On the couch with Chris Gethard

Arielle Gordon

Chris Gethard

Photo by Andrew Bisdale.

The subject is a bit awkward, with a slight sag in his step as he approaches. This, I assume from our brief messages exchanged before our encounter, is due to his cat, Ramona, who needs to be hospitalized*. After relocating to my office—a pub in Greenpoint that has the World Cup on at full volume—I begin my examination. The subject seems nervous, asking multiple times if his responses are at all interesting. He is mild mannered, but clearly has a lot to say, and seems to constantly be searching for the right words with which to say it. His speech is rampant with filler words, perhaps signifying a nervous tic, or a larger compulsion to entertain. Interestingly, the subject ordered nothing but side dishes at our meal together. Does this show a fear of commitment? Or maybe just a love of cornbread?  Either way, one thing is very clear: there is a lot to unlock inside the mind of Chris Gethard, and a lot of it is about northern New Jersey.

Let’s start with the big one: Why do you love Morrissey so much? What do you think you’re hiding from?

Well, I don’t think I’m hiding from anything. Maybe on a very basic level it’s going to sound cheesy, but I have two Morrissey tattoos so I just have to own my cheesy love for Morrissey, but there was just this stretch of life where, I think for a lot of young people, it feels like nobody’s really listening to you and nobody’s really interested in what you have to say and I felt that for many years of my life, and I heard his lyrics, and I was like, “Oh, there’s someone who thinks the way that I think and verbalizes it in these ways that are very clear and identifiable.” There’s also a lot of humor in there with him. So I think it was just during a stretch of life when I didn’t really feel like there was anybody who knew what I felt, and it seemed very much like he did. I know that’s a melodramatic answer but it’s true. And it’s definitely something that I aspire to as an entertainer. One of the things that means the most to me is that a lot of people who find my public access show, and who seem to love it, are people who are maybe in a period of their lives where they feel that way, and it’s just important to explain how much it meant to me to find him when I was young, because I didn’t really have anybody else. So I have an allegiance to him, no matter how many ludicrous things he says in his older age.

Would you say you see yourself as a Morrissey for future generations?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I have what it takes. I think he’s the real genius when it comes to lyrics. I would not refer to myself as that. You’re inspired by the people you’re inspired by, and a lot of my comedy, I just like doing it like everybody else does it—stand up, improv, you know—but then, there’s a certain side of things where I like to have it open and have it be something that people can interact with and relate to and be a part of, and maybe feel like it’s a little bit of a safe haven. That’s definitely to me what it was like listening to Smiths records as a kid. So maybe not the Morrissey of future generations, but very much inspired by him and aware of the fact that his songs opened up some feelings in me that went beyond the songs, and I’m happy if my comedy does that for other people too.

Very interesting. Sorry, I’m trying to sound clinical and it just sounds… sarcastic.

I think you’re nailing it.

You were born and raised in West Orange, New Jersey. How have you since recovered?

That’s a very good question. It was an interesting place when I grew up there, and in many ways it’s still the place I love the most in the world, but it really had its dark side, and it really did lead to a lot of anger as a kid. It was a messed up place in a lot of ways in the ’80s and ’90s, and I didn’t really know it. That’s the weird thing. Like, when I went to college, I would tell stories of things that happened in my hometown and I thought they were funny and people would look at me like I was recounting takes of mass murders. People were like, “What are you talking about? That’s not a thing that should happen to you.” I didn’t even realize that, and I think I retroactively realized how unfair some things were and how things were maybe not on the up and up in a lot of ways. So, I think I’ll be recovering from that my whole life. But it’s funny that you put it that way because there’s a kid who grew up in my neighborhood, and we went from kindergarten to college graduation, the whole way—the same elementary school, junior high school, high school, and college, lived together in college—then we lost touch. I got back in touch with him a few years ago and met up with him and his wife in a bar in New York, and as soon as he sat down, he said, “Thomas Edison Junior High School ruined my life forever,” and his wife was like, “Can you please tell him to stop talking about this?” And I was like, “I can’t, because he’s right. Whatever this man is telling you, he’s not exaggerating.”

Wow. Seems like there’s a lot to unpackage there.

There is. North Jersey is an unforgiving place.

Do you want to tell me more about that?

In general, I think it’s a place where toughness is valued to an unhealthy degree. Like, when I was very young, like a toddler, my next door neighbor was a dwarf, and he used to mess with me and pick on me. One time I got tired of it and I took a wiffle bat and I beat the hell out of him with it, and my parents saw what was happening from the window and they let it happen because they were like, “That kid’s messing with him, and it’s good that he’s tough.” I just think back to that, and I’m like, “There’s some funny aspects to that story, but most kids when they’re like three years old aren’t getting in fist fights with dwarves.” It’s not an average thing, you know? It’s not a thing that your parents would look to and be like, “thumbs up to that!” It was a very divided place class-wise and racially, and I think that without any discussions about feelings that come with that stuff, a lot of that turns into kids just trying to be tough all the time. There’s some weird violence and this need for toughness, and it’s not always the best place. But I think it did mold me into who I am, for better or for worse. So I don’t regret it.

