Chris Gethard Podcast Interview (with full text) by Kurt Morris
The Chris Gethard Show is unlike any other talk show on TV. It has an ethos of being okay with failure, which is good considering how bizarre and chaotic it is. Sometimes you’ll find Will Ferrell being escorted out of the studio after professing his undying love for a newly married woman (for whose wedding he served as the best man). Or you’ll see Jason Sudeikis eating a chimichanga over a bag of dog shit with a studio audience comprised entirely of dogs. Other times, the cast of the show will tape an entire episode after having been awake for thirty-six hours. All throughout it retains a very DIY, community aspect with fans calling in via Skype or the phone as well as leaving comments on the website, with Gethard and cast responding in real time. And while most episodes are capped with a musical guest, you’re much more likely to see a band like Shellshag or Lemuria than anything else.
Host Chris Gethard started his program at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater as a live show and moved it to cable access in 2011. In 2015 it switched to the Fusion network. In addition to being the host, Gethard is also a comedian, podcaster (Beautiful/Anonymous), and actor. And seeing the type of bands on the show, it seemed highly likely he was a fan of DIY punk. After an extended run of “Career Suicide,” his off-Broadway one man show about mental illness, he had time on his hands to chat with me over the phone from New York City about his experiences in punk and with depression.
Interview by Kurt Morris
Kurt: Having watched your show, I get the impression you’re a big fan of The Ergs!. Is that correct?
Chris: Yeah, that’s very fair to say. For sure.
Kurt: Has anyone ever told you that you look like Mikey Erg?
Chris: I’ve gotten this a lot. Mikey and I are good pals. He plays drums in the house band of my TV show. I think he and I both agree that our friendship makes a lot of sense. Thematically, we identify with each other a lot. One of the great honors of my life is, when one of the members of Screaming Females tweeted at me from their account: “You are the fourth Erg.” That was really high praise and I wrote back and asked, “What do you mean?” They said, “You have glasses and you went to Rutgers. That’s pretty much all it takes.”
Kurt: Wow. Who knew it was that easy?
Chris: They were like, “You lived on Hamilton Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and you look like Mikey. That’s the joke, man, don’t overthink it.”
Mikey Erg on the first episode of The Chris Gethard Show
Kurt: Whenever I talk to people about their experiences with punk, one thing I always want to know is: who was the person that got you into punk rock?
Chris: It was really my older brother and his gang of friends. In particular, he had a buddy named Mike D who ran a fanzine in North Jersey and organized a bunch of shows. I’m lucky my brother always had really good taste. He has great taste in comedy and music. He always knew what was good. We grew up in North Jersey in West Orange. WFMU is based out of East Orange and they were an amazing thing to discover. My brother was listening to WFMU when he was in sixth grade.
Mike—who is one of my brother’s best friends, who’s also one of my best friends to this day—he organized a show in a church basement in our town and I went. I was in eighth grade and I’d never been to a concert in my life. It was three local bands—real small-scale stuff. I remember going. I was tiny. I was an eighth-grade kid and a late-bloomer. I was a little guy. I remember going up to the guitarist from one of the bands after the show and saying, “I want to do this. I want to be you when I grow up.” He was like, “I’m four years older than you.” It was such an eye-opening moment. That’s one of the things that everyone says about punk. It’s that realization that you can just go do it. There’s the infamous legend of The Ramones telling The Clash that you don’t even have to learn how to play your instrument. Just go make a band. I had that moment. My first-ever experience seeing live music was seeing kids a few years older than me putting on a concert and everybody flipping out. That really did it.
Kurt: Do you remember the names of the bands you saw that night?
Chris: Yeah. The Missing Children—I bought their seven inch that night. One of the members, Frank, he went on to be in the Degenerates, which is a pretty well-known New Jersey band. This band called One Nature—they were from Bound Brook, New Jersey. I bought their double seven inch. They had a real melodic hardcore thing. I’ve mentioned this concert on my show and in interviews and the guy from One Nature reached out and I was oddly starstruck. “The dude from One Nature!” It’s like, wait, they’re a band from New Jersey in the ‘90s. There was another band called Felix Frump. If you were going to shows in New Jersey in the ‘90s, you definitely saw them. They played so many shows. I bought their tape and a T-shirt. Looking back on it, they pretty much sounded like the Descendents. I didn’t even know who the Descendents were. That was the first punk rock I was hearing. Just seven inches and cassettes from local bands.
