Chris Gethard explains his new IFC deal and how he makes his public-access show
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In Money Matters, creative people discuss what they’re not supposed to: the intersection of entertainment and commerce, as well as moments in their lives and careers when they bottomed out financially and/or professionally.
The artist: Chris Gethard hosts the live weekly public-access spectacle The Chris Gethard Show, which was formerly a monthly stage variety show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. His creed, as it always has been, is that the show will either be amazing, or so spectacular a failure that it’ll be memorable, and after four years, he’s consistently lived up to that promise. He once asked a bunch of celebrities to swing by and inspire one young girl to keep pursuing comedy, and he holds an annual Night Of Zero Laughs, where people appear on the show and purposely attempt to bomb. Gethard was the lead in Comedy Central’s attempt at the multi-cam sitcom, Big Lake, and he’s the author of the memoir A Bad Idea I’m About To Do, which finds levity and grace in his darkest, most depression-filled moments. A stalwart of the New York improv scene, Gethard is beloved for his openness and devotion to the form; fans of his show share his commitment, often calling in from places as far-flung as Sweden.
The A.V. Club: How did Big Lake come about?
Chris Gethard: It was a good opportunity. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell met me on the set of The Other Guys, where I did this tiny part. It was this action scene, so we were all just sitting around shooting for two days. We all started improvising. Will Ferrell pulled me aside and was like, “You’re really funny, man.” Adam McKay pulled me aside and was like, “You’re a good actor.” That meant a lot. And they wound up producing the show. Jon Heder stepped out, and they were like, “Let’s call that guy in.” It was a great thing. But it was also super eye-opening.
AVC: How did you initially get representation?
CG: I had commercial representation for years through UCB—that happens pretty quick for people now—through doing ASSSSCAT, the flagship improv show at UCB. Seth Meyers did it a bunch. And he asked me to guest-write at Saturday Night Live. That put me on the radar for a bunch of agencies. Then I wound up starting a show called Nights Of Our Lives at UCB, which was this storytelling show. I developed a lot of solo material through that, and wound up doing a solo show. Those two things, having that show in the wake of guest-writing at SNL, kind of put me on the radar. Then my agent at CAA was like, “I really like you, but you’re a little scatterbrained. You’ve always got like 10 things going on. You need to have one or two things that you’re focusing on that I can help you with.”
AVC: When you heard that, what did you think?
CG: It rang true. I definitely have a lot of manic energy, and it will go in nine different directions at once. When she said, “You really need to focus and take something the whole mile, something we can actually show to people and sell”—that’s not exactly how I think, but I’m aware that it is how it works, theoretically. That all added up. In the way that it often does, I think part of the answer realistically is, I got on the radar of enough agencies that they all started sensing that one of them was going to sign me, and that motivated all of them to be more aggressive. That helped. It made them step up and say, “Let’s get serious about it.”
AVC: When you were doing Big Lake, was there a thought of, “I’m going to be an actor on a sitcom”?
CG: I actually had started leaning more toward writing. When I started at UCB, I wanted to be an actor, and then I saw you’re a little more in control of your own destiny with writing. For every show that has five actors, there’s 15 writers. I started leaning more toward writing, and that’s when the acting gigs started coming a little easier. It was definitely something that had been on my radar, but waning a little bit—the idea of being a full-time actor. But the opportunity came along, the lead on a sitcom. That was definitely the sort of thing I thought I wanted. Then I got there, and in the process of doing it, I realized, “I don’t know if this is what I wanted.” It was validation, but it wasn’t fulfilling. The actual work itself, it wound up having a lot of problems. That’s why it’s not around anymore.
AVC: Was it the appeal of having a steady paycheck?
CG: A steady paycheck was amazing. Big Lake happened in 2010. I’m not good at math. Numbers are a terrifying thing to me. My father is a whiz with money and the stock market, and he tries to explain it to me, and I find it terrifying. I’ve always said, “If I want to live this lifestyle and I want this to be my job, I need to live, not even within my means, but below my means.” I’ve always dedicated myself to keeping some savings and living at a level that I know I could have it a little nicer than this. Big Lake happened in 2010, and that was such a windfall. I stuck it all in a savings account, and that’s still my safety net. Two years later, I have a lot of money from Big Lake that I’ve never touched. I booked the lead in a sitcom that was guaranteed to have 10 episodes. I knew I’d be making a certain amount of money that was by far the most I’d ever made in a year. The only thing I bought myself: I went to H&M and I bought three shirts and a pair of pants, and I bought prescription sunglasses for the first time in my life. That was my only reward for myself. Just this year, I moved from Queens to Brooklyn, two years after Big Lake and after this IFC deal came along. That’s kind of the next gig that’s equivalent in stature and paycheck.
