January 02, 2017
Portrait of the Tortured Artist as a Happy Man
Chris Gethard ()
Career Suicide performer Chris Gethard finds success on multiple levels
By Doug Strassler
While the title of his current one-man show includes the words “Career Suicide,” 2016 treated its star, comedian Chris Gethard, well by any stretch of the imagination. He has a self-titled talk show currently airing on the Fusion network, and was part of a winning ensemble in the Mike Birbiglia indie Don’t Think Twice, ranked one of the year’s best films (including in this publication).
Gethard also expanded his stage acumen with his show, which runs at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre through the next weekend. Co-produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Kimberly Senior, Chris Gethard: Career Suicide is a carefully cultivated no-holds-barred piece of entertainment in which Gethard himself talks about his emotional wounds: career highs and lows, bouts with alcoholism, his struggle with anxiety and depression, and his relationship with a seemingly unorthodox therapist.
Those familiar with the West Orange native and New York comedy veteran may have already heard some of this material on Gethard’s series, his podcast or earlier stand-up work. But in repurposing his experiences, his solo show actually achieves a deeper purpose. It shines the spotlight on depression, a subject that continues to suffer from stigmatization and cause people to look the other way.
“I was really happy when I started workshopping this material that people with depression would come up to me and tell me what it meant to them,” Gethard said in an interview at the Lynn Redgrave. He feels that dealing with a depression can be a lonely space for those who endure it and those close to them. “People feel that they are in over their depth and they might mess it up. The best way to get someone help is to shepherd them towards more qualified help, and sometimes people don’t see that, and back away. I also think a lot of people don’t necessarily want to face this in themselves.
“The real hump to get over is how do you look your folks in the eye and get this conversation going?” Gethard recalled about the days when he began to seek help for clinical depression, back when he was a student at Rutgers University. “There was an idea that I was letting them down, or embarrassing people by talking about it. So I’m hoping I can massage the overall conversation for the people who aren’t suffering from depression because they’re the other half of the equation.”
As discussed in Career Suicide, Gethard can trace his early bouts of anxiety and depression to his adolescence. Even before I was a teenager my temper was bad,” the performer said. “And I had such a nervous stomach from anxiety, I was so terrified to have to talk to people when I was young.
“My freshman year of high school I was getting bullied by a kid and I tried to hurt myself, and I realized I am taking this way too far. I thought that was the way to handle this. Somebody is hurting me – I’m going to hurt myself.”
Still, Gethard also says it was this period that provided him with the fundamental tools that would aid him for the rest of his career and life. “I think a big part of that was my brother got bullied, and I saw that and wondered how I could circumnavigate that, and I used humor” he explained. “I was like Max Fischer from Rushmore; I did whatever I could to keep busy and be around people, so I had a lot of surface relationships. I tried to be a small part of a lot of things to get a lot of people to like me. I was in the marching band but I played the gong because it was funny, so I can say ‘I did band, but I wasn’t really even a part of it. I knew even then I was trying to please a lot of people.”
He credits one woman, a choreographer in his high school’s play during his sophomore year, for encouraging him to take her drama class and introducing him to the world of improvisation. “I remember thinking this is amazing. I let my guard down and trusted her,” Gethard recalled. “She said ‘It’s okay that you’re funny – this is a good thing. We can do something with this.’
“And that’s when I knew that this was what I all I ever wanted to do. It was a survival tool, but she was the first person who said this can be a positive and not a negative, and that was a game-changer. She was the first person who told me that what I liked was good and not bad.
As Gethard recounts in his show, the bad would still appear. “Things unraveled in college,” he said. “ You’re on your own for the first time, you’re responsible for more than you’ve ever been responsible for, there’s drinking and drugs and sex…” It was during this time that with the help of his then-girlfriend, she acknowledged to his parents that he needed professional help (Gethard, who is currently married, said that his parents, therapist, ex-girlfriend and that high school drama instructor have all attended his show.)
Post-college, his entertainment career also experienced peaks and valleys. The good – including a storied career run at the Upright Citizens Brigade, television guest spots – was tempered by an abortive run as a writer on Saturday Night Live and a short-lived leading role on Comedy Central sitcom, Big Lake, produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.
So, does misery necessarily breed a successful comedy career?
“The sad clown trope is a dangerous one,” according to Gethard. “It seems like comedians are more depressed across the board, but it’s one of the only professions where you’re paid to talk about your feelings. With comedians in particular, they also view themselves as outsiders; they feel like they are on the outside looking in, and outsiders are maybe people who fit into the slot of depression.
“But we look at it wrong. We’re taking a very specific sample size that takes a certain type of person, and then we label it with a large brush, but there are many factors that go into it, there isn’t as much of a one-to-one crossover from sadness to funny as it seems. And I think I definitely was someone who enjoyed the pat on the back, but it was not a replacement for actual psychiatric therapy.
Gethard said that walking the line between lecture and performance was important to him, “almost to protect the audience in a way, where their concern would outweigh their ability to just enjoy the show for what it is,” he said. “It’s almost not fair to present that. At the end of the day I don’t want it to be a TED talk, I want it to be a piece of entertainment. That line has been a challenge to navigate for sure.”
The comedian also pays tribute to those performers who have been able to combine their personal struggles with their professional pursuits. “Maria Bamford – she’s someone who I look at and think you’re really putting it all out there,” Gethard offered. “There are a handful of people that are on the fringe who are being super honest and helping to knock down doors. It’s cool to feel like I’m a part of something in that way.”
Tickets for Chris Gethard: Career Suicide can be purchased at http://www.careersuicideshow.com/
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