Felix Frump at Mike D’s 18th birthday part. At 9:40 you can see a very young Chris Gethard in front.
So my friends were putting on shows and putting out fanzines. There was a guy from my high school gang that worked at Kinko’s. He would load up gift cards and we’d be making zines off of stolen gift cards from Kinko’s. From a very young age I was around it and it was cool. Then my buddy Mike D, his younger brother—and I feel like this is a real accomplishment—my friend Fran, he had every single seven inch that Mutant Pop (Records) put out, which is kind of impossible. It tells you the people I was coming up around in high school.
Kurt: Did you ever do a fanzine?
Chris: I did. I did two issues. The third one crapped out. My senior year in high school I put out two issues of this fanzine called No Sign of Charlie. It was only a handful of issues that would get handed around locally. But I remember having this realization that I didn’t know how to play guitar, I didn’t know how to play drums, but I could make things. The music reviews in it were like, “This thing is pretty good.” But all I was focused on was making jokes and trying to write funny articles. And that’s what people responded to. People in the scene were like, “This is not the most well-made thing I’ve ever read, but it’s fucking funny for a kid to be making this.” It was one of my early times of like, “Well, maybe comedy is my version of this ‘thing.’”
Kurt: So you never played an instrument or were in a band?
Chris: I played cello when I was a kid in school. Then I tried to pick up bass because I know how to read music in bass clef. When I was a sophomore in high school, me and my friend Carson formed a band. We had one song. We had a cool name: Ground Zero 1945. We practiced twice in his basement and that was it. That’s the extent of my being in bands. One song, two practices. I don’t remember anything about the song except the first line was, “Right way down a wrong way street.” How sad is that?
I had friends who had a band in high school and they used to play together. I started an improvised band that would sometimes play first at these shows they’d put on in garages. But that I wouldn’t even call a band so much as an excuse for my friends to bang on instruments while I said crazy shit. Looking back, it was an early improvised comedic attempt at something. I was piggy-backing off the freedom of the punk scene around me.
Chris Gethard on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Kurt: What kind of improvised shit were you saying?
Chris: Mostly it was writing songs about other kids we went to school with who I knew would be at the show. I had a friend named Pat and then all the sudden he was like, “No, call me Charles. It’s my middle name.” But he would never explain if Patrick was his middle name or Charles was his middle name. So I remember I wrote a song called “Hey Patrick Cobb, what is your name?” Just things like that. I knew my audience. In high school there were two bands, they played together all the time, and it wasn’t like they were inviting other bands. This is real small-scale stuff. We’d go in my buddy’s basement or my other buddy’s garage and they’d put on a show. There’d be twenty-five kids from my high school so I knew if I really focused in on the twenty-five people at the show and write songs about them they’ll probably pay attention. It’s probably fair to say that was my earliest attempt at crowdwork.
Kurt: Yeah, that’s a good point. What kind of music were you listening to at that time?
Chris: I was listening to a lot of pop punk. Being a white guy who grew up in the suburbs not too far from New York and who was born in 1980, I also listened to a lot of hip hop. I listened to a lot of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. One of the bands that really hit hard for me in those early days was Weston. They played locally a ton. We all really loved Weston. It’s funny, we had Beach Slang play my TV show last year and it was exciting because Beach Slang has a lot of “buzz,” as they say, and then they showed up. I said hi to James and said, “I’m the biggest Weston fan in the world.” I was geeking out about Weston to the point where I could kind of feel him looking at me like, “Aren’t you going to say anything about Beach Slang?” I really love Beach Slang, too, and I eventually got around to that but it was really important to me to talk about Weston a lot.
I got really into J Church when I was young. I had a buddy who said, “I think you’d dig them.” I still love J Church a lot to this day. MTX, Love Is Dead, was a huge album to me. We all loved Screeching Weasel and that Minor Threat discography.