AVC: What is the actual deal?
CG: The IFC deal? It’s cool. It’s really, really nice of them. It’s like a residency program, almost. They optioned my book, and they gave me a script deal to write a pilot based on the book. They gave me a year to get that done, and in the same year, they’re paying me for all this marketing work, where I’m going to SXSW and Bonnaroo and representing them there. I’m doing all these web videos they’re producing. I’m going to be doing a lot of stuff for the website. It’s the first year they’re doing this program, and they’re still figuring out how to organize it on their end. The idea is that I’ll be this marketing face for them, and they’ll be supporting me along the way as I write this show, and hopefully this all adds up to a show down the line. It’s cool. They’re giving me enough money that I don’t need to book other work for the year that I’m writing for them. I get to write.
AVC: It seems like a win-win. People get comfortable with you. By the time you’re actually doing the show, they’re like, “Oh yeah, I know him.”
CG: I think that’s the idea, to build me up with the IFC audience and build me up internally, and get all their people on my side so that I feel like part of the family before this show even launches. It’s a cool experiment they’re doing. I’m really lucky to be the guy at the center of it. Once I got that deal, I moved to Greenpoint and my rent jumped up a few hundred dollars. Between that and the Big Lake safety net, I feel okay about spending more money on rent.
AVC: Where did the impulse come from to hoard your money from Big Lake? Was it just from years of not having the money? Most people would be like, “Yeah! It’s never going to end. I’m going to have this money forever.”
CG: I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have it in me. It was really weird. Tyler Perry has this whole sitcom model he invented: You film 10 episodes instead of a pilot, and a bunch of production companies split the money. Then if it goes, it’s going to be 90 more episodes straight to syndication. I was told on the phone call when I got the show—I wish I was not told this, but one my agents was like—“You have a back-end point we negotiated, so if those 90 episodes get picked up, you’ll make $ 2.2 million the day it gets picked up.” That would be my whole life, right? I could probably live off that the rest of my life. So I had that in my mind, but even with that in mind, I was like, “I don’t have it in me.” I have that attitude of someone who survived the Great Depression. I just put it all in the coffee can, but my coffee can is an ING Direct savings account. It all sits in there, and that’s how my money works. I try to pay my rent off jobs I’m currently booking and let that savings account exist on its own.
AVC: As a comedian who does a lot of stuff for free, how do you balance stuff you’re doing creatively for yourself with stuff you need to do to make a living?
CG: This year is actually the first year where I’ve gotten to the point where I’m turning some things down that are just the rent-paying gigs. Part of that is the IFC thing, and I’m sure there will be stretches in my life where I’ll have to go back to doing it. I have worked some jobs over the years that are definitely “pay the rent” jobs. You grit your teeth, like, “You’ve got to do it. You have to pay the rent.” They’re demoralizing, but they’re also really motivating. There are people I’ve seen who come out of the same comic scene I do who, in my opinion—I don’t begrudge anybody anything—seem a little too content to float from commercial to commercial and be the public face of these things. I’ve always had it in me that I need to work 10 times harder than anybody else to try to do my own thing.
I’m just starting to turn the corner where I’m making money consistently doing stuff I believe in that I can now turn down some of the more corporate-driven stuff. To me, there’s so much stuff that’s branded content and public-appearance stuff, or “go appear at a corporate thing as part of a troupe of actors pretending to be in character.” There’s a lot of stuff that there’s no shame in, but that I also think you’ve got to work really hard and have a goal in mind to move on from that. I don’t know. It just drives me a little nuts in the sense that I don’t want to be a guy who endorses products and does all commercial-driven stuff. That really doesn’t sit too well in my gut, although realistically, I’ve made health insurance through SAG the past seven years, and almost all that’s through commercial work. I can’t bite the hand that feeds me, but I think it is a goal as an artist to want to move on from all the branded, commercially driven stuff.
