Chris Gethard, Co-star of “Don’t Think Twice” | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Gethard (top) putting Keegan-Michael Key in a headlock

Chris Gethard, Co-star of “Don’t Think Twice”

The comedian on wisdom learned from improv & the brilliance of Morrissey’s lyrics

Jul 20, 2016 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Comedian Chris Gethard has been a fixture of the New York improv scene since the turn of the millennium, which made him an invaluable resource to his friend, director, and co-star Mike Birbiglia as he was writing the what would eventually become Don’t Think Twice. The film—Birbiglia’s second, following Sleepwalk With Me—revolves around an improvisation troupe called The Commune, whose close friendships are put to the test when their performance space closes and one of their own is called up to join the cast of a late-night program in the vein of SNL. Jealousies flare, egos are dented, and the six members of the group are forced to re-evaluate the choices they’ve made in their lives and careers.

Although it’s ostensibly a heartbreaking film about friendships falling apart and dreams failing to materialize, it also manages to be very funny – thanks in no small part to the endearing chemistry of its cast which includes Birbiglia and Gethard, plus Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher.

Gethard regularly performs both standup and improv comedy, but many of his fans know him as host of The Chris Gethard Show, the wild, unpredictable television variety show he’s hosted for more than 150 episodes across New York public access broadcasting and, later, Fusion. He’s also host of a new podcast entitled Beautiful/Anonymous, in which he opens up his line to one unidentified caller each week and allows them to lead their conversation in any way they’d like.

Gethard’s also a diehard devotee of The Smiths and Morrissey – he’s penned beautiful essays explaining his fandom, has two Smiths-related tattoos, and even performs in a cover band called Mr. Frankly and the Shanklys. We had the pleasure talking with him about his favorite band, his new film, and the lessons he’s carried from improv into his everyday life.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You come from an improv background; specifically, you trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. What first attracted you to improv and led you take classes?

Chris Gethard: Well, the thing that really got me all in on it – that made me feel addicted to it – was that it was a community. Specifically when I found it in 2000, it felt like a community of outsiders. It felt like a community of people that were there because it was pushing a button that they couldn’t get pushed in other areas of life or other areas of art; or maybe people who didn’t feel that they had other places to go and hang out and express themselves. To me, the communal idea – that you meet these people and you become their safety net, and they become your safety net – it’s such an eye-opening thing. And I was just 20 years old when I started at UCB. I was just a kid.

I just loved the idea that I was this weirdo kid with depression from New Jersey who would take the train in from New Jersey to take classes, and none of that mattered. If you were funny and you worked hard, then you could hang out. It was kind of like, as long as you were ready to put in the work, you were ready to stand up and put your talents on display, you could cut through all of the other social bullshit, and all of the other things that might divide us. As long as you’re in it, for real, and ready to work hard, you have a place here. That really meant a lot.

Do you recall the first time you performed for an audience? Was it scary?

Yeah! I was in my college improv group before I started at UCB, and those first shows I did so poorly. I was kind of an off-putting smarty-pants guy. I was in this group where we all college guys, and there were a couple of showboats in there – people who kind of didn’t want to let other people talk as much, and I was this shy, easily-rattled person. A lot of my early shows I was just standing there in confusion, and making references to American history and being met with silence.

I’ve always had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I always felt like I had something to say, and I wanted to fan the flames on that – I didn’t want to compromise my voice to try to keep up. So I pretty relentlessly kept pushing what I had to offer, and then I found UCB. I started taking classes there the summer after my sophomore year in college and that changed everything. It really enabled me to figure out who I was on stage, and how to put what I wanted to say out there into the world. It was a very happy, exciting time.

It’s easy to see how improv can help you as a performer, say, on your show or podcast. I’m curious, have you found those improv skills and training have carried over to your life and career in ways that are less obvious?

I think so. It’s two-fold: one, at the end of the day, improv is all about listening. The best improvisers are the ones who can listen and pick up not just the joke you’re trying to make, but the way you’re saying it, the tone you’re putting behind it. What are the things you want from me, and how can I help facilitate them? When the best improvisers get going, they’re actually figuring out the jokes that are coming five or six lines later. It’s like chess in that way: they’re seeing the game board ahead of the moves, and setting it up way down the pipe, and that’s all about listening. Not just with your ears, but guessing people’s intentions and figuring out how to fan flames. And that just comes in so handy in life – I think it’s made me a more empathetic person. That’s served me well in all of my creative work, and with my family and friends. I was a nervous, angry young man, and I think my relationship with my family improved because improv really makes you realize it’s not about you, that it’s about the other people and what they’re contributing. So I think on a basic level, it made me a better person, because it taught me to listen and see outside of myself a little bit more.

The other thing it teaches you – it’s such a disposable art form: you do it, and it goes away. It trains you to have a thick skin and realize that nothing matters that much. You’ll always do another thing, there will always be another thing. If something fails, that’s okay. Don’t dwell on it, move on, find the next thing. Sean Conroy is an improviser – I remember when I started, he said something along the lines of, “Improv is so frustrating; it’s like throwing diamonds in the ocean. You’ll do the best scene you’ve ever done, and the 70 people who were there that night are the only people who will ever know you did this brilliant thing.” Your great stuff gets thrown away, your horrible stuff gets thrown away. Everything is so disposable, and that really helps you realize that there are very few things in life that are truly life-altering. There aren’t too many jobs that are going to change you forever; there are not too many things that can bomb and leave a stain on you forever. In professional terms that’s very important, and in personal terms that’s very important. It thickens your skin in a way that’s healthy and not cynical.

