Chris Gethard on Chaos, Humanity and the Weirdo Comics of Denver

Chris Gethard is a hero to a certain mawkish cadre of alternative comedy fans. An Upright Citizens Brigade-hewn improviser, Gethard has branched out into writing, acting and standup, but has never wavered in his good-natured if unsettling commitment to absurdity at the core of the UCB ethos. The Chris Gethard Show, which originated on New York public access but now airs on Fusion, is a cult classic and a monument to the unpredictable brilliance of DIY art. Gethard, who also has a recurring role on Broad City and wrote the aptly titled memoir A Bad Idea I'm About to Do, is boldly experimental, once walking all the way from Los Angeles to Manchester, Tennessee, for Bonnaroo, relying only upon the kindness of strangers the entire trip. He's a fitting headliner for the pioneering Sexpot Comedy showcases, which return to the Oriental for "A Very Sexpot Chris-Mas," a special blowout on Wednesday, December 23. The evening, co-sponsored by MassRoots and Sexpot, features the Gethard-anointed comedy stylings of Zach Reinert along with a merry coterie of locals. In advance of the show, Westword caught up with Gethard to discuss his UCB roots, the deliberate chaos of The Chris Gethard Show and embracing uncomfortable situations.

 We actually met briefly at Fest two years ago. Did you go back this year?

Chris Gethard: In Gainesville? I did make it back this year. I love Fest. I did comedy there again, and I also sang as the lead singer of a Smiths cover band.

Nice. How did you get involved with Fest, and do you think there’s a correlation between the DIY music and alternative comedy scenes?

I got involved in Fest, I think, because of my DIY roots. I had a public access show called The Chris Gethard Show and it’s on cable now, but for a long time it was just on New York public access. And it was the definition of DIY. We were making our own TV show, and we were booking a lot of East Coast punk bands. Those guys really embraced us, especially bands from New Jersey. A lot of the DIY spaces in Brooklyn started to embrace us, to really view us as their corner of the world, so that helped a lot. Also, a lot of the musicians in the house band are from a punk-rock background, which also ties into Fest. So it was kind of a natural transition for me to perform there, and I really love and support how those bands operate. I don’t know that there’s a total crossover between comedy and DIY, but I think there are a lot of comedians who’ve seen musicians who’ve built their own careers and built their own worlds. There’s a big handful of us who realize that you don’t have to do things in the traditional way. One of the cool things about going down to Florida for Fest is getting to hang out with a bunch of other comedians who also want to build their own thing.

I think that part of the overlap comes from how they interact with their fans. There's a unique sense of discovery when somebody stumbles onto something authentic that hasn't been marketed to them. 

I also think young people these days —I get the sense that kids in college and high school kind of treat comedians how I used to treat bands in high school, where like if you find out about some comedian who's maybe a little more local or regional and they really speak to you, so you can rally around them. I think certain kids identify with being able to say, "Oh, I'd heard of Reggie Watts before he was on CBS." They look at comedians the way we used to look at bands, and it makes a lot of sense to me. 

You’re still pretty involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade. When did you start out there, and what compels you to keep returning to its stages?

I started at UCB in the year 2000. When I took my first class there, it was still a very small place. They’d just opened up their first theater inside a strip club that had closed down, and I was like, twenty years old and really depressed. I knew that I wanted to be creative, but I didn’t really know how to be. It was kind of the perfect place to be at that age and at that mindset that I was at when I showed up. I’ve stayed around as they’ve gotten bigger and bigger. I do still stop by occasionally, and I really identify as a homegrown product of the UCB world. It’s one of the few places that I know of where you can just show up there and know that other creative people are showing up, there are other people who are motivated to make stuff, to get up and push their creativity out into existence. It’s always been a hub for me; you know that the people you meet there are as dedicated as you are. That keeps bringing me back; that and the wonderful audiences they have. They charge five dollars for tickets; that plus two-dollar beers leads to happy audiences. It’s always a good place to test material. The audience hasn’t paid too much and they can get drunk cheap.

Cheap beer is the secret lifeblood of comedy.

If you get them drunk for cheap, they tend not to be too mad if you miss on a couple jokes.

Over the past decade or so, they’ve really taken off to the point where most comedy shows include some alumni in the cast. Do you have a theory or observations about what makes instruction there so special?

