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.”