AVC: People talk about soap operas as golden handcuffs for actors. Maybe for comedians, it’s, “We need a wacky guy.”
CG: I think commercials are, big time. I got my commercial agent when I was 21 or 22, and it was right in this era when improv blew up in the commercial world, especially in New York. It seems like it’s waning now, but there was this stretch where it was like, “If you are a New York comedian who knows how to improvise and has glasses, you’re going to start getting commercials.” It was this nerdy, geek-chic thing that came up in the early 2000s, probably in the wake of Weezer and that culture. I also had such a baby face. I was 22, 23, and I looked like I was 18. That was also an asset. That started with [Late Night With Conan O’Brien]. They could cast me as a teenager and not pay the extra fee you apparently have to pay teenagers. I started getting cast real young. I remember the first big one I booked, and I don’t want to get gross talking about numbers, but I booked a McDonald’s commercial that started airing during football games on the networks. I did one day of work and made almost $50,000 that year. It was awesome, but also it was, for me as a perpetually nervous guy, like, “Don’t get too used to this.” For me, it’s always been any time I make money—commercials, or Big Lake, or this IFC deal—it’s like, “Now you have breathing room to start working really hard on the things you want work on.”
AVC: Have you always known what it is that you’ve wanted to do?
CG: I’ve always wanted to do comedy in some fashion. As a kid, I knew I wanted to take a chance on it. Didn’t always have the confidence or the belief that it could happen, but always knew and luckily found a path when I was very young through the UCB Theatre that was encouraging of that.
AVC: What about as far as doing your own show?
CG: I grew up in the New York area, so our bus driver would play Howard Stern every morning. He was always the guy that I was like, “This is amazing. He’s doing whatever he wants to.” Andy Kaufman was another one who I was so addicted to from a young age. “He’s doing whatever he wants to.” The real one when I was super-young, the first thing I was ever obsessed with that was not a Police Academy movie, my mom bought my brother the David Letterman book of Top 10 lists. From that day forward, I was obsessed with Letterman, was always trying to stay up late to watch Letterman. It was three guys who are kind of form-bending weirdoes who managed to do whatever they want. I’ve always wanted to do that, but that’s not really a career goal: “I want to do whatever I want and tinker with how it works.” You’re not really allowed to do that. In the past couple years, I’ve gotten to a point where I’m actually trying to make my reputation as something of a weirdo or risk-taker, or however you want to phrase it. I did that Bonnaroo project, and they were very kind. They were like, “We think you’re doing cool stuff. We want to make it worth your while to do this weird project through us.” That was a good one that was encouraging. It’s tough. I don’t know what your impression is, but I feel like I’m intentionally painting myself into this corner lately, where my reputation is that I’m doing odd stuff, and I skipped pilot season last year to focus just on that stuff. It was mental effort to say, “I have to make this work, or eventually, I won’t be able to eat.”
AVC: More people should be following that—carving out your own niche is the only way to ensure you get to do that kind of work. Do you mind discussing how The Chris Gethard Show is financed?
CG: I think one of the very lucky things in my life is that my older brother was into punk rock, and all his friends were into punk rock. The first concert I ever went to was a bunch of local bands in a church basement that my brother’s friend put on. From the age of 13 or 14, the whole DIY, get-it-done aesthetic was very important in my life, and something I saw examples of. I think the comedy scene gets compared to the music scene a lot. For me, it was just a good model to follow.
I bring that up because the way the show is financed is out of pocket. Largely out of my pocket on the creative end—any props, any setpieces that you see, they’re all things I just have to buy, and they have to fit in the trunk of my car. I’m pretty proud of our show. We create an hour of live content a week, and I think we do some really interesting stuff, and it’s funny. It’s a good hour of funny content. I’m not an arrogant person, but I’m getting to a point where I’m like, “It’s funnier than a lot of stuff on network TV.” Laughs per minute, I think it’s funnier. It looks really bad, but we’ve made that a choice. We’ve made that an aesthetic instead of a limitation. That was a very intentional thing that immediately hit me from the punk-rock days. “We’re not going to make these things look shiny. It’s not going to look good. We’d better embrace the fact that it looks kind of bad, and make it feel like a bunch of people hanging out in their basement. It’s sawdust-on-the-floor, do-it-yourself charming. Let’s own that.” That was a smart way to keep it cheap.