I think there are a couple things about it that are special. You’re just around tons of motivated people, so if you want to get any stage time you have to work as hard as you can. So I think it encourages those people who are motivated to not just sit on the back burner and not wait for things to happen. If you want to stand out among all these other people who are trying to stand out, you have to work ten times harder than you were expecting. The people who work hardest rise to the top. So I think that goes a long way.

I also just think that the UCB style makes sense. A lot of other schools maybe have the mentality of “just get up there and figure it out,” almost like it’s the Force from Star Wars. I think there’s some truth to that, but I think that UCB offers more insight than that. They’re like, “Let’s look at this piece of comedy and let’s analyze why it worked. Let’s look at the nuts and bolts of how to communicate with each other onstage in a way that’s actually applicable.” I think they give you the tools or the skills that you can actually use onstage, and that goes a long way, too.

On The Chris Gethard Show, your role as host often requires you to be the quiet center of chaos. Was it like that from the beginning, or something you developed along the way?

Well, when I was thinking about how to build a talk show that reflected what I thought was interesting, I always thought that the one thing all talk shows have in common is that the host is in control. The host sits behind the big desk, wearing the nice suit. The host has all the questions written down on a piece of paper and the jokes on a bunch of index cards. The buck stops with them. So I thought it’d be a really funny subversion right out of the gate if the host is the guy who’s least in control. it’s a very clear-cut thing that as soon as you turn on the show, the guy whose name is in the title is not even the one people respect the most. Nobody’s listening to him. So I always thought the idea of a low-status guy trying to name a show after himself would lead to interesting stuff. It does get pretty chaotic, and I always like to fan those flames. I open the door to a lot of chaos that I then have to endure playing the straight man. Psychologically, it’s a weird show to be a part of. But right from that start, I thought it would be funny if the host had no authority at all. That’s at the core of every episode and has been from the start. The host is not in control.

How do you strike a balance between of drawing out the strangeness from your callers and guests while still honoring their humanity?

Well, to me, it’s always about the kids watching. It’s always about the people calling in. We always try to plan only about 70 percent of the show, tops. We know roughly what we want to get to and how many minutes that will take, but we rarely go to anything scripted. We won’t be like, “Okay, time for the music to play because the show’s almost over.” It’s almost always a thing of like, “Well, someone has to call in and tell us what to do.” It’s about putting the control and power into the hands of the viewers and really letting them know that when we start the episode, we don’t know how it’s going to end and you have to help us get to that ending somehow. That’s a lot of what goes into striking that balance: putting our trust in the hands of the viewers and letting them kind of control the outcome. Involving celebrity guests is fun, but one thing that I’m adamant about is that it can’t be all about them. I don’t want to make yet another show where you turn it on and there’s a person who has a movie out next week and you’re gonna hear two cute anecdotes about their life and then play a game with them. Who cares about that? I want to throw them into the center of actual mayhem. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, so you see them react to things in an actual human way. We need the audience to push over that first domino that leads to the show becoming what it wants to become.

At various points throughout your career, you’ve been called upon to embrace uncomfortable situations, more so than most other comic performers. When did that become of your perspective? Do you think it’s inherently funnier to live the joke rather than tell it?

Luckily, when we started the show six years ago — when I look back on it now, it was definitely a hard time in my life. I was going through some real depression and self-hatred issues, and I think with the perspective of time I’ve realized, “Oh, this whole show was created so I could just punish myself onstage and see how people reacted to it." A lot of that ties into long-standing mental issues. Half of it is just the need for attention, but the other half was the need to punish myself publicly. We did an episode where a kickboxer actually used his kickboxing on me, and I was in real pain, some of the worst physical pain I’ve ever been in. The thing that I like about that comedically is that the audience knows it’s very real. I think that John Mulaney was on that show, and you can see in his face that nobody had told him what to expect. I have a lot of respect for Jimmy Fallon, but I’m just not interested in bunch of famous people playing Pictionary together. Beyond the shock value of “did this guy just get his legs broken on his own show,” is the honesty of that moment. They know that I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and they’re a part of it.

It took a while for The Chris Gethard Show to find its new home on Fusion. How does your experience with that fledgling network compare to behemoths like Comedy Central?

