In Conversation With: Chris Gethard

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Chris Gethard is an American actor, writer, and comedian. He is the creator of The Chris Gethard Show, a public access variety talk show on which he served as showrunner, producer, writer, star, and director. In January 2015, it was announced that ten new episodes of The Chris Gethard Show had been ordered to series by Fusion, a cable television network. Chris Gethard spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about the move from public access to cable, the creative freedom of showrunning, and the state of alternative comedy programming on television. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

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Sean Malin: The Chris Gethard Show is over a hundred and fifty episodes deep at this point. How did you decide where to draw the line in the sand and say, “This one’s going to be the last one”?

Chris Gethard: It was a direct result of being picked up by a cable network. We had to start thinking about that. 10 episodes on Fusion starting this Spring means that we need to get ready, but I’m really excited about it.

SM: You have been campaigning for this show to get picked up by a network for a while at this point. Will the format and style of the series carry over from the public access version, or will you have to adopt the network’s particular standard?

CG: The network has been extremely cool and progressive from our first meetings with them. We met with a lot of networks about adapting the show, some of whom seemed like they might want to bend or twist what we do, but Fusion seemed particularly aware of how the Internet and TV can work to complement each other. I’ll never forget the pitch meeting: I went in to meet with these two guys, and I explained what we hoped to do with the show. One of the guys, right in front of me, turned to the other guy, smiled, and said, “You know, I think we can help you cause trouble.” They were clear that they weren’t interested in bending or twisting what I do on the show; they just want to provide a bigger platform for it so I can do it right.

The only real change is that the [cable] show will be half an hour long, instead of an hour long. That’s definitely a big change, but concept-wise and tonally, these guys are down in the trenches with us.

SM: That’s a relief to hear because your brand of chaos has earned you a lot of positive notice in the comedy community. Fusion is an interesting choice, I think – correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Paul F. Tompkins’s show No, You Shut Up! also on that network?

CG: It is. I actually had a funny thought about that. His show includes interviewing puppets, you know? I was on a conference call at one point and I just said, “I can’t believe we might get this pick up and still not be the weirdest show on the network.”

SM: Yours and Paul’s shows actually have a lot in common. Like Mr. Tompkins, you write, produce, star in, and run your shows; you’ve even directed on The Chris Gethard Show. Will your duties as the default Jack-of-all-trades continue over as well as the style?

CG: Absolutely, which is the most encouraging thing about the move. It’s not just that I’ve got a new gig – I’m bringing the whole cast with me, the whole crew. Almost everyone that has worked to run the show on public access has been along for the whole three-and-a-half year ride.

SM: Just coming from the Sundance Film Festival, I’ve been talking with a lot of independent content producers like yourself – filmmakers, producers, and writers – who all seem to agree that the only way to keep going from project to project is to form loyal relationships with your colleagues. It’s the only way to ensure you can make work; if you’re jumping from D.P. to D.P., co-writer to co-writer, you sacrifice the shorthand that comes from years of working with the same collaborators. That’s when obstacles start to form. So I’m wondering: who will be new to the team in terms of helping the show get up and going?

CG: There will be some new line producers with a ton of experience who will help us handle the things that are completely out of our depth. And there will definitely be places down the line for people from within the alternative comedy scene to chime in. Of course behind-the-scenes, some of the people who help with the technical work, like lighting and sound, will be new to the team. But the network’s basically giving us the keys to the car without telling us where to take it. I have high hopes that they’ll help us get our vision out there now that we have a budget, I have an office, and we’re able to move past the limitations of public access.

SM: I read that you had been helping to write and develop productions for IFC when you were first shopping this show around.

CG: I had been on [IFC’s] radar enough that they brought me in – this was about two years ago – and I began making online content for them. I also had a development deal with them for about a year. The funny thing is that I was already doing [The Chris Gethard Show] on public access at the time, but they weren’t in the market for a variety/talk show. So even though I had all this support from them and was something like the face of the network for a while, the public access show still felt a little too risky for them then, which just tells you how weird this show can get.

SM: Even though you have worked on several shows in either a production capacity or onscreen, this will be your first time at the helm of a major network television program. What other projects have you worked on that make you feel ready to handle this big one?

CG: The most formative aspects of coming up as a comedian and writer came from my involvement with the UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] Theatre. First of all, that gave me a strong background in improv. It also gave me a lot of experience producing shows – if you want to do something at UCB, you’ve got to write it, find the personnel, get the people you want to work with together, direct the show, and put it on. You learn how to collaborate. On top of that, just the people who have come out of there since I was coming up – from Amy Poehler to Bobby Moynihan, you name it. Between the skills you learn there and the people you wind up being around, you learn how to have confidence as a performer and creator.

SM: IFC has started to carve out a niche for themselves as supporters of alternative comedy programming with Maron, Portlandia, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and more and more we’re seeing alternative comics writing and producing their own shows. As someone who’s developed work behind-the-scenes with networks before, do you see Fusion’s picking up your show as its attempt to move in a similar direction?

CG: What the network really understands well is the value of online content and the interactivity it provides for shows like ours. They seem to get why comedians have embraced so many grassroots resources. You look at the explosion of comedy podcasts for example, or what’s happened with Rob Delaney’s Twitter accountit’s become this monster. This stuff’s all about interaction with the fans, and I think these networks are really starting to understand that. Comedy is something that people in our culture take very personally. When someone goes to see Reggie Watts perform, they’re not just going because he’s amazingly talented, but also because they know he’s going to be making something right there and they want to be a part of it.

I think Fusion is very, very hip to that and very vocal about wanting to empower the kinds of comedians who may have been considered fringe just a few years ago. It’s blown me away while working with them how much they support using nontraditional means to spread the word and make us feel like we’re becoming part of the tribe.

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