Chris Gethard on his new book, his old TV show, and not taking the “cult” part of “cult hero” literally

Photo: Desiree Navarro/Getty Images, Graphic: Natalie Peeples

It’s always a good time to talk to Chris Gethard. Hundreds of people regularly vie for that opportunity, waiting for him to tweet the phone number for Beautiful/Anonymous, a podcast that is built entirely of Gethard taking calls from unidentified strangers. But now seems like a particularly good time to talk to the comedian, podcaster, and author: His new book, Lose Well, comes out Tuesday, October 16, just a couple of months after he announced the end of the eponymous variety show that had taken him and a band of loyal weirdos from the stage of New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre to public-access television to two separate cable channels. The Chris Gethard Show is a major presence in Lose Well (fitting, since it’s where the book’s title and driving philosophy came from), but so are the insights and guidance that so frequently slipped in between the TCGS’ outrageous stunts and recurring characters—the sort of vulnerable, honest, and spoken-from-experience material that’s earned him such a strong online following and qualifies him to write a book like Lose Well. The A.V. Club spoke with Gethard about the book’s genesis, the end of The Chris Gethard Show, and what he wants to get out of the next phase of his career.

The A.V. Club: “Lose well” is a refrain that’s run through a lot of your work prior to Lose Well—what does that phrase mean to you? 

Chris Gethard: I think on a fundamental level, a lot of us spend a lot of time freaking out and strategizing ways to not fail. And I think we get so caught up in that that we forget what we want to do is win—and “winning” and “not failing,” those are not always the same concept. A lot of times we obsess so much over the idea that we don’t want to fail that we actually cut ourselves off from getting to any place cool in life—creatively or just in general.

The phrase itself was born out of The Chris Gethard Show, on one of our public-access episodes. There was a cast member who was moving who said that she felt like a loser sometimes, and I kind of went off. I was like, “It’s not our job to not lose. That’s who we are. You’re hanging out here at the public-access station, you’re a loser, but I tell you what: We’re really good at it. We lose well.” It became something that our fan base rallied around, and that informed me ever since then.”

AVC: The book is part career memoir, part self-help guide—do you feel like this is a role your work has been building toward?

CG: I think so. There’ve been a lot of people over the years—some of them other comedians, some of them just random human beings—who have reached out to me. I get asked a lot where people are just like, “I kind of doubt myself, or people doubt me, and I see that you just went off and did it your way. How did you do it?” And this book is my effort to answer that question in as thorough a way as I possibly can and put it all in one place. It is weird: It’s like I’ve come to maybe mentor some younger comedians, and I think a lot of the fans of my work are creative people in their own right and a lot of them rally around the idea of doing it yourself. And I think they appreciate that that’s the way I did it.

AVC: Can you remember the first time that someone approached you in that capacity? What was your reaction to being asked for advice?

CG: It probably started in my improv days. I don’t do much improv anymore. I miss teaching more than performing. Part of what was fun was I was this New Yorker, I was coming out of UCB when UCB was this place that had this growing reputation, and I’d go to smaller cities and I do shows or I’d teach classes, and I noticed that when you’d get to the cities that weren’t New York, Chicago, or L.A.—especially 10, 15 years ago when improv wasn’t a thing—people would be like, “How the fuck do I make this a bigger part of my life? How do I get it going?” And that was when I first started noticing that maybe I represented something about impossibility or unlikely success or failure [Laughs.] in people’s minds because I think people are just like, “You’re a fucking depressed, odd-looking man. You’re from New Jersey. Nobody really expects much from people who look like you or come from where you’ve come from, but you’re somehow gutting it out and stick with it.”

I remember going to a theater in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And when I got there, all the people there were like, “No, we know you because you’re the lowest man on the totem pole from a very successful place. How the fuck are you hanging on?” [Laughs.] And that was people’s vibe, but it was all said with admiration. It’s been a running theme in my life that people like that I’m barely holding it together.

AVC: There’s definitely a sense that Lose Well is informed by your teaching experience—would you say the same is true of your experiences with therapy?

CG: It definitely is. I think people have made the crossover between improv therapy before. I think a lot the more philosophical stuff that deals with creativity—a lot of that comes from my background as an improviser. Because I just poured so much thought into it, and the longer I taught, the more I realized for a lot of people the issue is not I’m teaching you an improv exercise. What I can really offer is trying to get you riled the fuck up so you just stop apologizing, go out and do it. My experience with improv taught me that.

Therapy was what taught me to get out of my own way. I was very good as a teacher and teaching people to get out of their own way, but I still needed therapy to help me do it. I think those worlds definitely both show up in this book.

