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Why Chris Gethard Is Walking Away From His TV Show

On Monday afternoon, in a long Facebook post, Chris Gethard announced the end of The Chris Gethard Show. The series has a long and somewhat torturous history: It began as a monthly live show at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade in 2009, when Gethard was an instructor at the legendary improv theater, and moved to the public access channel Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) in 2011. Comedy Central commissioned a pilot in 2013, but declined to pick up the series. The show aired out of MNN’s 59th Street studio until 2015, at which point Fusion picked it up — and cut it down from an hour to thirty minutes — for two seasons. For its third and final season, which ended in May, TCGS hopped to truTV. And now, more than 200 episodes later, it’s over.

A freewheeling phone-in series with an anarchic spirit, TCGS had a punk-rock heart and an air of spontaneity that is rare for television these days. The late-night show had a simple conceit, centered on host Gethard; his “sidekick,” longtime UCB artistic director Shannon O’Neill; and “internet liaison” Bethany Hall, who would facilitate live Skype calls from fans all over the world. Regular viewers came to know and love recurring characters like the Human Fish (David Bluvband) and Gethard’s nemesis, Vacation Jason (Riley Soloner). Despite the looseness of the format, most episodes were built around concepts like, “Show Us the Weirdest Thing About Your Body,” the first episode to air on Fusion, in 2015, with guests Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. The season two finale, “Fight for the Fish,” features a wrestling match between Gethard and Vacation Jason (Jon Hamm shows up and dons a sumo suit). The season two episode “One Man’s Trash,” from May 2016, was an instant classic: A dumpster is wheeled out at the beginning of the episode, and Gethard and guests Jason Mantzoukas and Paul Scheer spend the entire hour taking audience guesses as to what’s in it.

In his Facebook post, Gethard, 38, writes that the end of his namesake show was a mutual decision between himself and the executives at truTV. “With my hesitation to continue and truTV’s need for numbers improvement,” he wrote, “it’s time to throw in the towel.”

The Voice spoke to Gethard — who is looking forward to some down time before jumping into his next project — about the reaction to the show’s cancellation, the struggle to break into the mainstream, and making TV with heart.

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This must’ve been an intense week for you. How are you feeling?

I’m feeling pretty good, honestly. It’s been pretty nice to feel people’s love as they reach out and also, as I said in the thing I wrote online, it feels like a bit of weight off the shoulders. I’m sure it’ll hit me at some point and I’ll get tremendously sad and grieve it. But for now, I gotta say, I’m letting out a sigh of relief that the pressure is off.

There are over 200 comments on your Facebook post. Have you read them?

I’ve read a lot of the reaction online, yeah. It was really beautiful. I’d say 95 percent of it was just really nice, people telling me what the show meant to them, saying that it had some effect over the years and that’s really overwhelming. When I think about it, the fact that anyone gave a shit is still so remarkable and flattering to me. There was three percent of it that was like, truTV fans that were like, “Good! Now we can get more of the programming we like back.” Then there’s the two percent that really rattles my nerves, which is old fans who say we sold out anyway, celebrating our demise.

So much late-night TV these days feels geared to producing short clips that can go viral, but your show felt almost like the opposite. It had this kind of “You had to be there” vibe, like going to a late-night UCB show — like the point of it was to hang out for an hour.

Well, I certainly wasn’t opposed to having clips go viral, and we tried our best. We had a whole team of people who were trying to make it happen. My hope would always be, float out that clip, get people interested, and then they’d want to come in for the whole long-form show. But I think my experience is just proving more and more, that is not how people’s attention spans work right now. There are other shows that I think are built to accommodate that more and sadly I think ours is a little bit more of an experience where you had to buckle up and come along for the ride. It just wasn’t happening. I know I sound a little dismal and defeated, but what can I do? I feel like nine years of banging my head against the wall is enough banging my head against the wall.

At the same time, and maybe this was the show’s tragic flaw, but I think it worked because it was smaller and more intimate — it felt like something special in this little corner of a really crowded TV landscape. There aren’t that many shows that really foster a community the way yours did. Do you think that’s possible to do in TV these days?

