In the fall of 2019, when Chris Gethard was recording his latest comedy special, Half My Life, he was a few months shy of his 40th birthday, and the world was a few months shy of being plunged into the Groundhog Day nightmare of the Covid-19 pandemic — not that anybody knew that second part. Full of self deprecations about the size of his forehead, gripes about life on the road, and earnest declarations of love for his wife and baby waiting for him at home in northern New Jersey, the special is the work of a performer taking stock of his life and career and wondering what direction he wants to take next. “I was not sure how I felt about becoming an older guy in comedy,” Gethard says from a Vancouver hotel room, where he’s quarantining before filming begins on the second season of Netflix’s Space Force.
Gethard got his comedy start in 2000 improvising with the Upright Citizens Brigade. A seemingly endless series of minor roles in major comedies followed. He graced The Office, Parks and Recreation, Bored to Death, Broad City, and Nora From Queens with his signature put-upon and bespectacled presence. In his downtime, he hosted The Chris Gethard Show, a variety talk show, starting in 2011 on a New York public access channel. (It was picked up by Fusion in 2015 and later truTV, which canceled it in 2018.) In 2016, he launched the podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, where he conducts deep, long-form interviews with unnamed callers.
He seemed bound for a mainstream breakout when his HBO special Career Suicide debuted in 2017. Centering on Gethard’s lifelong struggles with depression, the one-man show was filmed at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City and executive produced by Judd Apatow. It had all the polish and hype of a big-time comedy special — Gethard remembers wearing brand-new sneakers for the occasion — and the big money to go along with it. It all seemed to signify he was reaching a new standing in the comedy world. Then he made an about-face. Half My Life is self-made, lo-fi, and premiered on a handful of platforms from Amazon and AppleTV+ to Google Play and Vimeo.
“I self-funded the whole thing so I could do it my way,” Gethard says. With its shaky crowd footage and backstage hangouts in poster-covered green rooms, the style is an ode to punk tour documentaries and Nineties skateboarding videos — except here it’s the newly middle-aged Gethard, riding an e-scooter on the Asbury Park boardwalk.
The show raises a lot of questions about Gethard’s future, but now that the world is coming back to life, he seems to have some answers — and they aren’t the ones he expected. “Getting those shows taken away and then doing the first couple back, I’m like, ‘Oh, right, doing these shows is an extraordinarily fulfilling, exciting, happy thing,’” Gethard says. “It was good to really feel that in such a pure way. I feel like I’m walking out into the sun for the first time in 14 months.”
You spoke candidly in your 2017 special Career Suicide about your struggles with depression. How has the last year been for you, in terms of mental health? What ways did you find to get through it?
I have to tell you, I did not do a great job. There was a point in the fall where I had a really bad week and was thinking I might need to go to a hospital. Luckily my doctor was able to jump on the phone right then, that night. I had another few months where things were fine but then eventually hit a breaking point where I told my doctor, I think I need new medications. For the first time in 14 years, we switched up my medications and I’ve been doing a lot better. For a lot of people, the pandemic was probably the first time that they have felt some of these stresses, and for a lot of us who have worked really hard, maybe it felt like backtracking. In my case it did. I just try to remind myself that it’s probably one of the most extreme circumstances I’ll hopefully ever see in my life, and I am not built to withstand pressure like that. So, yeah, I’m back on Adderall and the whole system, and managed to not go to [the hospital]. So that’s a victory.
It truly is. So this special, even the title, Half My Life, feels like you both marking a milestone and maybe summing up a career, because you weren’t totally sure where it was going after that. So what does this point in your career mean to you?
