NOTE: This article will not spoil what’s inside the dumpster. If you haven’t seen the episode, continue reading without fear of spoilers.
Days before his new HBO special, Career Suicide premiered, Chris Gethard made a special announcement. The Chris Gethard Show, the free-for-all public access television program-turned-Fusion staple, was coming back for another season on truTV. In a press release, the host said he was “thrilled to have a new home” for the show, especially since the network was letting him do it live. “Kudos to them for embracing what could be a real disaster. My promise to you though is that should it be a disaster, The Chris Gethard Show on truTV will be the most watchable disaster the world has ever seen.”
You’d think the headliner of a talk show program would avoid advertising it as a “disaster,” but not Gethard. More than anything, the Upright Citizens Brigade alum relishes every opportunity he can muster to transform such moments into comedy gold. It’s what makes The Chris Gethard Show what it truly is — the “most watchable disaster” ever seen on late night. Gethard is an oddball — an outsider who shares more in common with David Letterman‘s Late Night days and Allan Havey‘s lost Comedy Central gem Night After Night. And flirting with disaster is what makes his show stand apart.
Will Ferrell toasting strangers at their televised wedding, Sean “Diddy” Combs walking through the “Diddy Door” — his designated entry — and arguing with executive producer Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm fighting pro-wrestlers while wearing a sumo suit — The Chris Gethard Show is rife with such crazed moments. Yet for in the show’s penultimate Fusion episode — “One Man’s Trash,” which aired one year ago — the stunt to end all stunts didn’t involve mass marriage, faux celebrity feuds or wrestling matches. “Have you ever walked past a dumpster and been like, ‘Yo! I wonder what’s in that dumpster?'” Gethard asks during the cold open. “If so, tonight’s episode is your dream come true.”
“This is not bullshit. This is not me crafting an image. I see disasters and think they’re the funniest thing in the world,” the comic told us about the episode’s explosive popularity. “Remember when Ernie Anastos said, ‘Go fuck that chicken’? That’s funnier than any written comedy I’ve ever seen.” It’s a great attitude to have when watching “One Man’s Trash” for the first or 10th time, but it’s especially perfect for making an entire show about guessing what’s inside a fake (yes, fake) dumpster. Others would consider such an act disastrous, but not The Chris Gethard Show. To figure out why, I spoke with Gethard, guests Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas, and many others to unpack the dumpster’s behind-the-scenes story and its lasting appeal.
Guess What’s In The Box
“Originally, the idea was pitched as, ‘Guess what’s in this box?’ Like a mystery box,” Gethard recalls. “Then we looked it up. It turns out just about every talk show in existence has had a ‘Guess what’s in the box?’ bit. Dating back to the dawn of television. We were like, ‘Okay. What’s in the dumpster?’ That’s honestly how the idea came about. Take what’s been done before and turn it into garbage, which fits our garbage show a lot better. That’s how the idea came about.” When asked who was responsible for the original idea, however, Gethard’s memory gets murky. “I’m not entirely sure, but I believe this was Jo Firestone’s idea,” he says. “Either way, it just clicked really hard.”
That it did, but as comedian Jo Firestone put it, she wasn’t the one responsible for the initial idea. That honor instead belongs to episode writer and producer Nicole Drespel who, along with Will Miles, was assigned to shepherd “One Man’s Trash” into existence. “I pitched the original idea that got morphed into the dumpster,” Drespel tells me, “but it definitely changed in the writers’ room. It was like, ‘We’ve put our show in a box. It’s something super cool. You can’t see it unless you guess it.’ That idea behind it was, Chris and J.D. Amato kept saying we should pitch stuff that breaks TV, or stuff you’re not supposed to do on TV. The idea being that you’re not supposed to withhold on television. You can do that before a commercial break, but a whole show can’t be withholding.”
Fellow Gethard Show producer Noah Forman reiterates Firestone’s point. “I gotta make sure the credit goes where the credit’s due,” he says. So too, unsurprisingly, did executive producer J.D. Amato, who also works for the Comedy Central series The President Show. “It was a very simple pitch,” he notes, “and we kept brainstorming what the funniest thing to hide something in would be. It might have been a curtain at one point. The idea was that you could bring audience members back to look behind the curtain, and based on how they reacted to it, people could guess. We thought the curtain was fun, but the box was definitely funnier. We had the writers do an entire day’s worth of pitching different things we could hide inside the box.”
