HBO’s dark comedy special ‘Career Suicide’ goes beyond laughs: An interview with Chris Gethard

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Last year, Chris Gethard gathered his crew, fellow comedians Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas and a live audience together in a studio to guess what was inside a dumpster. The absurd premise was nothing out of the norm for cult sensation “The Chris Gethard Show,” the comedian’s wild call-in variety show. (Hint: what’s inside the dumpster is jaw-dropping.)

What’s become known as the “dumpster episode” to Gethard fans has become a series favorite, but other episodes of “The Chris Gethard Show” aren’t quite as light. There are occasions during which Gethard discusses seemingly taboo topics such as his depression and anxiety. Yet, the comedian has found that fans of his show are equally as receptive to these dark topics as they are to a dumpster guessing game.

Gethard has taken his openness and vulnerability even further with his comedy special “Career Suicide,” which premiered on HBO on May 6. It’s a one-man show devoted to discussing Gethard’s battles with mental illness.

For Gethard, performing is about getting something more than a laugh. He could be goofing around on “The Chris Gethard Show” or talking about the moment he realized he was an alcoholic in “Career Suicide,” but the goal is always to keep it funny and real.

“That visceral reaction amongst the crowd is all about, ‘this is honest, this is really happening,’ ” Gethard said in an interview. “You’re feeling all of these emotions that go way beyond comedy.”

Self-conscious, apologetic and not quite on the cusp of superstardom, Gethard’s the guy who will respond to a “thanks” with “no, please — thank you” without a hint of insincerity. Similarly, the comedian is not putting on in “Career Suicide.” You get Chris Gethard as he is, no artificiality or flashy act.

Gethard has spent three years working on “Career Suicide” for the entertainment (and hopefully emotional benefit) of audiences. He workshopped the show at small venues, then brought it to international audiences before completing an off-Broadway run in fall 2016, working out kinks along the way.

“Bombing with this material was like a particular brand of loneliness that I did not know before,” Gethard said. After all, he’s sharing a rather personal, moving life story with increasingly larger audiences of strangers.

Ultimately, Gethard’s goal with “Career Suicide” is to reach audience members who may be suffering, or perhaps know someone who is. “We set it up to be something that people feel like they should be ashamed of, deal with behind closed doors,” Gethard said of mental illness. “It’s the Bogeyman. But at the end of the day, it’s just better and healthier for all of us as a culture to just talk about this more.” And he’s succeeded: audience members would tell Gethard after performances that he nailed the oftentimes indescribable feelings associated with depression and anxiety.

With help from director Kimberly Senior and executive producer Judd Apatow, the same intimacy seen off-Broadway is preserved in HBO’s final version of “Career Suicide.” Mere feet from a front row of people seated on couches, Gethard delivers setups and punchlines deliberately and thoughtfully.

And it’s clear that the anecdotes about depressive episodes and anxious tics come from a much more emotionally raw place — delivery of such bits are characterized by Gethard’s summoned pain of sense memory. In the show, Gethard describes an incident when he crashed his car on purpose. Even with jokes peppered in, close-ups on the comedian reveal how close to the surface his memories are, as if he could burst at any moment.

The emotional openness and assumed anxiety involved in creating the show will all be worth it for Gethard, so long as he can affect other sufferers of mental illness for the better, encouraging them to have conversations about such heavy topics. “This isn’t like a broad theoretical thing where I’m trying to reach everybody at once,” Gethard explained. “I’m trying to reach you, right there, in the front row.”

Contact Danielle Gutierrez at [email protected]. Tweet her at @dmariegutierrez.