'Career Suicide' Sprang From Chris Gethard's Struggles : Shots - Health News Gethard tells stories of hitting rock bottom in his new one-man off-Broadway show, which is billed as a comedy about "suicide, depression, alcoholism and all the other funniest parts of life."

Manic And Depressed, 'I Didn't Like Who I Was,' Says Comic Chris Gethard

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, comic and actor Chris Gethard, has a new off-Broadway solo show called "Career Suicide" that's a comic monologue about his depression and suicidal thoughts. He manages to be genuine and funny at the same time.

Gethard also co-stars in the current movie "Don't Think Twice," which was written and directed by his friend Mike Birbiglia. Gethard plays a member of a small improv group that's been at it a long time but hasn't broken through to a large audience. And he's wondering if it's time to give up. Gethard worked with the improv group the Upright Citizens Brigade for about 16 years as a performer and teacher and for most of that time wondered if he'd ever make it in comedy. But things are going much better now, and he's becoming better known through the movie, his stage show, his Fuse channel show "The Chris Gethard Show" and his podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People.

Let's start with a clip from his off-Broadway show "Career Suicide." He's looking back on an incident in 2001 when he was 21 years old and having suicidal thoughts. He was driving near his hometown in New Jersey.


CHRIS GETHARD: I'm behind this truck. The truck puts on the blinker. The driver has decided he's going to turn left, and I don't even slow down. I swing out, I'm going to go around him on the right. And as I do so, he starts coming back into the right lane. It's very clear the driver has decided he's not going to make the turn, and it's also clear I am in his blind spot. He does not see me. And I have time to think to myself you should hit the brakes.

And then I think no, don't because this way it's just a car crash and this way your parents don't have to go around town being the parents of the kid who killed himself because we don't judge people for dying in car crashes. But we do judge people when they die of suicide. It's one of the strangest things I think we've given ourselves permission to do as a culture. And honestly, I think it's really mostly a branding problem.


GETHARD: No, I do. I really think suicide has a branding problem because it has - it has a tagline. It has a catch phrase, and I bet a lot of us know it. It sucks, it's really condescending. I bet we've heard it. Suicide - the coward's way out, bet a lot of us have heard that. What a [expletive] tagline. Tagline's supposed get you, like, pumped up, right? Like, Nike, that's a good tagline - just do it, you know? And I'm not saying that suicide should take one at all. That's not what I'm saying. Really, none of the big ones apply here, although, I mean, Burger King, have it your way, I guess...


GETHARD: ...That does apply a little bit. And I'll say this, I'll say this to you, I don't really understand how it's cowardly to kill yourself. I don't get it. Suicide - when I think of it, to me it means someone had a lot of problems and they couldn't fight through them anymore. That's not cowardly. It's sad and nothing but.

GROSS: That's Chris Gethard with an excerpt of his show "Career Suicide." Chris, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GETHARD: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Congratulations on your show.

GETHARD: Oh, thanks.

GROSS: I don't usually start with suicide in an interview. I usually work my way up to that. But I think in this case, we'll just start there with your permission. So why did you decide to do a show in which you talked about some of your darkest thoughts, the kinds of thoughts that scare your family and friends and that you tried to protect them from?

GETHARD: Well, you know, it's funny because a lot of the impetus behind doing this show comes from a conversation I had with my friend Mike Birbiglia, who I'm sure many people out there are very familiar with. And I was on the road with Mike for a long time. Most of 2014 I was opening for him as we toured across the country.

And, you know, when you're opening for someone and you're out there in the Midwest, there's a lot of, like, late-night drives. And on one of these long drives, he was like, you know, I've heard you make, like, some jokes about your depression stuff and talk about it a little bit. But what's the real story? Like, what's the darkest it gets? And I actually told him the story that you just excerpted. And it's - you know, it's about kind of causing this car crash or going along with this car crash. And at the end of the story, I told him - and I thought he was going to be really sad, and he goes dude, that's hilarious. You have to tell that on stage. And I was like, I don't think so, man. Like, my family doesn't know that story. A lot of people I'm really close to now they don't really know all the details on that.

And he said to me - he's like, you know, if you can get up there and make that funny, you've got something really special on your hands. And I took that as a real challenge. And, you know, I've always sort of talked to this stuff to a certain degree in my work, on my TV show. Like, I've never shied away from it. And I really, a few years ago, made a conscious decision to not be ashamed of it.

But that conversation with Mike really - it kind of felt like he was throwing down the gauntlet a little bit. And, you know, I'm kind of driven by having a chip on my shoulder, so I was like all right, I'll do it and told a couple stories on stage and figured that the audience would be really turned off and that I could go back to him and say see? I told you, man. Nobody's going to buy this.

