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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Chris Gethard, Comedian

“Now I know what a punch line is.”

Gethard at Upright Citizens Brigade, 2010.  

I got asked to do Big Terrific out in Williamsburg one night. I’d done that show a few times and the crowds particularly did not enjoy me. Sometimes they laughed, sometimes they didn’t, but I definitely didn’t have what it takes to force them to laugh. That show depressed me. I almost stayed home, but instead I went up onstage, feeling pretty hopeless. I told a story that night about a friend of mine who brought me to Tijuana when I was 24 years old because he was under the mistaken impression that I was a virgin. They story was about eight minutes long. It had a beginning, middle, and end. I knew the crowd was not going to like it, but I didn’t have anything else.

It was getting a lukewarm reaction and I figured it didn’t matter, so about halfway through the story I started improvising a bit. At one point in the story I talked about how when I was resisting this idea that we’d patronize a whorehouse, he said, “It’s cool, man, they give you a towel.” And I still don’t know why, but that night after I said that, I mumbled the line “I don’t know what he thought my problem with this situation was if he thought a towel could solve it.” That line got a laugh. Not a huge laugh, but a laugh.

And I’ll never forget, clear as day, inside my head I shouted, “THAT IS A PUNCH LINE.” I was still telling the story as usual, but it just jumped into my head: “That laugh right there is the key, that is a punch line, now you know what a punch line is.”

And it turned out I was right. I told that story again, but instead of worrying about the beginning or middle or end, I just got as quickly as possible to the part where he brought up the towel. And I went off about the towel idea. I unpacked it, I looked at it from different angles, I squeezed as much juice as possible, I got multiple laughs off one idea and eventually, over many retellings, got decently large laughs off that joke.

Something clicked into place. Probably I’d bombed enough at that point that I was able to stop panicking and let a productive thought pop into my head. Also, looking back on it, I’d probably been waking up some really weak muscles that whole time, and that night was when they got strong enough to actually become useful. But either way, that was the first night I ever felt like a comedian. Looking back, that joke wasn’t a particularly good one, but it was definitely a joke.