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Chris Gethard Explains How His Gut-Wrenching One-Man Show Came to Be

‘Career Suicide’ is brutally honest about the comedian’s history with mental illness

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

“I don’t know what caused it,” Chris Gethard says about 15 minutes into Career Suicide, his feature-length special for HBO premiering Saturday. He’s referring to the decades of living with mental illness that give the show its name. “I hate to say it, but sometimes people just break.” He pauses. “Welcome to a comedy show!”

There’s a certain sensation only a truly great, truly brutal piece of comedy can deliver: Louis C.K.’s opening abortion joke from Louis C.K. 2017, for example, or the entirety of SNL’s cheerfully vicious “Meet Your Second Wife.” It’s not pleasant, per se, but adrenaline rushes rarely are. Chris Gethard: Career Suicide, a feature-length special for HBO about Gethard’s lifelong experiences with depression and other mental health challenges, has one of these moments every few minutes. That’s not necessarily surprising, given that Gethard is a seasoned veteran who built up a dedicated fan base through years at UCB and with a beloved New York public-access show; he also has a proven facility with potentially awkward situations, evidenced by Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, the podcast/social experiment in which anonymous callers are guaranteed a full hour of Gethard’s time. What’s surprising is that many of the special’s most effective moments don’t come from jokes.

Career Suicide — which premieres after an off-Broadway run this past fall — bills itself not as stand-up but as a one-man show. The latter is an oft-derided genre, but one Gethard’s frequent collaborator Mike Birbiglia has lately reclaimed as an ideal platform for funny people looking to get their dramedic streak on. (Birbiglia demonstrated that in the hands of a skilled-enough stand-up, the one-man show can be more poignant than self-indulgent.) The label freed Gethard, a longtime stand-up and improviser who’s acted in Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice and on Broad City, to push himself past his natural, humor-seeking instincts. Collaborators, including producer Judd Apatow and director Kimberly Senior, pushed Gethard to prioritize emotions over laughs; the result is hilarious when Gethard wants it to be (there’s a note-perfect running joke about The Smiths’ surprising applicability to virtually every stage of life), but often nakedly candid about the mania, paranoia, and despair that’s affected him since he was 11. (“I just thought everybody had an internal monologue like the guy from Taxi Driver!”)

I spoke to Gethard about finding the right balance between pathos and uplift, and how he hopes Career Suicide will mark the end of his “depression comedy” era.

You’ve been candid about mental health for much of your career. When did you decide you wanted to do a show specifically dedicated to it?

I was opening for Mike Birbiglia for a big portion of 2014. That means a lot of road trips where we’ve got to get from Iowa City to Wichita, and you just wind up talking about everything on a drive like that. He once said to me, “You’ve talked about your depression onstage and I’ve heard it, but you always have a lot of jokes. What’s the most real it’s ever gotten?” I told him that story about the car crash [that’s featured in the special]. That’s not a story I’ve told that many people. I finished telling him and he was like, “Dude, that’s hilarious. Tell that on stage.” I was like, “No! That’s the darkest story from my life!” He was like, “I’m telling you, man. It’s funny and it’s honest. It’s your experience. You have the chance to talk about this stuff in an honest way, and if it works, it’s gonna be something special.”

I actually did a show in Brooklyn with him, and in my head I was like, “Let me do this and he can see it, and he’ll see it’s not gonna work.” And then it actually worked! People laughed, and very quickly, as I was doing this material, people would come up to me after the show and say, “Hey, that actually meant a lot to me. I’ve been through stuff like that. Some of my family’s been through that.” Once you start to get reactions like that, I was like, “Well, now I have to commit to this, because that means something to me.”

I didn’t necessarily feel like I had someone who was speaking my language when I was younger and in the thick of this. I had that mentality: If I can make a thing I could’ve used when I was 19, 20 years old and really losing it, maybe something else who is that age now can have that. I didn’t have that, and I wish I had. It’s a unique position to be in and a big challenge, but I just went for it.

I took it out to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and that’s when it really buckled down, because I did it 26 nights in a row and my director was there, having not had a director before that. Between doing it 26 nights in a row and having her guiding it, it just really became something way different than I ever thought it could be. We did the off-Broadway run, and I was doing it eight times a week. Then I did London, and then we taped it. I counted it up once, and I think I did it between 150 and 200 times before we taped it.

