by Samuel L. Leiter
Imagine a nerdy, standup comic who wears horn-rimmed glasses, is slight of build, has a tuft of hair, and whose material stems from personal issues of depression, self-worth, and suicide. No, it’s not Woody Allen; it’s Chris Gethard (pronounced GETH-erd), the 36-year-old, Irish-Catholic comedian from West Orange, New Jersey, starring in Chris Gethard: Career Suicide. This hour and 15 minute set—it’s hard to call it a play—is now at the Lynn Redgrave Theater after a lauded showing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Gethard’s new to me but, judging by the packed house at the preview I attended, he’s got a substantial fan base (including producer Judd Apetow) from his podcasts, TV work and major role in the independent film Don’t Think Twice, about the trials and tribulations of a New York comedy improv troupe.
Standing on a rug before a backdrop resembling an out-of-focus NJ road map (designed by Brendan Boston)—with the first row of spectators surrounding him on three sides on couches and armchairs as if they’re in his living room—Gethard comes off as a nice, self-deprecating, average guy. Dressed in a red, striped polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers, he gets a laugh from his self-description: “I look like I walked off the pages of a kids’ clothing catalogue.”
A natural storyteller, Gethard’s able to take a simple line and, by breaking it down with perfect timing, make it into a zinger. (Much credit to director Kimberly Senior.) His mission is to mine laughter from his frank disclosures about how he’s handled personal (very personal) problems whose painful, even frightening, effects he’s been able to sublimate through making fun of them.
In a sense, the show is a freeform therapy session in which the audience serves as proxy therapist. He’s been criticized for making fun of mental illness but it’s clear that there can be worse things than laughter as a way of confronting one’s demons. I wasn’t consistently on his comic wavelength but I appreciated even those moments when I didn’t howl along with everyone else.
Serving as the throughline for his funny but meandering autobiographical narrative is Gethard’s long-term relationship to an eccentric shrink named Barb, whose casual attitude toward boundaries leads him to say that she’s no good at her job while he simultaneously admits how much she’s helped him. Although much of what he says is poignant, he maintains an upbeat charm, avoiding pathos by seeing everything as comic fodder.
He tells us of the suicidal impulses that got him into a car crash (in whose weird aftermath appeared a trio of Carmela Soprano-like bystanders); the alcoholism that drove him to do weird things publicly in a Batman mask; the bizarre behavior inspired by his paranoia, anxiety, depression, delusion, ADD, and OCD; the questionable practices of various psychiatrists; his multiple medications (“This show isn’t secretly sponsored by Pfizer, I promise”), and their often hilarious side effects (wait for the bit about his “ejaculate”); the emotional support he’s found during his darkest moments in the music of the Smiths and their lead singer, Morrissey; and the ups and downs of his career as a comedian and TV writer for Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live.
I have yet to see Gethard in Don’t Think Twice. Based on my reaction to Chris Gethard: Career Suicide it’s jumped to the top of my must-see list.
Chris Gethard: Career Suicide
Lynn Redgrave Theater
45 Bleecker St., NYC
Through November 27
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).