One of the things that I’ve realized in the course of making this is that I used to make a lot of work that was pretty hip. I got a cool public access show — like, Fucked Up came and played my public access show, Ted Leo came, and then all these celebrity guests and stuff. And it was cool and underground. I think a big part of [my] recent years has been me realizing it’s OK to not be cool forever. At the end of 2019, when we shot this, I was still kind of figuring out, who am I without that? When I started The Chris Gethard Show at UCB I was 29. I was mentally unstable and there was a lot of self-hate still in my system. You watch the old public access show, there were so many bits where I’m getting electrocuted or thrown into ice-cold water, getting beat up by a kickboxer. I had a lot of stuff to get out. That’s gone. Now I’m a dad and I’m in a very stable marriage. I bought a house in the suburbs, and I really enjoy lawn care and researching what time of year do the fertilizers go down that’ll stop the broadleaf weeds from coming up. That is my honest truth right now. There’s such happiness to that, and it’s such a victory that I got there. If you had told me when I was 29 doing the underground stuff that I’d wind up as happy as I am, I would have been thrilled. So I’ve had to let the insecurities that surround that go.
I’d like to hear more about the DIY treatment of this special. It stands out in contrast to the 2017 special on HBO. Was this a deliberate rejection of or contrast to that?
It was certainly a deliberate contrast. When you watch a comedian’s special, it’s always a celebration, and a deserved one, that you’ve gotten to this point. It’s almost like a debutante ball for that comedian and those jokes, and that’s great. But 99 percent of the time, for 99 percent of comedians, [there’s no] fancy theater and expensive clothes. It’s low ceilings, it’s sometimes combative crowds. I thought it might be interesting to show that reality side of it, especially if I was going to blend it with some of the thoughts about where my life is at.
You’ve talked about growing up in New Jersey loving punk bands and going to shows since you were 13. How did your immersion in the local music scene shape the direction of your career?
The first time I ever saw live music was a show with three local bands that my friend Mike organized. So I have always felt in my career that my early exposure to local-level, grassroots, from-the-ground-up music gave me this secret confidence in pursuing an entertainment career. I always understood that if worse comes to worst, I can go rent a space, find some friends, and put on a show. The art that I like is the stuff that people make themselves and the stuff that kind of exists outside the algorithm. And I’m sitting here in a J.Crew T-shirt — I’m not trying to say that I’m like Joe Strummer in the late Seventies. I’m not a radical or revolutionary, but I’m aware there are systems in place, and the entertainment industry is a lot of parasites and professional middle-people who get to give you notes so they can keep their jobs, and not a lot of it has to do with creativity.
How has becoming a father changed how you approach your work?
Sometimes I get down on myself — “Should I have booked more TV work?“ I’ve consistently chosen to do everything my own way, and was that, like, self-defeating? And then I look at my son — and his mom [Hallie Bulleit] is an artist, too — and I just go, “This kid has a good chance to grow up with some values that I agree with, because Hallie and I have stuck by those values.“ I think that he’s going to grow up and realize he was raised by two parents who did not prioritize money above all else and who maybe try to value people and their community and hope that rubs off on him.
Throughout the special you were questioning, “How long can I keep doing this?“ How are you thinking about your future in comedy as you sit there today?
I do wonder how long I can do it. I am old. Driving six hours after one show to get to the next town is not as charming as it was when I was younger. But I still love shows, and I love connecting with people, and that is a piece of my life that I just can’t imagine giving away. I think I will remain very happy in my career if I can take a deep breath and not make my choices about the financial implications, but about the artistic implications. I’ve been very lucky, and I’ve worked hard, and financially I have a little bit of breathing room. And maybe it’s just rationalizing the fact that I can’t sell out, but it feels like artistically I should be playing a backyard barbecue in Binghamton, New York. It makes a lot of sense to me. And if I only make a couple of hundred bucks that night, it’s OK. For now, less worry about money and more worry about happiness.
In the special, you tell a joke about planning for the apocalypse. Do you have a plan, and would you be willing to share it?
I still assume I’ll die rather quickly, but there is a little bit of a plan. We live out in the woods now. We’re not too far from the Appalachian Trail. I’ve been thinking that I need to start camping so I know how that works, because I’m not well-versed in it. What’s really wild is I did that joke for years and we all laughed so hard at the idea of these people who overreact to the apocalypse. And then the next thing you know, we’re all sitting in our basements with pallets of cat food and toilet paper. So that joke is less funny than it used to be, but probably a little more real. But yeah, the plan probably involves a desperate effort to get to the Appalachian Trail, only to find out that I don’t know how to set up my tent.