How did having a director affect the process?

At this point in my career, when I go onstage, I’m a stand-up. I go for punch lines, I go for jokes. Kimberly Senior, she’s really brilliant and way out of my league. I still am not certain why she did me a favor and took this one on. If you look at her résumé, it’s incredible. That’s not even false modesty; I honestly don’t quite understand.

One of the very first things she said to me was, “Look, you write the jokes. I’m not gonna tell you how to write the jokes; it’s your thing. But everything else, you can really trust me.” She really encouraged me to sit in the silences, to sit in the sad parts. Be comfortable with that. A comedian’s instinct is, “This is uncomfortable; find that next punch line, that next laugh.” Sometimes, that’s appropriate in the show. There were other times where that was just fear. So let’s take it out. Maybe we even have to walk away from a punch line once in a while, which is antithetical to my instincts as a comedian.

Then HBO allowed her to also direct the filmed version of it. I think that was such a smart call, because one of the main concerns I had was losing that intimacy. But by letting the director of the off-Broadway show direct it on HBO, not only did we not lose it, there’s a couple shots where, when I finally sat back and watched it, I was like, “She actually found a way to use a camera to enhance the intimacy.” Some of the emotional parts are so close-up. The part where I’m talking about driving across the country and she does this zoom-out? I’m like, “Thank god I know when to keep my mouth shut.”

Mostly, she’s really brilliant, and when I’m around people who are smarter than I am, I’m happy to shut up and learn from them.

I’m curious which came first — the label of “one-man show” or the show itself. Were you writing and thinking, “Oh, this is maybe a little too serious to be a proper stand-up set?” Or did you want to do a more theatrical piece from the beginning?

I definitely was aiming for stand-up. I come from the improv world. Stand-ups make fun of the improv world a little bit. There’s a little bit of a rivalry at times. Being that I’ve done mostly stand-up for the past five, six years, I was very insecure about, “It needs to be stand-up, I’m still proving myself to all the real stand-ups. It needs more punch lines, it needs to be funnier, it needs to be stand-up.” Then Judd Apatow got involved, and right away he was like, “Let’s get that out of your head right now.” Because stand-up is certainly in the DNA of this, but it’s not stand-up, it’s its own show. This is a one-man show. This is its own thing, and you just have to be brave enough to let it be that. You can’t be insecure. You can’t be apologetic. Let this be what it wants to be.

With my own insecurity and ego, it was hard to swallow that, but at the end of the day, when Judd Apatow gives you a note on your comedy-with-other-emotions-mixed-in, you take the note. With [works like] The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I think Judd carved out a type of emotionally driven comedy that probably didn’t exist in that way before he put his fingerprints on it. Freaks and Geeks, you know? I’ll take the note. This is a one-man show. I’m gonna get over my ego.

And he has such a great track record of bringing the best out in other performers.

He was hands-on. Before he was producing the show, he had just heard through the grapevine. I don’t know how. He doesn’t remember who told him, but someone had mentioned to him, “Hey, Gethard’s doing this really dark show.” He was doing a ton of stand-up in New York for a few months a couple years back and he was like, “Hey, I heard you’re doing this show that’s kind of strange and grim. Is there any way I can see it?” I sent him a video of my most recent performance; luckily, I’d taped it. He emailed me, and we did not know each other well: “I don’t want to step on your toes, but would it be OK if I gave you some thoughts?” I was like, “Absolutely!” Again, [there’s] nobody I can think of more who I’d love to hear their perspective on it. He was very gentle and encouraging and was really hands-on. He had very honest opinions, and joke rewrites, and joke pitches, and strategies on how to do something like this the right way. It’s not a situation where he just stuck his name on a thing to help me sell it. He really got in the trenches and got his hands dirty as far as figuring out how to get this type of joke across while you’re also talking about some dark stuff that isn’t funny at all. It absolutely would not have happened without him.

“Confessional” comedy has a long and proud history. But there’s still something that feels transgressive about describing suicidal tendencies or paranoid thinking. Why do you think it took so long for comedy, or just our social norms, to accept mental illness as a topic of conversation?

I don’t know. I think about it a lot. I really wonder why it felt so not OK for me to talk about this when I was young and going through it. I was scared to be judged. I felt like people were going to say, “You just need to be tougher. What’s so wrong with your life?” All those things that we fear.