Otherwise, if we have a bit that costs money, I spend the money. Our only real revenue streams are, we sell merchandise, but the merchandise largely pays for itself and is promotion for the show, and it gathers this community together, which is a hugely important thing, but it doesn’t generate much money. We host our show on blip.tv, which is this pretty great online-video platform, and they have a revenue-sharing program for all their content creators. We’re just now getting enough views that we probably have made enough money so the show has not lost too much money this year. It’s probably only lost about a thousand dollars of my money, and that includes paying for touring gigs. We just got invited to go to San Francisco. It’s nice we get invited to do things, but our show is a cast-driven show, so it’s not like bringing a stand-up out, where you can get them a plane ticket and a hotel room. We have a house band and a bunch of people. I have to pay a lot for that stuff too, which is totally worth it in the long run.
AVC: Do the people who work on your show get paid?
CG: No one gets paid. I don’t take any money from it. It’s all for the love of the game. Luckily, the roots of our show are at the UCB Theatre, where nobody gets paid. You perform there, and they invite you to teach classes. You perform there, and it increases the likelihood that you get commercial agents, and everything is kept cheap. All those shows are kept $10 or below. In exchange, you don’t get paid, but people actually come out and see your show, and your reputation gets cred. Luckily, all of our people, the large core of the people who started the show, have that background in mind. We’re looking at the long game. We’re looking at the idea that somebody will pick up the show, or maybe the Internet will get to a point where it can support something that’s an hour long. So that’s it as far as funding goes. I pay for it. That’s pretty much the end of the story. My friend J.D. Amato, who produces and directs the show, if there’s any technical needs—tapes, cables, equipment—he usually covers that. Basically, two guys fund the whole thing, and we try to keep it cheap.
AVC: Since you’re funding it, at what point do you have to say, “This bit is too out-of-control financially”? How often do the finances get in the way of the creative aspect?
CG: The real thing that kills me with our show… I’m about to get on a soapbox, but the thing that kills me is our show has gotten all the respect in the world. It’s awesome. It’s gotten cool press. A New York Times review for a public-access TV show is, to me, such a cool thing. I wish more people would see that and be like, “These guys are onto something.” I’m kind of at a point where I can’t believe no network has nibbled harder than they have. The real killer thing is that in my brain, I know the game plan of what the show could be with a real budget. The things we don’t get are things where you need plane tickets. We have all these filmmakers who are down with the show because they’re New York guys, and the show has become this creative community of people, but I know if I could pay a cameraman to spend two or three days and go with one of our cast members… A perfect example is, we did a touring show in North Carolina. The kids who go to UNC tell us there’s this secret society, and they have this castle on a hill. One of our cast members, my friend Murph, got super drunk and went and broke into the castle. It was insane behavior. He broke in, in the middle of the night, then he started calling them out on our show, “The Order of Gimghoul, I’m going to take you down.” It was this really funny thing. In an ideal world, we’d fly him down there and have him knock on the front door. That’s going to cost a couple thousand bucks. We need a cameraman. We need hotel rooms. We need a rental car.
I’m so inspired by some of those Conan bits, where Conan and Mr. T went apple-picking. It’s like, grab a celebrity, send them somewhere, do something. I have all this stuff in my head. We have this fan in Sweden. This guy calls our show from Sweden every week, this weird public-access show in New York. I’d love to do a bit where we just surprise him and show up and our whole cast does one show from Sweden in his house. I bet our show is cheap enough that we can convince a network, “You can produce our show cheaper than any show on TV, but in exchange, we’ll have this nest egg where once or twice a year, we’ll do something amazing like that.” I’d love to do cool stuff like that.
AVC: What do you think is stopping them? If you’ve had discussions with networks about adapting it, what’s the feedback?
CG: When the show was a stage show at UCB, I got a ton of meetings. The show has been met with this: A lot of people reach out, but we don’t get many meetings. My impression is that the show is very respected, but is viewed as a very scary thing. It’s live. We have live callers you can’t control. Last night, we had a guy call our show and say he has fantasies about killing his ex-girlfriend. That’s a really scary thing. I know that. I get that a network doesn’t want that on their show. Also, our show fails a lot. One out of every five or six episodes, we say, “Here’s what we’re going to do this week,” and then it doesn’t go well. But I think we have made something out of the idea that the failure is as enjoyable. It’s as enjoyable to watch this thing fall apart because you know what we’re trying to build here, and we’re willing to fail. I don’t know if networks are as willing to fail.
