The ups and downs of life mean that comedians have no shortage of material to pull from—the sky’s the limit when it comes to what can be made funny. These days, it’s no secret that anxiety, depression and substance abuse loom large over the world of comedy. Those struggles have always lurked in the undercurrents of comedy, but can fundamentally dark topics ever be the joke? Chris Gethard thinks so. The New York-based comedian, who’s struggled with mental health issues since adolescence, may not be the first to perform stand-up about depression—but he’s only one of a few who has made it the centerpiece of a mainstream comedy special.
“When I started focusing on stand-up, I noticed I wasn’t a very good joke writer,” Gethard notes of his onstage style. “I’m the first one to admit that I can’t really set up punchlines but I can tell a very honest story.” His knack for storytelling has led to his one-man off-Broadway show Career Suicide (releasing May 6 on HBO), which was billed as a “comedy about suicide, depression, alcoholism, and all the other funniest parts of life.”
The show’s narrative oscillates between darkness and humor. Somber storytelling and pointed punch-lines quickly blur into a definite prose, as Gethard lands in a unique space of performance that few comedians have previously inhabited. Finding the right balance between reality and farce took some time though; like most comedians, his impulse was to always be funny, but his executive producer Judd Apatow steered him in a different direction.
“Judd told me, ‘This is not stand-up. This is something different. You’ve got to let it be what it wants to be’,” Gethard elaborates. “He said ‘Sometimes that means it’s going to be sad and there will be long stretches where you won’t get a laugh.'”
Gethard’s stories aren’t ones traditionally heard on big comedy specials. There are moments in the show where his candor seems to challenge the audience, almost daring them to laugh at the defiant vulnerability of the material. He’s crafted an affecting meditation on depression that has transcended his entire back catalog, swapping the absurdist humor of his improv past for earnest self-exposure.
Traditionally, a bit about depression or anxiety only sparsely pops up within a comedian’s set, and the reality is usually obfuscated by a lens of self-depreciation. Rarely does the theme take up the real estate of an entire performance. However, just when Gethard’s show seems like it might veer into overwhelming sadness, he’ll drop a jizz joke or Morrissey impression that eases the tension and reminds you he’s still a funnyman at heart.
Gethard isn’t the only one who is pushing for comedy that is deliberately meaningful and authentic either. Thanks to the rise of comics like Louis C.K., Marc Maron and Mike Birbiglia, the once niche notion of talking about unfiltered feelings on stage has gone from the alternative comedy scene to the mainstream.
“The advent of podcasts and longer form stand-up platforms has really opened the door for comedians to have deeper conversations as opposed to just doing a tight seven-minute set of joke after joke,” explains JoAnn Grigioni, a stand-up talent executive and producer who has spent over two decades at Comedy Central. “It’s allowed comedians to delve into new topics and these very compelling conversations. All while still being funny, of course.”
Nowadays, you can find a number of comedians speaking openly about their struggles with anxiety and depression both on and off stage: Maria Bamford, Neal Brennan, Sarah Silverman, Rachel Bloom, Wayne Brady—just to name a few. These humorists run the gamut of comedy: stand-ups, improvisers, sitcom stars, sketch comedy writers. Making light of darker emotional experiences isn’t a creative endeavor limited to a single subgenre.
The shift towards vulnerable comedy hasn’t fallen on deaf ears, as audiences have welcomed their favorite comics letting their guard down with open arms. Couple this trend with the fact that depression has recently become the leading cause of ill health across the world, and the timing makes a lot of sense. “You do see more comedians talking about their very personal experiences with these topics now,” notes Grigioni. “It’s something that society in general is more open to. It’s something that has become relatable. Whether or not you suffer from anxiety or depression, you know people who do.” Comedy has often held up a mirror to topics or issues that are relevant in our popular culture, and performers providing an honest and humorous perspective on mental health is merely an extension of that mindset.
Despite the very personal nature of Gethard’s special, it was actually someone else’s struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts that pushed him on this creative path. Back in 2012, the comedian received an anonymous letter via Tumblr from a suicidal fan. Without hesitation, he wrote a lengthy, heartfelt response that ended up going viral. “I think if that had never happened then Career Suicide wouldn’t exist and a lot of this stuff would still be very private,” he mentions.
To this day, you can still feel the effect the letter had on his sense of self and his comedy. Gethard is modest when speaking about what change he thinks he can affect but one quick look at the online community surrounding his eponymous show The Chris Gethard Show and the profound effect he’s already had on fans is hard to miss. The series—which went from a small improv theater to public access television, was eventually picked up by Fusion, and just today announced its new home on truTV—has been a meaningful and impactful source of silly solace to its loyal viewers.
He tells a story of befriending about a group of college students when he was still starting out at UCB Theatre in New York. “I was connecting with these kids in a way that is cutting deeper than just a joke here and there,” he remembers. “They’re not responding to me because I’m the funniest. They’re responding to the honesty.” It’s clear this revelation stuck with him as his sincere sensibilities and capacity to connect with audiences has long had a presence in his comedy. Career Suicide is just the next step in his journey of using humor to make the sad and isolated feel less alone.
Dive further into Gethard’s work and it becomes clear he believes comedy can be more impactful when it’s rooted in truth. That realness is what makes it funny and relatable. The New Jersey kid has gone through hell and back to be standing on that stage. “One of the things that I realized in the course of doing the show is how much my coming to grips with stuff was realizing that I’m not gonna beat this [depression]. I’m not gonna win,” confesses Gethard. “I don’t get to erase this part of my brain. It’s there, so I just have to learn to live with it, face it down and navigate my life with it.”
Not the picturesque ending one might expect, but that’s comedy. The comedian has accepted he’s never going to defeat his depression. Instead he chooses to talk openly about it. He still finds humor while living under its shadow and defiantly smiles as he breaks antiquated norms by speaking openly about mental illness. On the stage Chris Gethard holds nothing back. He’s got absolutely nothing to lose, and as his audience, neither do we.
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