Chris Gethard Will Always Be a Loser (and That’s OK)
The comedian reflects on life after 'The Chris Gethard Show,' the surprise success of his call-in podcast, and his new book of life advice, 'Lose Well.'
Chris Gethard has been getting beaten up a lot lately, voluntarily. He’s been training in jiu-jitsu, which he readily admits is not the most suitable activity for a 38-year-old comedian with glasses and a pronounced joint condition. But it’s a hobby he leans on when his life is in transition.
He began hitting the mats in 2006, after finishing his first book, Weird New York, and not knowing what to do next. “I found that in the midst of all this career uncertainty, it’s very good to be able to put that aside,” says Gethard. “You can’t really worry about too much else when someone’s trying to choke you unconscious.”
Now that his underdog TV show, The Chris Gethard Show, has come to an end after seven years on the air across three different channels, he finds himself back in the gym more frequently, wrestling through the ambiguity. He’s been competing, and, in predictable Gethard fashion, recently placed third out of three. But viewing defeat as an opportunity for growth is Gethard’s guiding principle, and the inspiration for his new book, Lose Well.
“I think if you’re not striking out, you’re not growing,” he says. "I don’t think growth happens in the midst of success. I think growth happens through failure.”
These are the pearls of hard-earned wisdom peppered throughout Lose Well. It’s a self-help book for his fellow outcasts and self-identifying losers, filled with personal tales of missteps, humiliation, and depression, as well as advice culled from years of therapy sessions.
In addition to Lose Well, Gethard has also been keeping busy with his podcast, Beautiful/Anonymous, in which he has hour-long conversations with strangers who call in. He also hosts the companion podcast, Beautiful Follow-Ups, where he revisits some of the more popular episodes. We met up with Gethard at Earwolf Studios, where he records the shows, to discuss this transitional period of his life.
Noisey: How do you look back on The Chris Gethard Show now that you’ve had some time to reflect on it?
Chris Gethard: That’s a great question because I look back and I love it. I love what we did. I hope that doesn’t come across as arrogant. It’s really important that you note that I said we, and not I. I look back and I’m like, man, I met my wife through that show, my best friends and I got to do it, there were people who straight-up saw us on public access and walked in off the street and started moving wires and amps around the studio who wound up having a job for three years in TV production, and that can now get them further jobs. My friend, Jersey Dave, his job before the show was that he used to travel around the country, filming children’s dance competitions. He worked in TV on a show! That’s so funny to me. I got to meet a lot of my heroes—comedians I looked up to, musicians I looked up to. I got to have people on the show who, when I was a teenager, really influenced me. I had Atom and His Package on TV in 2017, I had Kool Keith on TV in 2017. Right down the list, The Ergs! reunited and played my show.
Obviously, The Gethard Show was not like a sitcom that got canceled. You built a community around it. What happens to that energy now that the show is done?
That’s a very astute question, and I’ll say: I don’t miss the show.
The work of it, you mean?
I don’t miss the work of it, and I don’t miss the stress of getting notes that—first of all, before I get into it, let me say: We were not easy to deal with as a show. It’s a very strange and confusing show. As the numbers went in the wrong direction, [TruTV] had every right to give us notes. There was a time when our numbers were holding steady, then we switched nights and we were no longer following their biggest show and the numbers plummeted. They had every right to give us notes. But those conversations became very tense and very combative, and that’s not where I am as a human being anymore. There was an era of my life where I would’ve knuckled up and duked it out and started screaming and yelling and cursing people off. That’s not where I’m at, and I didn’t want to turn into that person. I don’t miss that.
But also, I don’t miss the show on a more basic level. If you look at the age of public access, you can really get a glimpse of my psychology that is very dark compared to where I am now. It’s not a coincidence that my sense of humor back then involved episodes where an actual kickboxer beat the shit out of me or a dominatrix humiliated me on TV. It was really driven by a darkness and a stretch where I was not feeling good as a person. Creatively, I’m so proud of that, and it was a show where a lot of people with low self-esteem or anger issues or depression were like, “Oh, I can unwrap this and see where it’s coming from.” It’s just not where I’m at anymore.