The thing that frustrates me is this idea—there’s a lot of cursing on our show. On public access, you’re allowed to do that. If we were on a network, of course we wouldn’t do that. Of course we’d adapt to the rules of the network. There’s a middle ground of what we do and what a network requires that I think would be a really fascinating show that would be not as weird as what we’re doing now on public access. I’ll just air some of the interactions I’ve had. I got a call from my agent one Thursday. We do the show every Wednesday night. My agent called me, and she goes, “The comedy-development executive from this network, one of the big networks”—I won’t tell which one—“came to your show last night. She didn’t tell us she was coming. She wants to have lunch with you.” I was like, “That’s awesome.” I went, met with this person, we sat down, and she’s like, “I love your show. I watch your show every week. I’m obsessed with it. I just want to say right off the top, though, I’m not going to buy your show, because I’d have to ruin it.” I’m like, “I respect that.” She likes it a lot, but she’d have to be the one to ruin it, and she doesn’t want to ruin it. That’s nice. That being said, maybe we could have a talk about where it could land. I’m down to sell out and have that talk.
AVC: The point of the talk was, “Just want you to know you’re great”?
CG: Yeah, which is cool. My fear is that in five or 10 years, you’re going to see things that look a lot like the show we’re doing now, but it’s just not time for it yet. I once had a meeting with the head development executive who runs the production company of a guy who’s legitimately one of my heroes. We were doing the show at UCB, and a DVD best-of came across his desk, and he was like, “I want to meet this kid.” I flew out to L.A., sat down with him, and he was like, “You’re doing something really cool, man.” This was when we were still a stage show. He was like, “If you did a TV show, what would the TV show be?” I was like, “It would be live. We would have call-ins. We’d build this community. I’d want to have celebrities on, but I wouldn’t want it to be, ‘Tell us about the projects you’re working on.’ I’d want it to be, ‘Let’s go do something with you.’” My big example to him was, we’d have Rob Riggle on. He’d talk about the movies, sure, but he was a Marine. “Let’s take our whole audience, put them on a bus, and go to a paintball field. I’m a captain, and Riggle’s a captain. The whole team that gets put with the Marine captain is psyched because he’s doing strategy.”
We find out what people are into. Back then—it was a few years ago when he was more on the radar, but Vin Diesel is super into Dungeons & Dragons. You’d always read that. “Let’s do a whole hourlong episode where me and Vin Diesel go through this whole fantasy world with other cast members of the show. We have to solve riddles and roll dice to beat them. All this crazy stuff.” He just stopped and looked at me, and he was like, “You’re describing an amazing show. I can’t imagine who would buy it. So you just have to keep going and force the issue. Keep making noise and force someone to buy it.” That was a really inspiring conversation to me. That was one of the things that made me feel good about taking the chance of going to public access. That being said, that production company has now bought a talk show from another comedian who is not me, which is sort of a moment of defeat in my mind. I have no ill will toward a very good friend of mine. But there’s only so many jobs that go around, and it’s scary to see someone else get a job via a company whose radar you knew you were on at one point.
AVC: At what point do you feel like to deem the show a success, you need the validation—or the budget—of these traditional means of producing something? You talk about all the wonderful things you’d done, but you also say, “We’re working toward something.” At what point do you need to have that?
CG: I think the concrete answer is, I definitely have another year of fight left in me. Probably two, is what I keep telling myself. If I keep getting enough work in New York to justify staying here. A lot of people told me, “Why don’t you move to L.A. and do the show there?” I don’t hate L.A., but I think it’s such a New York show. It’s weird. It’s not just comedians. It’s musicians, it’s filmmakers, it’s artists. And the show’s called The Chris Gethard Show. In my mind, when I started the show at UCB, it was going to be a traditional talk show where all the guests were people from my real life. Like, we interviewed the coolest kid from my high-school class. It quickly evolved into this thing where it became known, if you’re in New York, and you have an idea that’s insane or you have something you want to pull off, this is the venue to do it. I could move to L.A., but there’s 10 other comedians who call [my] show home, and there’s a bunch of filmmakers, and there’s a band that’s been there from the start. All 20 or 30 of the people who have a place on that show are not moving to L.A. The name of the show, Chris Gethard is my name, but it also represents this style to me now, this aesthetic that a lot of people rally behind and benefit from. I’m not going to move to L.A. and try to rebuild a pale imitation of it without those people. I don’t have an interest in doing that.
