SXSW 2013
Wednesday Night Live

Chris Gethard discusses his cult variety show and the idea of "funny plus"

Chris Gethard discusses his cult "funny plus" variety show

Austin photo: News_ryan_chris gethard interview_mar 2013_chris gethard
Austin photo: News_ryan_chris gethard show_mar 2013_tcgs
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Airing live every Wednesday night from the public-access Manhattan Neighborhood Network and streaming online, The Chris Gethard Show maintains a passionate following with fans from across the world. As a variety show featuring a chaotic blend of comedy bits, music and unique guests, TCGS reaches out to fans for inspiration and directly connects with them like few other shows can.

Gethard will bring his show for a special engagement at SXSW Comedy on March 12. CultureMap caught up with Gethard ahead of the show to shed some light on the show's background and its passionate fans.

CultureMap: What is the inspiration behind The Chris Gethard Show? Why continue this stage show to the airwaves?

Chris Gethard: Really, I just wanted to do something that I had control over and that represented my voice creatively. I work in a lot of areas of comedy and love them all, but I definitely have a portion of my brain that likes really going outside the box and trying stuff that's likely to fail. I think that leads to cool stuff a lot of the time, so The Chris Gethard Show became a home for all of those dumb ideas.

We were doing the show at UCB and had done a lot of stuff with it that went bigger than people thought it would. Namely, we convinced Diddy to come appear on the show. After that, it was hard for us to top ourselves and our fiercely loyal crowd was waning in enthusiasm afterwards, which is understandable. I knew I had to end or change the show.

Right around then I met up with a friend of mine who works at the public access station in Manhattan. He was telling me about their facilities, their Internet streaming, all the things we could do to make the show interactive, and it seemed both like a really bad idea and a no brainer.

CM: What is it about the show that made it such a cult hit?

CS: Well, I think we really make the show about the viewers. There aren't overwhelming amounts of people watching the show, but the ones who do watch it really care about it and we really care about them. It means a lot to all of us on the show, and to me personally, whenever anyone connects with it, and I think we do a good job to make people know it's a community. If you call the show week to week, we remember your past calls. We talk with you on our message board. It's a two-way experience.

I feel like, for as low-fi and as much of a mess as the show is, it's on to something in how it blends what television is traditionally with the interactivity that the Internet offers. Anyone can help write and edit and direct our show by partaking in the community that surrounds it online.

Also, I think people are just in the mood for something that's not polished. People seem to really love that our show is rough around the edges. We are limited in how nice we can make it look and sound and run, because we work out of the lawless land of public-access. But the fact that it's grimy and rough around the edges reminds people that there’re no barriers between us and them.   

CM: The fans really seem to drive the show. Tell me your favorite moments that were only possible thanks to fan participation.

CS: There have been so many moments! The fans of this show completely drive it. We just did an episode a few weeks back after a viewer suggested it on the show's message board. All of the writers read it and were like "That's as good as anything we've got, let's do it." We literally let a fan write the topic for one of our shows. It doesn't get more interactive than that.

We did an episode with a then 15-year-old fan of the show named Alyssa who called all the time and is just a sweet, shy, nervous kid who loves comedy. And she's so funny on Twitter and everyone at the show loves her, but she was so shy about talking to us and especially shy about talking to notable guests any time we had them on.

She came on the show and I called in favors and got cast members from SNL and 30 Rock to come by, Tina Fey sent a video and guys from College Humor came down. I wanted to do it not to show off to her that I know comedians on TV, but to show her "Hey, these are all just people and it's nice to respect them, but know you are just a person too and you don't have to be intimidated or in awe of anybody."

We have so many episodes that are all about the calls, too. Nothing makes me happier than when we get a phone call that's so good it forces us to throw out our game plan and redefine the show while it's happening live. It's the most exciting feeling I've ever had as a performer.

CM: Comedy appears central to the show, but what other experiences can the show offer to its viewers?

CS: Well, I have this idea that I don't think I've ever talked about with anyone ever, but it answers your question. So, I have committed in a lot of ways to this idea I call "funny plus." I always want TCGS to be funny, it's a comedy show. But I want it to be funny plus sad, funny plus scary, funny plus uncomfortable. I want the base line to be funny and I want each episode to layer another emotion or reaction on top of that.

We've done stuff that's totally absurd, like episodes where we time travel into the future via our public access studio, and we've done stuff that's totally emotional, like an episode entitled "Genuine Sadness" where we encouraged people to call in and talk honestly about things in their lives that were making them sad.

From our dumbest episodes, to the most heartfelt, I think we're trying to make the world of our show this space where people can feel comfortable being who they are and having a range of emotions, and know they're going to be able to laugh while all those feelings and emotions come to the surface via the show.

A lot of our fans seem to be people who are a little emotionally unstable, or who have depression, or who are young and confused people, and that makes me feel really good, like we're exploring some stuff that connects with people who can really use a laugh. At the end of the day, I feel like that's my job as a comedian — to make someone who's having a bad day laugh, and maybe that laugh will help them have a better day.

CM: With some high profile acting roles coming up this year, do you see acting as something you want to continue pursuing for the future, or is hosting your own show something you want to continue doing as long as possible? 

CS: Thus far, those two things haven't been mutually exclusive and I've been able to build both nicely. I love acting and am glad for every opportunity I've ever gotten. I really would love to keep putting the pressure on and try to make The Chris Gethard Show my job someday. At some point I'm sure I'll have to choose between them, and the sad fact is that TCGS never makes money, it only drains it, and realistically unless I can figure out how to change that I'll someday have to walk away from it if I want to be able to live and eat and pay rent.

But I am going to fight tooth and nail to make TCGS a self-supporting thing that can be the job of all the people who work so hard on it for free. That's a huge priority and goal of mine. If I can make that happen, I will happily make it my job. If I can't make it happen, I'm glad I've built some momentum as an actor that gives me confidence I can move to Los Angeles and make it there.

But I know that right now, I have to fight as hard as I can to get someone to invest money into TCGS — a cable network putting us on late night, an Internet platform investing in us to allow us to go bigger and better, whatever it is. I'm fighting hard and I know that if it all ends tomorrow I'll have no regrets about it. It's something really special and the community surrounding it is something I couldn't be prouder of.