Fighting for the Title of Top Comic Underdog

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 10 2012 4:13 PM

An Underdog Comic Fights with Success

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A typically wild taping ofThe Chris Gethard Show.

Flickr/emilydickinsonridesabmx.

To promote his new book, A Bad Idea I'm About To Do, Chris Gethard is calling out the world’s authors, one by one, in YouTube videos, many of which he has filmed while sitting shirtless in his kitchen or living room. Among his targets: Malcom Gladwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, and others (including Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

Here he is going after Chuck Klosterman:

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Gethard’s book is a collection of essays about fully committing to terrible ideas. Going on the Internet to talk crap about a bunch of authors who are more famous than you while trying to sell a book is probably a terrible idea. But Gethard, a New York-based comedian and Upright Citizens Brigade mainstay, is very good at setting himself up for failure. And this makes him a comedy nerd’s delight: the ultimate underdog. He picks fights he can’t win—and he has begun to make a pretty successful career out of it.

Gethard’s comedy is rooted in the Id—but with the emphasis on Thanatos (the “death drive”), rather than Eros. Last week, Gethard went on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and challenged UFC Welterweight champion George St. Pierre to a fight. If it happens, Gethard will get a beatdown for sure: He’s a scrawny-looking guy who, according to his book, was incapable of growing facial hair well into his twenties. “I’m not saying I’m going to beat him,” he said on Fallon. “I’m almost definitely not. But what if I did? What if I did?”

Gethard does have some martial arts training, which he discusses in the book. But that presumably won’t give him the upper hand. In this instance, as in so many, he is the best kind of underdog: highly skilled, but underestimated. Comedy nerds scour the underground scene for performers who fit that description, because they’re great to root for. And Gethard has built a comic persona that fits that description to a tee.

Last week, I went to a taping of The Chris Gethard Show, a Manhattan public-access program that bills itself as the “most bizarre and often saddest talk show in New York City.” It’s an hour-long weekly call-in show with a live audience, hosted by Gethard and a rotating crew of other NYC improv-comedy veterans. Each week’s show has a theme, usually one that promises psychological and/or physical harm for Gethard personally. Last week: “Ruin this Show,” which meant it was open season for the audience—generally full of other improv regulars—to do just that. It seemed especially emblematic of Gethard’s failure-baiting.

And in execution it was like hopping up a preschool class on pixie sticks, handing them each a jar of finger paints, and telling them to go wild. There were at least 40 noisemakers (including one vuvuzela). There was a cleaning crew. One caller simply got on the line to remind Gethard that a mutual acquaintance of theirs had died recently. Gethard started out in a mild panic and, about 15 minutes before the end of the show, “hit a wall,” as he described it to me after the show. “I guess that’s what you get when you intentionally build shows designed to fail and torment yourself.” Gethard’s next guest is a professional dominatrix: He’ll only be allowed to host the show with her permission.

There’s a paradox in much of indie culture: fans want their favorite underground performers to succeed—but not to succeed too much. They don’t want to see them sell out, or lose touch with their “true” audience. Gethard seems to have found an approach that keeps him in a fighting stance, that maintains his underdog position—even as new accolades come his way. He’s not just an underdog comic; he’s fighting for the underdog title belt.

Further listening: Hear Gethard read one of the essays from his new book on a recent episode of This American Life.

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