AVC: You talked about your own finances, but how concerned are you about theirs?
CG: I will say, and a lot of them yell at me for this—the show has my name on it. I managed to get opportunities from it. The fact that this show existed and had this cult following helped me sell a book. It helped me get that Bonnaroo deal, and our guys were the crew of that. A handful of the guys managed to make money, and I made money off of that. I get opportunities off it, and my reputation. For me, the show will always be a success on a personal level, because it has gotten this reputation and this press. When I fly out to L.A., I always get a ton of meetings because people just want to meet me, and go, “Why did you do this one thing? That was insane. I heard about this thing you did.” So, for me, I put more pressure on myself to make it work for the people whose names aren’t on it. I would love to sell this thing and see 20 of my friends get a job. I’ve managed to make some money off my name, and the show has helped spread my name. For me, I’m a little less worried about my own finances, and a little more like, “We built this community.” We built this culture. I put a lot of pressure on myself to say to all these people who have been working for almost two years for free for this thing with my name on it, I would love to sell the show and get all of them jobs. I think that would be the coolest story in the world. They yell at me. A lot of them yell at me. They’re saying, “You’re not responsible for that.” I know I’m not responsible for it, but I think it would be awesome. Maybe that’s foolish. That’s not how things work, but I would love to see it happen.
AVC: Knowing how things work is only half the battle. Rarely do you hear about somebody who changed things playing by the rules.
CG: And if I do that, best-case scenario, I wind up on a healthier, more successful version of Big Lake, but the jig is up. I know what that experience was. I know it’s not going to whet my appetite. So I don’t want that. Howard Stern, what he did with radio, he changed how it works, straight up. I’m not going to have that much influence over TV. I do look at TV and the Internet. TV has not recognized that the Internet is nipping at its heels. My whole theory is, things are going to have to be live, or else you can just download stuff. You need to watch something live. That’s why sports are untouchable in the ratings. I bet there’s going to be more live shows. There has to be, for them to be DVR-proof. Things have to be interactive. People consume information now in a way that they’re used to being able to leave comments. That’s part of the deal for kids who are 13, 14, 15 years old. You watch a video, part of the deal is that you get to leave a comment on it. TV is going to have to start incorporating people more. They’re going to have to start incorporating interactivity. They have to, or else people are going to abandon it. People don’t want to just watch shows and have that be a one-way experience any more. They want to have online discussions. They want to have the ability to offer commentary and see it affect the quality of the work.
There’s a lot of people who work at Saturday Night Live who are friends of mine who have looked out for me personally. I do not want to say a bad word about them. But it is crazy to me that, outside of news and sports, that’s probably the most influential live show. They’ve never done anything that incorporates Twitter. They’ve never done anything where something at the start of the show gets set up, and the viewers in that hour and a half have any ability to determine how it goes. I think if I remember right, the last interactive bit they did was call up and vote whether you want Andy Kaufman to be on the show anymore. The guy’s been dead for over 20 years. To me, that’s so insane. Comedy fans are the people on the Internet. Saturday Night Live is the institution for comedy nerds, and they haven’t done it. It does make me water at the mouth a bit. I would love to be the guy who—put my show on at 2 in the morning. We’ll be the cheapest show to produce. Some cable network: Put us on at 2 a.m. Give us almost no money. It’ll still be more money than we get on public access. Let us take a chance on this idea that if we create this completely interactive show, that people really feel like is theirs, that it will click. It will click in the way that things on the Internet click. That’s what I want to say to TV development people.
AVC: Why don’t you?
