Chris Gethard: Seriously Dark Comedy

Known for oddball stunts, comedian broke through by talking about alcoholism and suicide

'Career Suicide' has made comedian Chris Gethard a poster boy for depression. Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Over the course of his strange comedy career, Chris Gethard has hitchhiked to Bonnaroo for a Web series and dangled himself over a pellet-gun-toting audience while dressed as a duck. But no experience could have prepared him for Career Suicide, his new HBO comedy special. In it, the Jersey comic discusses his history with anxiety, alcoholism and depression. He details a suicide attempt at age 21, in which he tried to get hit by a truck but wound up crashing his car on someone's lawn. "I think I overestimated my ability to handle discussing it onstage," Gethard said one afternoon last winter. "The material has kind of weighed down on me a bit." Judd Apatow produced the HBO version of Career Suicide, which Gethard workshopped as a one-man show off-Broadway. "When you see the final version, you don't realize how difficult it is to tell those stories in an entertaining, truthful way," Apatow says. "It's a very special piece."

The show is Gethard's first bit of mainstream acceptance after a career as an oddball outsider. For years, he was a favorite at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where he invented characters like Gallagher Three, a lost sibling of the fruit-smashing Gallagher brothers. Things were going great, until he started having panic attacks backstage. "A crowd laughing was a short-term fix for a very long-term problem," he says.

Gethard entered therapy and left UCB to start an early-Letterman-style TV show that aired on a New York public-access station. It was a cult hit, and Gethard snagged guests like Diddy, who offered useless relationship advice to teens, and Jon Hamm, who took part in a sumo-wrestling match. (The show will begin airing on TruTV in August.) A conversation with comic Mike Birbiglia, who cast Gethard in his 2016 movie, Don't Think Twice, convinced him to explore his mental-health issues onstage. "I thought it was too dark," Gethard says. Career Suicide has made Gethard a poster boy for depression, so much so that it's been difficult for him to keep up with notes from fans sharing their stories. "A lot of comedians are gonna go, 'Oh, that's pretentious bullshit.' And they're right. I'm very lucky that I live in a culture where comedy can be pretentious bullshit."