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The Chris Gethard Show: The strangest story in public access history

Matt McMahon | Sunday, December 8, 2013

Two weeks ago “The Chris Gethard Show” arguably became the most successful show ever to grace public access television.  Created and hosted by comedian Chris Gethard, the loosely structured call-in show has been airing live on New York’s Manhattan Neighborhood Network and streaming online at thechrisgethardshow.com every Wednesday at 11 p.m. for the past two-and-a-half years. Due to the strength and growing popularity of the show, Comedy Central has ordered to film a pilot of TCGS.  Originally developed as a stage show for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in 2009, this will be the second time Gethard and company have had to restructure the show for a different medium.

The show’s website describes it as “the most bizarre and often saddest talk show in New York City.” Episodes feature a varying panel of regular, recurring and special guests, who take calls from viewers to discuss either predetermined topics or anything on the viewers’ minds. Additionally, guest appearances by various fictional characters, episodic-themed games, musical guests and prerecorded video shorts round out each hour. In the absurd episode titled “The Culture Show,” special guest and independent wrestler Colt Cabana takes requests from callers to demonstrate wrestling moves on panel members. Simultaneously, other friends of the show present lessons on such high-class topics as the playfulness in architectural design and how to properly pair wines and cheeses.

The public access iteration of The Chris Gethard Show has an unexpected charm to it, majorly due to its do-it-yourself production. Moreover, Chris Gethard conducts the show with authentic acceptance and considerate inclusion. He forms bonds with frequent visitors and callers, creating relationships between them and the show. Random people are often plucked from the audience and become characters or features of the show’s weird antics.

In fact, in the show’s second episode, the now-integral idea of the “Random,” a panel member who bears no ties to the show came about as a result of this inclusiveness.  A viewer stumbled upon the show by channel surfing, called in to ask what it was about and was asked to head to the studio to get a full explanation.  She showed up, sat on stage and Chris himself offered her a spot on the panel. It has since become tradition for a new “Random” to star on the show for 15 weeks.

These randoms come out of nowhere, with the rest of the panel frequently reiterating that they know absolutely nothing about them.  Not only do the randoms surprise and add another dynamic to the show’s aesthetics, but they also represent a microcosm for the entire show’s viewership: they start out as unknowns and, through the show, form meaningful connections by way of revelations, both serious and silly.

In another notable episode, which fell the week after Chris Gethard appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and plugged the show, Gethard challenged viewers, audience members and even his own panel to “Ruin This Show.” What ensued was a maddening onslaught of insubordination, disrespectful talking from audience members in the studio and arranged bits designated to irritate Gethard as he attempted to push through the show. For the first half of the episode, these foibles result in laughs and amusement from Gethard’s reactions and building annoyance. People were ruining the show, and it was funny. Yet, at around the 40-minute mark, each bit starts to get stale and grating.  Chris begins to get more serious; he slouches in his seat, takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. Retreating into himself, he mutters something along the lines of “This was a mistake, this isn’t funny, it’s all getting old.”

In this moment of collapse and dejection, the essence of the show is revealed. Gethard asked everyone to ruin the show, and they did, making it more entertaining. But it was not until the efforts became tired and he declared the episode a mistake that the episode was truly ruined.

Clearly Chris Gethard and his cohorts, which are far too numerous to list off, are not afraid to fail, as they concurrently remain optimistic and realistic. Whether in high concept episodes like “Ruin This Show,” loose concept episodes like Thanksgiving-themed “Sandwich Night” which only shows people making and eating sandwiches or episodes with no structure at all – in which the cast has come into the studio with nothing planned and just sees what develops over the hour – the panel, cast, crew and audience commit to it all. This all makes for some of the most compelling television broadcasting in recent history.

Moreover, this attitude has fostered the sort of “outcasts-welcomed” atmosphere of the show; TCGS coined “Loser is the new nerd” as one of its taglines. Viewers have to invest in the show as much as those directly involved in it do. In another episode, Chris completely abandons whatever was scheduled and, because of his mood, asks callers to call in with stories to discuss “Genuine Sadness.” Gethard makes it known throughout the run of the show that he’s self-deprecating, suffers from depression, frequently has panic attacks and often cries for seemingly no reason. His stark honesty and openness allow for even the most absurd of episodes to dip into seriousness, if necessary. And in “Genuine Sadness,” among others, the topic allows for a lot of catharsis, not only for the panel members and callers but also for the viewers. Participation in the show encourages the audience to really reflect introspectively as well as beyond themselves. Meanwhile, Chris and friends offer very sincere advice that comes from real life experiences.

While its undetermined what format the pilot will take on Comedy Central (the show will probably be 30 minutes instead of an hour, FCC regulations restrict some of the show’s freedom and the call-in dynamic may not work), it is clear that the show has already had a wealth of success. There are 119 episodes archived online to search through. Surprisingly serialized (see the “Hintmaster” saga and “Random” Andrew and “Random” Messenger Bag’s arcs), this run showcases the development and evolution of “The Chris Gethard Show” and is something to celebrate.

The heart, the absurdity, the charm and the unconventionality have all been recognized, with Comedy Central giving Chris Gethard and the show a well-deserved chance.  Hopefully, the cable version of “The Chris Gethard Show” will follow in the same light as its predecessors and gather an even larger fan base.

Contact Matt McMahon at 
mmcmaho7@nd.edu