CG: Because they see what the show is, and they’re still scared of it. I want to sit them down and say, “You shouldn’t be scared of this thing. What you should be scared of is the Internet killing your medium. There’s this looming cloud that you guys aren’t adapting to. You’re scared of all the interactivity on my show, but I kind of feel like whoever takes a chance on it, we’re going to give you the Rosetta Stone to how to talk to all those kids.” Our show is not huge. It has no budget, and it doesn’t look good. But what I know is, there are kids all over the world who call it, and who it means something to. There are kids who watch my show who know if I show up in their town, we might just film a bit with them because it’s their show. One of my favorite things about the show is that people will call the show and say, “You know, this is not the funniest episode you’ve ever done, and I’m not that into this one.” Taking that criticism on the air, I get why that seems so terrifying to a traditional television executive, but I would also say, think about that from the perspective of a kid who grew up with the Internet: That’s just how his brain works. I want to sit them down and say, “Let us show you that this will create a cult following that will go anywhere with us.” We’ve already done that on public access. Imagine on a broader platform. I want to sit them down and say, “I know this is not how you do it anymore. Let us make the advertising internal to our show. Rather than cut to a commercial, let’s do it like a variety show from decades ago where I, the host, walk over and demonstrate how the product works. We never cut away. We just get a corporate sponsor to sponsor the whole show from within. Let the viewers of the show see us, the participants of this show, use this product and say, ‘This is a good product, and also, they’re the ones supporting this community we’re all a part of.’”
AVC: It’s like the first episode of Larry Sanders, where he’s doing the Garden Weasel.
CG: He was so disgruntled to have to do Garden Weasel. I’ll do Garden Weasel in a heartbeat, man. We’ll make your products look completely punk-rock. We’ll make your network look punk-rock. I don’t know. They don’t want to hear it.
AVC: When you say you have a year or two of fight left in you, what would happen if the money just was gone? You’ve obviously done a good job of saving and rationing it out, but how much is that looming over you?
CG: It looms over me pretty hard. I’ve gone this more performance-art route with my comedy at this point. I take a lot of pride in that, and it’s ultimately the type of stuff I want to make my job. But if I can’t figure out how to crack through and do that, at some point I just need to go to L.A. and be a character actor, just in the sense that I’ve either had or been rejected from every job in New York at this point. I guest-wrote at SNL. They didn’t hire me. Almost got hired at Fallon to write. Didn’t hire me. I’ve submitted to The Daily Show, to Colbert, to all of them. All the people there are very nice to me, but my path has gone different.
After a certain point, there’s not that much money in comedy in general, and most of the money that does exist is 3,000 miles away. At some point, unless I’m willing to commit completely to being a starving artist, I’ve got to admit that the experiment was a noble one that yielded some really cool stuff, but that ultimately wasn’t self-supporting. That’s a grim thing I don’t want to admit, but I kind of have to call a spade a spade, and know that that’s an eventuality that might come to pass. I’ll be disappointed, but that’s why I write now in the window I’m working on it. I live and die for the show. If I hit that point where I have to move to L.A. and do more traditional stuff, and I look back and I’m like, “Man, I was a little lazy with it,” I’ll never forgive myself. If I work myself completely to the bone now, and I can’t get it to work, I’ll bet I’ll have less regret, because at least I’ll know I got in the trenches and fought for it. At this point, between the stage show and public access, it’s been four years. Four years of working on this show. That’s not a small chunk of life. I can’t really regret having gone through it.
AVC: Especially as an adult, working as a professional.
CG: To work on something harder than I work on anything else for no money for four years of my adult life, I don’t think I’ll be able to regret it if it fails, because I know I went for it. At least I wasn’t lazy about it.
AVC: Unless you’re one of the 15 to 20 people lucky enough not to worry about this, there’s a huge discrepancy between creativity and money. It’s always balancing the two.
CG: That’s another thing I think about a lot. The world of entertainment is built for big money. It’s not built for small-scale projects that sustain themselves. It’s built to get a deal, and your agents come in and start fighting over money and points. If I could sell my show and live a respectable, middle-class lifestyle for the rest of my life, I’d do that, easy. I look at what [Rob] Corddry’s done with Childrens Hospital. I look at what Jon Glaser’s done with Delocated. Those guys, to me, have the best deal. Those shows aren’t on networks. I don’t know the financial breakdown of them, but I’m sure a 15-minute show on Adult Swim isn’t getting the same budget as How I Met Your Mother. If I could get a deal where I could just do my show—not even upper-middle class, middle-middle class. If I could have enough money that I know I could buy a house someday, and if I want to have kids, I could raise them—I don’t need the money grab. I don’t need to have a mansion. I just need to be creative and happy. The industry’s not built for that.
AVC: Though that seems to be changing—the Internet is doing a good job of exposing people like you, who want to be creative and just pay their bills.
CG: That’s interesting. It also feels like people are hip to things in a sense that nobody really winds up on TV these days as this undiscovered commodity. It’s more like, “Yeah, you guys finally figured out that Reggie Watts is awesome.” There is a line drawn between us and them as far as kids who like comedy and the large platforms for comedy.
AVC: Nick Kroll seems to be the perfect example of a guy who’s insanely talented and really nice, who works his way up. Then there was a threshold he crossed, and suddenly he can do whatever.
CG: I want to cross that Nick Kroll threshold. It’s really inspiring to see. I’m sure he is auditioning for those network roles. But I love seeing him do his own show on Comedy Central, knowing Nick. That gives me hope that a guy like that could just start gunning for those huge roles, but while he’s doing that, he’s prioritizing this thing that’s really his voice, and is getting an opportunity to do so. That’s inspiring. I also wonder, and I try not to be paranoid about it, but I was the star of a sitcom that failed, and I wonder how much of a factor that is. I try to tell myself, “You’re doing something very different than that,” but I also wonder how much a network executive sees what we’re doing and is like, “But that guy can’t carry a show. He’s already proven it.” That’s a scary thought to me. It’s a thought that I assume is not true and that my manager insists is not true, but on my most paranoid days, I’m like, “Did I get a sitcom that may have made it harder for me to have professional success? Is the highest-paying job I’ve ever had the thing that’s actually holding me back?”
AVC: If there is somebody out there who’s like, “This guy’s doing something amazing, and I love it, but, you know, he didn’t succeed at Big Lake, so no thanks,” is that somebody you really want to work with?
CG: Oh, definitely not. I prefer to work with people who believe in me. You have to. That’s what’s nice about IFC. They looked at me like, “You’re really weird. We don’t know what to make of it, but let’s take a year and try to figure something out.” It’s a cool way to think of it.
AVC: Is there a point at which you really have to spell out what you want to TV folks?
CG: Here’s an honest answer: Right when my show started getting all the press, pretty much any network that would look at a show like ours did a fake public-access show. Adult Swim did The Eric André Show, which is a great show. They’re like, “We already have a public-access show.” IFC, who gave me a deal, they were like, “We just started doing Comedy Bang! Bang!” which kind of feels like a guy in his living room. FX did that Russell Brand show, which had that fake public-access feel. All the networks that would look at us did a fake version of a public-access show within the past year. I think that also means that the meetings aren’t going to come right now. As far as gunning for the meetings, I’m gung-ho and ready to go. I think my agents and my manager are spreading the word, and making it known those meetings are available. But I think they’re also really smart and strategic about how we have to do it.
The reason I’m not more aggressive is that I also—in what I hope is smart, and not self-sabotaging—am like, “If our show ever does go to a network, and it goes right now because someone grabs us, at the scale we’re at right now, they have every right to say, ‘Change this, this, and that.’ ” If we just keep going on our own, occasionally showing up on the radar between viral stuff and press hits, then when they finally do pick us up, I have more of a right to say, “Hey, we earned this shot for a reason. You picked us up because you had to.” I want to force that issue where it’s undeniable. Then we’d have every right to say, “Hey, we know what we do. You have to let us do it.” There’s a part of me that has resisted those meetings on my own level. Once you get going with those conversations, you’re inviting the input of all these other people, and there is a slight, dim hope maybe it can happen with a minimal amount of that input, the meddling.
AVC: How much do you want to understand the business side of this stuff, or how much have you had to understand it, doing what you do?
CG: I don’t want to understand any of it. From what I can tell, it’s discouraging and kind of gross, the way money gets thrown around. I’m aware that if I understood it better, I could probably have more advantages when it comes to pitching and convincing people. My brain doesn’t work that way. If I could wrap my brain around business numbers, I wouldn’t have spent seven years living in an apartment in Queens with no closet. I would have stepped up and made more money to get a better apartment. That just happened when I was 31, 32. I just got an apartment that has a closet. I don’t think there’s much hope for me to figure out the economics of the entertainment industry.