Fiona Apple is notorious for excessively long album titles, and even she might balk at the the final episode of The Chris Gethard Show, whose handle marked the show’s transition from public access TV to cable:
When Next You See Us We Will Be Standing Atop the Rubble Of The Entertainment Industry, Victorious Conquerers In A Strange Land That’s Never Welcomed Us. We Are The Outsiders. We Are The Renegades. We Are The Surrogates For The Silent Masses Who Are Not Willing To Be Treated As A Number, Who Are Smart Enough To Know That Their Value Is Rooted In More Than What Demographic Some White Male In A Suit Categorizes Them In. In April We Take To New Airwaves To Shout Furiously On Behalf Of The Sad, Creative, Sexually Confused, Generally Forgotten Kids Who Have Long Found It Unpleasant To Shout For Themselves. We Are A Voice For The Voiceless. We Take To The Grid So That We May Speak On Behalf Of Those Who Opt To Live Off Of It. We Are The Nervous System, And Our Viewers Are The Heart And The Brain. We Aim To Obey The Commands Of The Meekest Voices Amongst The Din. We Are Selling Out, But We Will Never Back Down. We Thank The Powers That Be For Our Seat At The Table But We Refuse To Ever Be Cool And We Insist On Making A Mess. Some People Get Invited In The Front Door. Some People Sneak Through The Back Door. We Are Sleeping In A Tent In The Vacant Lot Next Door And Throwing Eggs At The Metaphorical House. This Is Not Goodbye, It’s Only See Ya Later. This Is Not The End, It Is The Beginning. MNN Was Where The Forces Gathered, And Now The Army Marches. And You, The Viewers Who Have Supported Us, Are The Generals In That Army, The Admirals On The Ships, You Tell Us When It’s Time To Push The Button And Go Nuclear On The Whole Venture. The Mainstream Entertainment Industry Murdered Andy Kaufman And It Is The Duty Of This Show To Get Revenge On His Behalf.
Quite a mouthful, that. The “MNN” referred to near the end of this blistering screed (you did make it all the way through, yes?) stands for Manhattan Neighborhood Network–the public access channel in New York that has for years hosted The Chris Gethard Show. Back in January, Gethard used that novella of a title to announce the show had been picked up by Fusion, and would be leaving behind the funky, hidden TV world it occupied, alongside programs such as Royal-Lady Talk Show and YogaXpress. The victorious Bond Villain tone of the title is a signal flare to viewers, expressing immense pride about the show’s graduation to cable, while also exuding a whiff of the show’s playfully delirious sensibility.
You might recognize ringleader Chris Gethard from the cover of his book, appearances in movies like The Heat and Anchorman 2, or his brief tenure as star of Comedy Central’s Big Lake. While a series of big breaks that didn’t quite take have made Gethard more recognizable, the eponymous show he’s put on since 2009 is what’s made the comedian more himself. Making this show each week with friends like Shannon O’Neill and The Human Fish (David Bluvband) has codified Gethard’s comedy philosophy. It’s a sprawling free-for-all that manifests in a weekly theme, revels in oddball bits, and favors extreme audience interaction. The fiercely loyal audience the show has attracted over the years, which is akin to The Best Show’s Friends of Tom, proves there’s a demand for Gethard to continue being himself–which he’ll now be doing from a wider media launchpad.
In order to get to this point, however, the comedian worked for years to cultivate a following, keep his show going while paying the rent through other means, and fight off endless setbacks. As The Chris Gethard Show begins airing on Fusion Thursday nights at 10 p.m. (it streams live online Tuesdays at 8 p.m.), Gethard walked Co.Create through the incredible history of the show–which almost ended many times, but ultimately thrived, an underdog champion of innovative DIY comedy.
The Chris Gethard Show launched at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in 2009. It was an anarchic talk show featuring musical guests, comedy friends making fun of each other, and audience participation. Pretty soon, the host got word that people in L.A. were inquiring about what the hell they were doing because it sounded like the best kind of strange.
Gethard had been doing a lot of improv and storytelling shows, but preferred more oddball events, he says–“Just one-off throwaway ideas I had that were weird.” For example, for one show, he picked up a group of people in a bus and drove them to the town in New Jersey where he grew up, telling stories about what happened to him in those places. His weekly one-man show had been going well, but Gethard was starting to feel it had run its course, so he told the director of the UCB theater he wanted to do something new–a talk show. “He said, ‘You can do the talk show, but you gotta do me two favors. 1.) Don’t just mimic the Carson/Leno/Conan monologue, interview, desktop thing. It’s gotta be a vehicle for all your weird ideas,” says Gethard. “‘And 2.) You have to call it The Chris Gethard Show, because I think that’s starting to mean something. People are starting to know that when you do an event it’s gonna be out of the box. People know that so do yourself a favor and call it that.’ It was probably some of the best advice I ever had.”