Chris Gethard

You don’t regret North Jersey?

I’ll never regret North Jersey. And I was just driving around New Jersey yesterday, thinking, “Fuck, man, I really, really love this place.” I don’t know if I would raise my kids here. But I love it. I actually probably would raise my kids in New Jersey. I feel bad that I just said that. I would probably just be a little more on top of things, explaining things to them. I think that was the thing, too. There was a lot of violence in my high school at the time and then, there was no mention of it, no consequences. They never sat us down and said, “Alright, so there was like a big, twenty-person brawl. Here’s why that can’t happen. Here’s why that’s not a good thing.” It was just kind of like, “Everybody shut up, forget about it.” You would never see it in the paper, the teachers won’t mention it. If I raise my kids in New Jersey, I’d just try to be aware of what was going on in their lives a little bit more.

So would you say you have a close relationship with your parents from that?

I have a very close relationship with my parents, my mom in particular. Me and my dad have gotten closer over the years. It was very strange, like, the only job I really had besides being a comedian was working for a magazine about ghosts called Weird New Jersey. My dad, I think, was really concerned. He was just like, “Are you sure comedy and ghosts are the two things to build your career on?” But over time I think he got more into it, and as he got closer to retirement age, I think he really saw it as a commendable thing, that I was trying to game the system a little bit, rather than go full-force into it.

You’re really deferential towards women, and seem to treat them like real human beings, even if they’re hot. Tell me more about that.

Well, I just really don’t remember a time in my life when that would have been an issue with me. I was always an extremely open-minded kid and never bought into it when other guys in high school would say mean stuff about other types of people. I think a lot of young men like to say mean things about women, and that just turned me off, and I was always like, the nice guy. I think that’s a good quality, and I look back at some of the situations in college where girls I had real big crushes on and I would say, “Why don’t they like me?” Looking back I was just as manipulative as a nice guy, and this whole idea that pretty girls are always the bad guy for not liking you, for not paying attention to you, just really rang untrue to me.

I have one friendship in particular, where it was this girl, and I was her best friend, and I was in love with her. And that’s not fair. That’s not fair to say you’re someone’s best friend when you have other intentions. And I just kind of look back at that, and I’m like, “Nobody has it easy.” I think guys are very quick to write it off, and I think a lot of comedy has that vibe of, the punchline is, “Women, right?” Like that’s the punchline. “Women are crazy.” I don’t know, I just think that’s often times kind of an excuse. I think it’s kind of an excuse. So, I don’t know.

Very recently I kind of fell backwards into having a bit of a war with some of these men’s rights activists, and some of them got at me online and were like, actually very reasonable and intelligent. There’s a lot of guys who feel like they need to play by a script, and they feel all this burden of responsibility, and need to be reminded that they can break out of that. I don’t disagree with that, but then there are a lot more people in the men’s rights movement that are calling me a faggot, and making fun of how I look, and saying mean things about my fiancee and my mother. And I’m like, “Oh no, it’s totally true, this is a place for really aggressive, mean people to validate their own behavior and blame it on someone else.” I don’t know. I think if you’re a reasonable, intelligent human being, you’re going to be kind to everybody. And being someone who is as close to a feminist as a guy can be… I think that should probably be the standard, only because it seems like the way of thinking that lends itself to kindness. I said a bunch of stuff in light of the Eliot Rodgers thing, and it got written up in a lot of blogs and stuff, and I think what’s weird about that is that it’s notable in any way for a guy to say, “Cool out and stop blaming women for your problems.” That shouldn’t be a notable thing, and hopefully it won’t be in the future.

Is this a really boring interview? I can’t tell.

Are you kidding? No. It’s not. It’s great.

I just feel bad because I’m slightly distracted by the World Cup, and distracted by this delicious food.

I think it makes you talk more, which is good. Speaking of food, on your public access TV show, there was once a twenty-minute chant of “Eat more butts!” How does that make you feel?

It makes me feel really good. I like that. I like having a TV show where it’s not bullshit to say that anything can happen. And I was very much not in control of that. That kind of happened on its own, and I certainly fanned the flames once it went there. I think it’s a cool thing. I think it’s a real silly phrase, but that’s the kind of TV show I would have liked as a kid, so I’m glad I get to put my name on it. I really stand by that one. Very proud of it. I think there’s something really dumb in the best iteration of the word, that a whole bunch of people can get together and do that, and call it entertainment.

So on your Comedy Central Half Hour website, there are five videos. They are all titled “Drug Confessions.” Tell me more about that.

That would make it seem like I’m someone who uses a lot of drugs. In actuality, I never use drugs. I had one incident a couple years back where I fell off the wagon and did way too many drugs. That’s the core of that bit. That’s probably not a great thing, that every single video on there has to do with drugs. That probably presents an image that is wildly untrue and probably the opposite of who I am. So that’s a little disconcerting. But yeah, I had a pretty crazy incident involving a whole bunch of MDMA, and it wasn’t the coolest. At first it was the coolest, in the early going. The first couple hours were the coolest. And then when I was just spending hundreds of dollars eating drugs, I was like, “Oh right, there’s a reason I don’t do this. I have absolutely no self control.” More power to anybody who can control themselves on drugs, but I got no ability to control myself. I definitely have an addict’s personality.