It’s funny, because if we did anything it was build a community. So I guess it’s possible — we did it. The real question now on my mind is, “Is it possible to build a community that can grow to a mainstream size?” and we came a couple inches short of the goal line on that. So I don’t know; I don’t know if that’s what people are interested in right now. I was happy to give it a shot and I have no regrets because the community was a very active one, it was one that I was really a part of in a big way. I don’t think I was just some figurehead from afar. I’ve spent the days since we announced the show ending thanking a lot of people who have tweeted at me, sent me messages — people who watch the show and used to show up at the studio, people who used to call in. I know who they are, I know their names. They really did mean a lot to me and the show meant a lot to me, and the fact that the show could be a gathering place where I got to meet all these interesting, unique, odd people — it was the best thing about it.

It almost feels like an earlier era of the internet, where certain websites would foster similar communities — like the website Videogum, maybe a decade ago. Or the GLOW, the 1980s wrestling show that the Netflix series is based on — it was scrappy and goofy and small-scale and I don’t know how long something like that can last without changing fundamentally. It almost spells its own doom.

That’s totally true. One thing that I cop to is, I still have a chip on my shoulder, but it’s not the same chip on my shoulder I had when I came up with this idea. You mentioned GLOW, and there’s a whole bunch of examples of these scrappy local TV shows. I think of Uncle Floyd, who I grew up with in New Jersey. I think of Steampipe Alley, this weird kids’ show I grew up with. Clearly somebody was fighting to get those things through. Nothing that weird can exist without somebody fighting. I think I’m just ready to fight some different fights. I’m older now.

There’s also a real embrace of sincerity on your show that can be hard to come by on television, and in comedy. Do you feel like that’s something people are craving more of?

My assumption, knowing my career, is that now that we’ve ended my show, eighteen months from now sincerity’s gonna become the biggest thing in the history of the world. That just seems to be how things go for me. Now that I gave up, it’s gonna become all the rage.

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How does that make you feel?

If I was gonna worry about that I would’ve ended [the show] many moons ago. I just had to keep my head down and do it because it was fun.

I did an appearance on a talk show a few years back. One of the executive producers pulled me aside before I left and he was like, “You know, your show is really popular in writers’ rooms.” And I was like, oh, that’s really cool, got the respect of my peers. And he was like, “No. Your show is really popular in writers’ rooms — watch your back.” At first I was like oh, he’s telling me everyone’s gonna rip us off. There was a part of me that was real worried about that but I was like, you know what, rip us off, take what was good about it, make it better. I think what was good about the show was that it had a lot of heart, and if people rip off having heart, find ways to make it more palatable and more mainstream — big thumbs up at this point.

You’ve still got your podcast, Beautiful/Anonymous. Does that feel like a nice change of pace from doing such a chaotic live show?

There’s no pressure on it — there’s not like a big brain trust of people that get together and rubber-stamp everything for approval, which is how TV works. On a creative level, I feel like the entertainment I love the best feels really personal, feels a little small. I think I think The Chris Gethard Show really fit that description when it was at its highest peak. The show was maybe starting to grow to a point where I wasn’t necessarily feeling that as much. Doing smaller stuff feels good. The podcast feels good; it’s one-on-one. And I’ll tell you what always feels best, and will always feel best till the day I’m on my deathbed, is performing live. Just getting onstage in a roomful of people where I can see their eyes, I can react to them. They can see me, I can see them, and we can all feel like we’re a part of something together.

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Remote Patrol

SMOKING GUN TV
Tuesdays at 11 on Court TV

Our pals over at thesmokinggun.com carry their quest for world domination (or maybe just world humiliation?) to the small screen by using puppets and dolls to re-enact sleazy celebrity misbehavior.


STARVED
Thursdays at 10 on FX

It sounded funny in theory: a satirical comedy about eating disorders. Despite a few amusing touches, like the bulimic cop who busts Chinese-delivery guys so he can binge on the order, the series (and its toxic central character) are ultimately too acidic to be digested.