And instead, the audiences in New York, they really met the stories warmly and - and a lot of people - almost immediately, people started waiting for me after shows when I would perform stories that became "Career Suicide." And they'd tell me that they identified with them or knew people in their family who dealt with that stuff. And it was like a one-on-one basis people were waiting for me to say, like, hey, here's my story and you've got to keep going with this.

GROSS: You know, the impression I get from the story that we excerpted is that one of the reasons you decided not to swerve into the oncoming truck and not to kill yourself was that you wanted to protect your parents from being the parents of the son who killed...


GROSS: ...Himself. I'm just wondering for real if that was, like - if that's been a reason why you've managed to stay alive all these years, just to protect your parents.

GETHARD: Yeah. I mean, there's definitely been elements of that. And I think there's - you know, having dealt with depression since a young age, you know, protecting my parents was actually a really big one. I remember my first experience hearing of suicide in real life. I remember a kid who was a few years older than me in high school. He, unfortunately, killed himself. And I remember his parents tried to establish a scholarship in his name at our high school, and the school board wouldn't allow it because they didn't want to glorify it.

And I remembered feeling that that was so horrible, that was just so horrible that his parents were trying to remember their son and they were being told no, you're not allowed to make, you know, something positive in your son's name because your son did something that - you know, effectively they were saying this is shameful and shouldn't be talked about publicly. And I remember feeling so horrible for him and so horrible for his parents even when I was a kid. So that was already at a point where I think I had been dealing with that.

And that was something I always remembered was, you know, thinking about people like my parents and, you know, a handful of, you know, friends, girlfriends along the way where, you know, you think about how is it going to affect those other people. And that was something that kept me hanging on from time to time. Ultimately, though, being largely on the other side of it now, I needed to, I think, stop hanging that on other people and eventually learn how to kind of deal with myself and fix things for myself.

GROSS: So I think people who haven't been seriously depressed don't really understand how someone could feel the depth of pain that would drive them to even consider suicide. So can you help us understand that because I think part of - part of bridging the gap between people who are really depressed and people don't get it is just kind of like understanding what is that - what is that level of pain.

GETHARD: Well, you know, I can only speak to my experience. But with that caveat in mind, for me, when things were at its worst, it felt like - I truly felt like I was broken in some way, also could not figure out how to explain that to anyone in a way that made sense and that any effort I ever made to try to help myself or reach out to other people who could help me made it more isolating. It was a very, like, quicksand feeling of, like, this is only getting worse. I don't know how to stop it. I feel totally alone. I wake up feeling not just sad but a profound level of isolated sadness.

And the more I try to climb out of it, the worse it gets. And it almost felt like - well, I guess in a certain way it almost felt to me like - an analogy would be like a spotlight just getting smaller and smaller and smaller and less room to breathe, less places to go, just less light in general. And I know that's a little bit of a, you know, fanciful answer, but I think the other thing to keep in mind is the inability to explain it is also one of the things that's so terrifying and isolating in its own right.

GROSS: You were initially afraid that medication for your depression would blunt your creative edge, but now you feel like, no, it made you funnier. It made you healthier and funnier. What are some of the ways that you feel it's been, you know, liberating for you as a artist and performer to have the appropriate medication?

GETHARD: It really helps. Like the whole romanticized sad clown thing - we got to get rid of that. That has to go. That's just getting sick people to voluntarily stay sicker and sadder than they have to be. For me, I took medication, and there's a few things. A, my ideas weren't born out of mania anymore. I would go and - I'm - you know, I'm - very classically would go into manic phases which were as dangerous, if not more so than the depressed phases. And I think I'd come up with the best ideas I ever had. And then the next day I'd look at them and I'd be like this is nonsense because it was born out of a manic episode. What a waste of time and - then on top of that, being medicated means that I can get out of bed consistently. I can do second drafts. I can keep things organized. I'm not giving into all sorts of impulsive behavior.

Like, I can sit down and work and get things done. So both creatively and organizationally being medicated has helped me immensely. My career did not start until I was medicated, and then I can track the years I was off medication. Things dipped and the years I went back on medication is when things started to get good for me. And career-wise it is 100 percent in my case undeniable that being medicated helped my creativity.

GROSS: I think it was a psychiatrist who told you that it might be helpful to find out if there was a history of mental illness in your family. So you asked your mother. What did she tell you?

