’s, like, oh yeah, it’s his job, too. A cool thing, that I’m pretty proud of, is that if you want to get involved in the show, we really let you get involved, and that might mean that we remember your name when you call, that might mean that we give you your own theme song if you participate enough, or it might mean that someday you get a job on the show itself. So that’s a pretty cool thing, [and] I’m really happy we went in that direction.

Have you had more people wanting to be in the studio audience since making the jump to cable television?

We’ve been getting lots and lots of ticket requests, and we actually have a little bit less space for people, so we’re trying to be fair and make sure we spread that out, and make sure everybody that wants to come has a chance to come at some point.

It’s kinda like… 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. That’s still the reason I do the show… I don’t want people to feel like we’re walking away from the support that we’ve had in the past or taking it for granted in any way.

Was the livestreaming of the Tuesday tapings something that you guys pushed for for the fans? To try and keep everybody in on the process and keep that spirit alive?

Actually the opposite. In a way that I think speaks really well of them, that was actually Fusion’s idea. They actually pitched us on that. … There’s a lot of reasons I want it to be live, but, in the modern world, it’s hard. It’s expensive to have a live show. Legally, you’re putting yourself at more risk. [A lot of networks] drop their head around it, and Fusion actually said to us, like, “We agree 100 percent with all the elements that you like about it, so what if we let the taping become a public thing?”

So when you watch on Tuesday nights, you’ll see us stop and start, you’ll see me speak and have to say things again. It’s just like if you got a ticket to go see a taping of the show, but we’re just not gonna hide it; we’re not gonna hide the process. We want people in on the process. And the hope is that the people who really are hardcore fans, who want to dive in deep, they can have this experience where they get to call in, and watch it live… kinda see how the sausage is made.

That goes for, like, two hours on Tuesday nights, and then they have even more of a vested interest in watching on Thursday, to see the polished show, to see what made it, to see what other jokes we added in, in editing, and all that stuff… It really was Fusion’s idea, and it was kinda mind-blowing to everybody on our end that they would want to do that, because I think it’s such a progressive look at things. I think, as we move forward more and more, there’s gonna be more things like this, where networks are giving away more stuff on the Internet, and kinda using it to help build the TV platform. And [Fusion is], I think, really ahead of the curve in a way that I’m really excited to be a part of.

That’s something that’s definitely changing a lot in late night, is the building of a community. … That was something the whole Team CoCo thing kinda started, with the whole idea of providing Internet-only access to material, instead of just having the show itself.

It’s interesting that you bring up Team CoCo, because I also think a lot about Community and Arrested Development… All three of those shows went through situations where—you know, Community and Arrested Development [faced] cancellation threats; CoCo [had] everything happened with Conan and NBC and TBS—and you saw these, like, massive uprisings of online fans. They kinda solidified into these movements, and it was really inspiring to see, but it also made me realize that in most cases, crises have to happen to those shows for those fan bases to mobilize.

But I feel like I’m putting in a very intentional effort to mobilize that fanbase to be huge outright, when we’re at the very beginning of our process. Like, let’s make the idea that you can have an online army that’s really dedicated to your show in a passionate, cult way … right from the start, versus “Let’s hope they come to our aid when disaster strikes and they need it.”

The fear that a loved show will go away forever is lessening, because the fan bases are getting so big that it’s just, like, “Well, some network will want that.”

It’s very cool to be somebody that creates content right now, because there’s so many platforms—so many cable networks [and] things like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Yahoo Streaming—that I think are kind of intentionally aiming to be a little smaller and more focused and boutique in who they’re going after, and the idea of having a very dedicated, cult fan base, I think, is more of a bargaining chip than it was a few years ago. It’s super empowering.

I’d heard that it was mainly you and your wife that handpicked the musical guests on the MNN show. Do you still get to do that?

Our music bookers for our current show are the same exact bookers that were on our public access show, and they’re people who legitimately are very, very much in touch with the whole Brooklyn DIY scene. And I think they really bring a lot to the table, and I’m psyched about it. Like, [on] the show itself, y’know, you’ll see about a minute of them performing while we all dance, and that’s what you see on the way out, but you go to Apple TV, and you’ll see, like, a 15-minute-long little mini-concert… I’m really, very happy that we get to support a lot of the artists we love, from the underground, as we maybe become less of an underground thing.

Since switching to Fusion, has there been any specific gag that they’ve said was just too legally unsound and/or dangerous for you to do?

It’s funny… They had us edit down 20 old episodes into half-hour formats, and they’ve been airing all those in an effort to try to, like, get the audience caught up on what we do. And we submitted 20 of those, and a lot of them were the best episodes we ever did on public access, and it’s, like, “Ah, nice, we kinda get to make these, like, 22-minute ‘best-of’ reels of our best episodes and get them out there.” And one of the ones we picked was this episode with Hannibal Buress, where we just had phone sex with the audience.

We’d been submitting these episodes to Fusion lawyers, and with some of them they’d be like “Oh, you gotta bleep this part,” or “This character might be a little too hardcore, so let’s maybe edit that out, and edit another piece of the show in.” And then the phone sex episode, they just wrote back and they were just, like, “No. You can’t put this on the network, absolutely not.”

And I kinda got my feathers ruffled, and I was, like “Man, they can’t censor us! If they want our show, they need to commit to wanting our show!” And then I went back and actually watched the episode, and I was, like ‘Oh, holy shit, this is just pornography.’ It is… it’s phone sex.

And it would be an editing nightmare, because I think the word “fuck” comes up about every 12 seconds.

In what world did I think that was going to go on a real cable network? Like, there’s a three-minute-long phone call where I talked in detail about eating a person’s asshole. Like, why did I think this was OK to even submit to these lawyers? But, the image of a lawyer watching that did make me laugh pretty hard.

So you guys are signed on for 10 episodes with Fusion?

Yeah.

Are you scared at all about those 10 episodes underperforming? Or are you just like “Let’s go balls out”? Are you kind of, like, “Let’s just make this show 100 percent what we want to do, and what happens happens, and we’re gonna be fine”? Because 10 episodes is, like, a drop in the bucket for what you guys have done.

It kind of goes both ways, where it’s, like, I definitely feel this anxiety about it, for sure—it’s a real daunting thing—but at the same time, we were doing the show at UCB Theatre for two years, and then we did the show on public access for four years, and it’s just, like, “I didn’t fight this long and this hard to half-ass it now.” I’d rather go really big, do the show I want to do, and have that fail, then try to kind of strategize and hedge my bets and alter the show, just so it might have more long-term success, but do a show that I’m not as into.

I kind of had to have a real soul-searching moment with myself, and realize, like, at the end of the day, I have to go real big in the directions I want to go, because that’s the only way that I’ll be able to really say, “I did it my way, and I’m happy.” It’s the only option, to go balls out. It’s the only option. I don’t really know what else to do, after fighting this long and this hard… if we’re going to do it our way, we may as well not do it, y’know?

The Chris Gethard Show livestreams its fourth episode live tonight, June 16, at 8pm ET. The finished episode airs Thursday night on Fusion.

Photo via Jason Eppink/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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