Tell me more about that. Is it just drugs?

No, it was alcohol when I was younger. I come from a family that has a lot of history of alcoholism, and started drinking a little bit in high school, and very quickly realized I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t good at it. I never drank every day, but I had a problem in the sense that I couldn’t drink without going overboard. Like, generally, if I drank, I passed out, or blacked out, or got in a fight, or started crying at some point. The idea of having one drink, two drinks—that was never an option for me. I drank throughout college, and just had too many incidents where I got fucked up and said nasty things to people. Or ruined a whole bunch of people’s nights because I was the one who couldn’t have two drinks instead of nine. So, I actually quit drinking before I graduated college, which I think is a rare thing. I was at a state school which had a real party element to it. I tried to quit a couple times, and then eventually it stuck. That was twelve years ago, so it’s been a little while since I’ve had booze. I’m just much better off without it. I’m not militant about it, I wouldn’t call myself straightedge by any stretch, really, but for me it’s what works best. And I’m glad I realized it.

So you’re an improviser, stand up comedian, storyteller, actor, author; what are you trying to hide by juggling all of these roles? What’s the motivation?

I don’t know. The motivation is probably born out of necessity. The sad answer is probably that I’ve done all of those things, and with a lot of them, I’ve taken them pretty far, and they haven’t been the thing to stick and define my career, and then out of necessity I start trying to find, like, the next thing I can sink my teeth into and see if that might be it. But I really love all of the different things I do, and I just try to work really hard at all of them. I do have a lot of anxiety, feeling like maybe if I just focused in on one of them, it would lead to more momentum. But, you know, a lot of them tie together, and I think I’ve done okay, I don’t think I’ve done great. I don’t, like, ever have a lot of money and not a lot of people know who I am, but I pay my rent as a comedian, and I have health insurance, so, those are really the things that you can realistically set as goals. Everything beyond that’s kind of a crap shoot.

You mention anxiety. Have you had problems with that in the past?

Oh, I take medication every day. Every morning I take Lamictal and Wellbutrin, and then at night I take more Lamictal. It’s the best. I need it. I’m like, very much prone to being unable to handle stuff. Just like, sometimes, I just can’t handle things, and a lot of emotions come up that I’m not quite in control of, and that’s just how it goes with me sometimes. So, I try to stay aware of it, stay on top of it.

But it’s not always easy. Even this past week, a lot of it’s like this thing where I’ll get kind of obsessive thoughts in my head, like, I had an issue this past week over something that I was very much intellectually aware didn’t actually matter, but on the principle of it, I had to keep restating to people my feelings on it, and everyone was kind of like, “Alright. Nothing will change but we understand your point.” That was three days of stress over this very technical stuff, and I know that’s vague, but I’m the kind of person who can’t leave my house without taking a shower, even if I’m going to leave and go to the gym and then come right back home, I have to shower for like forty-five minutes, because I just don’t have it in me to not. Things like that.

It used to be real bad. Like, those, I’ll take. Those are like little moments here and there that I’ll take, but I used to have it bad. Like, every time I got in a car I thought the car behind me was a cop car about to pull me over, and I used to shit my pants all the time because I was scared all the time. I really was a struggling person for much of my youth, I really was. Most of my teenage years and a lot of my twenties, I was barely functioning between the uncontrollable emotions and the constant fear.

How do you think you’ve improved your mental health since your teenage-hood?

Well, I think it’s always going to be a struggle, but I’m a lot more on top of it. I’m also a lot more open about it. Like, I used to not talk about it, and I used to hide it. I would have stretches where I was in agony and trying to handle it all myself or scared of what people would think of me, and I look back, and it’s just a brutal way to live, you know? To be like depressed for two straight weeks, or having suicidal thoughts and just feeling like you gotta be tougher, or you have to handle this, or you’re a burden to other people.

Now, I think one of the main things that I do for myself is that I talk to people, I have some trusted people in my life, and when it comes up I’m just very open about it. Like my fiancee usually knows right away, as soon as I’m struggling with it, she knows. It’s just a good thing to have people aware of. It’s weird, like, it’s definitely not as severe as it used to be, and it definitely doesn’t happen as often or as timely as it used to, but now sometimes I’ll get really out of it, feel really bad, and I almost equate it at this point with having a cold, like, “When is this gonna go away?” Whereas there used to be a couple stretches where I would think my life was actually in danger.

But I can still go about my day and get things done, so that’s like a major mental adjustment that I’m really happy about. I just kind of had to accept at some point that this is never going to go away. It’s just not. I have to just figure out how to manage it, be okay with it, and just manage it instead of solve it.

*Update: Ramona passed on to that big litter box in the sky only a few days after this interview. R.I.P. Ramona.

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