GETHARD: That was an eye-opening day of life and made me realize how hidden we keep this stuff. I found out - you know, I knew that there was, you know - I come from an Irish Catholic family. There's some drinkers, and I always knew that. But I didn't realize that I had a number of aunts and uncles on both sides of the family who were medicated that was kept kind of quiet and hidden and most strikingly I found out that my grandfather had been put in a mental hospital at one point in his life. This is - I didn't know any of that. It was all swept under the rug, and I have to say what a shame. If I had known that I think maybe I might have acted a little sooner when I started feeling like I was really in trouble. Finding that out was a real shock.

GROSS: Why do you think you might have acted sooner had you known about the history of mental illness in your family?

GETHARD: Well, you know, I should also mention like my grandfather lived across the street from me growing up. We were very close family. So this is not like he was some - it's not like he had passed away or he lived hundreds of miles away. This was someone who was in my life on a very frequent basis and I was close to, and the fact that I didn't know that some of my closest relatives who were in my, you know, weekly if not daily life suffered, I didn't know that.

If I had known that, I wouldn't have felt as alone. I just can't - I just don't - I'm just so flummoxed that we're - this stuff's so stigmatized and viewed as so shameful that we hide it. And then what happens is that cycle perpetuates. And in my case, it did I think if I knew my grandfather had been sick, I think maybe I would have been able to say to somebody sooner, hey, I think - I want to know what happened to my grandpa because I think it's happening to me. I didn't even know that was a sentence I had the option of saying until after it was - things had hit rock bottom.

GROSS: Is it helpful to know that there might be a genetic component because it relieves you of some of the responsibility? It's like it's not your fault that you're depressed. It's not like you have a bad attitude. That's not the problem (laughter). The problem might be something more genetic and biological, and therefore that you can be a little distanced from it.

GETHARD: Yeah. Oh, yeah. The amount of times I was told to toughen up or stop being a baby (laughter) - I think that when in reality what I needed was years of therapy and a litany of antidepressants. I think, yes, knowing there's a genetic component would have maybe helped me feel less like a baby and more like a sick person.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Chris Gethard, and he has a show in New York now called "Career Suicide." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Chris Gethard. He has a one-man show in New York, a comic monologue called "Career Suicide" that's actually largely about his depressions over the years and suicidal thoughts. He also co-stars in the Mike Birbiglia movie "Don't Think Twice" which is about an improv theater group. And, in fact, Chris Gethard has done improv for about 16 years. He - for many years, he was with the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Your psychiatrist told you that your reactions to things weren't proportionate to the things that you were reacting to. How was that helpful to know that?

GETHARD: It's - that's one of those things that someone says - having someone say that to me in a simple, clean sentence, I was like, oh, that's it. And it immediately felt like the most obvious thing in the world, but it wasn't to me. The idea that - like, I remember times where really bad things would happen in my life, and I'd be able to go, OK, fine. And then tiny things - like I remember once spilling a tray of thumbtacks, and my girlfriend was there. And I was like I'm such an idiot. I'm a moron how could I do that?

And I'm crying, and I'm trying to pick them up. And she's trying to help, and I'm like, no, I messed up. You don't have to burden yourself with my mistakes. She's like it's thumbtacks on the ground, so, you know, things like that, very, very strange and off-putting to the people around me and hard to - hard for them to talk to me afterwards. And being told that in one sentence, it just became a thing that I could return to, oh, this reaction isn't matching up. Now that I've heard that simply, I can remind myself of that and maybe take some of the pressure off in those moments.

GROSS: Does your depression come with a manic side?

GETHARD: Big time, big time. Over the years, I've realized that I think the manic side is more dangerous than the depressed side in my case.


GETHARD: Well, depression - people know what that looks like at the very least, even if they're not comfortable talking about it. You know, when you see somebody who can't get off a couch and can't stop crying or is just visibly dismal, at least that's identifiable. The manic side of things - I'd be the life of the party. You have no idea. I'd be let's stay up all night. Let's do crazy things. Let's go - you know, let's wind up in a different city than we started in - like, a lot of things like that that seem really fun, but that, you know, I always said, like, whenever I would go into a manic thing, I'd wind up hanging out with a lot of strangers because the people closest to me would always smell a rat and say what is going on? This is not you, and then you come out on the other side of that and you've invariably made some decisions you're not proud of and have some rebuilding to do. So, for me, the manic side much scarier because it can be really fun. People like being around it, but that doesn't mean it's healthy.

GROSS: So, you know, it's interesting like your show off Broadway is about depression, but you also have a TV show that's now on the cable Fusion network and that show is really manic. I mean, it's this like talk show, but it's this really manic set. There's a whole bunch of people like on the stage area, and somebody's always like twirling a hula hoop. And there's just like - people like shouting and talking and it's - you can describe it better than I can. But it seems like that's the manic side of you as a performer.

