Chris Gethard Discusses Turning His Battles With Crippling Depression Into Comedy In His New HBO Special

It’s not until around the 10-minute mark of Chris Gethard‘s new HBO special, Career Suicide that you realize you’re watching a comedy show. The opening moments of his performance, which he performed last year during a run at New York’s Lynn Redgrave Theater, aren’t lacking in humor. In fact, the Upright Citizens Brigade alum is quite adept at getting his audience to laugh — even when most people wouldn’t even think of laughing at his subject matter. After all, when it comes to mental illness, depression and having suicidal thoughts, no one should be laughing.

Yet the audience held captive by Gethard’s storytelling, be it the crowds who attended the taping or those watching at home, are laughing. Mainly because at around the 10-minute mark, the former Saturday Night Live guest writer calls himself out for seeming so serious at what was billed as a humorous program. “Sometimes people break,” he says before quipping, “Welcome to a comedy show!” Cue the laughter, audience applause and a short title credits sequence reminding everyone that Career Suicide will, in fact, make them laugh.

It does many times over, though Gethard refuses to take all the credit. In his interview with Uproxx, he thanks everyone from director Kimberly Senior and executive producer Judd Apatow, to fellow comics like Mike Birbiglia. Even so, The Chris Gethard Show host ultimately acknowledges his desire to produce the most intimate and funniest show possible about an otherwise dour topic. And judging by the reactions he’s heard from countless live show attendees, he succeeds with flying colors.

This has a rather long introduction. It’s not until almost 10 minutes in that you pause and say, “Sometimes people break. Welcome to a comedy show!” Then the title credits roll and the show goes on. What prompted this?

It grew very organically, actually. I don’t think the idea of putting any of those titles at that point in the show occurred until we actually got it up and on its feet. However, as I worked on that part of the show more and more with my director, Kimberly, it started to feel a little bit more of like something necessary. Especially that last line, “Welcome to a comedy show.” It stopped feeling like a throwaway and started feeling like it was really getting a response from the audience. They would generally start applauding then, and that’s when I knew the show was really cooking.

I noticed it during the run, that the show built itself up very organically, into having a long prologue. Even when I would walk into the room, I thought it was kind of weird. How and why people dig that. But I’m really proud of it. I’m proud we’re taking some chances and doing things a little differently.

It works really well. It never occurred to me, while watching, that I was missing title credits or a typical stand-up special introduction. I was too focused on what you were saying.

That’s cool to hear. I think a lot of that comes from Judd Apatow. When he first got involved, he was just giving me a few notes here and there become ultimately becoming a producer of the show. He’d heard I was doing this weird show and asked if he could see a tape. So I gave him one and he graciously gave me some notes. I kept asking him if I should come out of the gate with harder jokes, because I just wasn’t sure about the beginning. He set me straight and said, “Look, this is not stand-up. This isn’t not stand-up. This is a show that uses stand-up, and the spine of it is stand-up, but more than anything this has to be a show. You have to let it be what it wants to be.” That was a big hurdle for me to get over, mentally.

I think that’s accurate. Career Suicide isn’t stand-up, but it has elements of it. A lot of recent specials, like Neal Brennan’s 3 Mics and Colin Quinn’s The New York Story, have done this. And it generally has to do with what feels right for the material.

Absolutely. Even the length of the show. I thought, “People are used to an hour, but this is a little longer than that.” Judd always had this very simple, almost zen-like attitude about letting this be what it wants to be. Letting it be it’s own thing. Trusting in it. That attitude went a long way, I think. I’m also very lucky. You mentioned Neil Brennan and Colin Quinn, and I think those connections are great, but I also give a lot of credit to Mike Birbiglia for setting the tone for this type of thing. He’s very good at it. He’s actually someone I used to open for on the road, and he challenged me to attempt this show in the first place. It’s definitely cut from a similar lineage.

I was actually going to ask you about Birbiglia. In a podcast from your time in Edinburgh, you mentioned telling him the car crash story early on, and how he encouraged you to add it to the show.

There’s a part of me that’s very private, but there’s also a very big part of me that wanted to try it. I remember telling Mike the audience would never buy a thing like that from me. How am I going to convince them it’s funny? And even if people like him and me can do this, we’re comedians. Comedians have a sick sense of humor. How are audiences going to buy it? So he told me to trust them. That I would find the crowd for this. When I first started getting material, there was a part of me that wanted to get this over with just so Mike could see it wasn’t going to work. Then, very quickly, I realized it was striking a chord with people in a very big way. It was very inspiring and motivating.

