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A Eulogy for The Chris Gethard Show

Jon Yu was the one who got me tuned into The Chris Gethard Show with a humble tweet:1

When I was younger, I was very into wrestling.2 It was a consequence of being young in the early 90s and living in the suburbs. All of us wanted violence and adventure. My friends subscribed to the wrestling magazines, and there was an arcade cabinet of the old Wrestlefest game at my Boys and Girls Club. At home, I wasn’t allowed to watch the matches, but I caught them whenever I could. Twenty years after the fandom, I could have cared less about Jon Hamm. The article only hinted at the real story. What the hell was the old 1-2-3-Kid up to? How was “the traitor” atoning? What became of him after living as a d-generate?

I’d never heard of Chris Gethard or his show. This was my first episode and I wasn’t even entirely sure what it was I was watching. The episode centers around one goofy character kidnapping Chris’ friend (another goofy character), and the only way to get his friend back was to settle the score. Fans who had been following the series for years knew all too well what The Human Fish and Vacation Jason were. I just signed up to see some former wrestlers fight a celebrity in a sumo body suite.

Two parts still stand out. The first is Chris executing this incredible DDT. Critical viewers will find some reason to point out how unimpressive this move was, with assistance from the villain and camera cuts.

If that’s how you feel, The Chris Gethard Show isn’t for you.

The other part, though, was the ending, where, after losing the match, Chris Gethard agrees to be wiped from existence. Keep in mind, again, I had never seen this show. I was utterly confused. The good guys always win in wrestling. The hero defeats the villain and the drama continues on into another cycle. Maybe this whole match wasn’t scripted. Or, more likely: it was, and something went wrong. Gethard accidentally got pinned. The show had been taped live; maybe they were trying to cover up the unexpected situation by having Gethard run the clock by talking about his feelings and getting meta about the show, literally finishing the scene by apologizing to everyone he had let down. He hadn’t meant for any of this to happen.

There’s a distinct moment in the speech where Chris breaks “character.” If you caught it immediately, congratulations, you’re a GethHead.3 I know now that Chris Gethard, the host of The Chris Gethard show, is the everyman–he’s part-George Bailey, part-Donald Duck, and can’t ever seem to catch a break. But no matter what he comes back every week to try again.4 He may embarrass himself in front of one of his heroes, get nipple-clamped by a dominatrix, or pranked by his own callers. But the least you can say, the least, is that he put on a show for nearly a decade.

But Chris Gethard, the human, can’t jump cut when he feels bad. And when he needs to come back on the air, sometimes, he doesn’t. The ending isn’t just a series finale, it’s a refusal to die.5 Really, there’s no way to underplay it.

Although I didn’t completely understand what Chris was upset about, I wanted to believe it was authentic. I started watching the show backwards. The wrestling episode begins with a rivalry between characters; I wanted to know what the hell that was all about. From there I more or less jumped around the entire Fusion run, just twenty episodes. A Gethard Show aficionado might tell you that these are, certifiably, the worst episodes in the whole run. Not only would I disagree with that now, I wouldn’t have believed you then anyway. I was in a bad place and I had a lot of time on my hands. I started smoking a lot of weed. I was eating cheesesteaks and burritos in my pajamas. I watched The Chris Gethard show to feel better. I wanted to hear from people quitting their jobs. I wanted to witness family disputes. And yeah, I don’t care if it was just for thirty minutes, I will always want to watch a bunch of puppies, whenever, however.

One day I finished my binge. And as I was trying to get more content, trying to find out what was coming up next, I discovered that in fact there were years of content already around from when the show was on Manhattan public access.

What else could I do? I became so grateful for this weirdo to show up and take the punches over and over again. It wasn’t about the pain. It was about expecting the smile at the end.

I found a way to send him a message:

I’ll keep this brief because you probably don’t like unsolicited messages. Sorry that you’re getting one.

I caught wind of your show because I was once super into wrestling, and someone on Twitter shared the season finale of your second season. I thought the whole episode was great, but what really made me sit up was hearing you talk about what the show meant to you and what you had hoped you’d accomplished. It was an honest display of emotion that I hadn’t expected, and that I honestly had a hard time believing was genuine or not. I spent the last two weeks watching your show online—I haven’t gotten to the public access years yet!—and I’ve come to discover that, yeah. You’re the real fucking deal.

You’re funny, your friends are funny, the whole dial-in-improv show somehow works and is funny, but the themes of most of the shows revolve around really essential human experiences—the mundane and the significant. One week you’ve got kids on the air asking prom dates out and another you’re amping people up to quit their jobs. You’re talking to your heroes about what they meant to you and you’re talking to your friends about mental health.