AVC: In writing Lose Well, did you feel like you’d been carrying these ideas around in your head for a while, and this book was finally the right place to put all of them?

CG: One hundred percent. It’s something that has always flared up from time to time. I think a lot of comedians—when someone comes up to them like, “How do I become a comedian?”—you learn how to run in the other direction. But when I see somebody who’s young and hungry, who has something, I always enjoy that conversation. So it was nice to put it all down in one place.

This didn’t make the book, but probably the biggest motivating factor in writing this book is that a girl I went to high school with, who I hadn’t talked to in like 20 years, 15 years, asked me to get dinner in the city one night. And she still lives in Jersey, so I was like, what the hell is this about? And we’d been friendly in high school, but not the closest. And she sat me down and was like, “You went for it. I always wanted to go for it. I was the funny girl. You were the funny guy. How did you fucking go off and do it?”

And without getting too personal or airing out her details, she had some very real-life stuff happen along the way, and she had to deal with a whole bunch of stuff when we were kids. Most kids don’t have to deal with. And I sat there thinking about how to answer that question for her and it just got me so pissed off, if I’m being honest. I was like, “Man, some people have to deal with real stuff and then they feel like they can’t ever take a chance again.” I really believe in people’s right to take a chance. So when I had that conversation with her, I felt incredibly motivated to open up my entire brain to think about the last 18 years of experience and just try to be as thorough as possible. Here’s everything that I can think of that ever helped me keep going.

AVC: Did any of that come from a place of wishing that there was a book like this that you could’ve read while you were coming up?

CG: Let’s put it this way: I certainly hope that there’s some young weirdos out there who don’t have to spend half a decade on public access after reading this book. I think it’s a good guide for the confused, strange birds of the world. It is something I had in the back of my mind: Me and my friends had to carve out our own path in a real big way, and we had to do it publicly, and we had to eat a lot of shit. Maybe I can tell you all the ways you may be able to dodge doing the same shit.

AVC: Is it a thing that you see as a philosophy that can be adopted as a whole, or would you recommend that readers pick and choose what’s relevant to them?

CG: Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear. There’s a lot of philosophy in there, but if it’s my personal philosophy and it’s stuff that I really worked hard to say. I don’t want to put anything in this book that’s like a platitude. I want it to be “I’ve worked hard. I banged my head against the wall. Here’s some stuff that worked for me. Maybe it’ll work for you. And even if it doesn’t, I hope you get a lot of value out of trying.” I didn’t want to do anything that felt like snake oil. I didn’t want to do anything that felt like guru-ism. I wanted to put some philosophy out there, under the caveat of “at the end of the day, I’ve just worked really hard and I haven’t given up, and this is the book for the people who also want to fit that mold.” It’s really dangerous, it’s really insidious, I think, that whole world of selling people their dreams back to them. I did not want to be a part of that.

AVC: There’s a self-awareness to the book that prevents it from tipping over into that territory. At one point, you imagine the reader thinking something along the lines of, “What’s with all this self-help bullshit? I thought this was a memoir.”

CG: It was something that I was not only conscious of, but I think probably a little self-conscious of, and trying to have some fun at the expense of. Now that the book’s written and it’s not out yet, I can see: Some people are going to read this and be like, “Hey, it was pretty funny, but he kept stopping for all this fucking philosophy.” And then some people are going to go, “I really liked all the self-help stuff, but why did he have to put all the anecdotes in the middle? And then there’s going to be a sweet spot.

If you’re familiar with The Chris Gethard Show, you know it was very, very cult-y. And it could have taken a dark turn so many times, if I wanted to push that button. I had to be really conscious of it. Career Suicide, too: There’a a lot of people who come up to me on the road, or send me Facebook messages say “You’re the only one who gets me.” And it’s like, I’m not, I promise you I’m not. There’s other people out there who would understand. I got to always be conscious of stiff-arming that away because, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem so fun to be a guru. It seems like you take advantage of people and I’ve maybe seen some examples of that in the world before and it creeps me out.

AVC: It’s something that can be particularly insidious in the comedy community.

CG: One thousand percent. There’s certainly a lot of people who like to claim they know how it works, and then they wind up getting put on a pedestal, and you see the dark side of that pretty fast. Like I said, if you know my work, for a long time it was something that was like, “Yeah, I could probably make a lot of money selling improv workshops with weird, mystical sounding titles. I think I’d rather not do that.” I remember once when we were doing the Gethard Show, I put up a blog post where I made a joke where I was like, “Hey, so guys, I’m going to buy a whole bunch of acres of land in New Jersey and any fan of the show who wants to come live on my land, we’re going to build a tent compound.” I was kidding. It was in the context of a larger thing. I thought I was very clearly kidding. And a number of people were like, “Great, when should I quit my job?” And I was like, “Whoa. I have to be real careful with these jokes, because this is not a thing anybody needs from me!”