You do something very interesting while telling the story about your clinical doctor on the East Coast, and his spiel about how you were no longer his responsibility. While telling it, you walk towards the camera focused on you, and instead of backing off or adjusting its the focus, they just let you approach. It’s a very intimate image. Was this accidental or intentional?

That stuff is intentional. I think a part of that was really trying to make sure we captured what it was like to see the show in person, because there are moments where I get a little naughty and play with the audience directly. That was something I really was pushing for during the live shows, and I wanted to show those interactions here because I think those moments are important. Especially in terms of the non-comedic side of all this.

The idea that this is a conversation about something that’s a little heavy is, I think, when those close-to-the-camera moments work best. I’ll go right to the audience for those. In my mind, that was an attempt to say, “This isn’t just me forcing a wall up between us. This is me really talking to you.” I’m looking at you right in the eye, and you have to take some responsibility for the fact that you’re now in on this conversation. You’re a part of it. I’m dragging you into the mix. I’m not just entertaining you with jokes. That was an important thing, and I think a world of credit goes to my director, Kimberly. She’s really quite brilliant and I was very lucky she got involved.

This was actually one of the things she said straight out of the gate when we started working together. I’d been workshopping the show for a year or two in comedy rooms around New York at that point. She said, “I’m never going to tell you how to write a joke. You’ve been doing that for years. You tell me how that works. As far as harnessing those moments, delivering those emotional punches and deciding where (and where not) to put them, you should trust me on that.” She really did to show me how to connect with that audience. When to slow down. When to really make sure that it was personal enough.

Because that’s one of the things that meant a lot to me, especially at the very end of the show. The idea that if you get the sense someone needs help, try to help them. Don’t worry about if you’re doing it the right or wrong way. Just take some responsibility in the moment and try, if you can. That is something I very much wanted the live show and the HBO special to have — the audience actually feeling like I was talking to them. “There are a whole lot of people in this room watching him, but he’s talking to every single one of us as an individual.” I want everybody to feel that way.

Hopefully, the way we shot it, each viewer will feel that way. Hopefully they won’t assume I’m just trying to have a broad conversation with as many people as possible. Not to say this is what I can do in reality, because I don’t know how that would actually work. But I hope anyone who happens to catch the show on TV will think I’m talking to them in that moment. Saying, “Hey you, out there watching this right now. Maybe someday you’re in a position where you can help in some way, and I think you should.” That would be nice. I really wanted to get that message across.

You’re very sincere about this approach, too. Like when your audience interactions are more for comedic effect, you always apologize after and say, “Sorry about that.” They’re fun moments where you break the show slightly to make sure everyone’s comfortable.

They’re part of it. Anybody who showed up, anybody who sits in the front row — I feel like they’re letting me know those moments are okay. If you’re going to sit right in the front row of a show, I feel like you’re on my team. All jokes aside, I’m completely serious in those moments when I’m apologizing to the people I interact with. I often apologize in those moments because my actual anxiety kicks in, and I don’t want them to think I’m a bad person. It messes with my head, thinking they might think that.

There’s definitely some truth to this. It’s a real anxiety for me, and most comics, because the money people spend to go to stand-shows empowers them. I’ve been heckled before, and I will shut down hecklers without thinking about it. You have to do that as a comedian today, but I heckle by apologizing. I will shut down a heckler by apologizing to them and manipulating the whole situation. It gets the crowd on my side in those situations, especially since I’m calling it out while not being aggressive. At the same time, I get anxious about making hecklers feel bad in those moments. I feel bad about everything. That anxiety is real.

It seems to work in your favor, though.

It does. I think I’m a nice guy, and I’m glad others seem to think so, but I really just don’t want people to be mad at me. I’ve never been able to handle that feeling, and I always want to make sure everybody’s okay as a result.

They’re also moments that let you use your improv skills from the Upright Citizens Brigade. Did taping Career Suicide ever allow for this, or was the show set by then?