I’ll never forget my friend Nick—who was part of the gang I mentioned who put on shows—he had an outdoor afternoon show in his parents’ backyard. It was a barbeque show. It was five bucks or four bucks if you bring an item of food. It was a potluck barbeque with two local bands: Thirsty and The Lavalinas. Then there was one band on the bill and we were like, “Who is that?” The guys who organized the show said it was a touring band that was passing through the area and needed a show. They were from Florida. So in 1994 I saw Less Than Jake play a backyard barbeque for maybe thirty-five kids. It was before they even put out Pezcore and I went all in. We all were there. We were like, “What the fuck just happened?” We saw Less Than Jake play a backyard barbeque in New Jersey a year before they really had that first wave of momentum. I really loved them all through high school. I think a lot of high school kids have that story of loving Less Than Jake but I’m pretty proud that I can say I love them because I saw them in that environment and bought a cassette tape off of them.
This is how young I was—and I just thought of this as we’re talking—I’ve always had a real phobia of getting shots. But I was so young when I saw Less Than Jake that I remember listening to their tape while getting shots at my pediatrician. I hadn’t stopped seeing my pediatrician. I was that young. I was still seeing a kid’s doctor—Doctor Small up on Pleasant Valley Way.
Kurt: [laughs] That’s a nice plug for him.
Chris: I was blasting music with my eyes closed just to get through the shots. I was listening to a Less Than Jake tape. I was a kid.
Kurt: You were allowed to listen music while you were getting your shots at the doctor’s office?
Chris: I was such a baby about getting shots that anything that would work, they let me do. Of course the band I’m most obsessed with in my life is The Smiths. I found out about them through the punk scene, too. Maybe it’s a little less so now, but when I was a kid—at least where I was from—in the punk scene there was a real reverence for the Smiths. I think everybody knew they were sort of a punk band, but sort of not. Musically they were not, but attitude maybe. J Church had a seven inch where they covered “Girlfriend in a Coma” and this local band, The Lavalinas, they always covered “Ask,” and then I saw H2O, they covered “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” So I kept hearing all these covers and people would say these covers were by this band called The Smiths. I’d vaguely heard of The Smiths. Eventually I was like, “All these songs really stand out to me.” No offense to The Lavalinas from Little Falls, New Jersey, but “Ask” is maybe setting a little bit of a higher bar than the rest of their material. And then I went all in on The Smiths. I don’t know if you get this impression, but for people younger than me, The Smiths have become progressively more of a nostalgia band and less of something that matters to the punk kids as much as they used to.
Kurt: Could be.
Chris: I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a salty old man.
Kurt: I see what you’re saying.
Chris Gethard & Friends as The Smiths at Fest 14
Chris: I remember, too, that there weren’t so many shows in Jersey so you’d see a pop punk band, a hardcore band, and a ska band all on the same bill, which was pretty cool. But then to see bands from all these different genres were covering this one band, The Smiths, it was like, “Who is this one band that everyone seems to like?” It didn’t seem to matter what corner of the world you were in. It was a universal thing.
Kurt: Yeah, they’re amazing. It’s interesting how even hardcore bands cover them. Everyone seems to have this respect for them. It’s interesting, too, how Morrissey has a big following in the Latino community. It’s this whole other thing how all these Latinos in L.A. are really into Morrissey and The Smiths.
Chris: Yeah. I briefly lived in Los Angeles and the first time I saw Morrissey was in 2004. It was right when You Are the Quarry had just come out. I saw him in L.A. I showed up and was like, “These are some tough fucking dudes with Morrissey haircuts.” Eighty-five percent of the crowd were Mexican dudes from L.A. who have Morrissey haircuts but who otherwise seem like real tough kids. It was pretty cool. I remember even in Jersey that my buddies went and saw Morrissey—I didn’t go for some reason but they went and saw him—and said it was a skinhead riot at the show. Like skinheads are really into Morrissey, too. There’s a weird thing with The Smiths where the music has a reputation for being very complain-y but the lyrics are actually super fucking tough when you listen to them. I think there’s a real thinkpiece that’s ready to be written in 2017 about how Morrissey might’ve been one of the first people to really say, “Gender is bullshit and I’m feminine but that doesn’t mean I can’t—” I mean he has lyrics about “I’ll kick you in the eye” or “I want to break your teeth.” They have lyrics like, “If they dare touch a hair on your head I’ll fight to the last breath.” That was right in their first single, just this anger and toughness. I think a lot of people who only know The Smiths on reputation may be surprised at the actual content of their lyrics.
