Chris Gethard’s punk roots shine through in new comedy film ‘Half My Life’

Photo Courtesy of Positive Jam PR

Chris Gethard has been doing stand-up comedy for half his life. He’s been a fan of punk rock for even longer. So it only makes sense that his latest project, Half My Life, brings the unconventional comedian’s two loves together for a documentary-special hybrid to deliver not only a new dose of Gethard’s unique brand of comedy that continues to bring him to makeshift performance spaces and independent stages around the country, but also a bit of an explanation as to how he got to this point in career, and what keeps him going.

Before he hits up Ralph’s Rock Diner in Worcester for a pair of shows on August 7 as part of his America’s Loosest Cannon tour (one of which is already sold out as of press time), we caught up with Gethard to discuss the film, capturing the full experience of balancing the role of a full-time touring comedian out on the road with being a full-time dad, and how the influence of punk rock has given him a “secret” edge of sorts in his comedy career.

Check it out.

Jason Greenough: Well, it’s great to connect again, Chris. It’s been a minute. Before we start here, since we’re seeing the finish line in a lot of ways with the pandemic, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask how you’ve been holding up.

Chris Gethard: I’ve been good. I bought a house in January of last year, and COVID delayed my ability to move, because everything was locked down. But I’ve been in this house for about a year now, and I’m raising my kid, who is now two, and I got to spend every day with him. It’s pretty cool to be able to spend time with someone who doesn’t know things are wrong, and it was a silver lining to be able to spend time at home. With the pace that I work, and the amount of time I spend out of town, I wouldn’t have been able to get to know him as well as I do now, so I feel pretty good about that side of it.

Silver linings are always great! I’m so glad to hear that. Another great thing is the reason we’re here, because you’ve got your new docu-special, Half My Life to share with the world. It’s a great project. I loved it. How are you feeling about it?

I feel really proud of it. I self-funded the whole thing so I could do it my way, and the style in which we chose to do it allowed me to capture things like the girl coming up on stage in Baltimore and tossing me around with wrestling moves. I think those are the types of things I’m okay with shows descending into chaos for, but a special doesn’t really get to show that off. So I feel really good about it. 

I was able to show off these venues, three of which have since closed due to COVID, so I’m glad I was able to at least get on record what they were all about, and how great they were. I’m always someone who tends to do things a little differently, so people are either going to be quite confused about what this is, or it’s going to hit them in the gut in a way other specials don’t. So, I’m hoping it’s the latter. 

Right on! Going back to what you just said there, you’ve never really done things the normal way, so what was the inspiration to present this project in this way? 

Well, I’ve done a Comedy Central half-hour, and I did my HBO special, and one thing that really struck me is that you’re on stage at a venue that’s probably much fancier than places you would normally play, wearing the nicest outfit you could find. You can watch any special and see how someone bought their sneakers just for that occasion, and it’s cool, because these are crowning achievements where you put your material you’ve been working on for years into the forefront, and they should show you off. But, I’ve watched them and thought about how, for 99 percent of us, that’s not what it looks like. It’s more like sitting in the car in traffic wondering if you’re going to get to the show on time. It looks like trying to figure out why ticket sales aren’t as good in this next city as they were in the last two towns. It looks like being on the road with a friend and getting to some city where you don’t really know anybody and figuring out how to kill time before the show. Those are the aspects of being a comedian that are sort of a different lifestyle than you find in many other places. It’s really us, musicians, and pro wrestlers who just sort of bounce from town to town.

So, I wanted to capture that whole experience. I also thought that would be a really great way to figure out how to talk about how I’m forty now, and a dad, and wondering if I should be on the road as much as I am,]. The material I used to do tended to have a lot more fire in its guts, but now I’m talking more about being a dad and how I really feel about not being as cool as I was a few years ago. I felt like showing off the different venues to both show the reality of what it’s like to be on tour as a comedian, and and the reality of where I am in life, and I think all the documentary side of it really hits that, and I think the editors and my director, Kate Sweeney, did a really great job of making sure that all the stand-up stuff really shines through, as well. Some of those bits are bits that I’ve been working on for seven or eight years, so I hope those get shown off in a really good way, and I also hope that people can get the actual feeling of all the boring or stressful parts, and the parts where you just sit there and overthink things too.