One area where the show really shined was the musical guests. After you left public access, you stuck to that mentality of having local or lesser known bands. As you got on a network, were you getting offers from bigger artists who were willing to play the show but you felt they weren’t your vibe?
Absolutely. I think our music bookers ran into a real weird situation. When we started the show, it was just begging favors constantly. But their lives certainly got weird. They got pitches from bigger acts and bigger labels. Sometimes that felt like a good fit, sometimes there were bigger acts that said no. One case that I will not be bitter about because I understand it—a band who was very big in the indie scene, their publicist kept pushing to have them on the show. Our bookers were saying, “This doesn’t feel like a good idea.” I finally stepped in and said, “We have to show respect. This band is very influential.” And they are the only band who ever bailed on us day-of, and it was like, oh, right, this is why we deal with people who are on a smaller level that intrinsically understand what we’re trying to be in a community sense.
Even with the music, I started feeling bad because there were times when the episode would run long and the band would only be on for 30 seconds at the end. And the network hated that we had music on. There was some thing they all cite where there was this famous episode of Colbert where Paul McCartney played and the ratings dropped while he played. Now, apparently, the TV industry ever since then has said music doesn’t work on TV. If Paul McCartney can’t get the numbers to go up, who’s going to? And they’re right, but I’m not trying to get the numbers to spike. When we put a band like the So So Glos on, there might be a whole bunch of kids out there who Google them and find out about Shea Stadium and maybe they then look up the place in their town that’s akin to that where they have a place to go where they don’t have to feel like the weird, lonely freak in high school anymore, which is analogous to when my brother introduced me to punk rock as a kid.
If we put on someone like Jeff Rosenstock, and they realize he’s willing to play ball and be a weirdo on our terms—he played an episode where the whole episode was dogs and him and his guys dressed as dogs—maybe some kid will Google him. There’s a lot of kids who’ve discovered Jeff Rosenstock and Bomb the Music Industry! who’ve said that he changed their life. The idea that I might be able to hold up someone like that, or the equivalent in the comedy world, that was what was important to me.
I loved the way comedy and music intersected on the show, where you had these lesser known indie bands, paired with pretty big names in the comedy world. I still have a memory of you and I explaining Atom and His Package to a very dubious John Mulaney. Were there any other weird moments like that?
A lot of times, the celebrity guest would bail during the music, simply because it allowed them to get out of the building ahead of the crowd and not have to stay until 1:30 in the morning taking selfies, which I get. But Ellie Kemper stuck around and watched the music, and I’m 98 percent sure that the musical act that night was War on Women. Just watching Ellie’s face—she’s so fucking cool and so nice—but I don’t know that she’s a punk rocker. I remember watching War on Women do their thing and watching Ellie Kemper take it in and nodding.
You have a chapter on punk in your book where you talk about seeing your first local band in New Jersey. You bought their demo tape and asked, “Who let you do this?”
Yeah! Because I was 13 or 14 and it was like: You can’t have a tape. We used to make tapes—you had a Maxwell tape and you’d have to write on the side. These guys had inserts and the song titles were printed on the tape. That was so confusing and eye-opening to me. It’s funny, I’ve talked with the guy from that band. We’re Facebook friends now. I remember him saying, “It’s really cool to plant the seed on that.” And I was 13 at that show, and he told me he was 16. It’s that reminder that a 16-year-old kid with something to say can go make it happen. When I wrote that chapter, I was hoping I could write it in a way that captured my love for it. My wife, who as you know is a punk rocker herself, she was like, “You have successfully written about a punk show in a way that didn’t make me completely cringe.”
You write a bit in the intro of the book about the idea that people know you from many different things. It’s so funny how little those worlds intersect. It seems like parts of your career are so sectioned off.
Well, welcome to the most massive source of frustration I have now.
Do you try to combine them a lot?
It’s proven impossible. If I could’ve gotten the people who listen to Beautiful/Anonymous, and the people who watch The Gethard Show, and the people who liked Don’t Think Twice—Birbiglia’s movie—if I could’ve gotten them all into one place, I’d be enormously successful as a comedian.
You’d be Seinfeld.
