Could the next Johnny Carson be a comedian from West Orange, New Jersey with two Morrissey tattoos? "I know that's an unrealistic goal," Chris Gethard tells Rolling Stone with a bemused smile. "Is it gonna happen? Probably not. But why not try to take over, see what happens?"
Gethard, 37, is the creator and host of The Chris Gethard Show (TCGS). "It's a show named after a guy and that guy's not in control," he says on the talkshow's zany, clubhouse-like set. Rolling Stone followed the comedian for a week leading up to the show's Thursday night live taping. "You don't often see vulnerability on TV, especially talkshows. If I pretended to be confident all the time, that would just be a lie."
And for Gethard – and more importantly, Gethard's rapt viewership – authenticity is everything. Each episode is designed around a theme or idea that might make traditional networks cringe. Like an hour devoted to talking about mental illness, suicide and depression. But Gethard finds the humor and solace in those topics with the help of his talented cast, Shannon O'Neill, Connor Ratliff, David Bluvband ("Human Fish"), Keith Haskel ("Bananaman"), Bethany Hall, Riley Soloner ("Vacation Jason"), Murf Meyer, J.D. Amato and Jersey Dave.
"[This show] has an insane energy unlike any other TV experience," says J.D. Amato, the show's 29-year-old executive producer and showrunner, wearing his signature patchwork cardigan. Amato was one of the show's earliest producers while he was a student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
"The shock of being in a live show is invigorating," Ellie Kemper echoed. The actress is returning as a guest on TCGS for the second time, on a show that will focus on romance. There will be first dates on the air, hooking up and maybe even finding true love. Weirder things have happened: Will Ferrell once toasted an actual wedding on Gethard, between two people who met via a TCGS fan forum. One of the quickly-nixed ideas in this week's production meeting was to have a "sex tent" on the show, wherein audience members would have "safe, consensual sex with one another." "That was harshly shot down," said the producer.
Gethard began as a live production at Manhattan's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in 2009. He worked on it with many of the same people he does today. The original concept of a candid, risky, anything-goes style live talkshow – where Gethard's done everything from taken a dominatrix beating to erecting a billboard in New Mexico – was, he admits, a long shot. But now, the bizarre part is that the show's unlikely success lets him and his staff take even bigger risks. And with bigger guests, like Sean Combs, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler and Paul Giamatti.
Within eight years, TCGS hopped from Public Access television to the Fusion Network to its current home on truTV. In November, the network announced it bought ten additional episodes of TCGS, set to air in the spring, bringing the show's first full season on truTV to 26 episodes.
"We have an extremely hardworking production staff," says Connor Ratliff, the actor/comedian who appears as TCGS's field correspondent and audience hype man. "But I'm most excited when things go wrong and all the planning goes out the window."