AVC: At the risk of treading territory we got into earlier, what do you think it is about you that makes people react in that way or look to you in that sense?

CG: It’s hard to say, because I would actually classify myself as a pretty below average person [Laughs.] in most ways. There are people who will write me messages and say “You saved my life” or sometimes I’ll meet younger comedians—I just did a show the other night and I was on the bill with this really funny girl and then she sent me a message after the show. It was like “I used to watch your public-access show when I was a teenager and it’s meant so much to me, and it’s why I did comedy.” I hear stuff like that and I don’t quite get it. I’m a fucking sad man with a big head from New Jersey. I think maybe I’ve just been very public about it. I think I’ve been very open about the fact that I do feel very inadequate, I think that’s maybe refreshing for people in some way. I do think people tend to appreciate the fact that for better, for worse, my show failed and a lot of the other stuff that I’ve done has failed. But I do think at the end of the day I put my money where my mouth is. I’ve really tried to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, and I think people see that in the work. And it’s nice that they appreciate it.

I think about [Laughs.] my comedy, and it’s not for everybody, and it’s like, “I feel like I must understand how Hüsker Dü or The Replacements felt in the ’80s. I guess we’ll never be R.E.M., but people really seem to like us too—just way less people.

AVC: It’s like the chapter of the book where you write about Henry Darger, The Shaggs, and Moondog. This is maybe a weird thing to say in the course of an interview, but you fit within the world of those figures, or Hüsker Dü or The Replacements or Morrissey. You just summed it up: You’re never going to be R.E.M. popular, but you do what you do, you do it really well, you’ve accumulated this fan base, and you continue to evolve in your art.

CG: Thank you. That’s super nice. Like Morrissey, I think I also have a real good way of walking the tightrope where I roll my eyes at the mainstream and also constantly complain that they won’t accept me.

But Jesus, also: How scary is it to be told like, “Yeah, it makes sense that you wrote about The Shaggs and Moondog because you have a lot in common with them”? [Laughs.] Those are really, really outliers. “Oh, you and Henry Darger—I see the crossover there.” Oh great. That guy didn’t speak to a human being for 40 years. Good to know that he and I have so much in common.

AVC: Sorry about that.

CG: Please, please, please, please.

AVC: We can excise this from the transcript.

CG: I beg you not to. It’s the part people will like the most. Everybody loves when I get publicly insecure.

AVC: How are things feeling in the wake of The Chris Gethard Show ending?

CG: I can tell you, so honestly, I didn’t get sad for one day and I haven’t really talked to anyone from the show who has. It was a beautiful thing in our lives. It was an incredibly meaningful thing in our lives. I think it will forever be the thing that informs the rest of my creative life. I think I will always measure the ideals and integrity of what I do against those of the show. I think Career Suicide is the thing that I’ll probably be most proud of, and the Gethard Show is the thing I think is most of what’s in my DNA. I’ll certainly miss it, but it had run its course. Looking back on it now, what we can all admit is it was the story of a public-access show, and getting to cable was like a beautiful moment of victory, and beyond all expectations, the victory lap somehow fasted for 47 episodes as a paying gig. And that’s a beautiful thing.

I’m 38 years old and I’m married. I’m happy. That show came out of my mind when I was 27 and I was depressed and I was in a relationship that was destined to not work out. How many more years am I gonna get like thrown in dunk tanks full of piss and stuff? I guess that’s the short answer. If you want to cut it down, that’s the whole quote, right? “I’m 38 years old. I don’t think I want to stand in a cage and have human hair dropped on me for much longer.”

I think there was a real chance that it could have busted through in the mainstream. I really do. I will be forever grateful that there were two different networks that gave it a shot. I think that neither network totally trusted that the way we wanted to do it was the smartest way to get there. I think we bent over backwards to compromise. They bent over backwards to give us a shot. And what can I do? It was starting to slip a little bit. I still am incredibly proud of every episode we put out there, but I could feel that it was starting to lose, a little bit, sight of what it had once been. And I’d rather just end it than let there be a chance that it totally loses its path.

I think we went out with their heads held high. I think that anybody who started coming to the show at UCB in 2009, or started watching on public access in 2011, or even the old fans who were like, “Ah, it changed too much” or “It went commercial”—everybody who was along for the ride might take a step back and go, “Holy fucking shit, man. Forty-seven episodes on cable.” I don’t think anybody saw that coming.

