It’s not often a comedian says the words, "Comedy has saved my life" and actually means it. But for US standup Chris Gethard, this is no joke.
Since childhood, the 36-year-old has struggled with mental health issues and depression, which has led to alcoholism and a suicide attempt, all of which Gethard discusses in depth in his storytelling standup show, Career Suicide. Sounds bleak? Well, Gethard finds unexpected laughs in the very darkest moments of his life without ever making light of the issues – it’s a skillful, sensitive and brutally honest show, and extremely funny throughout.
The show’s subject matter might come as a shock to fans of Gethard’s regular goofball standup act or his anxiety-ridden bit-part roles in The Office or Parks and Recreation. Or his chaotic, freewheeling TV and internet series, The Chris Gethard Show, in which he surrounds himself with odd characters and often makes the public, who phone into the show, regular guests. Career Suicide isn’t a show for a boozed-up Saturday night crowd, and it’s a bold move to make it his Edinburgh Fringe debut.
It wasn’t his idea to start talking about his experiences on stage though. The show came about after the New Jersey-born comic spent a year on the road with fellow American standup Mike Birbiglia. "You get to know each other very well when you’re on the road together," says Gethard. "He knew I’d suffered from depression, and while we were touring he started asking me questions about it, like, 'What was that stuff really like?' I’d tell him these very personal stories and he’d say, 'You have to tell these on stage – they’re hilarious!' And I was like, 'Really? I thought these were my least hilarious stories'."
He was initially a little taken aback by his friend’s suggestion. "If it was anyone else I’d be almost offended," he says. But he trusted Birbiglia and started telling the stories in small New York clubs. "It was tough", he admits. "Some nights I’d come off stage and I’d be shaking, going, 'I can’t do that again, it’s too much'." But soon punters started approaching him after shows, people who had been through similar experiences, and they were relating. More importantly, though, they were laughing.
"I was very conscious that it should be a comedy show and not a public service announcement," says Gethard. "It had to be funny. I have to laugh about this stuff, it’s the only way I’ll ever get over it." Indeed, there’s plenty to laugh at in the show – even a tale about deliberately crashing his car is peppered with silly imagery and comical characters. Whereas saying something on stage that everybody agrees with can get a round of applause, getting a giggle is far more difficult, says the comic.
"A laugh is involuntary," he explains. "I wanted to make sure the show was getting laughs because you can’t choose to do that. I worked hard on the comedy bits first, and made sure they were getting laughs as big as my regular standup. After that was the case I found the connective tissue to make this a show."
This "connective tissue" includes stories about therapy, panic attacks and drugs. Particularly, Gethard talks openly about being on anti-depressants and discusses the stigma around mental health medication. "I’ve talked to people who have gone, 'I’m going to get off these anti-depressants', and they see it as a victory or a goal," he says. "Why? You don’t have to wait for the bottom to fall out of something before you take some pills that could’ve helped stop the bottom falling out in the first place."
If that sounds like an unusual opinion, it could be because these issues aren’t being talked about or addressed enough. Indeed, the online advertising for Gethard’s show has received a lot of feedback from people in Scotland who haven’t bought tickets.
"I’ve had people saying, 'It’s not funny, you shouldn’t joke about those kinds of topics'," he says. "And when people say you shouldn’t joke about something, I always feel what they’re really saying is, 'We shouldn’t talk about that topic publicly'. It’s been strange. I really hope people saying that come to see the show. I actually think they might get the most out of it."
And if they’re Morrissey fans, they’ll get even more out of it. The Smiths have been a constant source of comfort for Gethard over the years, and in Career Suicide he talks about the impact the band's songs have had on him at different stages of his life.
"Their lyrics were the first time I really felt like someone was talking about what I was feeling and being funny about it," he explains. "Morrissey’s this downbeat character, but he’s also very witty, and very tough. Morrissey, in a beautiful way, knows what’s ridiculous, even about himself."
He managed to meet his hero once when the musician performed on the Jimmy Fallon show in New York, and Morrissey signed Gethard’s arm. "I then immediately rushed to a tattoo parlour to get it tattooed there permanently," he says, and shows me the evidence. "I said to him, 'Your music is so important to me, thank you for it. I’ll never be able to explain how much it means to me.' And he just said, 'Hard to believe,' and then immediately walked away. I still don’t know whether he meant: 'Hard to believe it’s meant so much to you,' or 'Hard to believe you can’t explain it'."
Gethard didn’t quite know whether mentioning Morrissey on stage would go down well in the UK—"From what I’ve found out you guys either seem to love him or hate him"—or whether the show would work on this side of the Atlantic at all. He’s always been slightly intimated by this festival, he admits.
"I know that it can be a hard month and you can go a little insane," he says with a laugh. "But for some reason, throughout my career, if I’ve been scared or intimidated about doing something, I’ve gone, 'Well, I should probably do that, then'. I feel the same way about Edinburgh."
If he sees the Fringe as a challenge, he’s winning. The show’s receiving rave reviews and full houses, which wouldn’t be the case if Gethard hadn’t been able to laugh at his bleak experiences. It’s yet another example of how comedy has helped the comic get through his toughest times. Comedy really has saved his life.