Comedian Chris Gethard didn’t really choose to start talking openly about his history of severe depression and suicidal thoughts. The decision was made for him when an anonymous post appeared on the Tumblr account of his New York public-access program, The Chris Gethard Show, from a young fan who wrote that he was thinking of killing himself. Gethard responded with a long post that quickly went viral, and which provided the basis for his one-man Off-Broadway show, Chris Gethard: Career Suicide.
Based on that show, his HBO special of the same name — which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday night, and which will premiere on HBO this coming Saturday — is a thoughtful, funny, and often devastating delve into the comedian’s “mental-illness-level anxiety” and lifelong depression. The film, as well as a post-screening panel discussion with Gethard, Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, Crashing‘s Pete Holmes, and Judd Apatow, moderated by Ira Glass, laid bare the all-too-cozy relationship between comedy and mental illness.
Gethard workshopped Career Suicide at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he performed 26 shows in a month. He and director Kimberly Senior recorded and studied each performance, and the preparation shows in the final result, which is polished without sacrificing Gethard’s intimate, conversational style. Rather than an elevated stage, Gethard performs on a living-room-like set, on a faded Persian rug ringed with couches and side tables topped with lamps; occasionally the camera will pull back to reveal a larger audience behind the first few rows, but for the most part, Senior favors tighter shots that emphasize the connection between Gethard and his audience.
Career Suicide is not a standup set; through a mix of jokes and stories, Gethard uses the show to tell the fairly chronological story of his battle with depression, which has been a lifelong constant but reached its apex in his 20s. “I just thought everyone in fifth grade had an internal monologue like the guy from Taxi Driver,” he quips. Gethard expertly steers his monologue from funny moments to serious ones, and Senior’s directing nimbly follows suit — she’ll cut to a tight shot of Gethard’s face when he tells a somber story, and the lights will dim or turn blue.
Despite the heavy subject matter, often Gethard uses moments of gravity as springboards to a punchline — which he said in the panel discussion afterward makes him feel “safe.” He admitted that Senior and Apatow, who executive-produced the film, encouraged him to revel in the show’s quieter, more serious moments rather than pepper it with joke after joke — which is scary for a performer, because you don’t get the instant validation that laughs provide.
But as both Jacobson and Apatow said, the funniest joke can come from the most painful place — as Jacobson put it, “It’s always kind of the shittiest thing that is the funniest.” The panel discussion became a kind of open-air therapy session for the participants, who talked about mining their personal issues for their comedy. Career Suicide, Broad City, and Crashing — Holmes’s recent HBO series that Apatow also executive-produced — all focus on a time in the creators’ lives, roughly a decade ago, when they were going through some real shit.
Holmes divulged that in preparation for Crashing, based on his own experience coming up in the comedy world while going through a divorce, Apatow had him write a fifteen-page document about his own divorce as an exercise (Holmes compared Apatow to The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi). Gethard, too, dug into his darkest periods at Apatow’s urging. But according to Holmes and Jacobson, Gethard — who used to teach both of them improv at UCB — was a stern mentor himself. Jacobson recalled that at one point during a class, he asked her, “When are you gonna take responsibility for who you are?”
If there was ever any doubt, the screening and panel exposed the huge overlap between comedy and therapy, a recurring theme in a lot of contemporary comedy. But a through line of Career Suicide is Gethard’s growing awareness that “comedy does not exist to fix me.” Depression is not something to cure, he realizes, but something to manage. And despite Gethard’s vulnerability on that stage, he’s such a commanding presence that you never feel that he’ll let things spin out of control. The show itself is a testament to Gethard’s progress: He’s got this. He’s going to be ok. If that doesn’t sound like the kind of endorsement you’d hope to hear about a comedy show, as Apatow remarked, “If you get really close to the pain, the comedy’s right there.”