Kurt: You have a couple Smiths tattoos, don’t you?
Chris: Yeah, Morrissey signed my shoulder and I got that tattooed. In the summer of 2012 I fell off the wagon and did a shitload of MDMA and it really fucked my life up. In the middle of that stretch I got on my right bicep, “It takes strength to be gentle and kind.” It’s a lyric from “I Know It’s Over.” I don’t regret it, but I kind of wish it wasn’t on the same arm. I wish I didn’t have a Morrissey arm. Maybe I could’ve spread it out a little bit. Outside of that, no regrets.
Kurt: Do you have other tattoos?
Chris: I have the words “Lose Well” on my shoulder. It’s kind of a catchphrase that sprung up from my TV show at some point. It’s this idea that at a certain point, if you’re a loser you’ve got to own that. It’s pretty okay to strike out in life. Just get good at it and hold your head up high. If you’re a loser, that’s what you are and be cool with it. There’s a bunch of fans of the show who have that phrase tattooed on them and that means a lot to me. I have it in solidarity with them.
Kurt: Mentioning your show—are you the one who picks the bands that play on it?
Chris: Well, we have bookers now, but in the early days I was booking them. A lot of it was just asking friends. You’ll see a lot of pop punk bands and Jersey bands on the early days of my show, but you’ll also see a lot of these weird bands. I have this philosophy that I want the show to be kind of open source—people could actually access it. You could call in and you could make your own jokes, you could tell me if the show wasn’t going well. I could take it. I had this philosophy that even with bands maybe we’ll have a bit of an open door policy and let people pitch themselves.
So I was getting emails and pretty much any band that reaches out I was putting on. One of the members of my house band grabbed me one day and was like, “Dude, some of these bands are very nice kids but their second show cannot be on your TV show with your name on it.” I thought he was right with that. I brought in some bookers. My friend Zane, who played on the show in a couple of bands—he was in these two different, weird, high concept art bands. Then he played a third time. He had a concept album where he wrote a rap album from the perspective of a small boy. And finally I asked him if he wanted to book the bands on the show since he was already in a large percentage of the bands playing it. He brought in my friends Heidi and Kiri. When you watch my show there tends to be stuff that’s a little more avant-garde and that’s Zane. The stuff that’s more punk or pop or hip hop is Heidi and Kiri.
Kurt: Do you still weigh in and say, “I want this band!”?
Chris: I do. Public access was just this rolling thing where it was like, “Just bring in whoever.” I got thrown some suggestions and we had a big list. We were up every single Wednesday night and we don’t take any weeks off, so we had to just crank it out. Now we get ten episodes a season, so generally I’ll sit down with them and I’ll go, “I want to make this happen.” Out of the ten weeks there’s maybe two or three weeks where I say, “I really think we can make this thing happen.” The rest of it they make a big spreadsheet and a lot of the bands they put on it I’ve heard of and then the ones I haven’t, they give me links and give me a chance to say, “I think this fits the vision of the show or some of the overall things this season is trying to accomplish.”
Kurt: How are you hearing about new bands nowadays? Are people turning you on to them or are you finding out about bands by going to shows?
Chris: I do go to shows but not as often as I used to. I still make it out. Particularly in New York, Shea Stadium is a place I know is pretty reliably a good gang of people. If I have a night that I’m free and I’m bored and they have a show, sometimes I’ll pop in because I know it’ll be good stuff. Really, most of the music I’m exposed to now is because I’m extremely lucky I’m married to a lady (Hallie Bulleit) who has impeccable taste in music. She has a high amount of knowledge on it. She plays on my show and is in Hiccups. A lot of people probably know her from The Unlovables. She is a super cool person who has great taste.
Sometimes I get addicted to—there was a stretch where if it came out on Dirtnap I was getting it. Sometimes I’ll go through modes like that. There’s a certain pipeline of stuff that’s reliable and I try and support. Also, with our show, a lot of the bands that play are in the circuit that tends to play The Fest in Gainesville. That’s a big gathering point. As my show became a hub for a lot of The Fest bands to stop in and play on their way through New York, we started hearing from more of them. A lot of times they’d say “We’re playing Fest” and that was their way to let us know they were credible and that was a good sign for me to download their shit because it might be in my wheelhouse.
