Chris Gethard is literally an engaging comedian. In his podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, he engages his listeners in a shared and therapeutic storytelling. He solicits their experiences, homing in on acute crises and chronic themes, offering an unironic, frank and conspiratorial blend of narrative steering, commentary and advice in his soft-but-insistent tenor. He first came to my attention when a lengthy, compassionate and confessional response he had written to a letter from a suicidal fan went viral. In it, Gethard substantiated his urgent message of hope with the details of his own serious struggles with depression. So from the first, Gethard was a new-model confessional and interactive comedian – to my ears, more a part of ‘zine culture or the NPR-headquartered memoir and oral history renaissance than anything like the milieu of traditional standup.
The telling and receiving of personal truths – not spiel, characters or joke setups – is the heartbeat of Gethard’s comedy, even when he is doing conventional standup. He seems driven by the impulse to divulge, to articulate a self and to connect. It’s no wonder that, like so many of today’s zeitgeist comedians and comic actors, Gethard was trained in the long-form ensemble improvisation of the Upright Citizens’ Brigade, a troupe (founded by Amy Poehler among others) that became an authenticated method and school: an extension of or response to the improvisational techniques of Viola Spolin, whose interactive theater games had inspired the Second City phenomenon a few generations earlier.
Gethard works at the radical fringe of confessional comedy, perilously near the borders of serious and not all that funny. The form at which he has arrived seems only one rebranding away from Moreno’s psychodrama or Playback Theater, Jonathan Fox’s New Paltz-based school of improvisational theater as therapy. But his gentle wit, delivered in a naturally wafting, high-pitched voice that seems barely tethered to the Earth at all, keeps it light. A smidge-and-a-half too old to be of the Millennial generation, Gethard is rather the voice of its anxieties. He is their Spalding Gray.
Like all man-as-brand performers of this age, he is fluidly, naturally multichannel. He rose to Brooklyn cult fame on the strength of a public access television show known for its tight association with the music of the boroughs (mostly indie and punk). The Chris Gethard Show became as notable for the bands it helped break as for Gethard himself. He has branched in all directions: a spate of acting roles, a book, the podcast, a comedy record and of course, the crowning imprimatur of the serious comedian who has arrived: an HBO special – his Judd Apatow-produced one-man show Career Suicide.
Gethard does it all with an out-on-a-limb vulnerability and a genuinely tenuous composure that is, as the kids so infuriatingly say, relatable. One other thing, though: He is really funny.
Chris Gethard widens the scope at Colony in Woodstock on Saturday, October 14 at 9 p.m. (the doors open at 7). Tickets cost $15 in advance and $20 on the day of the show. For tickets and additional information, visit www.colonywoodstock.com. Colony is located at 22 Rock City Road in Woodstock.