Comedy nerds probably know Chris Gethard from appearances on Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, or as a part of the excellent ensemble of Mike Birbiglia‘s improv group dramedy Don’t Think Twice, or perhaps from his quirky talk show The Chris Gethard Show. But more mainstream fans are about to get up close and really personal with the “that guy” whose been tearing up the comedy scene since the 2000s. Following its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Chris Gethard: Career Suicide will hit HBO on May 6th, allowing audiences across the nation access to a daring and darkly hilarious one-man show.
Recorded at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center last February, Chris Gethard: Career Suicide brings his lauded stage show to the screen with an intimate staging from director Kimberly Senior. There are no props. The stage is small and empty save for a footstep-dulling throw rug, and it’s surrounded on three sides by audience members. Those in the first rows lounge in comfy couches and overstuffed arm chairs, lit well enough to clearly make out their expressions of shock, sympathy and spontaneous bursts of laughter as Gethard shares his struggles with depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and suicidal thoughts with an easy charm and a sharp edge of humor.
In jeans and a simple striped t-shirt, the bespectacled performer opens his arms to his audience and bares his soul, confessing with a nearly cracked voice, “Sometimes people just break,” then teasing, “welcome to a comedy show!” It’s this heady mix of vulnerability and self-aware wit that defines Career Suicide, making it mesmerizing and heartwarming. Early on, Gethard recounts the weird night where, on a whim, he tried to die. It involves an opportune car accident, a lot of Carmela Soprano impressions, and a less-than-valiant rescuer. Trusting his audience with an introductory story knitted with inner-conflict and complicated emotions, Gethard assures that we are with him on this ride. From there, he winds us through his attempts to seek help, troubles finding the right meds, reliance on the music of Morrissey, a lost summer of MDMA and Adderall, and a tumultuous night of blackouts and being Batman. It’s at times ludicrous, at times tragic. But his openness and peace with his path makes the journey accessible, every minute of it understandable if not always personally relatable.
Whether Gethard was playfully kvetching about his wife’s bad habit of leaving cabinet doors open, or impersonating Seth Meyers while recounting a formative phone call, or inhaling sharply at the memory of his mother’s face when he confessed his suicidal thoughts, I was riveted. Watching this show didn’t feel like watching a performance, a play, or a stand-up set. Instead, it felt like those special nights were you really get to know someone. Maybe it was that nine-hour first date that led you to your marriage. Maybe it was a late night on a dirt road, driving under the stars, talking with a long-time friend while the rest of the world slept. Maybe it was an unexpected adventure with a stranger, where confessions were made that could only be said to someone you’d never see again. But each one left a mark, forming not only your bond, but also how you look at the world.
This kind of openness is so rare and dazzling I’ve only experienced it twice before. The first was reading Shelley Winter‘s memoir, Shelley: Also Known As Shirley, where the brassy actress not only shared spirited anecdotes about her old roommate Marilyn Monroe, but also recounted a back-alley abortion, and the abusive relationship that spurred her to escape her husband, and fight for custody of their daughter. The second was Gene Wilder‘s memoir, Kiss Me Like A Stranger, which unraveled stories of the joys of movie making, the love he had for Gilda Radner, and the pain of losing her to cancer. For that one, I recommend the audio book, because Wilder reads it himself, gently whispering his story into your ear so it feels as if he’s a friend, who wants you to see him, warts and all.
Gethard wants the same. And with mental illness still so stigmatized in modern American society, his confessions could well be, well…career suicide. But I’m hopeful they won’t be. For one thing, Judd Apatow produced this show, and so Gethard’s got a pretty big name at his back. But for another, he’s such a superb storyteller that it’s impossible to listen and not be in awe, both by his resilience and the incredible ability he has to take some of the darkest moments of his life, and find a way to laugh at them. More than that, he lets us laugh at them and with him, as opposed to at him. He manages to joke about bleak depression, watery ejaculate, and desperately bad decisions, without ever making himself or mental illness the punchline.
Over 90 minutes, Chris Gethard: Career Suicide emerges to become more than a comedy show, though it is a uniquely hilarious one. It becomes more than a confession, though it is a rousingly cathartic one. Above these, this special becomes a rallying cry for those struggling with mental illness and those who love them, to seek help and offer it. Because around every dark corner, there’s a chance for light, and the perfect Morrissey soundtrack.
5 out 5 burritos