Kurt: One of the things I’ve noticed in the past few seasons of your show is that you’ll have these well-known comedians and then you have these bands who, for most people, would be really obscure. What’s the reaction of Will Ferrell or Seth Meyers to seeing these rather unknown bands playing? Do they ever have any comments on that?
The Chris Gethard Show – Speed Weddings with Will Ferrell
Chris: I’m actually really glad you noticed that. That’s been a real point of pride for me. The show was extremely underground on public access and then it becomes a job and a network is giving you money so you have to step up and get eyes on it. Celebrities are a big way to get eyes. I was very insistent that the bands remain. I don’t know how a lot of TV shows work, but my assumption is that there are publicists and A&R reps pitching, then a booker who looks into it, and they probably have a whole system in place. But it’s a system.
And, historically, the bands I’ve always loved and the mentality I’ve always loved has been outright against that. As my show has become more money-driven and more corporate just by the nature of it becoming a job—some big bands on a major label that might want to play our show, that’s cool. That’s nice. But it’s a platform that’s not going to do much for them. It could do a lot for us if we get eyes on the show. But I know I’m in a position where some of the bands I put on—it could do something for them. People who don’t know them might see them and that’s very cool. I remember a band from New York called Bad Credit No Credit. My show is so weird that bands would show up and I’d be like, “Thanks for doing this. I know it’s kind of a strange thing.” And Carrie-Anne, the lead singer of Bad Credit No Credit, interrupted me and said, “Dude, this is the TV show we get to play. You don’t have to apologize for it.” And I thought that was rad.
Sorry for the rambly preamble, but to answer your question, to be honest, a lot of time we will have celebrities do some crazy shit and they will want to go decompress in the green room. But there have been a bunch of people who have stepped up. John Hodgman was on an episode. We had the Pitch Black Brass Band on. It’s a brass band, hip hop outfit. They now have linked up and they play all his shows. I see them constantly tweeting at each other. There have been a handful of times when you see the celebrity hang out and watch what’s going on.
It always reminds me that the people I’ve befriended in the comedy scene over the years. It’s nice that a lot of them have gotten famous, but then with some of them it’s like, “I came up in the trenches doing weird shows in basements and bars to ten people,” and they still have that inside of them. If I remember right, Ellie Kempter, who is from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, was on the episode where we had War On Women. And she watched them and her face went like, “Holy shit, what is going on?” I remember Pete Holmes hung around and was dancing on the episode he was on. It’s always cool to see. I’m not arrogant—our show is very weird and it’s not for everybody. But one thing I will say is that I would put our music booking up against anybody. There are people who probably get bands that have sold a lot more records—bands that have sold out arenas and festivals and that’s great for them—but as far as relevant shit that matters on the ground, I think our show can stand up to anybody’s booking.
Kurt: There are some great guests on it. I loved seeing Screaming Females and you were really into when Underground Railroad To Candyland was on. You looked really excited.
Underground Railroad To Candyland on The Chris Gethard Show
Chris: Yeah, well, when my wife and I got together, she was like, “This will be your band.” And I started listening to them and Toys That Kill and it was a no-brainer. I saw them when they came through New York and people flipped out and were wearing crazy outfits. It seems, mentality wise—and I can’t speak for what’s in Todd’s (Congelliere) brain—maybe some of the impulses on what’s driving his thing is what’s driving our TV show.
That episode they were on—thank god for them—our network wanted us to do a special from San Diego Comic-con. I said, “That sounds great. But we’re in the middle of our season. We’re really low budget. I don’t know how we’re going to organize a show in San Diego. We’re already running right at the end of our ropes. I’ve got producers sleeping overnight in the office. No one is getting paid what they should.” But the network said they would handle it all. They were going to bring in a crew and all the ticket requests would go through them. They told us all we had to do was show up and be funny. We said, “Great!” They said they put tickets on sale and four hundred requests came in within a couple of hours. And we thought that was great. Our fans stepped up.