GETHARD: Absolutely. And to be fair, I don't know if I can describe it better than you. It's confusing even to me a lot of the time. It's like a real chaotic mess.

GROSS: It's like a carnival talk show (laughter).

GETHARD: Yeah. Oh, it's like a TV party. Like it's - and we - and then it's a disaster half the time. We don't care if it falls apart like - and I'm proud of that. But I will say I think one of the good things about being a performer is I think I was really smart about using that to channel my manic side toward something more productive than just me, you know, falling off the wagon and partying for three days. Like, the TV show definitely reflects my manic side.

But I turned it towards productivity, and I don't know if that's the healthiest, but for me it was, you know - having access to stages and TV studios allowed me to get those adrenaline-rush moments in a way that I think has to be a little bit more healthy than some of my past behaviors, so I'll take it. I'll take that trade.

GROSS: Tell us more about what presiding over a manic talk show does for you.

GETHARD: Well, it's kind of the best. Like, I love it. Like, I get to hang out with all my best friends. I met my wife via the show, and we're doing something that's really out of the box with "The Chris Gethard Show." It's not like other TV. It's very, like - it's nothing about it is formulated or constructed. And on a personal level, it really - I've never - I managed to construct an environment where being a manic weirdo isn't a bad thing. It's a good thing. It leads to entertainment, and that leads to people having this thing to watch.

So, for me, on a personal level, it feels like - I get to just be who I am. I get to be like the king of the island of misfit toys on that show. And I think I spent a lot of life - I spent a lot of my life, you know, regretting who I was, which is a sad thing to say. As I say it out loud, I'm making myself sad. I didn't like who I was. I'd felt very different and broken, and I'd felt like I couldn't figure out why I could not fit in. And "The Chris Gethard Show," I think, is a very conscious environment where I go I'm not going to try to fit in. Instead, I'm just going to be this manic oddball and see what happens with that. And then the very cool thing about that show is it attracted all the other manic oddball kids from blue collar areas who feel like they don't have a right to be creative, and it built a community of all those people. So I'm very lucky with that, too. It has brought many people into my life - both people on the show and people I've met who are viewers of this show who I'm like, oh, you're one of me. And there's not many of us.

GROSS: My guest is comic and actor Chris Gethard. His off-Broadway solo show "Career Suicide" has been extended through January 8. After a break, he'll tell us about having a panic attack in a place you definitely don't want to have one - onstage. And we'll talk about co-starring in the film "Don't Think Twice" as a member of an improv comedy group. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic and actor Chris Gethard. He's currently performing a solo show off Broadway called "Career Suicide." It's a comic monologue about dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. Gethard also hosts "The Chris Gethard Show" on the Fuse channel, hosts the podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People and co-stars in the film "Don't Think Twice." So let's talk about your role in the film "Don't Think Twice." It was written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, who also co-stars in it. And it's about this small improv group, and they're having trouble getting noticed. They're also just having trouble keeping it together.

They all have day jobs. They have - they attract very small audiences. And at some point in the movie, their theater - they're losing their theater and they're being thrown out of the theater that they've performed in for years. And they think, like, maybe this is the end, maybe this is the end of the improv group, maybe it's the end of their comedy careers. And in fact, your character is thinking maybe life is telling us to just maybe move on. So I'm going to pick it up from there with you continuing your thoughts. And this is as everybody's packing up what they have backstage in the theater and looking - they're looking at photos and memorabilia.


GETHARD: (As Bill) I feel like your 20s are all about, like, hope and then your 30s are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Oh, my God, look at you. You look like a little claymation 7-year-old.

GILLIAN JACOBS: (As Samantha) Wait, let me see.

GETHARD: (As Bill) That's me, that's a boy.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Who is the one who looks like he's made of flour and water?

GETHARD: (As Bill) I was 21 years old. Like, without The Commune, who am I? You know, it's like when I go to the grocery store and people treat me like I don't exist, I'm - in my head, I'm like I've got a secret. I go on stage. I kill. I crush. I'm a superhero. Without improv I'm kind of just a loser.

GROSS: Chris, have you felt that way, without the comedy, who am I, without improv, I'm just a loser?

GETHARD: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, me being in a (laughter) - me being in a film where I play an insecure improviser who wonders if he should quit while his friends get successful is definitely a bit of typecasting.

GROSS: How has that happened to you? Because in this film, you know, one of the characters in the improv group actually gets cast on a show called "Weekend Live," which is the movie's equivalent of "Saturday Night Live." And everybody in the group is, like, kind of happy for him. But at the same time, they're really jealous because they've all wanted that for themselves and he's gotten it. And it just makes them feel even more like failures, your character in particular.

GETHARD: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, I think - I think part of why the sense of failure rings true is because that actually happened to me. I was on a - I was on an improv team with Bobby Moynihan, who's one of my best friends in the world, and he got "Saturday Night Live." And it did churn up a lot of insecurities and questions for me.

I think one of the main differences in the movie is that Bobby and I have remained super close and supportive of each other. But the feeling of watching your friends move on while you're just waiting your turn, I mean, being at the Upright Citizens Brigade for the many years I've been there - there's a long stretch where that just became a success factory and a lot of people were telling me I was the next guy for years. I spent about seven or eight years being the next guy that was going to bust out, so I know that feeling.

GROSS: So what prevented you from just really being jealous all the time, if, in fact, anything prevented you from that?


GETHARD: That was good. I was in my head debating should I claim the moral high ground and say I wasn't jealous ever? No, I don't think I can say that. I mean, I definitely - my own insecurities definitely led to me being jealous at times. But that's what it is. It's ego, it's insecurity. And, you know, the older I've gotten, the more I've realized ego just never gets me anywhere good. So I've managed to I think, you know, just keep my head down and do the work that I'm proud of and, you know, push back against those feelings of jealousy.

But I also - I look back and realize I'm - everything I ever did that people liked on stage, it was something like performance arty and strange. Like, of course, I'm not going to get - Bobby's an amazing sketch actor. It makes sense he'd get hired for a sketch show. That's never what I did. So who - how did I ever even have a right to get jealous?

GROSS: You were working with "Saturday Night Live" for two weeks. It was a short contract. They had some...


GROSS: ...Extra money, and they hired, I guess, you and maybe some other writers. But they didn't renew the contract after two weeks. And you said they told you that you weren't the right match for each other. So what was the experience like for you for those two weeks? Was it what you expected it to be? Did you feel like you could contribute in a world that wasn't a world of your creation but was a world - was this kind of pre-existing world that other people had created? It was kind of a machine unto itself.

GETHARD: Yeah. It was so cool. I had a two-week guest writer contract in 2007. It was amazing. It was like everything cool I had ever heard about it - you stay up all night, you're writing sketches, you link up with different cast members and you're just doing bits all night, that was all there. And then when I was there, at least, there was like all the - all the legends of it being, like, backstabbing and competitive, that wasn't true. It was just like, oh, only the good parts are true. This is so fun, so it was great. It was great to learn.

I got to sketch to dress rehearsal, which I was very proud of. I got to watch Scarlett Johansson perform a sketch that I wrote. That felt cool. It didn't make it to the air, ultimately, but I felt like I was able to, you know, hold my head up high. And it really tore me up, it tore me up when I didn't get that job because I felt so close. And it felt like, you know, getting that job would feel like such validation, like being invited to, like, a cool kids club.

But ultimately, I look back and I'm like, wow, thank God because I did not have my head together. And the pressure of that job would have broken me. And I think I was destined to maybe make stuff that was a little bit smaller and stranger and more boutique anyway.

GROSS: What was the sketch that you wrote?

GETHARD: I wrote a sketch about a supermarket where one of the workers in the supermarket is Scarlett Johansson's ex and he is harassing her over the PA system of the supermarket.

GROSS: What's he saying?

GETHARD: Saying things like can I get a price check on what we used to have? Oh, wait, that was priceless. Why would you give it away? Things like that.

GROSS: (Laughter) How did you...

GETHARD: I thought it was funny.

GROSS: Yeah, I think it's funny. How did you like writing for other people?

GETHARD: I liked it. I did. I enjoyed it. Ultimately, though, I've always been - I've wound up being best at writing for myself. Some of that is because I think I have a little bit of a strange voice that I can put my best foot forward on. And also, I never really nailed any of the opportunities to write for other people, so it was kind of born out of necessity. If I want to have a career, I need to just bet on myself.

GROSS: You say in your show that running for "Saturday Night Live" was your dream job. But those two weeks working there didn't make you happy. It didn't make you the person you wanted to be. You've just told us that you loved it. But what was the part that didn't make you happy?

GETHARD: Well, I should say it made me happy day to day going to be a part of this cool thing and having fun in that environment. But the trap I fell into was I spent so many years convincing myself that career success was going to be the validation that would change me. And that was never going to happen. That's the part that didn't make me happy is I was still a train wreck who couldn't handle his own emotions, who was - you know, at the time, I was living in a room in Woodside, Queens, with no closet and the stove - the gas was disconnected because I forgot to pay the bill.

And, you know, no job is going to change the fact that I don't have it together. Like, if you can't get the gas turned back on and all your clothes are in small stacks on the floor because you don't have a closet, like, a job isn't going to change that. A job isn't going to - no amount of money or validation or other people's perceptions of your success is going to change the fact that I didn't have it together. I couldn't live a totally functioning life at the time because I was a messed up guy.

And I really regret how much time I wasted thinking, well, achievements that other people can see are going to heal me. No, they were never going to heal me. I needed to buckle down, get into therapy and do the work.

GROSS: So you did "Saturday Night Live" before you were in therapy?

GETHARD: I had been in therapy from 2002 to 2004 and then had a very bad experience with my doctor from those days that scared me away from it. And I spent from 2004 through 2007 not in therapy, and then I did the "SNL" thing. And when that fell apart, it really affected me and scared me and shook me up. And I got back into therapy. And I will not - I'm not trying to say "SNL" put me back in therapy. But I will say the experience of coming that close to my dreams and realizing how off my priorities were was very, very rattling and eye opening and definitely sent me to a place where I bottomed out and needed to get back into therapy fast.

GROSS: Right. I'm glad you did, (laughter) glad it worked...

GETHARD: Oh, me...

GROSS: ...Out well for you, yeah.

GETHARD: Not as glad as I am.

GROSS: (Laughter) If you're just joining us, my guest is comic, writer and actor Chris Gethard. He has a one-man off-Broadway show now called "Career Suicide" that's personal stories about his depression, sometimes suicidal thinking and his career in comedy. So we're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic, actor and writer Chris Gethard. He has a one-man show off Broadway in New York now called "Career Suicide." It's about his periods of depression and suicidal thinking and about his comedy career. He's also one of the stars of the movie "Don't Think Twice," which is about an improv group.

You worked with UCB, the Upright Citizens Brigade, for about 16 years?

GETHARD: Yeah, it's 16 years now.

GROSS: And they're, at this point, one of the most famous improv groups because so many people have come out of it, including Amy Poehler - you name some names.

GETHARD: Amy Poehler, Ellie Kemper from "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Donald Glover, who's on "Atlanta" right now, Aziz Ansari, I mean, so many - Lennon Parham from "Playing House," Zach Woods, who's on "Silicon Valley," Bobby Moynihan from "SNL," just so many people - Rob Riggle, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, just an endless list, like, of impressive comedy names.

GROSS: So what have you loved about improv?

GETHARD: It's just magic. When it works, it's just magic. It feels like you're a part of a greater whole. And when you're in an improv show and it's going well and it's really - when it goes beyond just let's say witty things and you're really teaming up to create something with six or seven other people, you can feel an audience going I am watching something that I never thought I'd be seeing tonight and I don't know how they're doing it. And it can just be really magical and communal. And as a person who never really felt like I fit in in a community, to find an art form that's based around linking up with a handful of other people and creating something that has to be communal, it was so exciting and addictive and eye opening.

GROSS: One of the rules as improv - of improv, at least one of the rules of improv as described in the movie "Don't Think Twice" is get out of your head, stay in the moment. So that's a good place to be for someone like you, who's often trapped in your own head.

GETHARD: Oh, big time. I think one of the - one of the really big things that I pushed as a teacher of improv - because I actually probably had as much fun teaching improv as I did performing it. I was really well-regarded as a teacher, not to be cocky - although there's not too many people who are like, oh, wow, you're a great improv teacher. But one of the things I always pushed was like don't worry about what happened to these characters 10 minutes ago. Don't worry about what's going to happen to them 10 minutes from now. Just what are they doing, what are they saying to each other right now in this place? Why these characters? Why right now? Why right here? And that whole idea of just, like, live in the moment, let this present small moment be enough, those were things that I think I needed to definitely hear and touch base with all the time.

GROSS: And apply it on stage, even if you couldn't apply it in your life. Oh, yeah.

GETHARD: I mean, it is funny, like, as someone who was - I was kind of like a child prodigy at UCB when I started. I was 20 years old when I showed up. And they were like, whoa, who's this young kid? He's pretty good. And to think that back then I spent all day everyday worrying about my past, my future, what's going to happen, what are people thinking of me and then the fact that the one thing I found that I was good at was an art form that's all about shedding all of those fears, it doesn't totally make sense to me.

GROSS: Well, maybe it's because it was, like, so good for you to shed it that it was really, like, liberating and energizing.

GETHARD: Absolutely. Plus, I think it was the - it was the only time I ever felt that way in my life. So it was all I wanted to do. So I practiced a lot, any excuse I had...

GROSS: Wait, wait, how do you practice improv? What does that mean?

GETHARD: Well, I mean, that's a question I get a lot. And it's funny, it's like kids - 'cause, you know, at the end of the day, improv is an acting style. So it is the sort of thing of you can't practice the content. You can't plan what you're going to say. But you can get in a room with a director and a group of actors and figure out how does my brain interact with the choices that these other actors make. Like, you know, the best improv is not a handful of people who just show up that night and wander on stage. It's people who do it together for years who - you know, when I'm with someone like Shannon O'Neill, who's one of my best friends, who I've done thousands of improv shows with - she's the co-host of my TV show - I generally know what she's going to do or say four or five lines before she does it or says it. And I think she'd say the same about me. And, like, all of that is just by doing it together both onstage and in rehearsal studios where you just over and over again learn how these other people's instincts work.

GROSS: When and why did you stop teaching improv?

GETHARD: Well, I stopped probably around 2009, 2010. And I really had hit a wall, and a lot of it tied in my depression and dissatisfaction. You know, I started at UCB when I was 20 years old. And it was the most positive thing in my life. It was a place that allowed me to find my identity, to feel confident for the first time ever.

But also, it had become a safety net and a crutch. And I think it's fair to say I'd become a big fish in a small pond there, and I could feel that. And I also - I don't know, I haven't really told anybody about this - I hit a point where before two shows and then eventually once onstage, I had vicious panic attacks. And a lot of it was about my dissatisfaction with some of my career choices and life choices and feeling stuck. But two different times where I couldn't go on stage because I started - I just broke down, one so severe that they actually hid me in a back room at UCB and called my brother, who drove up from Philly to get me out of there.

And then another incident - there's a - the Sunday night show at UCB, it's called Asssscat. It's been running for 20 years. It's very infamous. And I actually had a panic attack on stage one night, and it led to one of the worst nights of my life. So I think I kind of needed to walk away from improv because I'd been doing it since I was 20, and I think I was closely associating it with maybe some of those feelings from when I was 20. There was no real way for me to separate the fact that I grew up using this as a crutch to help deal with problems. But it was a constant reminder of those problems, so around then is when I - I had started doing standup around 2006 and then around 2010, 2011 is when I started just pursuing that much more than improv.

GROSS: Do you think it was time for you to leave and the only way you were going to leave is if you were forced to leave so you forced yourself to leave (laughter)?

GETHARD: I think to a degree, for sure. I think it's one of those things - you know, I think anything - like, I started it when I was 20, and I think I needed to realize that I wasn't going to do it for my whole life. So I had to get out. I had to get out. And, yeah, I think I - I think I rode it out too long. I wish I just left when I felt that instinct. But I think hanging on a few more years led to it being driven by a lot of panic and mental instability, and that's a shame.

You don't want to flee in tears. You don't want to literally run off stage in tears as your way out from this beautiful place that's meant the world to you for your whole adult life. You'd rather just kind of sail out a conquering hero. But nope, not me, not my style. I literally ran out the back door crying, which leads out to a big, big, giant pile of trash bags. That was, like, my - that was my goodbye, fleeing out the back door with tears in my eyes.

GROSS: Well, you know, you had thought of the stage as being, like, your safe play. So if you're safe place leads to a sense of public embarrassment like that, then what's left? It must have been really upsetting.

GETHARD: Absolutely. And if you stake all of your self-esteem on something external like that, then you're - in my case, I was setting myself up for a situation where the bottom was going to fall out...

GROSS: So what'd you do...

GETHARD: ...Because that's not real.

GROSS: ...After that?

GETHARD: Well, I - you know, I continued to do shows there a little while more and started - it was the first time in my life I just started skipping shows not because I was sick or working. I just wanted to do other stuff. And this might be a little bit schmaltzy, but it's true, I remember the first time - the first time I ever skipped a show outside of being sick or having a gig, it was to go on a date with the woman who's now my wife.

So I think that's, like, a perfect reflection of how my priorities kind of changed. Like, I no longer needed to impress an audience of people with my improv skills to feel good. I always felt like - I look back and realize, I would do a show every Friday night, every Sunday night. And it would be like, Friday would get me to Sunday and I'd feel like I was on that performance high, and then Sunday it was like, please let me have a good enough show that I'll feel good about myself for as many days as possible and just get me back to Friday. Not a healthy way to live, and that's not real self-esteem.

And the fact that what I eventually walked away for literally was to go on a date with my wife, that's the first time I skipped a show, I think it shows my priorities were changing. And I was learning how to feel good about myself just as a person without needing all those pats on the back.

