[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest only hardcore improv dorkwads like me. And probably you (and I mean that in the most sincere, loving way.) This piece is the extended, full-frontal geek-out version of the interview that was published in the Women in Comedy Festival blog.]
The first time I met Chris Gethard, I was handing him a demi-cup, lace bra in the ImprovBoston green room. He and his troupe were about to embark on a cross-country comedy road trip in an RV, and I asked if he would deliver the bra to another comedian I hardly knew in L.A.
“Did you put perfume on it?” Chris simply asked in response to my request.
I blushed and snatched the bra out of his hands to smell it in confirmation of what I already knew. (Why did I need to smell my own bra in front of Chris Gethard?! To this day, I still can’t answer that question.)
“Actually, It’s essential oil,” said the fragrance-free gal from western Mass., before choking out, “Cinnamon.”
And that was pretty much the sum total of our interaction.
The whole bra/RV stunt was an attempt to perform again with a comedian who once plucked me out of the audience for a date on stage during the Del Close Marathon several years ago. Believe me, it’s not a pro-feminism story I will be writing in to the Smith College Alumni Quarterly any time soon. But I will say that to his great credit Chris Gethard successfully transported my lingerie across the continent.
Since the age of 19, Gethard has been at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre, where he teaches classes and performs with The Stepfathers. He has a host of choice gigs in his resume, such as guest writing for Saturday Night Live and the Onion News Network, multiple appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and last year, starring in Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s sitcom on Comedy Central, Big Lake, which also featured Horatio Sanz and Chris Parnell. These days, he has his own cable-access show The Chris Gethard Show, billed as “the most bizarre and often saddest talk show in New York City.” Recently, we sat down to virtually chat about improv. And neti pots. Gethard was suffering through a sinus infection.
PV: Sorry to hear you’re sick. I’m just getting over something. I’m a neti pot user.
CG: Oh, I do the neti pot too. I’m at the point though where I know it will hurt really badly. You ever have that? Where the sinuses get so bad that the neti pot is like pouring glass into your own head?
PV: Yes. That’s when I stop doing it usually.
(Opening an interview with neti pot stories: Worse or better than smelling your own bra? You be the judge.)
PV: How did you get into improv? What’s your training?
CG: Well, I started in high school. A teacher who knew I was kind of a wise ass sort of twisted my arm into signing up for her drama class, and we just did improv the whole time. I was pretty immediately obsessed. [Then] I went to Rutgers, auditioned for their short form troupe, and had a year of just desperately trying to get into this short form group. I fought and fought to get in… took me three semesters to get in. Then was like... obsessed with it, but [short form] burned out fast. I enjoyed short form, but I figured out very quickly that there were tricks to it, and I felt the ceiling of it fast.
So after my sophomore year, I started taking classes at UCB. My first class, I think, was a week before my 20th birthday…and from there I was just obsessed. I’m lucky; my group in college was good and motivated. Everyone was good, but there was a crew that all went to UCB, to longform, that I lead the charge on. And I think all of us are still doing it professionally.
PV: From Rutgers? Anybody I would have seen?
CG: I’m doing my thing, Tarik Davis did Boom Chicago, Jamie Rivera tours for Second City, Katie Dippold is a writer at “Parks and Recreation.” It was a good squad.
PV: I get the obsession thing. What about improv obsesses you so much?
CG: The thing about improv that obsesses me so much is that any show could be your best show ever. Every time you step on stage, you might hit a rhythm you’ve never hit before, say something funnier, connect harder with your teammates, whatever. It’s addictive, but I find myself chasing it even after eleven years of doing it at UCB.
PV: Are you a risk-taker in real life?
CG: Yeah. Big time, to a stupid degree. I am mocked for it.
PV: So that’s where your style of comedy come from, you think? That sense of, “Let’s get Chris to do it...he’ll do anything”?
CG: I don’t know. It’s definitely hard to know how you’re viewed on stage, but I actually think on stage I tend to be the one more in control. I think I lean more straight man/pointing things out. I’m not very good at characters or object work. Most of my characters are very similar to me. But that’s where being a semi-strange person gives me an advantage, because I think I’ve had a decent amount of life experience, so playing close to myself isn’t a hindrance. I am pretty good at adjusting and playing most situations with a certain degree of integrity. Yeah, I’ve realized more and more that my best days as an improviser are behind me. The best team I was on was in 2002.
PV: Who was on that team in 2002?
CG: In 2002, I was 21 years old and got put on a team called Optimist International - me, Shannon O’Neill, Tom Schmidt, Dave McKeel, Seth Morris, Brian Huskey, Rhea Dates, Rob Corddry, Jack McBrayer. Not a bad squad to be on when you’re 21. We were known for being very aggressive, and doing organic work at the top of our shows that moved very fast but stayed very connected.
PV: No shit. That’s quite a team.
CG: I think, eleven years in though, I focus more on taking my attitude from improv [than performing it], the things I’ve discovered with it, and putting them into things like storytelling, my talk show, and stand up. Improv is my base that I apply to everything.
PV: That last sentence makes me smile. Ok, The Chris Gethard Show, your cable-access show. Tell me about what you’re going for there - it’s so unlike anything that’s out there right now, sort of theater of the absurd, sort of Fellini, sort of Howard Stern. It’s fascinating.
CG: Thank you! We’ve definitely all built it together over time, all the people on camera and organizing it on my end…when you’re comfortable with each other and you let your guard down and realize that the people up there with you are your safety net, your limits can really get stretched. So we get really revealing. We sometimes get violent. We see how far we can push each other.
PV: UCB seems very masculine energy. I don’t know if you read the WICF piece or not, but Joe Bill and I have been going back and forth a lot lately on masculine vs. feminine improv.