“We had hundreds of options people pitched, and at some point, the dumpster came up,” Amato continues. “We were like, ‘Yup, it’s a dumpster. That’s the funniest option for sure.'” But as Gethard already said, settling on the dumpster wasn’t just a matter of choosing the best option. “It became an emergency process,” Drespel explains, “because we got pretty far with the ‘Guess what’s in the box?’ idea, and as we were breaking the episode, I did one of those paranoid Google searches to see if anyone else had done it before. I discovered another TV show had done this exact bit. So we called a meeting and sat around a table, for a really long time, trying to re-finagle the idea. Late into this meeting, Gethard said, ‘Guys, I think we’re just talking about what’s a container. I think we’re just looking for a new container.’ It was a coffin for a little while, but the dumpster idea won. I’m pretty sure that was Gethard, because there’s no container more Gethard Show than a dumpster.”
If making a last-minute changes to Drespel’s original idea wasn’t enough, The Chris Gethard Show also had to figure out how to get a dumpster into its studio space. For as grungy and realistic as the dumpster featured in “One Man’s Trash” may seem, it turns out the crew had no way to get an actual dumpster onto a top floor of a building in downtown Manhattan. “Our studio was up on the sixth floor of a building that has no freight elevator,” Amato tells me. “We couldn’t physically fit a dumpster into the studio unless we hoisted it up alongside the building, which is expensive. So to get a dumpster into the building, we had to make one from scratch ourselves. Otherwise, we literally couldn’t fit one into the building. For what was a relatively simple idea, it was one of the most complicated things to pull off in terms of production design.”
“Most people don’t know this,” he continues, “but the dumpster we used was actually made out of wood. It’s not a real dumpster. We had this great guy named Elia who built the entire thing by hand. And because of what we ultimately hid inside of it for the show, he was privy to our secret for design reasons, but was instructed to conceal those aspects of his plans from everyone else. He was one of the only people who knew the nature of what we were putting inside the fake dumpster, though he never really knew what we were going to keep in there.”
Misdirection And Manipulation
As for those who actually knew what Gethard Show was putting in the dumpster beforehand, their numbers were few and far between. To ensure the hidden treasure’s identity was kept secret, Amato — or as Gethard affectionately refers to him, “that maniac” — engaged in what the latter describes as “a government level of secrecy.” It was the executive producer, the host contends, who decided what they were whisking away in that fake dumpster had to remain a secret from as many staffers as possible.
“He maniacally told everyone that what was in the dumpster was actually an original Pablo Picasso painting,” Gethard remembers. “The whole cast, the crew, the band — everyone thought it was a Picasso painting. I forget which painting in particular, but it doesn’t matter because that’s not the only thing he did. Here’s where J.D. is really amazing. He told everybody, ‘It’s a Picasso painting, but we don’t want anybody to know that, so only refer to it as this other thing.’ He gave his decoy a decoy name, so that everyone psychologically felt like they were insiders who had it all figured out.”
“We had a meeting during which J.D. and the other insiders told the staff, ‘You’re not gonna know what’s going in there,'” adds Forman. “I don’t remember if the painting came first, but the other fakes included live chickens and a painting. We claimed there was a painting in the dumpster, and we told people not to let it spread. But then there was a code word for the painting, so J.D. essentially made a second code word for the first code word. At one point we had at least three levels of code words. That’s a lot of code words. People very close to the show, like Andrew Parrish (affectionately known as “Hot Dog”), really thought it was a bunch of chickens up until the last second. He was actually disappointed it wasn’t chickens — not just because he thought it was chickens, but because he assumed he was on the inside.”
When confronted with his deviously clever methods, Amato doesn’t waver. In fact, his staffers’ stories about the extremes he went to to ensure the proverbial dumpster diver’s identity stir the executive producer within him. “I have a lot of good methods for keeping secrets, and one of the big ones is misinformation. I just didn’t want anyone to ruin the surprise. So for Chris and I, if anyone knew and had ruined it, the entire episode would be shot. There’s no way to recover if someone spoils a big surprise like that,” he explains. “People can ruin surprises without even meaning to. Someone could say something implying what was inside. Even the way they’re acting or behaving around it will tip people off, giving them subtle hints as to what’s going on without meaning to. We wanted no hints. We wanted no information about what was inside the dumpster. So we spread some misinformation.”
“We initially told the entire staff to refer to the unknown dumpster item as the loaf of bread,” he continues. “When a few of the more inquisitive staff members asked me what it really was, I told them we had gotten our hands on an extremely rare Picasso painting. An actual original that had been lent to us by the Museum of Modern Art. After telling them this, I asked them not to tell anyone else and they agreed. Soon after a rumor spread among the staff that it was something valuable and special. After that, the rumor became warped — somehow a bunch of people thought we were hiding live chickens in the dumpster. Others thought it was like a wolf or something. But no matter what they thought it was, whenever they came to me, told me they knew what it was and gave me a wink, I’d say, ‘Yeah, but don’t tell anyone else.'”
“When you watch the episode, you can see the looks on some of the cast and crew’s faces when they realize they were lied to. To me, it’s a kind of an emotionally manipulative thing to do in what is a very family-like environment. Yet at the same time, it helped produce some very genuine reactions, and I’m all for that,” says Gethard. “But yeah, they were actively lied to for a week. That’s why they were so surprised during the taping. Which sounds bad, of course, but the results are very funny. Stunts like that stem back to the UCB days, as does the show’s reputation for being a kind, safe environment. I think in many ways it is, even in the dumpster episode. Because at the end of the day, I want the show to be real. I want the reactions to be real. I don’t mind if anyone is angry as long as it’s real”
Secret Agents At Work
Despite all the secrecy and the intentional misdirection, Gethard and Amato knew they would have to clue in at least a small cohort just before “One Man’s Trash” taped, especially since circumstances required the quick thinking (and sneaking) of a few writers and producers to get the designated item into the dumpster, and then into the studio — all while audience members were piling into the space. Oh yeah, they also had to smuggle the “loaf of bread” from the Gethard Show offices — located in a building across the street from the studio space — to the show itself in broad daylight, without anyone seeing it before the big reveal. “Everyone tells me it was like Mission: Impossible,” Gethard, who wasn’t there for the actual “mission,” tells me. “Everyone who was there, who took part and witnessed it all, says it was all very overboard.”
“We concocted what was essentially a bank heist-style plan to get the ‘loaf of bread’ from my office to the studio,” Amato recalls. “There’s no back entrance, so we had to find a discrete way to get it from one point to the other. It wasn’t easy. I think we had eight checkpoints, and we used walkie-talkies and cell phones to indicate when certain checkpoints were clear. No one was allowed to move forward until the next checkpoint had confirmed they were clear. So one person would be one checkpoint ahead, while another was two checkpoints ahead — clearing the path and issuing warnings. It was honestly a pretty intense operation, but it went smoothly, which was a nice surprise.”
Firestone and Forman took part in the shady endeavor, monitoring their checkpoints and escorting the “loaf of bread” whenever it arrived at their station. “There was maybe half an hour when I was standing in my designated spot, and I remember getting the text, ‘The eagle has landed!’ It was so exciting,” Firestone excitedly recounts. “It was the closest that any of us would ever come to anything remotely like that. It was like when you were a little kid playing ‘spy.’ That’s what it felt like, but we were all in our thirties.” At one point before the operation was set into motion, everyone even tried to sync their watches like they were actual spies. “We tried to sync our phones but realized that, with iPhones, we didn’t need to do that because we’re all synced up. It’s all on the same Apple server,” Forman laughs. “I guess it’s good to know for these kinds of operations that you’re already synced up if everyone’s using the same thing.”
Theatrics notwithstanding, the thrilling episode before the episode went off without a hitch. For the most part. “It was very thorough,” Firestone notes. “For about an hour I was just standing by, and there was someone by the elevator giving me the signal when it was my turn.” Though as Forman adds, one of the more alarming hiccups in their design involved the audience, which was still loading into the studio through the same entryway they had to sneak the item through. “We typically load our audience into the building 30 minutes before taping. And since there’s no second exit for the building, that meant where they come in is where we would have to sneak our package in,” he says. “At some point we were running behind, and the audience was still getting loaded. I told Parrish, who was getting the audience upstairs and making sure they sign their waivers, ‘We have to get everyone out of here.’ So we rushed everyone through to the studio. As usual, some were showing up late because we still had 30 minutes to go before showtime. Parrish kept rushing people upstairs while I was trying to get them to fill out their waivers. I’d never done that before. It turned into a race.”
It was a race that, as Gethard revealed to his viewers during the opening minutes, had a single goal in mind — making them guess what was inside the dumpster and nothing more. Considering the intensity of Amato’s maniacal devotion to deceiving his own staffers for the sake of secrecy and plotting the item’s arrival at the studio, you’d think the Gethard Show team had a backup plan. You know, just in case a rather intrepid caller guessed the dumpster’s contents before the first commercial break. However, as Gethard noted during his opening, this was not the case at all.
Backup Plan? What Backup Plan?
“I’m very, very happy because we’re about to do, I think, the dumbest show we’ve done in years,” the host smiles while explaining the episode’s premise to his audience. “We’ve brought our dumpster into the studio and you guys are going to have the chance to guess what’s in there. We’re asking you guys to call in, Skype in, you can take a guess, and that’s the whole show. That’s it. I’m going to tell you a couple of things about this. One, if you don’t guess, I’m wheeling this thing out of here and you’ll never get to see. And two, if you guess right away, we have no backup plan. No backup plan at all.”
You’re probably thinking, “That’s not true. Of course they had a plan!” To figure out whether or not Gethard was simply telling a little white lie to enhance the experience, I asked him and the rest of the Gethard Show team if they had any plans in place. “We were really serious about it, probably to a ridiculous degree,” he says about the lack of a backup plan and his threat to wheel the dumpster away if no one guessed. “There was honestly no backup plan,” Amato confirms. “Chris and I talked about it, and I said if someone guesses it, then Chris will be out there and that’ll be the episode. I told him, ‘It’s on you then to make it fun.’ The idea that we had planned this big thing, and now Chris would have to finish it without a backup plan, made us laugh. It was certainly a tightrope to walk on.”
“We talked about doing a joke list, a backup list of jokes we could come out with if the dumpster was guessed too early,” says Drespel. “Chris and J.D. told us not to. ‘Don’t even write a joke list! We don’t even want a backup joke.’ I was like, ‘Wow, we’re really going out there without anything.’ I thought, ‘Maybe we should at least joke that we have something.’ Like, make a joke about that possibility. And they said no, ‘Not even backup jokes.’ That’s so Gethard Show, you know? A big Gethard Show thing is, we want to put ourselves at the greatest disadvantage possible if whatever we’ve planned doesn’t actually work.”
Firestone, who also serves as a writer and a producer on the program, does recall doing some work in preparation for such an outcome. “We were told to come up with something just in case the audience guessed it right away,” she tells me. “I think we came up with a bunch of games and similar ideas, but there honestly wasn’t much planning in that regard. They assumed the audience would never guess it, which they didn’t really. It was down to the wire and there was a chance they weren’t going to guess it in time.” Even if any such precautions were taken by individuals among the staff, however, they were largely pushed aside in favor of Amato and Gethard’s backup plan-less scenario.
“I think that can’t be overstated, the lack of a backup plan,” says Forman. “It’s not even that there wasn’t a backup plan. There was no plan either way. There was no plan for if someone guessed early, but there also wasn’t really a plan for a correct guess at all. The only plan we had was to spend the entire hour guessing. I’d be fascinated to know what would’ve happened had someone guessed the ‘loaf of bread’ early. It’s a scary proposition, because we loved this idea so much and we wanted it to be such a big reveal. Though pitting Gethard together with Scheer and Mantzoukas was perfectly fun, and I’m sure they could have carried on for the rest of the hour.”
Making Gethard’s Job Difficult
Aside from the main impetus behind “One Man’s Trash,” the episode’s best element is the dynamic shared between Gethard and his two guests, Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas. “I love that this already feels like a late-night UCB show circa 2001,” the titular host quips before introducing his two longtime friends. “I’m going to go ahead and say this is my favorite episode we’ve ever done.” As the episode progresses, Gethard’s love for the pair jokingly seems to falter, as their unending riffs and improvisations — largely at his expense — spur a sudden realization: “This taping is going to be six hours long.” As he and Amato recall, the unedited taping was more like an hour and a half in length, but Scheer and Mantzoukas were nonetheless generally responsible for the extended time frame.
“To be honest, I was not really interested at all in what they put in the dumpster. I was primarily interested in making Gethard’s job as hard as possible,” notes Mantzoukas. “Paul, Chris and I have known each other for over 15 years at this point. So I chose to make Chris’ job harder, knowing that that is the dynamic Chris and I will play out on any stage anyway. That’s not me taking shots at Gethard. That’s just me continuing the dynamic we have had for many, many years. It’s a very joyful to do, as you can probably tell from watching the episode.”
Scheer, unsurprisingly, agrees. “I think my attitude was similar in that, ‘There’s nothing here. Let’s just have fun with it and turn this nothing into something.’ Little did we know it was a giant something, but that’s what I thought the energy was supposed to be,” he tells me. “What excited me was, when I read the premise, I thought we were going to get to fuck around like we had during UCB shows. It felt like a chance for us to just have fun. Though things did switch up for me when I looked inside the dumpster and saw what was in there. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh shit, if we don’t get this the audience will never see it.’ Chris was really dedicated to that idea. I really believed that if we didn’t get it, no one would ever know.”
Even when it seems they were genuinely trying to help Gethard out, it turns out Scheer and Mantzoukas were still planting as many seeds as possible to upend the Gethard Show taping and make their friend’s life a living (albeit hilarious) hell. “I remember taking out a pen and a piece of paper to help keep track of the previous guesses and clues,” Scheer explains. “I felt like we had to put some semblance of order on this, but really it was more fuel for more distractions.” Sure enough, anyone familiar with the episode will remember that, while he does in fact record the audience’s guesses and Gethard’s clues, he and his partner in crime often use the list’s recitations to blast the crew’s plans. Like when Mantzoukas interrupts Scheer’s second list reading to pitch turning it into lyrics for a song.
“There are moments throughout the episode in which you can see actual, visible frustration on my face. You can tell I’m really nervous, and they won’t let me lead the ship — let alone right it,” Gethard laughs. “It was such a dumb idea, and those two helped turn it into pure chaos. But thing is, I’m really proud of this show and the people who work on it for this specific reason. It’s an admittedly dumb, absurd show, but we put a lot of thought into it. That way it’s smart under the surface. I know this sounds extremely pretentious, and Paul and Jason would probably mock me if they heard me saying this, but it’s true. I have a lot of ideas about what I wish TV was, and with their help, I think ‘One Man’s Trash’ is about as close as I’ve ever come to achieving it.”
Amato couldn’t agree more. “I think that’s what captures people in this episode. Paul and Jason were the perfect guests because they’re fantastic improvisers, they’re hilarious, they know how to take hold of something and find what’s fun about it. I mean, they seriously made that episode so much fun. It was the perfect storm of all these elements coming together, and they were definitely a big part of that,” he opines. “The whole thing was a ultimately an improv performance featuring Chris, Paul and Jason.” Drespel adds, “As soon as we knew we had Paul and Jason, we knew the episode was going to be fine. They were two people who would get it, be down for it, and be very comfortable with the idea for an hour. No matter what ended up happening.”
What Could Have Been
What ended up happening was this: To quote Scheer again, the “giant something” hidden in the fake dumpster was ultimately revealed in the episode’s final minutes. The way in which in happened didn’t exactly fit with The Chris Gethard Show team’s plans, but considering how surprisingly simple (if not nonexistent) those plans were, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ending of “One Man’s Trash” was just that — a surprise. But what if, as the host threatened, the dumpster’s contents hadn’t been revealed? What if Gethard actually did “[wheel] this thing out of here” and never tell a soul what it was hiding?
Forman expressed fascination with the idea during our conversation, as did many others I talked to for this article. So I posed the possibility to Gethard, curious to see what he would have done if his threat came true. “You certainly wouldn’t be writing about it here,” he jokes, “and I wouldn’t be talking about it, I think.” But all jokes aside, he admits to having considered the possibility.
“It would’ve been stressful, the network would’ve been mad, and I would’ve been very, very embarrassed. But here’s how my brain works,” Gethard begins to pitch. “Had nobody guessed it, I would’ve said something like, ‘Let’s do a sequel episode. A sequel episode with higher stakes.’ That way, I could literally wheel it back onto the stage — both the dumpster and the item inside it. The same exact thing. How funny would that be? Especially if the audience didn’t guess it a second time? That’s already two full hours of television dedicated to not guessing what’s inside this thing, and if I brought it back a third time, I would have made the process even harder. To me, that’s just a very funny twist. Watching people in total defeat has always been funny to me. People who are completely stressed out and out of control.”
As funny as seeing Gethard, Scheer, Mantzoukas, the dumpster and the rest of the Gethard Show crew again would have been, it’s probably a good thing that “One Man’s Trash” came to an end. After all, it was one hell of an ending to an episode based entirely on withholding a big secret from everyone else. Or as Amato puts it, “Comedically, the way in which the dumpster’s contents were revealed was such a perfect moment.” And if hadn’t happened the way it did, the episode probably would have had as big an impact as it did on hardcore fans and newcomers to the program.
“I was just on Seth Meyers. He was like, ‘You guys have to go watch this dumpster thing. It was the best hour of TV last year.’ There is something to be said about that, because we really are the little guy at the end of the day. So to have someone of Meyers’ caliber say that? He doesn’t have to say that at all,” a thankful Gethard concludes our conversation. “I’m not kidding when I say that, since that episode, someone talks to me about it every single day. Not a day has gone by in the past year in which someone hasn’t brought up the dumpster. I’m not kidding. Other comedians I run into, TV people — everybody in the industry who has ever heard of our show has heard of it because of the dumpster. Even when I’m walking around New York, people will come up to me on the subway platform and say, ‘Yo, the dumpster!” Yeah dude, we’ve arrived.”
If you’ve never watched “One Man’s Trash,” or haven’t seen it in a while, check out the edited Fusion version below. (And don’t tell anyone what’s in the dumpster!)