It’s really set, especially the sensitive subject material. When performing certain bits or stories, I never wanted it to feel like I was messing around, because you can get caught up in that energy as a performer. You can have a lot of fun when messing around with certain parts, but a lot of what I’m doing here is quite serious. People would come up to me after shows and say, “That meant a lot. I’ve lost a kid to that. One of my kids committed suicide.” When you get reactions like that, it lets you know what works and what doesn’t, and fast. I have to be careful with this material. If I’m going to be the one claiming there are jokes to be made about this, I’d better be sure those jokes work. When you’re improvising, you can’t always guarantee that.

I haven’t really done much improv in the past five years. I’ve been focusing mostly on doing solo shows like this one. Though you’re right, even with that, I love it when my background kicks in lets those improv chops rise to the surface. With this one, it just didn’t feel necessary or right. There’s a responsibility with what I’m talking about, and I needed to make sure the show was ultimately a kind one. I couldn’t use cheap jokes while talking about mental illness or suicide. If you make one cheap joke about this stuff, you might really hurt someone.

I couldn’t agree more. Since we were just talking about audience interaction, however, I wanted to bring up the Jack McBrayer story. Not the story itself, actually, but your bit about not initially revealing his name during early versions of the show, and audiences telling you they felt cheated.

There’s a lot of stuff that came and went from the show. Stories and bits I was hesitant to include for a variety reasons. When I first started experimenting with it, there was a lot of stuff about how my time working at Saturday Night Live messed with my head, then I took that out because I felt like it was too “inside baseball.” Thought it slowly made its way back in, and I figured out how to do it in a comfortable way.

That moment with Jack was another one of those bits I kept using, dropping and adding back in. The first time I tried that joke on stage, it killed. He’s a good friend, so I had to call him to get his permission. Then I had to call him back a few years later and say, “Oh yeah, remember that joke you were so kind about and said I could do as long as I was very clear about the circumstances? Well now it’s going to be on HBO. I want to make sure that’s cool.” He was very kind about it. That incident did happen, and I’ve always felt bad about it. All he asked was that I make sure the audience knew the full story know. ASSSSCAT is the type of show where all the UCB players poke and prod each other all the time, after all.

I really do try to highlight that in the show. There is an argument to be made that he might not look great as a result, but I think he realized there was a relevant piece of me in that story. That it was mine to tell, and maybe one that was good to put out there in the world, so he let me put it out there. I will take full responsibility. There were times when I would say who it was much earlier in the bit, and the audience didn’t like that. At this point, however, I like to keep them hanging and really make sure they’re ready for the joke. I’ve found that satisfying the audience that way really helped it hit that much harder when I finally drop his name.

What I found so interesting about it was you included the process behind its construction, like negative audience response to your initial refusal to say his name. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that so prominently in a show. I thought it was neat.

For me, one of the driving things is not pretending there’s a separation between the stage and the audience. It’s a very important distinction with this show. I wanted the audience to feel like they were in on everything. Not just that it looks intimate, but how far I could take the one-on-one experience for every single member of the crowd. That’s a hard show to do. It’s not the best thing to talk to strangers about eight times a week, but New York brought some great crowds to the fore. I’m never going to be a very cool person. There are comedians who do their specials wearing leather suits, walking through fog machines and stuff like that. It’s cool, but that’s never going to be me. What I do demonstrates my vibe more honestly, by owning up to my insecurities and failures, because that’s what I have to offer the world.

And you do it beautifully.

Thanks so much. I’ve done the show, I think, close to 200 times. And now it’s going to be on HBO. I already think that this is a pretty big platform. So I’m very happy to hear you liked it, because the nerves are very real. My anxiety is very real.

I’m sure you have nothing to worry about. In the meantime, what’s next? The Chris Gethard Show is going to truTV, which is great, but I imagine you’ve got lots on your plate right now.

I’m always working on the next thing. I always try to keep a few irons in the fire. Though I’m very happy now. It feels really good to put new things out into the world. I will say, I’m excited to do some new material that isn’t about me trying to kill myself. I’m very psyched about that. Though it’s still great to hear from people who’ve been positively affected by the show. Who say, “You’re speaking some stuff that feels true to me. Thanks for saying it.”

I can point to this and say, “Everything I have to say about that topic is there on HBO. I wore my heart on my sleeve in a big way, and that’s what I have to say about it.” Maybe I can go back to just jokes. Jokes about being a nerd and growing up in New Jersey. Focusing on material that’s not about the darkest stretch of my life will be fun.

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide premieres Saturday, May 6th at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.