CG: I would say one of the biggest assets of the UCB is that I think it’s unquestionably the punk rock theater. It’s a little dirtier and less polished, but very, very ballsy and in your face…if you divide comedy up by masculine/feminine, it’s probably fair to say that UCB is on the masculine end of the spectrum.
PV: Can you tell me about how you are trained for that there?
CG: You know, the game is at the core of the UCB style and philosophy, the idea that you can isolate one central core funny idea in each scene, that each scene can have its comedy defined by one core principle that you then make a pattern out of. And I think on some level, there’s a math-like quality to that…on some level I wonder if that might give UCB that more masculine energy. It’s based on patterns and there is something of a formula in the way they teach people to communicate.
PV: So that’s your go-to on stage? You’re listening for the game of the scene?
CG: It’s not even a go-to. Game isn’t a go-to, that’s not even the way to phrase it. It’s a language.
PV: Ok. So for me, personally, defining and develop the relationship between characters is what I think of as my go-to. How would you phrase it?
CG: I kind of don’t get when improvisers say relationship is at the core of their scenes. I literally don’t understand it because that’s like saying that breathing air is at the core of living. That’s a starting point. People knock UCB, knock the game style, say relationship is the alternative, but relationship is a given. Game basically says, “Focus on what’s unique about THIS relationship.” What’s interesting or weird or funny or unique about this particular relationship? And how do you extend that to apply to all other aspects of the world these characters live in? And on top of that, I think if you only think about relationship, you cut off the part of your brain that does presentational things, abstract things, all the things that happen in improv that don’t even happen between two characters…
I get defensive sometimes. I think sometimes we get a bad rap in the improv community…but I think sometimes people say, “UCB is aggressive and loud and fast and no one listens,” but I don’t think that’s true. You have The Swarm, one of the most patient teams ever. You have Respecto [Montalban], balls to the wall rockstar improv, and they all have at their core this engine driving things, called game.
PV: Ok. Do you mind explaining game a little more?
CG: Sure. I think the basic concept is, Make your scene about one thing. That one thing will be the game of your scene. If all of the players on stage are trained in how to detect and notice that one thing, you can all stay on the same page and focus on it, build it together. A lot of it comes down to: Start your scene. Commit. And listen hard enough that you notice the first unusual thing about the scene. When you notice the first unusual thing, start asking yourself, “If that’s true, what else is true?”
If all of your comedic choices are driven by figuring out, “If this is true, what else is true?” you quickly start to build a world for your characters to play in that has a specific set of rules, a philosophy for them to live by. And because you and your scene partner are focused on just that one thing, you can explore it thoroughly without confusing it along the way, without having monkey wrenches tossed in. Everyone knows to build one singular idea. It makes life much, much easier.
PV: What about character development?
CG: Character development? [That’s] as much a piece of the puzzle as anything else.
PV: So when you're improvising, you're also thinking about remaining true to the character you've created? Or would that be secondary to the game?
CG: Again, to me that's one of those things that's like "humans need water to live." Yeah, you’ve gotta commit to your character – hard, commit as hard as you can, don't be winky, don't sell the scene out. I think if you don't commit to your character, you can ruin the comedy of a scene. But I think if you have a strong character and no game, you don't have a funny scene.
As a teacher, I always push that idea, hard: Have a scene. Have strong characters, a strong reality. You can always make that funny. If you go for the funny first, you got nothing left once a joke misses.
PV: You wrote on Facebook once, “The question behind every comedic choice I make on stage, every joke I write is, ‘Would this make teenagers in northern New Jersey laugh?’”
CG: Yeah. I just want weird kids to like what I do, anything I come up with, that I put my name on or whatever. That’s in my head, “Would me and my brother have liked this if we randomly found it in 1995?” Like we used to find shows on the UHF channels and public access channels.
PV: You consider yourself to be a “weird kid?”
CG: One of the weirdest!
PV: Way to parlay the weirdness, dude. Were you the weirdo in high school? or the funny kid? or…
CG: I was both of those things. I was a funny weirdo. I think everyone kind of thought I was an oddball, but a harmless one and I could make them laugh. [I was] not popular. I was sort of like Max Fischer from Rushmore. I was in every activity. I never slowed down - I kind of still don't - so I knew everyone. I was a generally agreeable person. My mouth didn't get me into too much trouble, only once or twice. I was just trying to get through. There was some violence in my school and stuff. Everyone had their way to get through, had their guard up in their own way. Being funny was my version of that.
PV: Being funny as a coping skill, I get that. Did that work for you with the ladies? (OMG. I don't know why I phrased that like that. Suddenly I'm an old, Jewish guy from the Catskills. Or your Uncle Al.)
CG: It didn't work for me with the ladies for a long time. In college it did. It's pretty much all I have to offer. I am a weird looking person and am not fun, so humor is what I can offer the fairer sex.
PV: Last question: You gallantly transported my cinnamon-scented, ivory, lace, demi-cup bra from Boston to L.A. First of all, thank you. I envisioned the bra ending up in a truck stop somewhere in Texas or gathering road dust on the side of the road in Nevada. But you got it there and into the hands of its intended. Where did it travel?
CG: Your bra was tucked away safely and secretly in the bag where I store my laptop. My laptop is where I keep everything I’ve ever written, every project I’m working on, every outline for a show idea for my talk show that I have. What I am telling you, no bullshit, is that for some reason I took the cross-continental transport of your underwear VERY SERIOUSLY. I put it where I knew it would be safe.
PV: Wow. The treasure chest of hiding places. I really thought it would be hanging from the rearview mirror with shit written on it. Thank you.
CG: No, no. You gave me a mission, and I executed it. It was my pleasure.
Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.
Catch up on other improv geek-a-thons:
...Mark Sutton of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!
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Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program. TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." She lives online at www.pamvictor.com.
Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.