We show up and there’s no people. There’s nobody in the room. And we were like, “What is going on? You said you had four hundred ticket requests.” They said, “Yeah, we don’t know.” And I thought, “We should’ve handled this ourselves.” Also, the website said it had been sold out for weeks and I’m getting tweets form people saying they’ve been huge fans for years and it sucks they can’t come. I’m tweeting back ten minutes before the show, “Please come. There’s no one here.” It was really weird, but I tell you what—about halfway through the show the members of Underground Railroad To Candyland realized, “Oh, this is a show where nothing matters and it’s not even going that well.” And I’ll never forget that we had some bit involving throwing VHS tapes through a basketball hoop and one of the guys from Underground Railroad just picked up a VHS tape and flung it across the room and it smashed against the wall. Then the next thing I know, Shannon, who’s on the show, just picked up a microwave and smashed it on the ground, and I’m like, “Yes! Yes! Yes! This is everything I’ve wanted my TV show to be! It’s a disaster where it’s clearly been a failure for the first twenty minutes and then the way we try to handle that is by smashing apart our own set.” I think it was Chachi (from Underground Railroad To Candyland) who just went, “Fuck this!” and went nuts. He started smashing up the set.
The Chris Gethard Show – San Diego Comic-Con Special
Kurt: That’s awesome! The show has a very DIY aspect to it. That’s one thing I like about it. It still retains a punk aspect to it. Is that a conscious thing on your part?
Chris: It is, but I don’t think it comes off as we’re trying to force a DIY feel or co-opt it. We were on public access for over four years. To me, that’s the definition of DIY. We had a show where we had less than an hour to set up, soundcheck, check the lights, and get the set up and running. The whole set fit in the trunk of my car. I poured my own money into it. For years we just scrapped it out. We did an episode where halfway through the lights turned off because the studio was so fucked up. We had a week where we showed up and the guy who ran sound at the studio said, “We have a situation.” And I was like, “All right, here we go.” He said, “The mics are here. I know the mics are here because I can hear them on the sound board. But someone has misplaced them and we don’t know where they are.” We had to have an Easter egg hunt to find the microphones. It really was DIY.
Before public access, it was at the UCB Theater in New York. It was a cult phenomenon. You couldn’t get a ticket to that thing. Then we switched to public access and the comedy fans just bailed. They didn’t come with us. The first few episodes were pretty awkward and weren’t what they were used to. It was really grim. I was like, “I’ve made a big mistake. I went all in on this and put my name on it. I don’t want to go on auditions anymore. I don’t want to do pilot seasons. I want to do this.” And all of the sudden, nobody really liked it.
But then the fans who were coming out from Brooklyn were the ones telling us it was cool. I remember the So So Glos, when they played they were like, “This shit’s rad.” And I thought, “Okay.” We had Plow United play when they reunited and I remember one of them saying to me, “I wish this show existed when I was in high school.” And I thought, “Okay. Okay. People are getting what I’m going for here.” I think we had the DIY mentality. Our house band always involved people who were involved in the punk scene in New York for many years. Mikey Erg played our first episode. I think it’s clear I had a real admiration for the DIY scene from the start and was approaching our show in the same way. But then on top of that, the DIY bands were the ones that kept me going with kind words over the years before it really found an audience.
Kurt: That’s awesome. And it kind of leads into my next question, which is: how has punk changed your life?
Chris: That’s such a huge question. I got exposed to it so young that it felt like a skeleton key, if that makes sense. It was like, “Oh. I don’t have to do things a certain way.” I realized that when I was a kid. You’re little and you’re listening to a record and you wonder, “How does this even happen?” I’m thirteen years old and I’m at a punk show in a church basement and these kids have records and I see that’s how it can happen. You just decide it’s going to happen and you make it fucking happen. I think that to this day with my career, there’s things in my career where I decided, “I want that to happen” and I don’t quit on it until it happens. There’s gotta be a way. If there’s a thing I think should exist and has a right to exist, then I’m going to find a way to make it exist. To me, that just goes back to being thirteen years old and seeing kids putting out their own records. That was huge for me.
I’m also really lucky because the entertainment industry is very image conscious. There are certain festivals you want to get into. There are certain late night sets you need to play, and these are the things that are supposed to unlock your career. I think for a lot of people that really works, but I don’t think I was ever destined for that. I don’t think my sense of humor lends itself to those things. To always have it in my head as, “Why? Why does it only have to be that way?” I remember when I was a kid, I bought Another State of Mind, the documentary about Youth Brigade and Social Distortion. I remember they interviewed this guy and he said, “What if I don’t want a picket fence and two kids and a car in the driveway? What if I don’t want that? What is there for people like me?” I remember hearing that and thinking, “Right. If you abandon all the safe stuff, there might be something cooler on the other side.” And that was really big.
