Comedy of Empathy: Chris Gethard and Career Suicide

In this week of peak-election anxiety/exposure, I took a day off for the—genuinely—lighter and inspiring experience of Career Suicide, Chris Gethard’s one-man Off-Broadway show about depression, anxiety, and much else.

A friend involved in the NYC improv comedy world introduced me to Gethard’s work last year—he’s an incredible comedian, sometimes literally, taking on subjects and formats that stretch the definition of what I would previously have considered comedy. Look up Fusion’s The Chris Gethard Show, formerly public-access; or his podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, or really anything—he’ll be likable no matter where you start. Which I think gets at part of how he’s able to be so creative and ambitious and weird—Gethard is able to establish a two-way current of empathy with his audience and performance partners near-instantly. He may be better than anyone I’ve ever seen at active listening—certainly so in a public and improvised performance setting. No matter the content, that's powerful.

I’ve felt this empathy many times, seeing or hearing Gethard speak, but during Career Suicide it hit a new peak for me as I felt at one point, genuinely and to the level of delusion, that Gethard and I were friends—I had the actual thought that I’d follow up with him later, ask him one-on-one about something he’d said on stage. Then I had to remember that we did not in fact know each other. (What kind of wizardry is it, by the way, to create the strong impression of being an excellent listener during a one-man show.)

That alliance with the audience is a great asset of Gethard’s as a performer—you’re immediately on his side, to the point of being proud of him for writing and performing the show even as it unfolds. But it’s also just remarkable to see that kind of earnest empathy and vulnerability in action. And all this is independent of the show, its comedy and its narrative arc and everything that makes it technically lovely. I suppose the creative lesson is to work with your strengths, but the life lesson is to do your best to cultivate Gethard’s strengths in yourself.

I tend to find something to like about a creative work more often than not. One way or another I usually leave the theater, or put down a book, inspired. But that inspiration is often built on a bedrock of ambition. Showing the outside world, showing myself, what I’m capable of producing. Career Suicide, like Gethard’s work in general, is very inspiring. But that feeling isn’t tinged with ambition in any kind of externally validated way. The play is both instruction for and example of the work—personal, professional, creative—that can be accomplished through optimism, curiosity, and empathy rather than ambition or specific expectation.

One of my favorite of the The Chris Gethard Show episodes I've seen—the one I linked to at the top of the post—is “Slam Dunks, Slam Poetry”: in which guest John Hodgman and the cast of TCGS learn to dunk a basketball from John Starks while viewers call in via Skype to read their favorite poems aloud. It has so much of what’s great about TCGS in one episode—comedy by free-association and intense commitment to a harmlessly insane bit, for instance. But also a surprising depth of feeling behind a seemingly fluffy premise—Gethard gets teary-eyed opening the show and explaining how much Starks meant to him as a kid; Starks is a total mensch about it; Gethard sinks a dunk and immediately finds his wife (who leads the show’s band) to tell her he loves her; Hodgman—whom I adore always and/but who is clearly a country mile from his comfort zone learning to dunk—ends up crushing it. I end up feeling proud of and inspired by everyone on the set, wanting to strive to be more like each of them, no matter how theoretically silly the premise they’re playing out. 

I highly recommend Career Suicide, which is part of the point here. But more generally: this is a tough week, y’all. I think Chris Gethard’s is the vibe we need to cultivate.