I meet Chris Gethard on the last weekend of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, when he has just two more performances of his stand up hour, Career Suicide, remaining. The show is incredibly personal, detailing his thought process during an impulsive decision to crash a car on purpose in his early twenties, through to his relationship with his current therapist and his tumultuous career in comedy.
Gethard’s comedic influence reaches far and wide: he has appeared on shows from The Office to Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and stars in the new film Don’t Think Twice alongside Jordan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs. He also hosts his own talk show, The Chris Gethard Show, on US cable channel Fusion and has taught improv at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) to students who have gone on to great success in their own right.
Despite his long career, Career Suicide is the first show Gethard has brought to Edinburgh. He tells me he didn't always plan to perform at the festival, but an agent suggested that the hour was well-suited to the Fringe and he took them up on the idea.
“The Edinburgh Festival among American comedians actually has a very odd reputation. I think a lot of Americans come over and they don't quite know what the festival is, and I've heard some people have horror stories where you come over and you play to ten people a night. But now that I'm here I realise a lot of American acts maybe come over and just do their club acts, which is not really what this festival embraces.
“One comedian sent me a funny message where I had tweeted about coming to Edinburgh, and he's seen my show and sent me a message that was like, ‘Wow, if you thought you were suicidal before, wait until you get over to that festival.’ But that proved pretty unfounded, I braced myself for it and did my research and it's been a really great time.”
But the festival is also a unique experience, and performing the show so many times in a row brought up things he didn’t expect.
“When I first started trying out this material in New York, I would say the first six months or so I'd get off stage and I'd be shaking, like, I can't believe I'm talking about this stuff in front of a paying audience. I thought I'd gotten kind of a thick skin to that, but it's been really interesting because doing the show so many times here I kind of had to face down a few things in it that weren't the most pleasant.”
Gethard's career has included several moments where he almost 'made it' in a conventional sense, including a two-week trial stint as a writer at Saturday Night Live and being cast as the lead in a sitcom that wasn't picked up. When I ask how he feels about his relationship with comedy today, Gethard says, “I feel like my career's actually in better shape than it's ever been in, and I don't think it's a coincidence. I've found over and over and over again in my career, nothing good has ever happened until I've pushed the ego out of the way.”
“I don't necessarily know that I have a career that I would have envied when I was 21 and starting out, but I have this career that I know when I was 14 I would have been like, ‘Oh my God.’ My priority the past few years has been to work on stuff that I think me and my brother would have liked when we were little kids in our basement looking for weird stuff on the upper cable channels, just being oddballs.”
This comfort has given him the space to look back on his relationship with comedy and its influence on his personal life, including his mental health.
“That's another great thing about doing the show in Edinburgh, because a lot of my relationship with comedy was not in it at the start of the run," he says. "But I've realised while I'm here that throughout my whole life comedy has been the most powerful positive and also the most destructive, negative thing, and I didn't really know how to verbalise that, but it's built into the show in a really nice way since the beginning of the run here."
I mention that it seems Don’t Think Twice, his new film “about an improv group where one guy gets successful and then everyone else has to think about their place in the food chain after that”, builds on many of these ideas. He agrees and tells me some of the seeds of the film’s plot were planted through discussions he had with writer and director Mike Birbiglia, even before Gethard was aware that he was working on a film.
“Definitely I think he would say I'm in the DNA of that movie a little bit, because we just had so many conversations about the early days of UCB as he was writing the very first draft."
“It's a special movie to me because my parents just saw it, and I know they're gonna get this glimpse into what my life was like in 2006, 2007, and I think they're gonna have a different look at why I was who I was, why I was stressing out as much as I was, why it was so important to me.”
And the film touches on some particularly difficult moments for Gethard. “That was really reliving a lot for me, that was my experience at UCB - a lot of people were really going on to huge success and they were friends of mine and I was really banging my head into a wall for many years. So it was strange, it felt less like acting and more re-enacting for me at certain points.”
Given Gethard's experience with UCB it's easy to understand why it may have contributed to moments of personal crisis. But his projects now range widely, including a recently launched podcast, Beautiful/Anonymous, where he speaks with an anonymous caller for up to an hour and isn't allowed to hang up first.
“I have such a funny relationship with the podcast because I've worked for 16 years in comedy trying to get people to know who I am and know my work, and The Gethard Show in particular, since 2009 I've been really just desperately trying to get people to notice it and it's remained an underground thing.
“Then I do this podcast that's like, hey, this might work, who knows, it's just a dumb idea, and it's blown up and become by far the most popular thing I've ever done. And that's really cool to see, but also I'm like, oh man, who knew that just taking a phone call from an anonymous person would be the thing that most people know?”
The fact that people in Europe had travelled to Scotland to see his show on the basis of enjoying The Chris Gethard Show or Beautiful/Anonymous was "headspinning".
When I ask what he would like to do with Career Suicide once the Fringe is over, he says, “I have to imagine that at a certain point I'm gonna hit a wall and think I don't want to talk about times I've tried to kill myself ever again in front of a crowd. I have always had that in my head, because I've talked about this stuff publicly enough that people reach out to me and ask me my opinions on depression, and I am just a comedian at the end of the day.
“So I also have it in my head, if I can take this thing as far as possible, if I can take this thing to the limit of where a comedy special can go, then maybe I'll have done my part and contributed to the discussion and can talk about some other stuff.
"Which would be really nice.”
Scott Limbrick - @ScottLimbrick