BV interview w/ Chris Gethard: “In the end I always ask myself — what would Jeff Rosenstock do?”
The Chris Gethard Show returns to the small screen this Thursday (8/3) on a new network, switching from Fusion to CNN affiliate truTV (also home to Billy on the Street). If you’re not familiar with the show, you might be familiar with its guest stars: everyone from Will Ferrell to Ira Glass has stopped by the set to play a crazy game or throw elbows in the pit during one of their weekly tapings (musical guests are more likely to be Jersey hometown heroes like Screaming Females than major label darlings).
For the first time since its jump from public access to cable, the show is returning to its original live broadcast format, albeit with a 10-second delay to appease Standards & Practices. Viewers can once again call in to add to the show’s madness, and tickets to see a taping are available available through the show’s website. Ahead of its premiere, I talked with Chris about selling out, going live, and keeping things weird. Read that below...
BrooklynVegan: A lot has happened in your personal career in the past year - your HBO special and your starring role in Don't Think Twice, for example. What is the motivation to return to this crazy live show you do every week?
Chris Gethard: At the end of the day, I am still obsessed with doing this television show. I won't walk away from it until it is dead. It's come close to dying so many times, but it just refuses to go away. I'm proud of that. I think the show has always had some values you don't find in every corner of the entertainment industry and I don't ever want to stop doing a thing full of those ideals just because I have more earning potential now than I did five years ago.
Also, the people involved in the show are my family. In one case literally, as I married Hallie [Bulleit], the leader of our house band. Murf was our reverend. I was the reverend at his wedding, after he got engaged live on the show. Shannon is like a sister to me. And there's a whole long list of people under this umbrella, where we were in the trenches together at UCB, at public access, cast and crew that I think of when I think of my family. You don't walk away from family.
BV: In the past three years, the show moved from a half hour to an hour to finally a live format - how did you manage to convince a bunch of stuffy cable execs to expand the scope of the show so much?
One thing I give a ton of credit to truTV on - they are not stuffy execs! It's pretty amazing. In fact, it was their idea to do the show live. Originally, we'd sold it as a pre-taped show to them, just like it was at our previous home. They brought me out to lunch one day and out of the blue asked "What would you think of doing the show live? Just like on public access." Out loud I was like, "I think that's a great idea." But in my head I was like, "Whoa, from your perspective that might be a really bad idea."
But it's not, because they get it. I was at an event truTV held and I was almost feeling guilty, so I said to Marissa Ronca - one of their highest-up-the-food-chain people - "Hey I just want to be up front, I want to come clean. If you let us do this live at least a handful are going to be complete disasters." And she didn't wait a second before saying, "We know. We think those will be some of the most popular episodes."
So they get it, for real. They're not asking us to change our comedic impulses. They're not asking us to include the mandates of a network at large. They just want us to go out, make the show funny, go big with our experiments, and prove something. It's the compromise-free honest shot we've been waiting eight years for.
BV: How do you balance corporate sponsorship with retaining the original DIY ethos of the show?
CG: I mean, first off I just cop to the fact - we are selling out. For sure. I'm not going to hide that. I'm not going to claim that this is the Wild West of public access anymore. You don't get to have it both ways, and we're now on the capitalist side of the fence. Big time.
One thing I'm really into is the idea of if we're selling out, I want to do it shamelessly and hard, to the point where it becomes part of the fabric of the art project that is the show as a whole. I dream of making the Human Fish spend an episode swimming in a pool of Febreze. We'll build entire three episode arcs around mountains of Skittles, I don't care. Vacation Jason is built to be the brand ambassador for a cruise line. Let's go, all in, shameless. Over the top. Bring it. If we're going corporate, I want to make it cartoonishly so. I hope four episodes in Doritos pays for our stage to be replaced by a twenty foot wide cooler ranch chip.
In the real world where I don't get to manipulate corporate involvement into being a weird Willy Wonka-esque dreamscape, I just always ask myself what the responsible way to do things is. I don't prescribe to the belief that artists shouldn't be able to live off their art. I maintain that you can have integrity and a mortgage at the same time. There will always be right ways and wrong ways to do that, and you have to stand by your choices.
In the end I always ask myself - WWJRD? What would Jeff Rosenstock do? In the world of people I actually interact with in real life he is by far the person most known for drawing lines in the sand in order to maintain integrity. Usually the way I answer the WWJRD question is by picking up the phone and calling Jeff. He's given me a ton of good advice regarding this exact issue over the years.
BV: What kind of changes should we expect from the second to the third season in terms of guests, music, etc? Are most of the regulars returning? How about the writing staff?
CG: Our guest booking remains the same process - begging people I've crossed paths with in the entertainment industry to slum it with us for a very fun night of their lives. We don't hide what we are, and the good thing is a lot of times celebrities appreciate the chance to show up, let their guard down, not worry about memorizing anecdotes from a pre-interview... they get to just have a good time with us. It's hard. People aren't scrambling to participate in strange experiments on live television, let alone in August when they all go to Europe and the Hamptons and stuff, but we always land on our feet.
As far as music goes, our music bookers are the best. Seriously, we have always been scrappy and I'm not going to claim we bat a thousand with the show overall, but I challenge anyone to name me a television show booking a better slate of musical acts right now. It's the only thing regarding the show I actually get cocky about. Our bookers are actual fans and creators of music, people who participate in the music scene for real and have for years. They don't think about trends and A&R reps, they think about who's doing great work, and who can use a televised platform to spread that work and the messages in it.
As far as specific musical guests, I will say that one of my high school heroes is coming to the show. I don't think I'm allowed to announce it yet. But one of the best compliments I get regarding the show is that a lot of time people say it helped them through their awkward high school years. And the guy we got coming was one of those people for me, back when I was going to shows in basements all over North Jersey in the 90s.
Our cast is back. As far as writers go, there's some changes, mostly because the "big" shows have poached some of our people. I take this as a compliment - I pride myself on the ability to identify the best raw talent in New York comedy well before anyone else. Julio Torres went to Saturday Night Live. Jo Firestone is at Jimmy Fallon. That's so good for them, makes the show look good, and I invite any and all big budget shows to keep an eye on us and give my writers and actors big paying jobs. If you want to find the most motivated, ballsy weirdo NYC comedians, look no further than the writers' room of TCGS and the people cast to play characters on our show. Raid away! I like knowing I helped talented people pay the rent before they truly hit the big time, and I take it as a challenge to keep employing the raddest people doing the most innovative work.
BV: What are you most excited about with the live format? What are you most nervous about?
CG: The answer is the same for both: the ability to eat shit and fall on my face on a network that reaches 90 million households. That's terrifying. But also, it's the whole point. Enough middle ground TV. Our show will let you see us fail. We wear our warts proudly. Let's lose.
BV: A lot of fans get Gethard Show phrases tattooed on their bodies. What's the best one you've seen so far?
CG: Some lunatics in West Virginia got the actual faces of The Human Fish and the Keeper of the Battledome on their bodies. And not small. Big ones. The Keeper of the Battledome was only on like four episodes. Total throwaway character that someone is now branded with for life. That's insane. He won't even be coming back, either. He's too busy being President Trump now.