Why truTV’s ‘The Chris Gethard Show’ Is Unlike Anything Else in Late-Night

Celeste Sloman/truTV
"I never plan an episode more than 70 percent ... I really like being able to call audibles on the fly," Chris Gethard says of his often-spontaneous late-night truTV series.

Jimmy. Seth. Other Jimmy. Colbert. Corden. Yes, late-night TV is full of white dudes in suits and, no shade, they’re all great at what we expect of them. But none of them are doing what Chris Gethard is doing over on truTV.

An almost-untouched adaptation of the comic’s long-running, cult-favorite public access oddity, The Chris Gethard Show is what we can only imagine would pop out if Pee Wee’s Playhouse mated with David Letterman while high on discount absinthe at an experimental theater camp for hipsters.

It’s unscripted (for the most part), unbridled and undeniably hilarious, with segments driven by viewer call-ins, the supporting cast’s fancies (all hail the Human Fish!) and of course, the host’s endearingly oddball sensibilities. Throw in a live studio audience and what Gethard calls “a level of lawlessness,” and you get something we didn’t know we needed until it showed up.

Here, Gethard—who welcomes guest John Oliver in Thursday’s episode—talks about bringing this unconventional comedy to TV, how he retained its glorious weirdness and why he never tries to over-plan an episode.

So, let’s talk about this ride of yours. 17 years in comedy?
Chris Gethard: Yeah, 17 years of New York comedy. Eight years of doing this show. We set it up in 2009.

Wow, 17 years ago, I think Upright Citizens Brigade was still doing the secret shows on Sunday nights.
That’s where I started! Yeah, I started at UCB in June of 2000. So I was there when it was a legit underground thing. The theater was an old strip club that they managed to take over. I remember when Andy Daly [of Review] got MadTV. They shut down the theater and threw a party because someone had a job. If UCB shut down every time someone got a job now…it would be closed five nights a week. So I was really a part of this thing when it was, I think, a beautiful thing.

Nowadays, comedy can been sort co-opted by corporate sponsors and network interference. Are you worried about being able to keep the freedom you had when the show was on public access? Or even Fusion?
Well, it’s definitely the great question, right? It’s definitely the fans’ biggest concern. I’ll say this: I think truTV has actually been more accommodating of it than our prior network because it has a comedy focus now. Fusion wanted us to tie it a little bit more into their corporate mission, which was more social-justice driven stuff. They do a lot of documentaries about issues in the world right now. That was creatively a bit of a limitation that we no longer have. truTV is like, “Go. Make it funny.”

How was the public-access experience?
The whole story of us being on public access for almost half a decade, it’s a very charming story. You can also imagine that in real life, there were a lot of frustrations there. As a working comedian, I put a lot of things on hold and bet on this show happening. A lot of people don’t even realize public access still exists…

I didn’t until I looked up clips of your show on YouTube.
Yeah, it’s still going, so that was very frustrating at times. But one of the great benefits of that is, there’s around 200 hours of content that exists online of what this show is. That buys us a lot of creative freedom. Buys us a lot of breathing room, because you can’t buy this show and claim you didn’t know what you were getting into. [Laughs] Nobody can say, “Okay, now that we bought it, what do we want it to be?” It’s been around for eight years!

The reason you buy this show is because you see it, and you see something about that clicks for us. I’ll be honest, there were other networks that asked me to change it. One network said, “We really like you, but we want you to fire the rest of the cast and recast it.”

Right. So I said, “Well, then you clearly don’t understand the benefit of what they do here. Because these are my best friends in the world. There’s a reason we stuck together.” Another network loved the show and asked if I would be willing to make it all about upcoming movie-trailers. So those were people who put money on the table that I walked away from. Dangled that possibility. If I was going to sell it out creatively, that would have happened four to five years ago. truTV bought it knowing that they wanted what it is.

Because the show is so random and dependent on viewer calls and all of that, what is your typical day like? Do you have a writers’ room?
We do. The writers’ room is very fun, because you can imagine how trippy it gets. It’s like, we just come up with the craziest ideas we can. There are a lot of ideas that I’ll see the writers pitch, and I’ll say this is super-hilarious but it’s actually physically impossible. It doesn’t obey the laws of space and time. People get so outside of the box and creatively thinking about things just from every angle and in a non-traditional way.

But at the end of the day, I always say I never plan an episode more than 70 percent. If we know what’s gonna happen for more than 70 percent of this episode, it’s gonna feel too tight, stifled. I love when I don’t know exactly how a bit is gonna happen until a viewer calls in and tells me what to do. Or like, “Hey we’re trying this thing tonight, and there’s option A, B and C. The first caller gets to tell us which road we are gonna go down!”

That has got to be super-exciting.
It is. I really like being able to call audibles on the fly, and let it go where it wants. I don’t love anything that’s sort of results-driven. I don’t want to make a promise, “Hey, we’re gonna do this thing and it’s definitely gonna happen.” I like saying, “Hey, we are gonna go for this. And we might get distracted 10 minutes in.” [Laughs]

A.Bisdale / truTV

Adam Pally works up a sweat on The Chris Gethard Show (A. Bisdale/truTV)

Your guests always seem ready to play. Have you encountered anyone who came on the show and they were solely focused on the PR thing?
There’s definitely guests that want to plug projects more than others do. I think more often than not. I’ve learned through doing my show that the world of having to promote is kind of a lot of pressure. A lot of pre-interviews. A lot of, “Hey, we’re going from this place, to this place, to this place, to this place.” A lot of, “Here’s the anecdote I want you to say. Memorize this in the green room.”

Right. Right.
Our show is like, OK, we’ll mention it as much as you want. And then we’ll move on if you want. So that’s generally how people who joined us have been. One or two guests didn’t quite know what they were getting into and got a little overwhelmed. I feel like it’s my job at that point to protect them.

Your studio is insane. It’s gotta be pretty big since you have so much going on in it.
Yeah. It’s in Manhattan on 37th Street. But it’s small…a lot of times people come in and say it’s smaller than they thought. I think we just tend to pack a lot of activity into it. I love that it’s in Manhattan.

I love that this year, one of the things I’m most excited about is that we have the budget now, we can go onto the street. We found this technology. It was actually a camera. And mostly it’s just news organizations that use this. It’s a backpack with a bunch of modems in it basically that connect to different cell phone providers’ towers. And we can broadcast live from the streets of New York and just cut to it like it’s another live camera in our studio.

A far cry from public access, right?
That’s like a level of lawlessness that just doesn’t exist on TV right now, if you ask me. And the fact that we have Manhattan as this playground where we can look for trouble, it’s like a sandbox. Manhattan can be this very sterilized, controlled place right now, but if you look hard enough, there’s still maniacs and weirdos and creative people just on the streets 24 hours a day…there’s a lot of trouble we can cause. [Laughs]

The Chris Gethard Show, Thursdays, 11/10c, truTV