Throughout the film, you mention your involvement in the punk scene growing up and going to punk shows. As the viewer, I definitely felt like there was a sort of punk influence to your approach to not just this project, but to your comedy in general, and the venue you perform at. How would you say the punk lifestyle has affected your approach to comedy?

It’s been massively influential. I’d say even just the way we shot this film, I’d have to give credit where credit is due. There’s a documentary called Another State of Mind, which follows Social Distortion, Youth Brigade and, eventually, Minor Threat, and that was huge for me as a kid. I bought a copy of it when I was fourteen, and I sent that to everybody who worked on this project, and I told the crew that I wanted it to look like that. So right there, in terms of the pacing and overall tone of it, I’m ripping off from an old punk rock documentary. In terms of the larger picture of my career, I think there have been many times where I’ve been met with rejection, and that’s just a fact of life for any artist. But I feel like I was given this secret as a kid, because I saw all these bands where the people in them were only a few years older than I was, or were even still in high school like me, and they could just go and rent a space like the American Legion. The first live music I ever saw was in the basement of a tiny little church that let someone rent it out. You can set up your own amps, and you can make your own merch, and sell it at a table, and there’s a lot of nobility in that, and in some ways, I think it’s actually more pure than when things get a little bigger and everyone is taking care of everything for you.

So, I’ve always kind of felt like failure scares me as much as everybody else, but it also motivates me a lot more. I’m aware there are alot of back doors to get things done on your own terms, and punk handed me that at a very young age.

I really enjoyed that aspect of the film, because as a fellow punk kid who went to all those types of American Legion and church basement shows, it’s cool to see someone else who has the same background and is carrying on with that mentality.

It’s nice for me too, in the way that since I’m aware of that circuit, it’s sort of embraced me. I’ve done a lot of the comedy clubs where you do six shows in a weekend, and everyone’s eating potato skins and mozzarella sticks, and I can keep up with that, but I don’t think every comedian can look at a DIY space in Buffalo and say ‘oh, they want me to do a 9 a.m. show where they’ll serve pancakes?’ and I’ll go ‘yes, I get that.’ I think a lot of comedians would question why you’d want to do that, while I would ask ‘why would you want to do anything else?’

The 9 a.m. pancake breakfast show is a genius idea, by the way.

I love hearing that. I did that space in Buffalo, a place called Sugar City, which unfortunately closed during the pandemic, and we had sold out a show so they asked if I wanted to do another night, but I had to get to Detroit the next day, so they pitched the idea of 9 a.m., and when you watch the footage of that venue, you can see that it is not a place that’s trying to make their money off drinks. This is a place that wants art to have a home, so I thought it’d be good for me to do that show because it was a challenging show, and also, if I can do my part and offer this space another sold out show, that’s part of the deal, right? We all support each other.

Absolutely! And that feels like it goes right back to the mentality of the punk roots.

Thanks, dude. I’m glad that all came across.

So what was the decision process in choosing which venues to shoot the material in? It goes from Sugar City and Ottobar to Union Hall and the venue in Virginia that you said looked like the fanciest college lecture hall you’d ever seen. Those are pretty different venues. 

It’s very funny that you noticed that. Union Hall in Brooklyn is probably my home venue, and has been for the last five or six years. A friend of mine is a musician, and his day gig is the booker at The Colony. Another comedian and friend of mine had performed at Sugar City and showed me pictures of it and I loved it, so I reached out to them. I reached out to Asbury Park Brewery and Ottobar in Baltimore is my favorite venue to play. And then you get to that Virginia spot, and you probably think about how different it looks from the other places. The other spots seem more gritty and underground, and I’m pretty sure I say in the documentary how it looks like a college lecture hall. You won’t be shocked to hear that that’s the one my agent picked and told me how it was a great place, and I questioned that because it’s called the Dominion Energy Center. It’s named after a power company, and I know Richmond is a cool place with cool punk stuff, and I asked him if he was sure about it, and of course, that’s the place that has least amount of soul to it, and we didn’t sell it out, and the promoter fucked me over on money. As I was walking around in Richmond, people were stopping me on the street because they noticed me from Broad City, and my friend Carmen Christopher, who is featured in the film, had a friend with him who was like ‘I don’t know if this is going to make you feel better or worse, but I can name about six different venues you would’ve sold out no problem.’