It’s cool;  it’s a pretty one-in-a-million thing for us. We were on public access, which is such a cool environment, such a true DIY thing. But it was also something where a lot of us were losing money. And a handful of us, myself first and foremost, really put our careers on hold to try and make this work, which was scary. It’s nice to have it be a job, that there are thirty of us who all have regular jobs now because The Chris Gethard Show has managed to survive. Making the jump to a big network was also scary because you don’t know what their corporate mandates and limitations are. Luckily, Fusion is brand new and they’re trying to establish their voice and make their mark with us. I like that they want to rattle the chains and cause a bit of trouble. It’s a pretty fantastic position for us in that they wanted to show that they’re the sort of network that’ll accommodate trouble-makers. We fit that bill pretty perfectly. 

There’s definitely times when there are people to answer to all of a sudden when there weren’t before; they give us a budget and they give us notes to make sure they’re spending this money in a way that represents them well. We went from doing whatever we wanted to having to answer to network people. That was really something we had to mature into. At the same time, I can’t imagine any other network that would allow us to do an episode where the whole studio audience is just puppies. I don’t know what other network would let us do that. It was insane to look out and see a room full of loose-roaming dogs. And we couldn’t have done that on our own without an actual budget. It’s pretty clear to me that Fusion really was kind of a perfect landing pad, they like to have us doing the weird stuff we’re doing, and we like their support. I’m really pleased that we wound up there.

At what point did you branch out from improv into standup? Do you think your training has influenced your style at all?

I've really stopped doing improv, by and large, over the past six or seven years. Standup really started to become my focus around that time, and at this point I really only do maybe a couple improv shows every year. As I kind of grew up and got to know my own voice better, I realized that I had more to say on my own. Improv is a team sport and I think I kind of needed to play an individual sport at that point. I think that doing improv in New York when I was twenty has made me more comfortable onstage, to the point where I'm more comfortable onstage than in real life. It's where I grew up. The other thing that I'm really happy about is that because of improv, I don't really mind hecklers. I don't encourage them, but if there's some sort of disruption and the show goes off the rails a little bit, I'm still totally in my element. I think that can be a lot more jarring for other standups but for me, it's almost more jarring to have to have the material memorized so I can deliver it accurately. I'm more capable of throwing down when things go awry, and that all relates back to the confidence I learned from improv, knowing that I can follow the momentum of where that new energy wants to go. It makes it more exciting for me onstage to know that I can let unexpected situations unfold and remain confident that it's going to be okay. It's a pretty good combination. 

What’s your experience with Denver comedy and Denver comedians, and your take on the scene as a visitor? 

I actually don't think I've ever performed in Denver before, which is kind of crazy because I've been all over the place. I think that the guys from the Grawlix being able to sell their show from Denver is super-inspiring. I'm in New York, and I'll say that it's a little tougher to sell a TV show from here than it is in L.A. — but then people in Chicago will say, "It's harder here than New York or L.A." So to see these dudes out of Denver come through, make the show their own way and sell it —and not only sell it, but to have it go so well. They've already been picked up for a second season! It's very inspiring.

I'm buddies with a guy named Sam Tallent, who I think is one of the most fascinating people I've come across anywhere, in comedy or otherwise. The sense I get from him is that being Denver-based is part of how he gets to be such a free spirit. I'm also buddies with a guy named Zach Reinert, he'll actually be performing on the Sexpot show. I met him that year at Fest, and from what I understand he'd just moved from Omaha to Denver. When I meet him and other guys from Denver, I feel like it makes a lot of sense. It seems like a city that really embraces the arts and counter-culture. I've met a lot of kindred spirits among the comedians who come from Denver. They're hungry, they want to be successful but they also want to stay off the grid. They want to do it their own way, but they don't want to sit around being defeatist about their opportunities because they're not in L.A. I think it's a really healthy place from what I can tell, and a lot of the people I've met are not only super-funny, they're stubborn, free-spirited weirdos, and that's exactly the type of people I want to be around. Those are my people. I'm psyched to come out there.

Anything else you want to mention here at the end?

Just don't get too high before the show? Get to that happy middle ground where you can still laugh out loud because it can be kind of terrifying as a performer when everyone's practically sedated. I guess it's a little too easy to close on a weed joke in Denver at this point in history, huh? I think it's something comedians are going to have to figure out as it becomes legal in more and more places. 

"A Very Sexpot Chris-Mas" comes to the Oriental Theater on Wednesday, December 23, Doors open at 8 p.m. for the 8:30 p.m. show; tickets are $15 on the Oriental Theater website

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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham