Career Suicide, a dark and spritely solo show by the comedian Chris Gethard, opens with what seems to be some off-handed self-deprecation but gradually turns into the play’s organizing principle: Gethard has a therapist. He’s getting help. Life may not be perfect, he reassures us, but it gets better. If there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, then this is the light at the beginning.
Those familiar with Gethard, one of our most distinctive and perceptive comic voices, might be surprised at Career Suicide’s relatively normal form. He’s been a standout performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre for the better part of two decades, gaining wider prominence with his form-bending talk show The Chris Gethard Show—which aired for several years on Manhattan’s public access network (and online), before getting picked up by Fusion. He also hosts a popular podcast, Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, each episode of which features a single phone conversation between Gethard and a stranger. His work is generally self-conscious and rarely conforms to any trope, preferring instead to press against the boundaries of form, to discover how much chaos he must create until it accretes into some pearl of sense. One of my favorite episodes of TCGS involves actors Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas, with the help of audience members calling in via Skype, trying to guess what’s inside a dumpster (it turns out to be Paul Giamatti). In another, the studio audience is replaced with puppies. Gethard’s slew of sidekicks includes “the Human Fish” and a woman, Mimi, silently twirling hula hoops for the entirety of every episode. TCGS often feels less like a talk show than a wonderful dream; there’s nothing else like it on TV. Which is why it’s a bit strange that Career Suicide plays out like so many other one-man shows.
That’s not to say it isn’t funny; it’s very funny. Absent a singular overarching narrative, Career Suicide chronicles Gethard’s battle with mental illness in a series of loosely-connected anecdotes. He dances between standup and storytelling, which is to say some segments are more conversational than others, where there’s a tangible authorial presence hammering home various Themes and Messages. An early story recounts a 2001 suicide attempt, sort of, when Gethard got himself into a car crash, knowing that his family would think it was an accident. Before describing the crash itself, he pulls back for some observational comedy: suicide has a branding problem, he says; why does Burger King get “Have it your way” while killing oneself is “the coward’s way out”? Worse, he goes on, is the impulse to criticize people for taking antidepressants, something one would never do with respect to insulin or chemotherapy. This is a pretty overdone trope in standup—exposing the absurdity of a phenomenon by drawing an obviously absurd equivalent—but in the story it serves as a funny, illuminating critique. Moments later, after the crash, he listens to a series of women emerge from their houses and shout to each other in thick New Jersey accents, what he interprets as a “chorus of Carmela Sopranos” gathered to witness the wreckage. They don’t know if he’s dead or alive, and neither does he. Gethard excels in moments like these, when he morphs a scene of near-tragedy into something dreamily whimsical, or kaleidoscopes from cultural criticism to memoir to crystalline one-liners in a single anecdote. And though the script is occasionally overwritten—he says several times in a row that suicide gets judged unfairly—Gethard is charming enough to make it work.
What’s great about that suicide joke is that it creates a shared interiority between Gethard and the audience. His thought process becomes our thought process; we imagine him fifteen years younger, speeding toward his doom, bitterly lamenting the optics of his final act. Less effective are his frequent, blunt declarations of self-awakening. It seems every five minutes or so Gethard says he “realized” some truth about himself or his circumstance: his first therapist didn’t really care about him, comedy wouldn’t save him, he has what it takes to get through a particularly bad night. These moments fall flat because they don’t happen narratively; the audience doesn’t get to realize them, we just hear that Gethard did. It’s disappointing because he’s obviously an excellent storyteller. A clear highlight is the bender of a tale he tells his shrink, Barb, to explain his relationship with alcohol; it ends with her declaring that he’s obviously an alcoholic. This is one of Career Suicide’s strongest punches not only because it caps an exceptionally funny story, but because Gethard allows us to make this discovery with him. It’s show versus tell, really. When the latter outweighs the former, what is ostensibly memoir sounds a little too much like a diary.
It may well be that, as a longtime consumer of Gethard’s art, I am applying the wrong sort of scrutiny here. He is an earnest, eminently watchable performer; it is a delight to spend any amount of time in his thrall. Yet I can’t help but marvel at how closely Career Suicide hews to every stereotype of one-man shows, right down to Gethard reenacting conversations by taking a step to the side and turning his head (which is also a trope in standup, but when coded as monologue, it has to reckon with every parody of every one-man show ever). He’s an incredibly skilled improvisor, a thoughtful conversationalist and a wholly fearless dismantler of form. What unfortunately few lines he delivers off the cuff are wonderful surprises, reassurances that he is speaking to us and only us. This is also what’s so powerful about his talk show and his podcast—the level of respect and attention he devotes to his audience feels unparalleled in a world where so much comedy is calibrated for maximum virality.
For all of Career Suicide’s soul-plumbing honesty, there’s still a tangible barrier between performer and audience. A script is an artifice. It manufactures distance. In a straight play, that distance offers a lens into a fictional world with its own internal order. In a one-man show where someone speaks directly to an audience, it risks creating a paradox: you’re talking to us, but you’re not actually here, not entirely, you’re halfway in a world that existed long before we arrived. If that world’s internal order doesn’t align with our own, the effect is like listening to someone speak half their words in another language. Something will always be lost in translation.