I don’t really feel bad airing that out because I stopped working with those agents and I’ll never deal with that promoter again. I lost money on that show, but at the end of the day, I thought the footage still looked pretty good and it’s part of the deal. We actually have a good amount of footage of me in the parking lot after the show having a bit of a panic attack about how I got screwed by the promoter, but unfortunately, it didn’t make it in the end because I think there was an element where, he wound up paying me $512, and when my wife watched it, she was like ‘It sounds like you’re complaining about making $500 doing comedy,’ and it dawned on me. People don’t realize that when you’re a comedian, you pay to get there, you pay for your hotel room and your opener’s hotel room, you pay for your meals, and you pay for your opener’s meals, and I wound up losing money on that show, but that didn’t really come across. I’m glad that you were able to astutely flag, right away, how it seemed out of place.

With all of these elements in play — the DIY aspect, touring with Carmen, showing your everyday life as a dad — what was your favorite part of this project?

That’s a great question. When you watch the doc, you can definitely see how that was a stretch of my life where i was doing some real soul searching about how I felt about comedy, and i would say there are two things that shine through when I watch it back and think about that time, which seems so long ago because of the pandemic happening between shooting it and releasing it. I’d say the things that stand out to me as the most fun are the footage of that Detroit show where everything is going nuts, the Baltimore show where the girl gets on stage, and the footage from the Hideout in Chicago where we were just improvising with the crowd. It’s the unplanned moments that I had so much fun with. And the second thing was just hanging out with Carmen. That is one of the great joys is that you find like-minded people that you can trust to offer criticism on your bits and they trust you to help build their bits, and you get to a town and find some fun shit to do, and you have meals late at night while talking about how bad the last show and how the next one is going to be good. It’s all about the unplanned moments onstage, and the camaraderie offstage. Those are the things that still bring me just an insane amount of joy.

I tell ya, I watch that footage from Ottobar and that girl gets onstage and kind of beats me up, and her friend outs her for not even knowing who I was when she got to the show, and it’s the sort of magical thing that reminds me why I do this, and I don’t think there are too many other comedians who would allow that to happen, let alone put in their special.

Absolutely, and I think that’s what separates not only this special from the rest, but also separates you from the general flow of comedians.

I know what I am, I know my brain works a little differently, and sometimes that’s probably stopped me from getting more money in my pocket, but at the end of the day, I’m pretty proud of the back catalog of things I’ve made over the years. Sometimes I think about if I should have moved to LA and tried to be on a sitcom, but then I take a deep breath and think about the fact that because I never did that, I’m going to have a pretty cool obituary, and that’s kind of rad.

I could either be normal or have an interesting obituary, so I guess I’m putting all my chips in on that. [laughs]

There ya go, man. That’s a great outlook to have. Down to my last question, what do you hope viewers take away from this after watching this?

I think the timing of it is really serendipitous. We shot it at the end of 2019, and then this horrific pandemic shut everything down in 2020, and then it’s finally finished and ready to be distributed just as they’re telling us that we can take the masks off. I hope people watch it and it makes them remember what it felt like to be in an intimate room while entertainment is happening and what it feels like to walk into a room where the ceilings are low and you’re elbow to elbow with the next person, and that performer is making eye contact with you from 8 feet away.

I hope it reminds people of what that felt like, and I hope it gets them excited to come out to shows again, and I hope that when they see these venues in action and how they’re gritty and have a lot of heart, I hope that when they watch that, they realize or hear through the grapevine that three of those places closed, and that after a year where a lot got taken away, that gets them excited to come back out to shows and support  the venues that are independent and not doing things in the usual way, because I think we really need those. It can’t be that everything is Live Nation or Ticketmaster. I think those venues serve a lot of people very well, and I’ve done some shows under that umbrella, but the places where the real innovation and the real interesting stuff happens are the ones where you don’t have all the constraints.

I hope it reminds people that there might be a place in the middle of your town that’s tiny and scrappy, and it’s always close to going out of business, and we gotta support them, because they are vital.

CHRIS GETHARD: AMERICA’S LOOSEST CANNON TOUR :: Saturday, August 7 at 7 p.m. (sold out) and 9:30 p.m. :: Ralph’s Rock Diner, 148 Grove St. in Worcester :: $18 (9:30 p.m. show) :: Event info