While I’ve done my part by putting bands on my show that I think are really doing cool stuff and have something to say—I think I have this reputation as a DIY comedian and that’s nice—but I do feel bad that I don’t label myself as DIY too much out of respect that a lot of the bands have to sacrifice a lot more than I do. Comedy has never had a culture where if you’re a sell-out, people react almost violently. I’m allowed to have my cake and eat it too. It’s something I feel bad about. I think I can be DIY and people can respect that. People who are involved with it can see the shared DNA but then I’m also allowed to go make money, which a lot of times DIY bands say, “We’re going to do this in a way that is going to cut us off from some financial opportunities and sacrifice big.”
And I don’t have to do that. I’m very happy to be associated with it and share some DNA with it, but I’m also aware that when I go out on the road as a comedian I don’t have to sleep on a punkhouse floor where I’m going to get scabies and bedbugs. I’m not going to drive all the way to the middle of Nebraska to do a show and then get there and realize the kid who said he was going to set up the show just didn’t do it. I never have to deal with that. So I also want to be on record and say I’m respectful of the fact that my version of this is easier than what the bands opt into. But I’m very happy it rubbed off on me because if there’s one thing I can say for myself it’s that I’m not the funniest comedian by any stretch and I’m far from the most successful comedian, but I do think I’m up there amongst the most honest. I also think I’ve behaved with a lot of integrity as far as the things I choose to do. And that all comes back to punk for me.
Kurt: I think you can see that, too, in your ethos—listening to that interview you did on Fresh Air last year when you were talking about getting mental health stuff out there. You use your platform for some good instead of just making money.
Chris: Yeah. One of the things about punk that I always loved is that they would very often say things that weren’t easy to say. Or even say things that other people weren’t going to like. I think back to when I was the fourteen-year-old boy with a chip on my shoulder and I liked the anarchy of that. “That’s fucking cool when people are mad.” But as I get older, sometimes musicians, especially from the world I love, they’re saying something that nobody else is saying that maybe needs to be said. I know this is very melodramatic, but it’s true; the Minor Threat lyric of, “You say that I make no difference, but at least I’m fucking trying. What the fuck have you done?” When you hear that as a kid you think, “Yeah, what the fuck have you done? Put up or shut up.”
Talking about the fact that I get depressed or that I’ve had some suicidal issues in my life is not easy. I don’t know of many comedians who are going all in on that. [laughs] In some sense, I think I’ve maybe sacrificed some momentum doing that. In another sense, I’m in a place where if I can talk about that and if it helps some kid in a way that gives them some help that wasn’t available to me when I was a kid, then I gotta do that. There’s no way around that. Put being a good person first. If you have a platform, use it for stuff that’s noble and good and worth putting out in the world. I don’t think that’s too pretentious to say.
I’m actually in a funny place now where I’m more secure than I’ve ever been. My career is more stable than it’s ever been and that’s nice, but it’s put this thought in my mind where I’m like, “I have more to lose now.” I still have to remind myself that I can’t be quiet and back away from the things that have got me here, which is kind of doing it my way and not necessarily caring what the consequences are. A lot of that comes back to music.
Kurt: How do you mean?
Chris: For example, my podcast, (Beautiful/Anonymous) has caught on with different kids. The Chris Gethard Show, those are all DIY kids, even if they don’t know it yet. Some of them straight-up are. I don’t think I’m more popular anywhere than I am on the campus of SUNY Purchase, which is the artsy DIY school, because those kids love me. But also, there are just some nerdy kids who love comedy and find it. Now they all listen to Jeff Rosenstock and Screaming Females because they saw them on my show. And I’m like, “You didn’t know it, but there’s this whole world out there that speaks to you.” Those kids get it.
But as my name gets out there more and as I do things like get interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, sometimes the people finding me now are not necessarily the people just like me in their background and mentality. It’s nice that there are more people now. It’s nice that I can go on the road and there are more people to buy tickets. There are also more people to piss off who might not buy a ticket if I say the wrong thing. But I have to remember that if I stifle what my gut tells me to say in the name of “What if that person doesn’t buy a ticket someday?” that’s just not how I came up or how I thought. I have to consciously remind myself that even though things are going better now, I still have to be who I’ve always been. I can’t get gun shy or scared about that.
Kurt: I think it’s great you’re speaking out on mental health. I’ve dealt with it; most of my friends and family members have too. I appreciate you being blunt about it. Also, I’ve met so many people in the punk scene who are depressed and anxious people.
Chris: Yeah. I think a lot of people in the music scene romanticize it. And in comedy, too. In comedy, there’s this whole thing about (John) Belushi, and Chris Farley, and Robin Williams were all so fucked up but they were so funny. And in music so many people who have been addicts or suicidal are legends. I think people have this mentality, still, of thinking that if they go take care of themselves then they won’t be as creative as they used to be. My personal opinion—and you’re allowed to think what you want—but I think that’s bullshit. I bought into that one for years and I regret it because when I first went on medications, I thought I wouldn’t be funny anymore. I thought I’d have to figure out a new life path but at least I’d be alive. But it turns out that I’m actually way more funny and organized and able to have a career now that I’m able to have my head on straight. That one really bums me out.
Kurt: I did the same thing for years. I thought I couldn’t be on medication because it would zap my manic phases where I’d be really productive.
Chris: But with the manic phases where you’re really productive you say, “Oh I just stayed up for twelve straight hours and I wrote fifty pages of shit!” And then you go to sleep for a few days, you come out of it, you read those fifty pages, and there’s like, maybe three paragraphs that actually make sense.
Kurt: Yep. Exactly.
Chris: “Most of this reads like the ramblings of the Unabomber.” Or it’d read like some Nostradamus-level rambling. Cool. Great. I’m glad I fell in love with that.
Kurt: No, that’s true. You’re totally right. When you were in college and going through tough times, were there certain bands that spoke to you and music that got you through those situations?
Chris: It’s funny because I actually know the answer to this one. First of all, The Smiths—
Kurt: Yeah, of course. I should say, besides The Smiths who got you through tough times?
Chris: Yeah. Let’s just assume we’re putting The Smiths on a loop. But I went through this very strange phase for a few years where I almost entirely stopped listening to new music. For a few years all I listened to was The Smiths, Things Fall Apart by The Roots, Love Is Dead by The Mr. T Experience, Nostalgic for Nothing by J Church, and the first Servotron album (No Room for Humans). And that was it. For two or three years, those are the albums I listened to. I just fell into this very bizarre phase where my head shut down on me. I just obsessed over things and those albums happened to be in that rotation of me obsessing over things.
Kurt: Why those albums? Did they speak to you in a particular way?
Chris: I think a lot of it was just that was the shit I was listening to my freshman year in college and that was when things first got really fucked up for me. Therefore it was almost this arrested development thing where I wasn’t going to move beyond that. But MTX’s Love Is Dead, that just makes sense. “When they’ve been doing it again I’ve got to thank you for not being one of them.” That’s a lyric that’ll speak to a depressed college kid.
The J Church album—I still have so much fondness and love for that album and that band. But that album in particular is the one I’ve loved the most. I think I also always loved Lance Hahn as a guy. He felt like a really honest dude. I loved that J Church was definitely respected but not quite beloved. I think a lot of people always looked at them as a less good Jawbreaker, maybe? And not as cool as Crimpshrine. I loved that they were the underdogs and that their songs maybe weren’t recorded the best and maybe they put out a little too much stuff. But I think I loved the idea of the underdog.
And then that first Servotron album is just so fucking weird. This is sad to say, but that Servotron album probably speaks more to where my head was at than any other album during my depression. It’s a concept album where robots sing about going to war with humanity. You wanna know where my head was from about 1998 to 2004? Listen to that first Servotron album and then consider that I was listening to that album in its entirety about eleven times a week. That’s where my head was.
Kurt: Wow. Yeah. Well, I appreciate you speaking out on a subject like mental health, which is really important to me. It’s good to see someone getting good messages out there as far as helping people.
Chris: Well thanks. I’m just trying to do my part before I get hit by a bus.