Well, I’d probably be a lot closer to Hannibal [Buress] and Pete Holmes and maybe even John Mulaney, although he’s gotten much bigger in recent years. I just haven’t been able to figure it out.
I have a theory. I think one of the reasons people identify with what you do is that, because of this fractured career, you’re the poster child for the gig economy. Boomers have fucked up the economy so bad that people now don’t have traditional nine-to-five jobs that they work until they slide into their pension. They work three jobs and a have a podcast and maybe they drive for Uber and also they sell things on Etsy. Do you buy that?
Yeah, especially for those people who figured out who I was back in my early public access days in 2011. I sometimes look at my career as water that was heading in a certain direction and hit a wall, so it had to go both right and left at the same time. I’ve had to keep finding ways to keep it diversified and keep balls in the air. I’ve always been good at that. Like, we had the TV show going and I was working on A Bad Idea I’m About to Do the whole time, and then that was coming to completion and I was like, alright I’m gonna start talking to Joe [Steinhardt] from Don Giovanni about getting an album together. I always try to have the next thing planned out. Although, this stretch right now is the first the first time in ten years that I don’t have that, so it’s scary but also pretty exciting.
Everything you’ve done has been public. Is it hard to have your shortcomings out there for everyone to see? It seems like you’ve turned it around to have that aspect inspire people.
Yeah, and at times it has. Career Suicide, in particular, I don’t think I could have been more public about things people generally want to keep not public. It’s been really beautiful but you can also hear in my tone of voice that it’s been very hard. I do feel like I maybe gave away some ability to protect myself in the process, and that’s been hard.
In what way?
In two distinct ways. I don’t want to complain, because I’ve chased success. But the other day, I went to the gym, and when I turned my phone back on, there was a tweet that said, “Watching Chris Gethard go hard on an elliptical right now.” And that feels… the idea that I’ve made myself this person where everything’s public at all times has made people feel comfortable doing that. And especially since I’ve gotten married, I’m just not comfortable with people going, “Hey, I’m gonna tag this guy in the branch of Blink Fitness where he is right now.”
But the more complex and layered version is that Career Suicide came out in 2017, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that every day since it aired, I’ve had at least one person either stop me on the street or reach out to me through social media to tell me that they also have suffered from depression or suicidal thoughts or they’ve lost someone to it. It’s really beautiful and flattering, but it’s also overwhelming. There are times where I have to tell people who are desperate for advice that I’ve put it all out there and there’s no magic answer I haven’t said.
That’s very hard. Just on a basic human level, it’s a little weird to know that I’ve come to represent that it means a lot for people to tell me their stories. I hope I’m not sounding ungrateful, because it’s beautiful. But there’s times when I’m having a bad day or I’m struggling and it doesn’t always feel safe to pile on four other people’s stories about how hopeless the world is.
You’re the sin-eater.
A little bit, a little bit. I love a good sin-eater reference.
As your audience grows, certainly, you can’t be expected to be personally responsible for everyone who reaches out to you. Do you feel a weight of responsibility?
It’s a hard thing to answer. In one sense, yeah, because I put it out there. I made it. That’s on me. Like I said, 90 percent of the time, it’s such a positive thing and it makes me feel like, “Holy shit, the whole mission I had in mind was to make it so people were comfortable letting their guard down about this stuff and so people wouldn’t have to grin and bear it like I did for a solid 12, 13 years of my life before it became a crisis. But the other 10 percent is just really scary.
Very often now, if I see a Facebook message comes in that starts off with someone saying that they watched the special, I don’t even open it, because then they’ll see I opened it. It’s impossible to answer them all. It’d be a full-time job, time-wise, and emotionally, I’d be a trainwreck. I’m not any sort of counselor or therapist. I don’t really know what to say. That being said, I don’t always have a handle on my own shit and it’s not a matter of whether I feel responsibility or not, it’s that I just don’t have the actual emotional capacity or time in the day, and that makes me feel bad. There’s been a couple incidents where it’s gotten scary where a couple of people who were really troubled lashed out at me for not engaging. It’s made me wonder how much of a good thing it was to be that open. On the dark days, I don’t know.
It’s one of the downsides of being an accessible person.
