Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Interview: Chris Gethard of "Big Lake"


In less than a week, UCB powerhouse and all-around great guy Chris Gethard will join Horatio Sanz and Chris Parnell in Comedy Central's "Big Lake," a new half-hour, multi-camera family sitcom about a big city banker (Gethard) who loses his job and moves home to his parents' couch in the small town of Big Lake, PA. The highly anticipated show is produced by Gary Sanchez Productions (The Other Guys, Talladega Nights, Anchorman) and distributed by Debmar-Mercury.

"Big Lake" premieres on Comedy Central Tuesday, August 17 at 10pm with two back-to-back episodes.

Gethard spoke with UCB Comedy about riding the 7 train to work, treating others with kindness, and how the Internet is like college radio for comedians.

Q: How does it feel to do a television show that's filmed out of New York? Especially a show that's shot in Queens, where you live.

CG: I mean, being able to take this step up in my career without having to leave New York City is the dream. I grew up in New Jersey and have never really left the East Coast. My whole family is here. I always felt a lot of anxiety, like "Can I make it happen here or do I need to do the LA thing?" Luckily, after grinding it out for a long time, things came together here. It's one in a million, but it's doable.

On set, one of the guys in the crew asked me what neighborhood in Manhattan I lived in. I was like "Oh, nah man, I live in a shittier part of Queens then we are in right now." Being able to take the 7 train to work each day was pretty cool. So yeah. A lot of people are like "Gethard, you're gonna wind up in LA soon." And I'm kind of like "Yeah, maybe someday, but not if I can keep doing it here. At all." I like being able to visit my mom.

Q: What can you tell us about "Big Lake"? How has shooting been?

CG: "Big Lake" has been fun and intense and overwhelming and an honor to participate in. I hope people enjoy the show. It's a twisted, subversive take on a traditional sitcom -- it looks and sounds and feels like a regular family sitcom, but the jokes are dark and weird and cool and I think if people give it a chance it could really catch on.

Q: Can we expect any other familiar faces on the show other than the leads?

CG: Fans of the UCBT will be pleased to know that Lennon Parham, Ben Rodgers, Billy Merritt, June Raphael, Seth Morris, Michael Delaney, Jon Gabrus and more appear throughout the run of the show. That's all I can remember off the top of my head. It's pretty late. But for real, UCB represents all over this show.

Q: On the show, your character is crashing on his parents' couch after losing his fancy banking job. Have you ever spent time after high school living with your parents?

CG: Yeah, I lived in LA for the first half of 2004 when I was working out there and when I came back I lived with my parents for three or four months. I was 24. It was fine. My parents are cool, funny, supportive people. I dunno. It was weird having food made for me. I haven't cooked a meal in over four years, I'm a lazy bachelor.

Q: How much does the show deal with the financial crisis?

CG: The show deals with very human repercussions of the financial crisis in that my character was at the core of a bank's meltdown. But episode to episode, the show deals more with the idiotic schemes three guys in a small town perpetrate to recover from their personal fallout in the financial crisis. It's that nice balance, I think. Because the financial crisis is only important in that it affects real people -- no one particularly feels sympathy for the big bankers themselves -- and our show is very much about Main Street America and their dealings with these hard times. I hope it strikes a chord in this way -- I think for an odd, dark little comedy show, it really has a good head on its shoulders.

Q: What is it like working with that amazing cast and crew?

CG: All the things you would imagine - intimidating, challenging, and fun. Being on set with Horatio and Chris - I mean, who comes from where we come from and doesn't admire those guys? They just bring the heat every time. Super hilarious and complete professionals. Working with them every single day made me really step up and bring my A game. Horatio and I have been buddies through Asssscat in NYC for years, and getting my big break in a project he was a part of was truly an honor. And Parnell is like - the king. Every time he shows up in a show or a bit, you know it's going to be good. His timing is insane. I feel insanely blessed that I was able to learn from those guys and the rest of the cast every day. Jim Rebhorn and Deborah Rush? Pros on a level I can only dream of. Dylan Blue? He's 14 years old and pulled off a really hard job, that of playing two characters simultaneously, with seemingly no effort at all. I just tried to keep my head above water and keep up with all of those guys.

As for Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, I mean, they are heroes to me. Especially knowing Adam came out of Improv Olympic and Second City and was one of the founders of the UCB, I really felt like - Man, I gotta step up to the plate and deliver and make these guys feel like they made the right choice putting their faith in me. You don't want to let down dudes who do some of the most brilliant comedy in America and have been doing so for many, many years.

But both of those guys, for being the total bad asses that they are - such positive energy surrounding them. Just a real warmth and a real belief in the project and just such an open mind and willingness to fail big and go for broke with the jokes. It was really inspiring to be around them and see how their brains work. Both of them are the types of people that when they're around, you simultaneously feel happier that they are there contributing in such a positive way and in awe of their abilities.

Q: Have you been watching TV when "Big Lake" promos have popped up? What was that like?

CG: Uh, it's weird, dude. I'm a dummy from New Jersey. I'm overwhelmed by all of this and psyched about it in a very genuine way. I try to own it and accept that for the time being this is part of my life now. But I don't know, anyone who knows me through the UCB Theater knows that I'm an easily overwhelmed guy. I just want to try to enjoy this ride as best as possible without letting anxiety get in the way.

Q: Do you feel that making videos with UCB Comedy or having an on-line presence has been a part of your success?

CG: The Internet is invaluable these days. If you really think your comedy is up to par and represents you well, the internet is an amazing tool to get your work out there to people in a very democratic way. There's a lot of really bad stuff out there, so try not to be a part of that. But the Internet for good underground comedy is kind of what college radio was for good underground music a few generations back - there's an actual do it yourself outlet for us that gets our work into the world! I can't believe it when talented people don't take advantage of it.

The fact that there are sites like UCB Comedy around, as well as Funny or Die and College Humor, these places that serve as a nexus for good, reliable comedy, and that they are all embracing the next wave of comedians and giving people an honest shot at getting their work seen? It's sort of insane. One day we will all look back at this and realize what an opportunity it is. Sadly, too many people will see it as a missed opportunity.

One of the biggest turns I took was when Zach Woods, Nick Paley and I made a very dumb little series called "The Most Awkward Boy in the World" and put it on YouTube. I wrote them, Nick directed them, and Zach played the main character amongst a bunch of our friends from UCB. People watched those way more than they ever thought we would. We all got a lot of great attention from them. I know Zach got a lot of calls from them, and some of our other friends were offered movie parts based off of it. These dumb 30-60 second long videos. It's crazy. Between my work with those guys (Cutman Films) and Nuclear Palm, as well as other random things I've put up online over the years, I really feel like I had a chance to get my voice out there into the world in a way that I wouldn't have been able to ten years ago - and I assume will not be able to in another ten years, because anything this good and democratic will be corporatized eventually.

And you would be amazed at how many people STILL talk to me about the Darryl Strawberry Show videos I put up on UCB Comedy in its earliest days. Those were videos Justin Purnell and I shot with friends and students of mine. Each took about 15 minutes to shoot. Now, years later, I still have people ask me about them often. My manager saw those videos before we ever spoke to each other and it was part of why he wanted to work with me. If you can use the Internet, use it. If you can associate yourself and your ideas with a brand like UCB Comedy, recognize that for the asset and opportunity it is and don't waste the chance!

I know I just gave the longest answer of all time, but I hate seeing talented performers and students doubt themselves and talk themselves out of putting themselves out there. You have to make it happen for yourself - no one else is going to! - so use the opportunities you've been given. No more excuses. It's 2010. The world ends in two years! Make it happen now!

The Darryl Strawberry Show: Ep. 1: Texas and OhioUCBcomedy.com
Watch more comedy videos from the twisted minds of the UCB Theatre at UCBcomedy.com

Q: The UCB community has been going crazy about you being on the show: the support has been buzzing from every social media network, the green room, etc. How does that feel?

CG: Man, the UCB Theater is my home and I can't tell you how emotional it has made me to see people be so genuinely supportive and excited for me. I have put in ten years - that's one third of my entire life - at this theater. The fact that so many people have been so excited for me - it makes every day that I doubted myself and doubted my life and career choices null and void. It would be impossible for me to explain how much this community means to me. Just impossible. And seeing it return that love... there are no words that can describe the impact this has had on me.

A lot of people have said that if I made it, it makes them feel like they can make it. That means the world to me. I don't get to teach classes as much as I like to anymore with my schedule being nuts, but every time I do - I see that this theater still attracts such amazingly talented people. I know that with what's happening with me right now, really all I did was refuse to give up. Seeing people "buzz" over it - it makes me really happy to see them excited and I hope if they are excited and take away anything from what's happened to me this year that it means that they aren't going to give up either.