I’m 38 years old and I’m married. I’m happy. That show came out of my mind when I was 27 and I was depressed and I was in a relationship that was destined to not work out. How many more years am I gonna get like thrown in dunk tanks full of piss and stuff? I guess that’s the short answer. If you want to cut it down, that’s the whole quote, right? “I’m 38 years old. I don’t think I want to stand in a cage and have human hair dropped on me for much longer.”

AVC: And you did it for almost a decade.

CG: As things were getting tense, as it was becoming clear that we had to really dig our heels in and fight, the thing that kept me fighting was “Imagine if we do this thing for a decade. We’ve got to get to that 10 years. It’ll be awesome.” And then as it became clearer and clearer that it was just taking too much of a toll on all of us involved in the show, I was like, “Is there anything more Gethard Show than coming in at like nine years and 200 days?” That’s a very, very fitting legacy for us.

AVC: Could you sense the end was coming as you were writing Lose Well? There’s a point where you say, “The show may have been canceled between the time I wrote these words and the time they were published.”

CG: When I started writing the book, we were still on Fusion. [Note: Fusion, like The A.V. Club, is owned by Univision Communications Inc.] The entire maelstrom of moving networks and being on a big national platform, following one of the most popular shows in comedy right now, and ultimately petering out and failing—that all happened while I was quietly behind the scenes writing this book. All philosophy and self-help aside, in a way that I think will not be a turn-off to anyone who wasn’t a fan of it, this book is also kind of my love letter to the Gethard Show, and I think I did have it in my head of “This thing can only goe so far, or only get so big before it burst.” A lot of quiet contemplation. Especially on some of the stressful days when the show was really dragging me, it felt good to slink off into a corner and pour my thoughts about it onto the page.

AVC: The Facebook post that announced the show’s ending mentions how your career has turned toward quieter, slower projects. Do you see Lose Well as being on the same continuum as Beautiful/Anonymous and Career Suicide?

CG: Absolutely. Looking at who I was when I came up with the idea for the Gethard Show, I never would have had the idea for Beautiful/Anonymous. I never would’ve had the courage to do Career Suicide. I would have never had the ability to step outside of myself that I needed to write this book. I’s just another reflection that I’ve grown, and I’m a little older, and it’s funny, because I’m probably a little less cool, but I’m also a lot more wise. And I think that I’m okay with that.

AVC: This question goes against some of the advice in the book, but what would you like to see from the next 10 years of your career?

CG: I do really try to promote taking a deep breath and living in the moment. But writing this book really helped fan a little bit of a flame that I already had sitting in my guts, which is that I think I think I’ve always been at my best when I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, and when I’m a little bit driven by shit that feels unfair. I used to have that. Now I’ve had an HBO special. I’m writing my third book. I can’t sit here and pretend I’m some fucking underdog anymore. It’s in my guts. It always will be, but I also have to admit that things have worked out for me.

But I look around New York City in particular, and there are so many great comedians that are banging their heads against the wall, and good shit needs to happen to them, and I really want to take everything I’ve learned and try to box out some space so that they have a little bit more breathing room to do their shit. I’d love to transition over to being some sort of producer who can help people discover that next wave. If you look at the roster of my writers’ room over the years we were on cable, you can’t deny: Our show was the first stop for a lot of the people who are proving themselves to be amongst the best in comedy right now. And I think I have a good eye for that. I think there’s a lot of people who are just doing the coolest shit and I want to find a way to shout to the hilltops about those people and get them some opportunities.

AVC: Even beyond showbiz, you couldn’t pick a better time to have a chip on your shoulder and feel like things are unfair.

CG: Talk about about feeling frustrated and feeling like the world is putting a boot on your throat and feeling like nobody wants to listen to you. As I travel the country doing stand-up, I feel like everyone’s feeling that right now. Look at politics: I think so much of why things have gotten so nasty is because people on all sides of the spectrum feel like they’re being ignored and underestimated and not listened to. It’s something that really is in our guts right now. And I get it. I know how that feels.

AVC: What’s your Lose Well advice to anyone who’s feeling that way?

CG: One of the central messages of the book is if you feel frustrated, if you feel like everybody’s underestimating you, if you sit around underestimating yourself, at some point you’ve got to pick up a brick and throw it through a window and see what happens. I say that metaphorically, but also kind of not. You got to start throwing haymakers and finding your own path and not just sitting there and feeling that feeling and learning to be content with it and letting it drive you insane. At some point you got to draw some lines in the sand and go “Fuck this. I’m going to start defining it for myself.” All back-patting aside, I had to learn that lesson the hard way a bunch of times in my career and I’m hoping that by writing about it, other people won’t spend so much time sitting there stressing and panic attacks before they just take a chance to do it.

Managing editor, The A.V. Club