I read that Mike was developing the story and script while the two of you were touring together. Do you remember any of the topics those early conversations about the project touched on?

Mike’s a big touring guy, and we’d be doing shows all over the place. There’d be times we’d do a show in, like, Des Moines, and tomorrow we’re going to wake up in Kansas City, so we’d be driving all night in the bus. It was just the two of us, so we’d sit up and talk. He and I have talked about so much real-life stuff. Really, I’ve leaned on Mike not just comedically, but personally.

I remember there was a stretch where he hadn’t told me yet he was working on [Don’t Think Twice], but he was asking me lots of questions like “What was like it at UCB when this happened?” or “What year did you notice the tone start to shift away from kids in the clubhouse, to everyone realizing they could get jobs?” “When this friend of yours got this job, did it fuck with your head at all?” Just little questions like that. Eventually I was just like, “Wait. I can’t help but notice our conversations have had a theme lately…” He told me he’d been thinking about working on a thing, and that he thought the improv world was ripe for exploring, and that there were stories there that hadn’t been told. And I really agreed with him there.

I think he eventually gave me a creative consultant credit on the movie, because there were so many conversations that were just about, “Here’s what UCB was like in 2001, here’s what it was like in 2005-2006.” “Here’s what it was like when the kids from Derrick Comedy—they were college kids then—started making videos and those were blowing up, and everybody started thinking ‘Oh, shit, we have to make videos now!’” What was it like when people started getting jobs on SNL and The Daily Show? What was it like when the New York Times wrote that big article, and what was it like when the theater shut down for year? I just lived it – I lived the history of longform improv in New York for 16 years. Not from the very beginning, but close.

When I watched the film and was thinking about it afterward, the song which kept popping into my head was “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”…

Yes! Thematically, it’s right on target. “It could have been me, it should have been me, everyone says so…”

That song really helped me so much because there was a real stretch at UCB where all of my friends were getting jobs and I was sort of the last man standing from my generation, in a big way. There were a couple soul-searching moments when I found my way to that Morrissey song. I reminded myself: don’t get bitter, put your head down, and work hard. It’s okay to be disappointed, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to be scared, but as soon as you turn bitter, that’s very toxic. I think that’s one of the main things I take away from this movie. You can see which characters hit and which characters miss, and a big think to take away from the movie is with the characters who miss – there’s a scale of how bitter they are. You can see the ones who are bitter are least happy.

I’m a Smiths fan, but my wife isn’t – she tolerates them, even though I’ve been trying for years to get her more into it. You’re a huge Smiths fan, and I’m wondering if you have any tips that could help me finally bring her over?

What doesn’t she like about the Smiths?

I think for the same reason a lot of people dismiss them. She thinks he’s a whiny singer.

Well, here’s what I would say, because I think about The Smiths so much. I think you should point out the lyrics – there are a lot of lyrics Morrissey has that are actually very tough. Starting with the first single, “Hand in Glove”: “If they dare touch a hair on your head, I’ll fight til the last breath.” You know, “In my life, why do I give such valuable time to people I’d much rather kick in the eye?” “You should be bludgeoned in your bed,” or “Sweetness, I was only joking when I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head.” So much of Meat Is Murder is about hating his teachers, getting bullied, and fighting back. It’s interesting because I think the Smiths have this reputation for being this very maudlin, whiny band from the 1980s, but I actually feel like Morrissey at the end of the day is a feminine guy who is still very tough. He’s like, “My ability to stand up for myself and my ability to fight back against aggressors has nothing to do with the fact that I wear a blouse and have flowers in my pocket.” They’re not mutually exclusive.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s kind of amazing to me, with the gender politics of today – there’s been a lot of empowerment for the transgendered community in the last few years. It’s been moving so quickly and in such a beautiful way; it’s not easy, but what you’re seeing right out the gate are so many people saying things like, “Let people use what fucking bathroom they want. Who cares?” It seems like that’s been a thing that’s been gaining steam quickly in such a beautiful way. I feel like Morrissey’s lyrics in 1984 were kind of about what it means to have a fluid gender. What does it mean? He said he was asexual. What does it mean to define your own sexuality? What’s it mean to say that masculinity gets so tied up in gender and surface-level behavior? I think Morrissey’s actually a pretty tough dude from Manchester who grew up Catholic in England during an economically depressed time. I kinda feel near the end of the Smiths especially – even more so than Morrissey’s solo career – if I had to sum it up in one sentence, it’s kind of about what it’s like being a soft, sensitive person who comes from a very hard place. What does that do to you? It kind of makes you own exactly who you are, while also being totally unapologetic and tough.

That’s something I think about a lot being from North Jersey. I was this shy, artsy kid who was scared to even tell my parents I wanted to be an actor! I went to a state school and studied American studies because I didn’t know what else to do. I know what it’s like to be a soft person or sensitive person in a world that doesn’t accommodate those attitudes so much. I would predict in a year or so there’s about to be a wave of think pieces analyzing their lyrics and looking at them in terms of today, and realizing that he was writing these kind of rallying cry anthems that people only really now are acting on. It’s 32 years later, and that’s kind of amazing.

Think about it. In 1984, to wear a women’s blouse and go on TV and have a bunch of gladioli in your pocket? And make all your record covers pictures of old starlets and beautiful men? That guy had balls … Morrissey was standing up publicly and owning who he was, in an era and in a place where it was an extremely brave thing to do.

***

Don't Think Twice opens in NYC on July 22nd. Full episodes of The Chris Gethard Show can be viewed on the show's YouTube channel. Chris' podcast, Beautilful/Anonymous, is hosted by Earwolf. 



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