Why 'The Chris Gethard Show' Is the Wildest Talk Show on TV

How a cult comedian mounted his own call-in show — and got everyone from Jon Hamm to Diddy to join in

'The Chris Gethard Show' season two finale on May 27, 2016 Credit: Rebecca McGivney

It's Thursday night, and Chris Gethard has already broken his first pair of glasses of the evening. The audience in this midtown Manhattan broadcast studio are standing around a wrestling ring set up in the center of the room, cheering as loudly as they can. In one corner, a two-time world champion wrestler named Rhino circles the perimeter, his burly thighs rubbing together like two tan balloons. In the other is the 36-year-old comedian/talk-show host, unfazed by this behemoth of a man. Within seconds, the grappler has Gethard in the air, whirling clockwise, before slamming his body down like a slab of clay on a wheel. 

Comedy fans recognize the man behind The Chris Gethard Show, which airs Wednesdays on Fusion, as Ilana Glazer's overwrought boss on Broad City, or as the voice of the popular podcast "Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People." But he's also the ringmaster of an unpredictable, unscripted talk show where people from around the world call in to be part of the action. Celebrities have been known to drop by as well: Unlike the host, Jon Hamm got body slammed by not one but three pro-wrestlers. Paul Giamatti spent two hours inside a dumpster. Lena Dunham dispensed prom advice as a mermaid ("I bet if you got respectfully erect here, people would be okay with it"). And Sean "Diddy" Combs played it cool about pirating his new mixtape ("You can just rip it … you know how shit goes out here, I'm not going to try to get you to buy it") after quibbling on speaker-phone with Zach Galifianakis.

"It's intentionally bizarre and sometimes antagonistic," Gethard admits. "Our show has a chip on it's shoulder, because everyone should have a right to express themselves and it sucks that they don't ... I want a TV show that gives audiences a choice of what they want without manipulating how they react. I'd rather let the audience watch us bomb than to a light up a sign to tell you when to laugh."

In 2012, the New York Times called Gethard a cult hit. Four years later, the show's audience has morphed into a bonafide community. Millions of viewers tune into the show via Facebook Live while it's taping or catch it on myriad digital platforms like YouTube, Meerkat, Telescope and Periscope, in addition to its regular television slot. "The Chris Gethard Show is way ahead of the curve," said David Lincoln, the production executive at Fusion. "While other networks are scrambling to figure out hashtags, we're literally performing marriages for fans who met each other through 24-hour Gethard chatrooms," he said, referring to the delightful episode in which wire-crossed love birds exchanged vows on set. Gethard officiated and Will Ferrell stood in as the nuptials’ drunken best man. 

"[Gethard's] show offers his audience and guests [the chance] to be themselves without real pressure of performing," says actress Ellie Kemper who was a guest on the first season. "There are games and questions, but nothing is scripted. It's a chance to be present, in the moment, reacting to what people around you are saying – that's a nice environment."

For true Geth-heads, celebrity antics are just icing on the cake. The show's core gives voice to emotionally-driven subjects most talk shows typically don’t touch. In the first episode of the second season, Gethard, joined by comedian Colin Quinn, prompted callers to quit their jobs on air, while mentioning two young friends who passed away prior to the taping. "Tragedy Plus Time," the season's best episode, was a frank discussion about mental health featuring Lady Dynamite's Maria Bamford. ("I always love to start comedy shows by plugging suicide hotlines," Gethard said.) He's also been candid about his own struggles with depression and unwavering about universal tolerance. When Gethard was a rising comedian coming up through New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, "my selling point was that it's important to be raw," he said. 

Gethard grew up working class in West Orange, New Jersey. "When I saw Rushmore, I thought ‘I am way too much like Max Fischer,'" he claims. His adolescence was crammed with activities to satiate his overactive mind, and as a lonely teen, he found solace in local New Jersey punk bands like Felix Frump, One Nature and the Missing Children. That music led him to the Smiths. "Morrissey was someone I found when I wasn't connecting with the world at large," says Gethard, reciting lyrics of "Girl Afraid," "How Soon Is Now" and "Unloveable" off the top of his head. (He also has two Moz tattoos on the inside and outside of his right arm.) "Morrissey showed me that you can be a sensitive person and still fight for yourself," the comedian says. "That's what I try to do with my comedy." 

When it came to designing an actual show, however, Gethard emulated someone more mainstream: David Letterman. He's such a fan he even stole the Late Show's actual set after seeing Instagram posts that CBS was throwing it in dumpsters outside the studio; you can see those old faux-skyline bridges on Gethard's set. "I always liked [Letterman's] early stuff because it was surprising – you never knew how it was going to end" he says. "There's a bit of a pro-wrestling thing there. I want people to debate whether [the show] was real, to talk about the crazy things that happened that were overwhelming, bizarre or chaotic, because that's what the production of the show actually is." 

To pull off a show as freewheeling as Letterman's anything-goes years, Gethard recruited some of the best improvisers from UCB to chit-chat on camera with him and the callers: the effortlessly funny Shannon O'Neill as his "side-kick"; bubbly Internet operator Bethany Hall; mustachioed shock jock Murf Meyer; hype man Connor Ratliff ;and David "Human Fish" Bluvband, along with recurring characters like banana man Keith Haskel and sun-screened menace "Vacation Jason" played by Riley Soloner. House band the LLC peppers the segments with post-punk jolts of energy led by the effervescent Hallie Bulleit. And musical guests end each show in a dance party with artists like Kool Keith, Beach Slang and South Jersey punk band the Ergs!, which officially reunited for the first time since 2010 on Gethard on May 12th. 

The biggest "get" to date on the Gethard was undeniably Sean Combs. In 2009, Gethard guilelessly tweeted at the hip-hop mogul to come on his live UCB show. "Diddy is like a mythological figure in pop culture," the host says. "If a guy like him responds to a guy like me, the world can be a good place.” Twenty minutes after the tweet, Gethard picked up a call from an unknown number. It’s Combs. "Ask and ye shall receive," the comedian recalls Combs saying to him before abruptly hanging up. The music mogul eventually dropped by on Gethard's UCB show in 2011, which its creator credits as a breakthrough moment. "Every time we touch base we really kind of click even though we lead totally different lives," said Gethard. "I think he gets it — he's one of the best improvisers I've ever been onstage with. He's an extremely positive guy."

When Combs made his second Gethard appearance this season (entering through the "Diddy door"), Gethard asked Combs about his underground past, specifically the weekly parties he threw in Washington, D.C. in the late Eighties before his career took off.

"How do I make this show more successful, Diddy?" asked Gethard in earnest.  

"The way you approach life and humor is the new way," said Combs. "You’re talking about shit I don't even know what the fuck you're talking about. So trust me, it's going to spread." The man known as Diddy may be on to something: Gethard's TV audience increased 16 percent and his digital audience by 600 percent since his first season ended in 2014, according to Fusion, and the initial seven episodes of Season Two have nearly seven million views on YouTube and Facebook. The formula-free live experiment may have unwittingly created the mold for the future of digital television, or at least, underscored how important a willingness to try anything is. Because when Gethard is lying flat on his back in the ring, with the odds stacked against him, viewers keep tuning in because they know it will be unique, off-the-cuff, real — and very, very funny.