Chris Gethard: Underdog from The Underground

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Chris Gethard is about as Jersey as Jersey gets. He proudly identifies himself by his exit number (“Exit 16 W for life”). He has wild stories about fearing for his life in Asbury Park before the city got cleaned up. He can easily name his favorite pizzeria in New Brunswick from his time as a student at Rutgers University (TaTa’s on Hamilton Street). And he’s got a chip on his shoulder the size of his hometown of West Orange.

That chip, engrained in his shoulder where Morrissey’s signature is tattooed, has fueled Gethard’s entire career. It took him out of his West Orange basement listening to The Ergs, and watching wrestling to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater where he learned his craft. It emboldened him to take his concept for The Chris Gethard Show from the UCB stage to New York public access after frustrations with mainstream television opportunities. It rallied like-minded artists, and television viewers to inspire the Fusion Network to grab the show and not comprise its artistic integrity. And it fuels Gethard, now enjoying the fruits of success, to keep taking risks and fighting for his spot in the comedy world. He will do as he takes his stand-up show to the famed Edinburgh Fringe Fest.

I caught up with the West Orange-born comedian to talk about his new stand-up show “Career Suicide” which he’ll perform at The Saint in Asbury Park on Tuesday night. We also spoke about his love of New Jersey, writing about his struggles with depression, and the joy of doing things on his own terms.

Chris Gethard

You’re a native New Jerseyian, and you keep that fact very close to your heart. I’ve heard you speak fondly of the Garden State in interviews, on your show, on your album. Why is New Jersey so special to you?

I definitely keep New Jersey close to my heart. I think being from West Orange, and being from the part of West Orange that isn’t the nicest part put a chip on my shoulder. I also think going to Rutgers University – I didn’t go to Mason Gross (School of the Arts – which has an acting program) – I went to Rutgers. There wasn’t much encouragement to be an artist from where I’m from. It made me realize if I wanted to do this, I needed to fight hard for it. New Jersey taught me how to have a chip on my shoulder; how to fight. I grew up in a neighborhood where you could see the New York City skyline. I literally that was close to chase my dream, but I could see it was [still far off].

New Jersey is just an honest, real place. The people that come out of there are fighting for what they want to do. I don’t think anyone makes it easy for people from New Jersey. People roll their eyes at us immediately, and put us at a deficit when they hear we’re from New Jersey. It makes sense that so much good punk rock comes out of here — if you’re a kid from New Jersey and want to say something about art, you better go all in.

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To me, New Jersey has the most honest people. I’m taking my show to The Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve worked on the show for years now in New York, Brooklyn, and L.A. Yet, I wanted to do the last show before in New Jersey [at The Saint in Asbury Park]. I know that if there are any parts of this that are B.S. people in New Jersey are going to let me know. It’s a comedy show, but it has some heavy stuff. I don’t want it to be like I’m getting up on a soapbox, or be an after school special. I want it to be funny first, and if there’s anything honest or raw that comes it from, that’s great. I know the Jersey crowd will be the first to let me know to stop preaching to them, to make them laugh. You have to earn the right to cut a little deeper.

I know your show “Career Suicide” discusses some rather serious topics, so let’s lighten the mood a bit before we jump in. What’s the most annoying/obnoxious New Jersey stereotype?

The big one that makes no sense is the accent. When people say “Joisey” that makes no sense [because] that was a Saturday Night Live sketch. Our accent is sort of terrible, but it’s not like that. Our real accent is horrible, and terrible and we can’t pronounce T’s in the middle of words like Trenton. It sounds like “Trenon.” Another thing that drives me nuts is that I’m from West Orange. When I say West “Ahr-ange” people say, “Oh don’t you mean West “Or-nge.” No, I grew up there, I know how to pronounce it. That’s like when you say Newark (Nework) and people say, “Oh don’t you mean ‘New-ark’?” No, I don’t.

