Thrillist: Can we talk about that fight club you used to do?
Chris Gethard: Zach Woods came up to me -- out of the blue, he was 16 at the time -- and said, "Me and my friends box each other. If you'd ever like to come to Yardley, Pennsylvania, and box me I would love that." I was like, "Zach, I am into this." And then we did the show.
There was a show? I don't remember that part.
Gethard: I was this shit stirrer and I'd go around in the UCB community, like, "If Rob Huebel and Rob Riggle fought, who'd win?" And everyone was like, "I wanna fight too." Six or seven pairs of comedians fist fought in a warehouse in Brooklyn. We didn't have a ring so we set up police caution tape. We recorded it and showed it at UCB at midnight, and hundreds of people packed in. Paul Scheer was taking bets. He kept all the results secret. People were flipping out. It was one of the first things that gave me a reputation.
Another was the bus show, I'm guessing.
Gethard: Yeah. I rented a bus, drove through NJ, and told stories in the locations where they happened. I told the audience about losing my virginity while standing in the basement where I lost my virginity, in a home my parents had not owned in 10 years. Then, when I told [former UCB artistic director] Anthony King that I wanted to do a talk show, he was like, "Do you know that people use your name as an adjective? When people pitch me a show that's strange, they say, 'It's a Gethard show.'" He was like, "I'll give you a talk show, but I don't want you in a shirt and tie telling political jokes. At some point, you gotta embrace the fact that you're a weirdo." I've thanked him many times for it.
You use the word weirdo a lot. But sometimes it feels more like vulnerability.
Gethard: I've always found a lot of joy and humor in failing. It's very productive.
You trade on failure. But now that you're an adult, with a spouse, mortgage, and TV crew, there are bigger and more profound ways to fail. Would it be as joyful?
Gethard: It would be just as beautiful and just as productive. The moments of success I've had did not lead to as much growth as the moments where I was a failure. When you strike out, if you can remove your ego from the process, you learn who you are, what you have to offer, and what you wanna say. As an artist, being resilient is a better skill than talent. I went to public access 8 months after I'd been the lead on a Comedy Central sitcom. That's a downfall by anyone's definition. But it was me saying, I don't even watch sitcoms, so why do I want a job like this? I grew up watching completely bizarre stuff -- why am I not making that? Success is a very nice thing, but failure is where the truth lies.
So how do you hope for failure, as an artist?
Gethard: I've just learned to coexist with it. And our fans cheer the loudest when they see us take a swing and miss. The public-access days will always be special because it felt like a weekly exercise in surviving -- and in calling the entertainment industry's bluff, like, "I'm not going away."
I wouldn't say you have a chip on your shoulder, but you are definitely motivated by your underdog status.
Gethard: I think about it a lot as I get older and calmer. There are times when I can't catch the spark and I'll have to ask myself, "What was I mad about six years ago?" I think I do have a chip on my shoulder -- it's served me well.
How'd you develop it?
Gethard: I don't wanna be a guy who's on TV now complaining about his childhood. But I tell you: It just wasn't easy. Teachers didn't care. It took me some time to see it all as a scam. My mom tells a story about when my brother got bullied at school. She went in and the principal was like, "Actually, that happened on the other side of the fence. It wasn't on school property. We're not going to get involved." The people in charge are just a bunch of fucking scam artists. I don't like authority. I don't like arbitrary rules.
I'm the same way -- except I was very much part of the establishment, growing up. Maybe that's the reason for my crippling self-doubt.
Gethard: Yeah, but feeling frustrated and forgotten doesn't have a demographic. Part of the fact that I've found underground popularity is that there's a lot of people who don't feel listened to. That crosses boundaries.
How do you feel about using depression as fodder for art?
Gethard: Conflicted. I never wanna glorify it. I was wary of even talking about it. But I was like, If I speak about this and it means some 17-year-old, who thinks he's losing it, feels a little less alone, then I'm going to do it. It wasn't easy and it has led to a lot of pain. But if you can help a person and you choose not to, what's that say about you?
By industry standards, doing Career Suicide on HBO is your biggest success. Artists are often defined by their biggest success, and sometimes the press casts you as Depressed Guy. Which is not how I think of you at all. Do you worry about reductive labels?
Gethard: It's a major concern. I don't want to be the depression guy forever. I think the whole point of my show is to say, Actually, I'm totally fine with stuff, and it's not the whole me. Opportunities have been offered to me, based on Career Suicide, that would have meant a lot of exposure and money. As a rule, I have passed. I'm like, I gotta do something that reminds people that my goal is to be funny.