If you talk to Hallie [Gethard’s wife], she’ll tell you: I very often tell her I want to get Lasik and grow a beard and cover identifiable tattoos and move to the woods.
Is that serious or a fantasy?
Even I don’t know. I’ll start saying that and she’ll just be like, “Bullshit. If you moved to the woods and weren’t creative and around other creative people, you would spontaneously combust.” But I am pretty tired, man. I shouldn’t even say this in case I move there, but I just found out about this community in upstate New York that was founded by a group of Jewish Communists in the 1920s and people there still live semi-Communist. That sounds so lovely, to live in the woods with a bunch of Communists. That seems like a very Gethard move to make.
At this point, you’ve talked to hundreds of people through Beautiful/Anonymous. Has that experience transformed you at all?
It really has, in a way that I never could have predicted. It was kind of a throwaway idea and then it instantly became the quickest success I ever had.
Why do you think that is? What do people latch onto?
Sadly enough, I think that the idea of someone actually slowing down and listening to another human being for an entire hour feels unique. And that, to me, is heartbreaking. In the early days, there were people who were interviewing me about it, being like, “This is such a revolutionary format!” And I’d have to stop them and go, “It’s a phone call. It’s actually the most outdated format.” For those of us old enough to remember when there was a phone on the wall, if someone called you, you’d have to sit in a chair and talk to them and focus just on that until it was over. It couldn’t be less innovative and unique. But in the modern world where we’re constantly distracted, I think it feels refreshing to people.
There’s a voyeuristic quality to it as well.
There is, and the exhibitionist side for the callers who like to show off sometimes. I think on a basic level too, people who like podcasts, they hear celebrities interview celebrities. It goes back to the punk thing. I remember in high school, 1994 was the first time I saw Less Than Jake in my friend’s backyard, and they kept getting bigger and bigger. And the fantasy for me is: They’ll see me singing along and maybe they’ll grab me and pull me on stage and I’ll get to sing. It’s the same thing. You’ve heard a million episodes of Marc Maron interviewing celebrities. Maybe you could be that person.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we spend so much of our time right now fighting theoretical enemies. Beautiful/Anonymous, I’ve come to realize, gives people a chance to actually hear who other people are—not where it’s someone who lives where I live who goes on Facebook and says, “All these conservative pricks need to stop launching tear gas at immigrants.” Or people who live in more conservative areas going, “Man, these heathens want to bend sexuality.” But if you actually talk to an individual, I think way more often than not, everyone has certain things in common which is: I’m just trying to keep my head on straight, feed my family, go to work, show some pride in my life, and be happy.
Social media strips humanity from people. Everybody is a—
A theoretical phantom! Other human beings become our boogie man now. It’s a really weird phenomenon.
You can have theoretical arguments with people entirely in your head.
Right, and you can put them on Facebook and people click Like and it feels like you actually did something. I’m certainly not saying I’m against activism or taking stands for things you believe in. I’d like to think I’m a progressive person. I really like to share any spotlight I get with people who aren’t exactly like me, but I don’t know that social media is doing any good in those fights.
I know you have a Smiths tattoo: “It takes courage to be gentle and kind.” I also know that Morrissey has been saying the worst things lately, which I’m sure is hard to stomach as a Smiths fan. Is that a position you worry about putting your fans in? I know a lot of people have LOSE WELL tattoos.
I hope it doesn’t go that way. I do think about letting people down. My friend Carmen’s been opening shows with me on the road. The very first show we did, somebody walked up to the table where I was signing books. She came up to the table, and then started crying, and then turned around and walked away. And Carmen was like, “What the fuck was that?” And I was like, “That happens sometimes, and I have to get used to that.”
But I think about that lady and I’m like, man, I don’t wanna let her down ever. So I try to be careful but I also try not to be fake. I think I’ve been honest and that’s why people like me. I’d like to think I’ll keep doing things the right way and pray that if it gets to a point where people don’t like my art anymore, that I don’t feel the need to gain attention through negativity. I don’t know if that’s what Morrissey’s doing, trying to stay in the spotlight. I’d rather disappear in the woods than go down that road.
That seems like a good place to stop.
Well, I also just want to say, final quote, bold-faced: Please buy my book, it’s not selling very well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.