The Spirit of ’80s MTV is Alive in an NYC TV Studio
The universe has all been clearly leading to this moment. As we end the second season, Vacation Jason has kidnapped the Human Fish and challenged Chris Gethard and the forces of good to a cage match for the latter’s very existence. On the season’s way there, John Hodgman dunked, Diddy dropped in unannounced through a door created just for him, Lena Dunham went to the prom as a mermaid, and the most magical thing ever popped out of a NYC dumpster (click here if you want a spoiler). It’s all in a season’s work for the unpredictable The Chris Gethard Show, arguably the most courageous program on television right now.
You may recognize Chris Gethard from a variety of nebbishy supporting roles on TV and movies, but probably mostly as Ilana Glazer’s pushover boss on Broad City. My favorite casting came last year when he took the spot of his 1950s doppelganger, John Fiedler, as Juror #2 on Inside Amy Schumer‘s brilliant 12 Angry Men spoof. He also shined on the same show leading a bargain basement Sex and the City tour, abnormally focused on sites related to Steve Brady. That role surely befits a man whose own show features recurring characters such as The Man Who Loves Cream But Not Too Much Cream and His Personal Barista, and Writer Who Was Fired From The New Yorker For Being Too Pretentious.
The show began its life in 2011 as an offshoot of famous improv group Upright Citizens Brigade, airing on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, an NYC public access channel infamous for some strange softcore porn, but mostly populated by college films and municipal debate shows and the like. In that Wild West setting, he was able to let his neurotic freak flag fly and create a talk show where each episode had a theme but very little else. He kept a few vague improvised sketches featuring oddball characters for when the show lagged, but mostly the experiment was to let the callers, on landlines and Skype, talk and see where that would lead them.
The audience was populated with men dressed as bananas and hot dogs and the Human Fish — the “creature from the sea” played by comedian David Bluvband who mostly speaks in binary questions (“Batman vs. A Very Fat Man”). When a New Yorker called in wondering what the hell was happening on her screen, Chris invited her down to the studio and she became regular cast member, Random Jean. There have since been multiple “Randoms.” Rounding out the main cast is sidekick Shannon O’Neil, the stage manager for UCB, internet liaison Bethany Hall, also of UCB (and briefly, memorably one of the Writers-Who-Never-Talk on 30 Rock), whiskey soaked announcer Murf Meyer, and band The LLC, fronted by indie rock veteran Hallie Bulliet, who would eventually marry Gethard in real life.
The show takes its lead and its anything-can-happen spirit from the better elements of the original programming of early MTV — from game shows like Remote Control to the first Jon Stewart Show. Remote Control, for example, would embrace its low-budget surroundings and amp up the weirdness as host Ken Ober led contestants through bizarre activities — having them complete math problems while a man dressed as a bishop lapped the studio, while if they failed too often they would be dispatched by throttling them through a wall. This programming was also often MTV’s showcase for underground bands and rising comedians — another key ingredient of The Chris Gethard Show.
If you thought moving the show to the tad more national, slightly more professional Fusion Network would … well, do I have to finish this sentence? For one thing, Fusion also has (well, had) a talk show featuring Paul F. Tompkins discussing politics with muppets. More importantly, that would completely miss the point of the show.
This incarnation may have more famous guest stars — although it wasn’t uncommon for someone like say Wyatt Cenac or Amy Poehler or Bobby Moynihan to show up in the public access days — but the spirit was still pretty much everything goes. Fans can watch tapings online — an unedited version which can go on for hours — and drive Bethany crazy commenting in the “Rat’s Nest.” In the second season, the program had a viral sensation-y sort of moment when the Diddy Door, installed in the early days, had its first and only possible taker in Sean Combs himself. Supposedly the conceit tickled Mr. Diddy and armed with the key, he spontaneously dropped by — of course preceded by a phalanx of entourage guardians.
However, as undeniably awesome and magical as that moment was — as a fan, it was a bit of a lowlight of the season, a distraction from the usual flow of craziness. And it was a relief the next week, when Chris, with a traditional talk show booking, brought on one of his childhood favorites, ex-New York Knicks shooting guard John Starks to help him fulfill a dream of dunking a basketball. In a segment that encapsulates the show’s chaotic, human, and genuinely warm-hearted nature, Gethard, O’Neil, and human muppet John Hodgman take turns on a modified basketball hoop perched upon gym mats until every one of them had succeeded. Then a team of Walt Whitmans with Globetrotter level hoops skillz put on a clinic as Hodgman read from Leaves of Green — because of course they did.
Much of the charm comes from Gethard himself, whose mite-y physique belies one of the bravest men on television. Beset by mental issues from childhood, his way of dealing with it is by creating a show which essentially faces one’s fears head-on. With a patient nature, he helps others by allowing them to express themselves in their own way, only cutting them off if the conversation clearly veers into truly dangerous territory. Gethard controls the show by allowing it to go off the rails, and in so doing, has created one of the most exciting hours of television that you should be watching. As the theme song closes — “you’ve got absolutely nothing better to do/and neither do we.”
RIYL: MTV’s Remote Control, No, You Shut Up!, Comedy Bang! Bang! (both podcast and show), Jackass
Catch-Up Playlist: You could really start anywhere with this show, but if you want to dip your toes, start with the MNN Pilot, any of the MNN-era “Night of Zero Laughs,” “Show Us the Weirdest Thing on Your Body” (S1, E1), “Slam Dunk, Slam Poetry” (S2, E3), “A Nice Family Dinner” (S2, E7), “What’s In Our Dumpster?” (S2, E9)
The season finale of The Chris Gethard Show airs tonight on Fusion. All past episodes from both public access and Fusion eras can be found on YouTube.