Chris Gethard tiptoes into uncharted territoryDan Jakeson September 16, 2022 at 2:40 pm

Comedian, author, and volunteer ambulance driver Chris Gethard may be a fully Boylan-blooded New Jerseyan, but he’s not shy about the extent to which his improv and stand-up DNA has been imprinted by the comedy scene here in Chicago.

“Years ago, I was booked to host a stage at Lollapalooza,” remembers Gethard as we talk, ahead of his back-to-back stand-up and live podcast recording shows next month at The Hideout. “I stopped by The Annoyance to see what was on, and it was The Holy Fuck Comedy Hour. It was Conner O’Malley, John Reynolds, Carmen Christopher, Gary Richardson, Annie Donley,”most of whom went on to contribute to The Chris Gethard Show in one form or another after moving out to New York during the late-night variety show’s formidable run. “That Chicago influence was really heavy on my show. It’s one of my favorite cities to perform in.”

The storyteller and comic gained mainstream visibility with his critically-acclaimed 2016 solo show Career Suicide—a frank, funny, and challenging monologue that laid bare his lifelong relationship with mental health crises—and as a standout talking head in Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III’s hit 2020 documentary Class Action Park. But for those in the know, Gethard, now 42, has been a prominent fixture of the alt comedy scene and a Pied Piper of punky weirdos for nearly two decades. 

Chris GethardSat 10/8: Beautiful/Anonymous taping 7 PM, stand-up set 9 PM, the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433, hideoutchicago.com, $20 ($30 both shows)

Following a multiyear run at New York’s now-defunct Upright Citizens Brigade, The Chris Gethard Show became a rebellious, inventive, sometimes anarchic Wednesday night Manhattan public access television staple (eventually picked up for a multi-platform, multi-season cable hinterlands cult run) that featured call-in segments, musical guests, characters, games, sketches, and the sort of laidback, uninhibited, sometimes unhinged conversation that felt like an early hangout podcast or a midnight improv set. It served as a revolving door of upcoming talent and—just as importantly—a test-range comedy hub that made New York feel smaller and the improv nerd community feel bigger.

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“When I look at my work, and I look at the stuff people have responded to the most, if I’m being honest, I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling very alone, very much like I’m living in my own head,” says Gethard, “And I think a lot of the stuff that I’ve done has kind of appealed to other people who feel that same way.” Stuffed with more bodies than could fit in frame in any given shot, TCGS was a full house both literally and in its programming, featuring no fewer than a half dozen gags or threads or inside jokes to cut away to or introduce at any given moment. And, for Gethard, most of them involved pushing himself or others outside their comfort zone.     

“Back in my old public access days, I felt really compelled to, you know, hire a kickboxer to come beat me up on TV. See what the crowd thinks of that. Do stuff that put me in harm’s way, stuff that made people uncomfortable. Definitely, you know, some Andy Kaufman in there. Definitely some David Letterman in there. Like, let’s just shake it up. See how they deal with it.” Even during the show’s earnest, character-breaking 100th episode celebration, the cast delivered teary-eyed heartfelt testimonials to one another under the headphone duress of a Speech Jammer that added a comedic, gently humiliating wrench in the feels.

Now married to longtime collaborator Hallie Bulleit, living in the New Jersey suburbs, and the father of a three-and-a-half-year-old, Gethard’s work has adopted a stripped-down but still raw sense of risk, both in his stand-up and the Beautiful/Anonymous podcast, where unnamed callers have an organic, uninterrupted or edited chat about whatever is on their mind. A woman in Canada plans a wedding. Foster parents discuss the emotional maturity necessary to live in a state of uncertainty. A woman in the midwest prepares to turn herself in to federal prison. A barber talks cowlicks and says hey. Even though the one-on-one form of the podcast is a complete 180 from TCGS’s carousel of madness, the heart of intimacy, authenticity, and risk is the same. 

Beautiful/Anonymous has been so empowering to me. I think listeners often feel empowered because they get a platform, but I actually feel like it’s kind of released me from some of the more gross, ego-driven sides of comedy. I’m able to let that attention go. So, a lot of that is just because I wound up in this project where it asked me to prioritize listening more than talking. And the long version of that is, it asked me to prioritize other people over myself.” 

Part of the brilliance and bravery of Beautiful/Anonymous, like Gethard’s stand-up, is a willingness to let reality breathe a little, to favor authenticity over airtightness. “What I’ve noticed is a lot of times, when people call up, they have a little bit of an outline that they’ve gone over in their head, right? I think sometimes it’s actually been very cathartic for people to realize, like, ‘Oh, you called up, and you want to tell me about something that caused great trauma in your life, and it didn’t even fill an hour.’ Isn’t that kind of an encouraging thought?” Often, that format translates to the caller vocalizing the most pressing issue of their lives, feeling a bit lighter, and then engaging in a more truly off-the-cuff, in-the-moment conversation.

And if that sounds like it might get a little boring sometimes: yes. And that’s OK.  

“There’s this idea out there [that] it’s a lot braver to be boring onstage than exciting all the time. With those boring moments, it can be pretty intimidating. You can feel the crowd’s restlessness, but, if you can push through them, you might get something pretty great on the other side that’s not going to be dominated by this desperate need to make sure everybody’s doing great all the time. 

“In fact, some of my happiest moments are the moments where I’m most bored, because it means there’s no drama in my life. It means that there’s no worries. It means that my to-do list isn’t running over, and I’m not dropping the ball and stuff. Being boring is actually, oftentimes, a reflection that things are going well. I’ve lived through a lot of excitement. It was my 20s and 30s. Now? Boring feels awesome.”

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