The cliche thing is that most people fly into Newark Airport and head straight to New York and that’s the only thing they know about New Jersey. Admittedly that car ride/train ride through the Meadowlands can be nightmarish. When I was at Rutgers I took the Northeast Corridor line from Penn Station to New Brunswick, and the Meadowlands was literally on fire.  I get it that if all you’ve seen of New Jersey is a flaming Dante’s Inferno hell pit that’s what you think all of [the state] is, and I get that. We should clean up those stretches, but that being said, people can make fun of it all they want.

Moving onto to your show, which you’ll be performing at The Fringe, and this Tuesday at The Saint. You’ve mentioned there’s a lot of heavy material here drawn for your personal experience. How hard is it to both write this material, and then get on stage to perform it?

It’s definitely hard. It’s really difficult. This was the hardest thing I’ve ever wrote. And no hyperbole, and I’m not putting out a sob story, but depression was an active part of my life for many years. There were some long stretches where it got really dangerous, and really troublesome. I started telling stories on stage not convinced they’d be funny. I told my friend Mike Birbiglia some of the stories. They weren’t told to be funny, he was just asking what depression was like. He said I should talk about it on stage because he thought I could make it funny. I didn’t totally buy it, but I got onstage, and started telling these stories that were way more honest than I’m used to being — and they got laughs. It wasn’t easy. I worked on them for a real long time and then I got them to a point where I’d get consistent laughs.

But, early on I’d get off stage the first dozen to 20 times I did the show, and I’d be shaky coming off stage. I’d have to go off in a corner, and sit by myself. I didn’t love admitting the things that I was admitting to onstage. There were a lot of things I didn’t even tell my family that I was telling rooms with 80-100 people in. It was terrifying, and definitely left me shaking at times. It can still be daunting to go onstage, and talk about things most people don’t talk about publicly. I’ve had a lot of people tell me it was a funny show, and some people who said it helped them out. That means a lot to me, and it’s worth doing.

Is there stuff that you’ve held back from talking about? Going off that, were there stories you didn’t want to share, but were inspired to do so after some of your material got a positive audience reaction?

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Yeah! There are certain stretches where I hold back, and I cop to it. I’ve been advised from my shrink that I don’t have to tell everyone everything. Outside of that I’m pretty honest. There’s a lot of times when I go on stage and I expect something to be met with silence or judgement. When they get laughs it’s an empowering thing. It’s the audience saying, “Oh dude, we get it. We’ve been there too.” It’s being told I’m not alone. Usually you want the whole room laughing, but there’s been times I’ve told stories where three or four people have laughed. That’s been the most encouraging. Those three or four people have dealt with something similar, and that means everything. If I can take this experience that me and those couple people have had and somehow make it universal — then we’re onto something. That got me going. Every time it worked it allowed me to cut a little deeper, go a little darker. Let’s see what we can get people to identify with, and unite with me through laughter.

Most comedians have fans. Some are “diehard fans.” To me, you don’t have fans, you have this community behind you. Seth Meyers even joked that you have a “cult.” Do you think these are true statements?

Definitely more of a communal thing. Not many people know my work;  I’m still an underground guy. Most of the people who do know me are from The Chris Gethard Show on public access. They know that [the show] was born out of frustration, and failure at things comedians are supposed to do like real TV. So, I think they see me as one of their guys. My New Jersey background goes a long way here too. That’s how people from New Jersey treat the artists they love. When I find someone doing the right thing, or the way I would do it — that’s someone I want to support till then end of the earth.

As far as “the cult” goes, I think it comes [from the fact that people] know I want to be a normal person way more than a celebrity. I’m going onstage, and I’m going to do comedy. But, I don’t identify with Hollywood. I idenity with something different. I think when we get big names on The Gethard Show like Jon Hamm or Will Ferrell people view me as their representative, and those celebrities are coming into our world. We aren’t bowing down to them, but they’re playing ball with us, and I’m one of the regular guys. And maybe I help these celebrities enter a world that’s more for regular or working class people. I’m really proud of that.

The Chris Gethard Show has gained considerable popularity in recent years, and you’re definitely becoming more a known performer in the comedy world, in my opinion. Is Hollywood knocking at the door? 