GROSS: We have to take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. My guest is comic and actor and writer Chris Gethard. He has a one-man off-Broadway show now called "Career Suicide." We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is comic writer and actor Chris Gethard. He has a one-man off-Broadway show now called "Career Suicide." That's about his depressions and sometimes suicidal thinking. But it is funny (laughter), and he also co-stars in Mike Birbiglia's movie "Don't Think Twice," which is about an improv comedy group. And he plays a member of the group, and, in fact, he's had a long career in improv comedy with the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York.

You got into comedy in part - like you love David Letterman when you were growing up.

GETHARD: Oh, obsessed, obsessed.

GROSS: Why was it Letterman as opposed to a lot of other people who it could have been that obsessed you so much?

GETHARD: Well, feel free to just cut me off when this answer gets too long.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

GETHARD: But, you know what is this about Letterman? Letterman loved the chaotic. He loved it. He - I remember so fondly, you know, the bits where he would just send a camera to go bother Rupert in the deli where you knew he didn't plan this. This isn't scripted. He's bothering the deli guy or he'd shut down the block and then dump 10,000 rubber balls off the roof of the studio just to see what happened. That, to me, is like the height of comedy, just like chaos. Just, hey, the world works a certain way, and I'm going to disrupt that algorithm.

And he also supported the other even more fringe people. Like, he was a trouble-maker, but he put Andy Kaufman on for some of his first TV appearances, another hero of mine, Howard Stern another trouble-maker. I don't think Stern would be Stern without his appearances on Letterman - Harvey Pekar, Chris Elliott. There's a lot of people Letterman supported that were really pretty fringe people, and he was kind of a fringe guy in his own right, but somehow he wound up on NBC and CBS. So I always felt like he was a trouble-maker and, you know, pretty - in a non-musical sense, he's a pretty punk rock dude. He seemed like he was about kind of like poking the beehive and seeing what kind of trouble he could cause. And I always loved that.

GROSS: Were you ever a guest on his show?

GETHARD: No. It's one of my great regrets. I've been on a whole bunch of the late night shows, and I'm lucky to say that. And I'm grateful for every opportunity. But I never met Letterman, although "The Chris Gethard Show" - we stole his set. I don't know if you heard about that one.

GROSS: I've read about that, but, like, how did you manage to get things from Letterman's set when he was leaving and use them for your set?

GETHARD: Well, you know, CBS just threw it all in a dumpster, which I think they should be really ashamed of...

GROSS: Aren't you supposed to give that to the Smithsonian or something?

GETHARD: Yeah. That's what I would think, too, but in New York we're - we were at - we were working on season one of our show and one of my buddies was refreshing his phone and saw somebody, I think, on Tumblr put a picture up, and it was like, hey, they're throwing out Letterman's set. Why are they doing that? And I was like we have to go get it. And a whole bunch of people lined up, and there were security guards there.

And the security guards told we were the first ones there. These crew members from my show, and they said, hey, we're off the clock at 6, and we don't know why the stuff's sitting in a dumpster. But I guess you can take it if you want to. I have the George Washington Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge from David Letterman's set, and they're embedded in my set. And I wrote a letter to him to get his permission to use them, and I wrote a very, very sappy letter that was like you are my hero. And I will never sell this stuff. I will donate it to a museum. If you want me to do that right now, I'll do it, but I'd love to put it in the set of my show as a tribute to you and how much you influenced me.

And we like - my manager passed it to his publicist, blah, blah, blah. And then we got word back that he was just all right, kid, whatever. I don't care. Like, go for it. Like, I don't think it was as much of a miraculous moment in his life as it was in mine. But we have it, and we're allowed to use it. And that makes me feel like I'm maybe - I think "The Chris Gethard Show" is so chaotic, and, to me, so much of that is I want to take the most chaotic parts of Letterman's show and do them for the whole show. I want my whole show to be as crazy as his show could get at its craziest moments.

GROSS: Chris Gethard, it has just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

GETHARD: Likewise. Thank you. It is such an honor.

GROSS: Chris Gethard's off-Broadway solo show "Career Suicide" has been extended through January 8. He also co-stars in the film "Don't Think Twice," hosts "The Chris Gethard Show" on the Fuse channel and hosts the podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


DONALD TRUMP: The process is rigged. This whole election is being rigged.

GROSS: Is there evidence to back up Donald Trump's claim? Are Republicans behind voter suppression as many Democrats charge? Can our votes be hacked on Election Day? We'll look at the strengths, vulnerabilities and partisan aspects of our voting system with Richard Hasen, founder of the Election Law Blog and author of "The Voting Wars." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show, and we welcome our new associate producer, Mooj Zadie. It's great to have you with us, Mooj. I'm Terry Gross.

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