Horatio Sanz, Chris Parnell and Chris Gethard

Q: Any advice for up-and-coming comedians who would love to do what you're doing?

CG: Don't. Give. Up.

Also, don't make excuses. Work as hard as you can. If you aren't working as hard as you can, someone else is out there working as hard as they can. Those people who are working harder than you deserve opportunities more than you do, so stop making excuses for why you aren't working hard and just work hard. When you feel like you're working as hard as you can possibly work, work a little harder and you are probably getting close to how hard you actually have to work. Do more shows. Take more classes. Watch more shows. Meet more people. Challenge yourself. Don't expect anyone to hand anything to you. If you aren't exhausted all the time, you probably aren't working hard enough.

Sometimes people get by on talent alone. And it's amazing to see. But more often than not in the many years I've been around here, the people who break through are the ones who are talented and perhaps more importantly, are the ones who know how to put their head down and do the work.

Every time I've gotten depressed about career stuff, it goes one of two ways. Sometimes I get all woe is me and dwell on stuff. This always makes it worse. It doesn't even not help. It actively makes it worse.

Other times, I take those feelings of hitting a brick wall and force myself to get motivated and active and do more stuff. And it always turns into something unexpected and productive and pride inducing.

For years, I worked my ass off at improv. And I felt like I got good. And then that felt like I hit a plateau, and I got scared and frustrated. So I started writing as much as possible. And then in 2007 I eventually got to guest write at SNL. Two of the most amazing weeks of my life. But then I didn't get a staff position there, and that was demoralizing and terrifying -- felt like I missed my shot. So I got back on the horse and got really into storytelling. That led to a one man show that I felt great about, which I took to the Montreal Comedy Festival... and ultimately, I met a lot of people but still, nothing really stuck. So then I started doing The Chris Gethard Show, and that really felt like a good creative thing. And in the midst of all that activity was when Big Lake presented itself. It was ten years of trying any type of comedy I could.

So I guess my point is, don't convince yourself that there's no point to trying. Try as much as you have to. If this is really what you want to do, and you actually have talent, you can do it. But you have to try every single avenue available to you. If I hadn't done all that stuff, I wouldn't have any skills to offer. If any of those things that felt like failures actually caused me to give up, as opposed to finding the next type of comedy to attempt, I would have left comedy about eight and a half years ago.

Even today, with all this stuff happening, I am doing as much stand up as I can. It's terrifying and I'm not very good at it, but I'm just trying to be out there on any stage that will have me. This is because I've realized that when I am doing good, creative work, trying, failing, and getting better along the way, I feel good about myself and the fact that I've chosen to attempt this.

Getting "Big Lake" has been an amazing and mind blowing experience. But doing things I've been proud of along the way has been its own reward. If getting famous is your goal, I have no advice for you. If doing the best, most creative, inventive stuff you can do is your goal, you will feel satisfied by going through that process and if you are lucky, the world will notice. But even if they don't -- and for me for a long time, they weren't -- you will wind up feeling good about what you've been doing.

I too often see young performers emulating things and people they've seen come before. By all means, people should be learning from those who are of previous generations - Lord knows I spent a lot of time stealing tricks from Rob Huebel and Rob Corddry and John Ross Bowie when I started out - but I think everyone needs to turn that corner where they say "What is the thing that only I bring to the table? What do I do better than anyone else? What do I represent when I'm out on stage and how can I embrace that to the fullest?" The sooner you get honest about asking yourself that question, the sooner you will become content with what you are pursuing, I think. That may be super pretentious. I don't know. I just believe it wholeheartedly.

Also, don't burn bridges. Be good to people. John Ross Bowie took me under his wing, coached my early groups for free, let me know he believed in me. To this day, I would do literally anything for that guy. And I've done the same for some of the people I've really identified with as they've been my students, done my best to bring them up, help them find venues for their talents, tried to offer them any advice I possibly can. There is no negative effect caused by being good to people.

I see people get cliquey and exclusive - I am amazed by it. It's such a bad policy, personally and professionally. The level 201 improv student you are being a shithead to at a bar could be the producer of the show you want to work at in five years. That person might be the most talented diamond in the rough you are being rude to because you are in a 600 show and they are only in 201. I don't get it. Be nice to everyone. All the time. If someone seems positive and talented, find a way to work with them. And if that doesn't work out, find a way to support them. And spread the word.