There’s definitely been people sniffing around, and that happens every few years. I will say a couple of things. One, I think what’s been good about having to do it my own way and scrap so hard, is that it’s become part of the deal. People now know it’ll be on my terms. Integrity is very important to me, and that’s very public. I think if people who want to work with me know that a big piece of that puzzle is that I bring my integrity to the table. That defines everything.

I’m glad, because there were so many years that I was stressed out, wondering if I could pay my rent. I kept feeling like I was self-sabotaging because I was doing it my own way. But now it’s earned me the right to do it my way, and I have that integrity which people appreciate.

I can say very honestly that if someone came along and gave me a big bag of money, and that meant I couldn’t do The Chris Gethard Show anymore, I’d turn it down. I’m happy. I’m not a rich man, but I’m not poor anymore. I’m pretty content going down the middle. I work with all my friends. I book all these bands I love. I get to do the type of comedy I don’t think anyone else is doing. I don’t think there’s an amount of money that would make me walk away from that. I’m proud of what I do. If anyone wants to call my buff and give me a bunch of money, I’m going to continue doing what I love over what makes money all the time.

And if those two worlds should come together, I won’t complain. If I get to be a big ticket act, and get to do things my way, I wouldn’t be mad about that, nor would anyone who’s followed me.

You’re happy with the way things are going with your career, and your show — so why go to The Fringe in Scotland for 26 nights in August?

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It’s a really big challenge — which is the main thing. I’ve always heard it’s extremely hard. For me, the better I do the more I want to put myself in a deficit. I have no desire for things to come easy. I want to fight for it. The Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world. There’s thousands of acts there, and it’s really hard to sell tickets. If you don’t hustle, grind it out, put on a good show, and get lucky you’ll be performing in front of five people every night. To me that feels like such a huge challenge, and I like to take on those challenges. I like when it feels like failure is likely. I want to walk in and see if I can either buck that expectation, or go down swinging. It’s also the best way to make my show get better. I’m doing good on the East Coast of America right now, and it’s getting a little easy. Good, I’ve earned it — now let’s go do something hard.

How fun is it to be able bring your love of music, comedy, and wrestling into your own show?

It’s awesome. Each individual episode of The Chris Gerhard Show can be weird, I’ll be the first to admit that. But if you take a step back, and look at it as a whole — we’re outsiders in the comedy world, and we’re making this thing that represents an outsider’s voice. I’m proud of that. One of the things I’m most proud of is we got The Ergs back together. I’ve met all of those guys, and I’m really good friends with Mikey. I sent them an e-mail, and told them we were a couple years too late starting this show, and I knew everyone was bugging them. But, I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t ask. The Ergs should’ve been on TV back in the day, and The Chris Gerhard Show is the show for The Ergs. It took a couple of years, but it happened.

I’m proud that some people, whose first time on TV was on our show. We’ve got a guy who writes for Key & Peele now, there’s a guy writing for Seth Meyers. Even bands — there’s band’s who’ve been on big TV shows. The So So Glo’s were on Letterman, and when you hear their intro it says, “Making their network TV debut.” I heard that they were going say “making their TV debut,” but the So So Glo’s told Letterman’s people they were on The Chris Gerhard Show on public access. They showed us that love, and respect.

The fact I got to go into a wrestling ring — wish fulfillment. The fact I got to have John Starks on, and he taught me how to dunk a basketball. It’s like wish fulfillment of the show I wanted to watch when I was a kid. When I was growing up in West Orange I had a cool older brother who knew about The Ramones, and WFMU, and we used to watched ECW wrestling — and I get to make a show from the perspective of that kid. That kid was a little lonely, and terrified at times. He didn’t know where he fit in the world, and now I make the show from that perspective. Maybe there’s some other kids like me, watching too much TV in their basement, or listening to music that isn’t very popular…and now they maybe have a show just for them. I’m really happy about that.

Chris Gethard performs at The Saint in Asbury Park on Tuesday July 19 along with Will Miles, and Anna Drezen. Click here for tickets.

Bill Bodkin is the Owner, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He is beyond excited that Pop-Break will be seven years old in 2016 as this site has come a long, long way from the day he launched in it in his bachelor pad at the Jersey Shore. He currently works as a project manager in the telecom world, and is a freelance writer for NJ.com. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites