Toward the end of The Chris Gethard Show‘s August 24th episode, “Oops, We Got a Bunch of Exercise Equipment,” the titular host introduced the hour’s final bit while suspended above a large metal tub filled with ice water. “Right now it’s not just going to be physical, it’s going to be emotional. Adam, this is the Gethpress 3000,” he told guest Adam Pally of the contraption. “My body weight is legit connected to this.” Unfortunately Pally, who had just spent 50 minutes performing various exercises with Gethard and show sidekick Shannon O’Neill, couldn’t quite prevent the former from falling in.
Good thing O’Neill was there to help, for as Gethard Show‘s longtime accomplice (and regular “CrossFitter”) previously demonstrated, maintaining Gethard’s weight would be as easy as deadlifting a 103-pound bar multiples times — excitable screaming and all. The Upright Citizens Brigade alum immediately began helping Pally maintain the host’s weight, though her apparent altruism hid a more devious motive. “In you go!” she screamed while repeatedly lowering her friend into the tub’s icy waters. Gethard, for his part, didn’t look or sound happy. “You are not my friend!” he exclaimed.
“Gethard and I have known each other for a long time. I know how to push his buttons in a way that’ll make good TV, but not make him super pissed at me at by the end of the show,” O’Neill laughs while recalling the moment. “I think that’s what he trusts. He has that trust in me. He knows he can’t control me, and no one is supposed to try and control me, but he trusts that I’m not going to do something so stupid it would totally derail the show.” Sure enough, both the audience and the participants laugh throughout the entire bit. Even Gethard, while shouting at O’Neill, can’t stop smiling.
“Shannon is my safety net,” he explains in an email. “Sometimes things go wrong and I need to go into damage control mode. During these moments, I feel totally safe because Shannon knows my comedic rhythms better than anyone else and she goes into comedy attack mode. She drops bombs and shoots three pointers and often saves the show.” Recalling how they first met at the New York UCB in 2000, Gethard adds “she’s funny as shit” and remains “one of the best improvisors in the world. This isn’t hyperbole.”
The pair has worked together on a variety of projects for 17 years, though Gethard Show is their most public. And while the live late night series puts Gethard’s name front and center, he insists none of it would be possible without O’Neill. “I have a reputation for being punk rock, and I think part of punk rock is going hard at your beliefs and disregarding the opinions of others. In reality, I am insanely susceptible to self-doubt, self-questioning, and concern over how things are going. The actual most punk rock person on the show is absolutely Shannon O’Neill. She doesn’t really listen to punk, but that doesn’t matter: she’s as punk as it gets.”
O’Neill, who currently serves as the artistic director for UCB New York, traces her love of comedy improvisation to watching Saturday Night Live as a kid. Years later, while working towards a communications and broadcasting degree in college, the National Broadcasting Society offered her and other students the chance to visit Chicago. O’Neill took it without hesitation.
“I asked if anyone else wanted to go see Second City, because I knew then that a lot of the SNL cast members and writers I loved had come from there,” she says over the phone. “So I organized a trip for a bunch of us who were interested, and we ended up seeing Paradigm Lost, the ensemble that included Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch, Kevin Dorff, Scott Adsit and a bunch of amazing performers. It blew me away. They did sketch and improv and all of these amazing things.”
Instead of returning to Chicago after college, however, O’Neill decided to make her way to New York. The massive city boasted a much bigger improv comedy scene, as well as greater access to performance spaces and television auditions. “I asked a friend I was working with at the time — he did stand-up, I think — where I could go to do improv in the city. ‘I want to do improv,’ I told him. So he suggested Chicago City Limits, which was a Second City offshoot in New York, or UCB. After a moment he said, ‘You should do UCB. I think that’s the place you will enjoy the most.” So that’s what I did, and then I haven’t left since.”
As artistic director, O’Neill manages the UCB theaters in Chelsea and the East Village. “I program the calendar. I decide who performs and what shows perform. Basically, it all requires my stamp of approval,” explains the 17-year veteran. “We hold auditions for sketch actors. I’m actually in the middle of a very busy season right now with our sketch team. We have auditions, so I have a bunch of actor submissions and a shit-ton of writer packets to review. I do get help from other people, because it’s a lot, but I love doing it.” The practiced performer will also teach improv courses at the UCB whenever she has an opening, but with Gethard Show‘s explosive new live season currently under way at truTV, O’Neill’s free time is limited. Though she does miss it.
“I really enjoy watching people succeed and get better at things,” says O’Neill. “I honestly do not get jealous when people get things that maybe would be something I would love to do. People are working hard, enjoying the process, and getting to do something that’s really cool. I mean, I get to do comedy. How lucky am I? So to have other people be able to do that, and make a living off of it because of the theater, is exciting and fun to me. It really is a very challenging and draining job, but there’s a lot of reward in it and I love it. The great stuff just outweighs everything else.”
Aside from ultimately becoming one of UCB New York’s most prominent figures, of course, O’Neill’s arrival at UCB brought her together with Gethard. The two quickly became friends, and when they began writing and performing shows together. One of the more popular was Gethard’s titular live theater show. She was there from day one, as Gethard reminded her during their 2016 conversation at the 92nd Street Y, and she would always be a part of it. O’Neill couldn’t agree more.
“I love collaboration. I love team sports, and that’s what the UCB essentially is. I’m just one of the team captains, and I make sure everyone there gets to use their strengths and overcome their weaknesses,” she says of her longtime sidekick position at Gethard Show. “It’s basically a team of us at this point, and we’ve been hustling for so many years, and in so many different ways. The show has become a machine at this point, especially because many of us have been doing more or less the same things over the years. But we all love doing this show so much, and doing it for the community of fans we’ve built up around it.”
As much as O’Neill defers to the gargantuan team effort behind producing live episodes of Gethard Show, producer J.D. Amato cannot stress her importance to the show enough. “One of my jobs on The Chris Gethard Show is to be the person making sure the madness and insanity of the show doesn’t cross any dangerous lines. And while sometimes Shannon is the agent of chaos pushing the show to the razor’s edge of those boundaries, she’s also always the person I can count on to make sure no one crosses those lines,” he writes in an email. “If someone is uncomfortable, Shannon is the first person to notice. When I go out to the floor and try to figure out what’s amiss, Shannon is always the other person with her head on a swivel. She knows when something needs to be fixed, and without any direction required, she jumps into action and can push troubling moments back towards fun.”
Whenever O’Neill, Gethard or Pally changed up their exercise routines per the callers’ instructions in “Oops, We Got a Bunch of Exercise Equipment,” she was always the first to make sure the studio audience was free from harm. (Especially in the moment before she and Pally performed deadlifts directly in front of the crowd.) In the truTV pilot episode, “Too Many Piñatas,” O’Neill did the same before granting their guests, the stars of Impractical Jokers, access to a literal wall of weapons.
“We had the chainsaw for the first episode, and all those other weapons, and there was a safety guy on set who told us how we were supposed to do it,” she says. “It’s up to us to maintain everyone’s safety in those situations, and the one thing I am always conscious of is the audience, especially since they’re sitting so close to us. I don’t want to do something that’s going to put someone from the audience in danger. But Gethard? If I can do something to him, and I think it’ll be funny even though it breaks his skin a little and he bleeds some, he’ll be fine as long as he can walk the next day. It’ll be good TV. But I’m not going to make an audience member bleed.”
As demonstrated by the Gethardpress 3000 bit, O’Neill’s willingness to embarrass (if not bruise) her boss is absolute. Then again, so too is Gethard’s willingness to let his sidekick push him around. She is, as he repeats many times throughout his email, his “safety net.” Yet O’Neill is also the source of some confusion on the part of those who suddenly realize the show boasts a “surprising amount of support from young women.” They “do big physical stunts, and sometimes gross out humor,” notes Gethard. “I am definitely a nerdy guy in a way that might seem counterintuitive to female support, but many of the fans of our show are strong, artsy young females. I believe in my heart that it’s because they see themselves in Shannon O’Neill.”
“I once had a meeting about The Chris Gethard Show with a network that shall remain unnamed,” he says. “They said during the pitch that they liked the show, but wanted to re-cast some of the people around me. They specifically said they thought my sidekick should be ‘more of an Olivia Munn type.’ I explained right away that the meeting was over. While I think Olivia Munn is a talented person and I don’t aim to disparage her, I do think that the implication in regards to our show was appalling. It underlines everything that is shallow and wrong with the entertainment industry, and everything we reject. Shannon doesn’t look like Olivia Munn, but she’s beautiful nonetheless, and even that doesn’t matter. We are a comedy show. All that matters is that she is the funniest fucking person I know. ”
The Chris Gethard Show airs new live episodes Thursdays at 11pm ET/PT on truTV.