The Carson of Cable Access

Photo: Sandy Honig

It’s 10:15 on a Wednesday night, less than an hour before TV’s The Chris Gethard Show is to go live, and our host is hunched over the trunk of his Ford Fiesta, looking for props. “My house is filled with this kind of junk,” says Gethard, sifting through wayward clutter that includes a vuvuzela and a fog machine. “It looks like an anime nightmare’s about to unfold there at any minute.”

Gethard grabs some boxes and heads to the West 59th Street entrance of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the public-access hub where, for nearly a year, he’s been filming his shambolically ambitious, oddly uplifting TV party. Each week, the lean, bespectacled Gethard—a 31-year-old improviser and writer—engages in awkward viewer calls, stages high-concept (and occasionally disastrous) group-comedy bits, and subjects himself to all sorts of abuse: He once hired a kickboxer to pummel him whenever he couldn’t answer basic questions about his friends, and spent an entire episode being painfully humiliated by a dominatrix.

But The Chris Gethard Show is also a sort of free-form bullshit session for the well-behaved goofs who fill the studio and flood the phone lines with proud-loser confessionals. These are teens and twentysomethings who aren’t the typical outsider archetypes, being neither nerdy-chic cool nor Zuckerberg-ishly remote. These are Gethard’s people—kids who, as he says, “feel like they had a little bit of a raw deal growing up.”

Gethard can relate, having come up scrawny and shy in the New Jersey suburbs with a last name that, on paper, was an unimaginative bully’s dream come true (it’s actually pronounced Geth-herd). In a recent memoir, A Bad Idea I’m About to Do, he recalls the depression and low self-esteem that followed him into early adulthood. “In improv, you have your high-status characters—the boss, the military officer, the cop,” he says over lunch one day. “I was always much better at the lower-status character—your zhlubs, your losers—because I’m more of a low-status guy in real life.”

While at Rutgers University in 2000, he began taking classes at Chelsea’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where he relived some of those formative years via self-immolating monologues. He later moved to the city and, ever since, has been mounting shows that find humor in communal discomfort, whether it’s hosting a stand-up night where comics get pelted with paintballs or leading a bus full of fans to see the house where he lost his virginity.

“He creates this energy where anything can happen,” says The Office star Zach Woods, a longtime friend whom Gethard once talked into infiltrating the ruins of the smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island (they couldn’t get in, instead stumbling upon a Mormon singles-night party). “And even if it doesn’t end up being that weird or insane, there’s something attractive about somebody who can plant that expectation of magic.”

Gethard’s career has been as unpredictable as his act. In the spring of 2010, after years of perennial star-to-be status at UCB, Gethard was unexpectedly airdropped into his own sitcom, as the lead on Comedy Central’s heavily promoted Big Lake (original star Jon Heder had backed out). But the show lasted a mere ten episodes and convinced Gethard that he would be better off focusing on his own projects—which is how he wound up getting kickboxed on late-night TV.

The Chris Gethard Show had actually begun on the UCB stage in 2009, and last year Gethard traveled to L.A. to pitch a network version. But while producers were intrigued by some of his elaborate crowd-sourced stunts—he and his fans once brow-tweeted Diddy into making a cameo—they deemed a live call-in show too risky.

Instead, Gethard returned to New York and adapted the program to fit within the yeoman-artiste confines of public-access. In the YouTube era, this might seem like an ironic gimmick, but Gethard wanted to re-create the cheaply chaotic feel of both old MTV and Howard Stern’s early-nineties WWOR talk show. And because The Chris Gethard Show is live-streamed, it’s open to a borderless audience of fans, some of whom use Twitter or the phone lines to shape the action in real time. One night, a young woman called in, confused about the show; Gethard told her to come to the studio to hang. “She wound up guest-starring for four straight months,” he says.

Most important, the show keeps Gethard in the city. For the last few years, he’s unhappily watched many of his UCB pals decamp to L.A. for jobs, a fate he’s trying to avoid. This year, Gethard will skip Hollywood’s pilot season to work on the show. But it’s eating up hours of his time, and his savings. Though the MNN facilities are free, Gethard shells out for props, merchandise, and a touring live show; he estimates he’s spent $10,000 so far, much of it from his Big Lake earnings. Gethard needs someone to foot the bill, and soon. “I can’t ask a crew to do this for free forever,” he says. “People work pretty hard on this dumb thing.”

This much is evident one night on the MNN floor. Gethard, dressed in jeans and a Knicks T-shirt, stands in the middle of the studio testing his microphone. Nearby, a bearded man in a full-body banana outfit ushers in audience members, while punk musician Ted Leo sound-checks in the corner. There’s also a hula-hooper, a guy in swim trunks and goggles, and somebody in a soiled bunny costume. The whole scene looks like The Last Supper as painted by Sid and Marty Krofft.

Finally, at 10:59 p.m., a control-room countdown begins, and Gethard starts nervously bouncing up and down. Earlier, he’d been trying to suss out his future: “Do I go to L.A., where I’d be more secure? Or do I stay in New York and do the weird stuff that I really love?” Watching him bound in place—a double-decker smile on his face, a clique of happy outcasts by his side—it seems that, for now, he’s found his answer.

The Chris Gethard Show
Manhattan Neighborhood Network.
Wednesdays. 11 p.m.

The Carson of Cable Access