One night, early in the show’s run, Gethard recorded a video requesting that Sean Diddy Combs appear as a guest, and posted it online with the hashtag #DiddyGethard. One extensive barrage of fan-tweets later and Diddy responded on Twitter to inquire why so many people seemed to be telling him to get hard. Pretty soon, the two were on the phone together and Diddy miraculously agreed to be on TCGS. (“Ask and ye shall receive.”) Over the course of the next year, while Gethard pursued Diddy to stay true to his word, the comedian got cast on Comedy Central’s Big Lake, raising his profile, and that of TCGS, considerably. Before the year was out, he got the hashtag on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and ambushed Diddy backstage at the musician’s appearance on SNL, where together they recorded this message. A month later, #DiddyGethard finally happened.
“When Diddy came by, that was something that everybody heard about. After that, network people were sniffing around, and then there was five years of people saying, ‘Something’s gonna happen with that show,'” Gethard says. “For a lot of the fans, though, it felt like a conclusion. For all these people, it felt like “Diddy’s gonna finally show up one day.” We had that hanging over the show for a year after he originally said he was gonna do it. People were like ‘He’s not actually gonna show.’ But the whole thing gave us this energy and a feeling of possibility. That’s the thing about the show–even at its dumbest and grossest, it kinda feels like anything can happen. I think Diddy had a lot to do with that, and after he showed up, it kind of felt like the end of something.”
What sounded at first like a joke to Gethard became the next evolution of his show. TCGS began broadcasting on the public access station MNN, from the studio on 59th st. The changes were felt in more ways than just geography, though.
“Even though we were still doing the show at UCB, there were a couple times where it didn’t sell out,” Gethard says. “I was just like ‘Well, I can’t put the insane amount of work I do into this show if it’s fading away; I’d rather just end it cleanly and move on.’ Right when i was thinking of that, a friend of mine who actually worked at public access and helps organize things at MNN told me the show would be an amazing fit for public access. I kind of rolled my eyes at him at first, but then he was saying there’s a four-camera studio, live calls, and it streams online. When he said that last part, I thought about actually doing it. We had this show that I think a lot of people had heard about but couldn’t actually see it and experience it. Also, I thought it would be pretty funny to do a public access show. Since we started, I knew there was something there, so I didn’t want to give up on it, and public access kind of gave me a reason not to give up.”
Gethard had been teaching an improv class at UCB as the stage show was winding down. It was called (), or Parentheses. (Full name: Destruction of the Arbitrary and the Necessity of the Unnecessary.) By all accounts, it was crazy experimental and open-ended. On any given night, for instance, everybody in class might join together to become a giant, screaming horse. A lot of students from that class ended up clicking with Gethard so much that they crossed over to the stage show. Among them were future sidekick, Murf, along with JD Amatto, Noah Forman, and Dru Johnston—who ended up writing and directing the public access show. Along with the established members of the stage ensemble, Shannon O’Neill, Bethany Hall, Don Fanneli and Will Hines, Gethard and his new crew set out to conquer public access and take audience interaction to the next level.
“There were so many adjustments,” Gethard says. “The first episode, we did the kind of stuff we’d done at the stage show and what we quickly found is that in the theater we could all mess with each other and give each other shit, and everybody there watching could see the real camaraderie behind it. When you point a camera at the same thing, though, it feels really negative and mean. We had to figure out how to lighten up and take it easy on each other. The other big thing was when we realized people would actually call up on the phone. The second episode, a girl called from New York and we invited her and she jumped into a cab and came out and she ended up being on every week. (As “Random Jean.”) The public access studio was providing us with an opportunity for interactivity and some real modern stuff. So that was when it started to open up and kind of rebuild it.”
“If you watch the first three or four months of the show, it’s really rocky,” Gethard says. “Around October of 2011, though, we started to find our footing. We did an episode called The Great American Presidential Debate and Halloween Spooktacular, where our guy Connor Ratliff was doing a bit about running for president. He’d invited all these candidates to debate him and we assumed the bit was going to be that they all turned him down, but Jimmy McMillan—this local legend kinda oddball in New York politics—actually showed up to debate Connor. Since we did it on Halloween, the whole set was decorated spooky-style while we had this presidential debate, which was really trippy. That was the first episode where everything clicked, and that’s where it took off creatively.”
The show began to take up a lot of space in Gethard’s life. Although he had plenty of help making it each week, the show had become the only thing he had time to work on creatively, and it started affected his social life. It also hurt his wallet. Gethard sunk in roughly $10,000 of his Big Lake earnings during the show’s first year. Although, he eventually began taking donations and selling t-shirts to support the show, he never broke even on the initial investment. He also got some money to funnel into the project from an unlikely source.
“IFC really wanted me to be the public face of the network for a year,” Chris Gethard says. “They were very interested in me as a personality. They really liked that I thought outside of the box. But all that said, they really thought The Chris Gethard Show—which I thought was the purest representation of my comedic ideals–they just were not interested. And they were very honest about it. Still, they gave me that script deal to make a pilot based on my book, and they gave me money to do some promoted videos for them. It was kind of a godsend too because it gave me this year where I was working on other stuff and I wasn’t scrambling for money, and the show wasn’t bleeding me dry. They kind of funded me while I built the show on public access. I felt like they were sponsoring me and the show, even though they had no intention of picking up the show.”