I guess I just want you to know that I really appreciate all of that. Personally and worldwide, 2016 has just been an absolute shit of a year. It was a real treasure coming across your show and laughing and learning and listening. Thank you for it and everyone else who made it possible.

He didn’t have to respond, but he did. He hoped the rest of my year was nice.

Shortly after that, I watched around one hundred fifty-five hours of public access television in seven weeks. Then my year started getting better.

It turns out that my experience was not unique. Hundreds of GethHeads had, at one point or another, also gone through some difficult period, as children or adults. It was a show for hurt people (which is to say: everyone). And the show transmitted a message that said that it was okay to mess up, it was okay to get upset, it was okay to be confused, so long as you kept trying harder the next time.6 The show wanted you to know that there were people out there who believed this, and what’s more, they filmed it, they demonstrated it, they lived it.

Now, fortunes are made by people livecasting through Facebook, Snapchat, Twitch, YouTube. The host is an explorer, navigating the terrains of their mundane existence. Anyone other than the person being filmed is an accident, a prop that serves a minor function. Personas are constructed, given generic names, used, then discarded once they get boring. The Chris Gethard Show revolved around its active audience participation. Its hosts needed its viewers just as much, if not more often, than the viewers needed the hosts. Everyone watching felt a deeply human need to connect with each other. If there was a great caller one week, we rejoiced whenever they reappeared. If there was a rude one, we jeered and banded together to bring the show back on track.

There is a broad representation of characters that are toxic, but sad. There aren’t many of people that are sad, but brave. There are shows providing inhumane entertainment. There aren’t many whose taboo is simply being honest.

In a way, The Chris Gethard Show never belonged on cable in this century. Cable worked in the early 80s as a platform for reckless courage. Cable worked when Garry Shandling turned down Carson and Letterman. The Chris Gethard Show was already taking risks, by speaking, with no effort, about their feelings, happy or otherwise. They told you when they didn’t have any ideas, they insisted their fanbase provide better quality calls, they begged for celebrity validation. More often, they would err towards being a positive force, by trying to prevent a deportation, by hosting Thanksgiving for anyone without a place to go, by presenting a wedding proposal.7

What more could cable offer? Glory, I guess. Money, definitely. But the show had already become every form it could be.

Knowing that they must have had a limited time, The Chris Gethard Show’s final seasons on TruTv were some of the best. Years of honing comedy combined with a seemingly unlimited budget enabled them to explore new irrational possibilities. I was fortunate enough to attend several tapings in New York for their last two seasons. You would expect the audience to be asked to keep the noise down. You would expect whoever threw a hot dog at a guest’s faced to be ejected from the taping. You would expect that an entire show would be ruined the moment someone else yells out the answer to a simple hint.8 The show is quantum: live, it’s exactly the same as it is while being transmitted. The Chris Gethard Show would do whatever they wanted so long as the audience promised to enjoy it. It’s a simple contract that we will all continue to keep.

The show’s unlearned success could not grow and it ended. There was nowhere left for it to go. There was nothing left for it to do.

Without a doubt, there will be excavators that will look back at The Chris Gethard Show and realize what a perfect encapsulation of the era it was. We will abide the dada comedy. The visceral urge to record will thrive. But we will lose the purity of truth that gives these actions any deeper meaning. In the foreseeable future we will have a stampede of jackasses streaming themselves as they plot new ways to hurt themselves “for the lulz.”

Sometimes the good guys don’t win. They lose well, and they try again.

All my love to everyone who ever starred in, guest-starred in, randomly joined, improvised for, acted in, wrote for, directed, edited, lighted, recorded, interned at, photographed, played music for, screened for, shared with, designed for, wrote about, called into, tweeted about, paid money for, and cleaned up after The Chris Gethard Show.

  1. Heck, don’t even bother reading this and just go follow everything he does. 

  2. Real, fake, it doesn’t matter: “For fans of my generation…[it] was the first time we thought of morality on that level.” 

  3. Even the fandom is influenced by wrestling. 

  4. Try what, exactly? To make you laugh? To make you feel. 

  5. Contrast this ending with the utter jubilation Gethard feels when announcing his first move to cable TV. I couldn’t appreciate the true depths of Gethard’s Fusion TV finale because I hadn’t followed the course of Gethard’s arc, as a host or himself. 

  6. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” 

  7. Later, they would up the ante by performing valid marriages

  8. Thank you for not throwing me out.