I don’t know why it took so long, and I have no idea why it’s coming out now. I certainly look to people like Maria Bamford and Marc Maron and Paul Gilmartin’s podcast and see them as people who paved the way. I’m very, very proud to be some small piece of what they’ve led the charge on. I think, at the end of the day, it’s sad to say, but maybe enough people have remained sick or died because we can’t get over some outdated values, and some people are fed up. I still think it’s so strange that we’re not allowed to talk about it.

People have said to me, “It’s so brave that you’re doing that show.” Always, I’m like, “First of all, I hope it’s funny. Before it’s brave, I just hope it’s funny.” Also, it just bums me out that that’s brave. That you need to be brave to talk about this stuff. It just feels like a shame, and I don’t know what changed it. I know on my end, some personal things I saw made me fed up and made me talk about it personally. I have no idea why it’s started to shift. But based on my past, and how much of a chip on my shoulder I have thinking about how I felt when I was young, if I can do my part to make this thing that I could have used back then, I’m gonna put the gloves on and try to make that happen.

You’re really resistant to the “Oh, the struggles are in my past, I’m better now” narrative. Was that an important takeaway for your audience to have?

It was for me. I didn’t want to feel any pressure to put a happy ending on it that’s not necessarily there. There’s no happy ending where it’s like, “And that’s when it went away!” I don’t get to have that victory. But I think the fact that this stuff is still around, and sometimes just as bad as it’s always been, but I’ve decided that that’s OK with me and I’m gonna just push through that and look for the help that works for me. To me, that is a happy ending.

I think one of the things that makes people so scared to talk about this stuff is, it could happen to anybody, and we don’t like thinking about that. Sometimes people’s minds just go in weird directions, and there’s not much of an explanation why. Nobody wants to look that in the eye, because you have to reconcile the fact that your brain might go haywire at some point as well. I also wanted to really hammer that idea at the end pretty hard. I wanted people to walk away from this with that lasting [feeling of], “He’s still fucked up in some ways. He’s not hiding that.”

That’s one of the things I’d love to try to attack when I have this platform. Just because it’s a thing that could happen to all of us isn’t a good enough reason to look the other way and ignore it. I have this thing. It’s not the story of how it went away or how I healed. It’s the story of how I came to live with it. I’m gonna look you dead in the eye, sometimes in the front row, sometimes in the camera, and I’m gonna say it’s here and it’s real. I’m not gonna pussyfoot around that, because that’s not the case. You’re just gonna have to reconcile the idea that sometimes I can’t get out of bed and sometimes I have these urges to hurt myself, but I’m totally OK with that, and you’re gonna have to hear that I’m totally OK with that.

You talk toward the end of your special about people reaching out to you, and the entire premise of your podcast is people just talking to you. How do you feel about taking on that kind of confessor role?

It’s always an honor that people feel the trust to open up to me, but it’s also a lot of heavy lifting. There are certain days where people reach out to me and I’m just having my own stuff, and I can’t do the heavy lifting on both of those. We all have to look out for ourselves.

I’m happy to create empathy. I’m happy to promote that as a concept. It’s something I think we’d all agree on, especially right now; there’s a lot of anger and divisiveness. So if I can promote the idea of empathy, I’m really happy about that. I’ll also say, straight up, one of the things I’m really happy about with Career Suicide [being] on HBO is: That is what I have to say about it, and [to] anybody who asks me I can say, “You know what? It’s all there.” In a way that is hopefully not harsh or callous, I can say, here’s some instructions on here to register for HBO Now, that’s everything I have to say. I’m putting it all on the table. I’m being as honest as I can. If you ever reached out to me, I said some version of one of the things I’m saying on that special.

There is also an effort on my end to put this one to bed. To say, I don’t want to be the depression guy forever, so let’s get this all out of my system. That’s all I have to offer to this conversation, and now I can move on. Because I don’t necessarily want to take on that burden for the rest of my life. It’s hard. I do at some point feel like I have to move on and be able to just go write jokes about how strange it was to grow up in New Jersey in the ’80s. I’d love to write some regular jokes! Part of Career Suicide is an effort to just really nail what I have to say about this topic so that I can move on.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.