With the absence of David Letterman and (soon) Jon Stewart, late night TV is facing some major shake-ups this year. While the media mourns these losses, there is one new show that in a world with any justice at all, is poised to breakout. With The Chris Gethard Show, the bespectacled, Morrissey-obsessed comedian, Chris Gethard, is carving out a unique niche of his own on fledgling cable network, Fusion. The show is hard to describe, especially for first time viewers, but it's probably most notable for what it lacks—all the traditional talk show trappings are gone. There are no men in suits, no men behind desks, no men named Jimmy. There's barely even a script.
Here’s what's so magical about it: The Chris Gethard Show is the ultimate basement hang out, one where you feel comfortable sharing your strangest secrets and chilling with your weirdest friends, including a mysterious creature from the sea, known only as the Human Fish. It's quirky, spontaneous and most significantly relies on the interactivity of viewers who call in and share humorous and highly personal anecdotes. In a bold move for a premiere, the first episode on Fusion was themed around weird body parts and even featured a "genital chamber" in which Gethard (but not the audience) could see the oddly shaped private parts of volunteering Skype callers. As Gethard looked at various bodily deformities, random people hula-hooped across the set and audience members dressed as bananas lounged on the floor. From one glance, viewers clearly get a sense of the show’s intimate yet anarchic vibe. The best part is, these kinds of DIY antics occur every week. Which is exactly why you should be watching.
And it's always been that way. Gethard premiered his show nearly four years ago on New York City public access channel, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, and produced over a hundred and fifty episodes (two years prior to being on the air, the show originated as a live comedy act at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater). Given its rabid cult following, especially on the internet (viewers can stream tapings live), it's easy to see why it's gained a larger national platform. By embracing social media, as well as the weirdos that populate it, Gethard has succeed in cultivating an atmosphere in which everyone is welcome, especially those on the fringes who rarely feel that they’re being heard at all. Gethard’s opening monologue on the first Fusion episode was dedicated to his target demographic of “goons, goofs, freakazoids, the sexually confused, dorks, people with mild depression, the socially awkward, people with severe depression, and jabronis.” Not only is this a show for them, but it’s a show driven by them. After all, stunts like the genital chamber would be impossible to pull-off without such a trusting, loyal fanbase.
As the show has transitioned into the national spotlight it has remarkably retained many of the hallmarks that made it such an oddity from the get-go. Gethard continues to combine the wackiness of early Letterman gimmicks with a level of fan intimacy not currently seen on network or cable TV. The show is genuinely unique not only in terms of the audience it seeks, but the format it eschews and the chaos it attracts. One episode might entail a game of human duck hunt, the next might feature callers sharing horrific experiences with insomnia. Regardless of the episode’s chosen theme, the events that transpire are almost entirely driven by viewers. It’s a rare thing when watching a TV show becomes an immersive and participatory experience, but that’s exactly where Gethard’s biggest influence lies. Other shows could, and should, take note of just how transformative they can be in regards to the lives of their fans if only they took on a fraction of the show’s populist approach and attempted to engage with their viewers, both on and off the air.
If there’s one thing Gethard gets better than anyone else it’s that the most fascinating characters are often the ones sitting right in front of him. The second episode, during the show’s public access years, best illustrates the power of the audience’s influence. On that episode, a woman named Jean called up confused as to what the point of the show was. Gethard gave her the address of the studio and told her to find out for herself. Twenty minutes later, she was part of program that she was previously puzzled by. Dubbed “Random Jean,” she continued to show up and participate in the next 15 episodes. Since then, the show has featured other callers-turned-castmates who are as random as Jean was.
By taking such a democratic and interactive approach to a medium typically populated by a slim pool of celebrities, Gethard is infusing the late night landscape with a burst of personal warmth and well-needed unpredictability. As the structure of more traditional late night shows have become rote, the Fallons and Kimmels of the world should take note of this bottom-top approach instead of relying on stale, topical monologues or guests plugging their latest project to fuel their nightly episodes. Even when Gethard has celebrity guests (early episodes featured a fortune-telling Amy Poehler and Zach Galifianakis giving haircuts to willing fans), they get in on the action but they are never the stars.
The format of late night has barely shifted in the fifty-plus years since The Tonight Show started and even when the occasional bit, a celebrity lip-sync battle or a cutesy kid prank for instance, goes viral, they feel stale and stilted in contrast to a spontaneous audience chant of “eat more butts!” as is prone to happen under Gethard’s reign. While the content that fills these shows is often funny and sometimes enlightening, only so much can be achieved within the standard template. There is a level of anarchy and an element of surprise that only the The Chris Gethard Show can provide (any given episode can contain an ever-shifting array of viewer calls, interactive games, a cast of recurring sketch characters, celebrity interviews, even on-air weddings) which elevates it above its myriad competition. A show like that can only thrive in an environment that supports it. Network television is hardly a place for revolutionaries.
If the show proves anything, it’s that late night is reinvigorated the most when the rules aren’t just broken, but eradicated completely. And more significantly, it proves that the most progressive, irreverent and arguably important late night television is now relegated to obscure cable channels, one that viewers actively have to seek out if they want to see anything remotely departing from the norm. In such a media-fractured landscape, niche cable networks (and the internet) truly represent the future. As for Gethard, his complete aversion for the rules are getting him noticed by the likes of Judd Apatow, but even in gaining celebrity accolades, Gethard’s priority is his audience. And ultimately, that’s what is going to shift the future of late night—his devotion to us, the weirdos.