When MNN renovated its main studio, TCGS had to relocate to another MNN studio that was1/5th the size and located way uptown in East Harlem. It was a grim era in the saga of the show, but something positive was waiting on the other side.
“I think the quality dipped initially when we went to Harlem, but thenwhen we started figuring out how to squeeze a lot out of that studio,” Gethard says. “Long term, I think it had a positive effect on the show, because we started having to revamp things to overcome the limitations of that studio—good ideas born out of necessity. We knew New Yorkers weren’t going to come out a hundred blocks further than they used to, and people watching would think it wasn’t as good, but they all really stuck with us, and we tried to address their fears and issues. We were really close to just ending it then because we didn’t feel like we could do it right. There’ve probably been a half a dozen times where I legitimately felt ready to end the show, and either fans of the show sent me emails about how much the show means to them, or cast and crew sensed that I wasn’t feeling it and gave me a pep talk that helped me deal with that a lot.”
“Eventually we got back to the old studio, and we were even stronger. Once the show kinda had a rep and good recommendations, it suddenly became a lot easier to ask people cold to appear on the show. Amy Poehler, she’s a real mentor of mine, I waited years because I didn’t want to ask her until I thought the show was good enough, and she said she kinda sensed that I’d been waiting, and she was happy to do it. I did a stand up show that Zach Galifianakis was also on and he pulled me aside and said ‘I heard you have a really trippy show,’ and he thought it was on Comedy Central, and I was like ‘No, I just had a sitcom on Comedy Central that got cancelled, but this is a public access show,’ and he was like ‘Oh, but I wanna come on anyway, can I come on?’ I didn’t know Zach that well, but he came on just because he thought it was a good idea and then later he offered to put his name on as a producer to help us find a home for it on TV.”
After Galifianakis got on board, so too did Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, both of whom Gethard worked with while filming a brief scene in Anchorman 2. Having those three names attached opened the doors to may pitch meetings for Gethard, and eventually he ended up with a pilot deal for bringing TCGS to Comedy Central. It did not go as he hoped.
“We’d done so many different things with the show over the years, and Comedy Central wanted to focus on the stuff we did that’s more like Jackass—playing games and doing stuff that’s more physical and more of a game show vibe,” Gethard says. “They didn’t want it to be driven by taking calls and that I thought, ‘Okay, we can try that.’ But I was bummed that they didn’t want to have that talk element. That’s what’s most interesting to me, connecting with the fans and letting them inject themselves into the show. I’m very proud of the pilot but I think really reflects that vision Comedy Central wanted. It’s physical and violent and kinda crazy. We went back to public access before they announced whether they were gonna pick it up because we felt it could go either way.”
“Being back on the air already when the news came out allowed us to not miss a beat with our fans, and they were right with us to make us feel better,” Gethard says. “We were definitely bummed out when Comedy Central passed. The fact that we were doing shows together and the fans were rallying so hard really kept it going in what could have really been a demoralizing time. Pretty soon, though, we hit another wall. Certain things about the show had started getting played out and we were maybe leaning on some parts of it a little too hard. We always wanted the show to be versatile, and the show wasn’t being versatile—it was becoming this thing that I don’t think any of us were really very excited about, so we had to call that out publicly.”
(“I’m having trouble finding that fire I used to have,” Gethard says in an episode entitled Why Did You Stop Watching The Chris Gethard Show?)
They say it’s always darkest before the dawn. Just when it seemed as though the show had pushed its opportunities to break out of public access as far as they could go, the Fusion network appeared like a deus ex machina and bought the show in its essential format.
“I’d done a bunch of meetings in New York, a bunch of meetings in L.A. Some of them went well, some didn’t,” Gethard says. “I actually got flown out to L.A. by a different network to audition for a different project, and it was the kind of thing where I might have to move out to LA, maybe stop doing the show. I was a little bit bummed, I was very hesitant. While I was out there, though, I got a call from my manager about this network called Fusion who is really trying to get into the comedy space and wants to do innovative stuff, and they’ve seen some clips and they like the show. So I went to Fusion and sat down with some development guys, and right away it felt like a good match. Right when I started talking about building a foundation with fans, I could see them looking at each other and they started telling me some of the things they were looking to do, and I thought ‘This is awesome.’ You could just feel it in the room. It was different than any other meeting I’d had.”
“They’d actually seen a copy of the Comedy Central pilot and they said they could see that the network had pushed and pulled at it in certain ways,” Gethard says. “They were like, ‘We want to be very clear: We’re interested in your show because we love your show, and we feel like our job is not to change it or to rein it in in any way. Our job is to be a platform to get it out to more people.’ And I thought, okay, these guys are progressive. They’re trying to do things in a way that’s not standard. And that’s the way we’ve always done it.”