MIAMI INK
Tuesdays at 10 on TLC

Of the two reality shows about tattoo parlors that premiered this summer, I prefer this one. Rather than lingering on the slacker employees’ relationships, it focuses on the art and history of tattooing, teasing out the poignant reasons that clients choose to inject ink under their skin.

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Full of Grace

The stars aligned for a spectacular convergence of freak-show fodder for the cable news networks in late March. Robert Blake set free! Terri Schiavo taken off a feeding tube! The pope put on a feeding tube! Michael Jackson under fire! But of all television’s talking heads, only one figure was capable of fully exploiting this tabloid bonanza, feeding on each story like tasty carrion.

That woman was Nancy Grace, Court TV host and Larry King sidekick, she of the notoriously flaring nostrils, who recently took over the nightly prime-time slot on CNN Headline News. Since February, when Grace joined Headline News, she has helped double the ratings of the reliable and monotonous channel I once left on in hotel rooms for a steady drip of ambient background noise. Grace pierces the bland surface of Headline News like a bloodcurdling scream as she delectates over the most salacious court cases of the day, grinding up all of these stories until they resemble so much greasy hamburger meat.

Very few female names surfaced in the media speculation about who would replace Dan Rather. It’s only in the cable news realms that women get their own shows, and even then, most of these anchors (think Paula Zahn) play it pleasant and demure, projecting the image of a perky, blonde working-mom-next-door. Grace may be blonde, but she is about as perky as a roach bomb, coating every story she reports—if reports is the right word for her prejudicial presentations—with bile and fury. Although she’s as belligerent and cocksure as Bill O’Reilly, Grace doesn’t seem driven by anything as clear or comfortable as ideology. Instead, she embraces the pose of a woman scorned, frequently making references to the murder of her fiancé 26 years ago, which inspired her to become a prosecutor for a Georgia D.A.’s office. Grace uses her show on CNN Headline News and her daily two-hour stretch on Court TV, Closing Arguments, to vicariously prosecute a series of high-profile court cases in ways that wouldn’t be allowed in a real court. (Back in her prosecuting days, though, Grace was apparently chastised once for inappropriate and possibly illegal conduct.) Her program often turns into a crusade as she flagellates a small list of demonized characters like Scott Peterson, Robert Blake, and Michael Jackson.

Nearly every night for the last few weeks she’s read aloud from salacious transcripts ascribing dirty deeds to Jackson. She takes special, almost obsessive glee in 1993 testimony from a boy who alleged nipple sucking and butt grabbing. “I told him I didn’t like that and Michael Jackson started to cry,” Grace quotes, then sneeringly rubs her eyes as if to wipe away crocodile tears. She abrasively cross-examines anyone who disagrees with her, whether it’s the defense attorneys she brings on to play whipping boys or the uncle of a boy who settled in an earlier case, whom she scolded, “I don’t like witnesses sitting back counting their muh-ney!” Her recent antagonistic encounter with Jesse Jackson set the blogosphere ablaze when the reverend tried to remind Grace of that fading American principle, due process. In response, Grace tossed saucy morsels into his lap (“Reverend Jesse Jackson, this suggestion that Michael Jackson is in bed with several little boys and their underwear is piled by the bed . . .”). Grace continues to ride Jackson’s “creep factor” on a daily basis. “I may get served for saying ‘creepy,’ ” she quipped on Closing Arguments last week. “It’s highly inflammatory.” Her lamentations for Terri Schiavo were equally inflammatory: One night she crowed about Terri’s doctors, “who are going home to a nice steak and lobster dinner tonight, a little surf and turf, maybe a little vino; they don’t think she should have a morphine drip while she’s starving to death?”

If Grace is unabashedly provocative, she’s also baldly ambitious; some media pundits are touting her as Larry King’s future replacement. Her Headline News series is billed as a legal-issues program, but Grace’s desire to play with the big kids means weighing in on other newsworthy subjects like, say, the pope’s impending demise. This led to some hilariously inappropriate babble. She grilled one Newsweek reporter as if there were some nefarious plot brewing at the Vatican: “First we heard the pope was dead. Then we heard, no, that’s incorrect. Now we are hearing back and forth, and back and forth. Why? . . . You say when the time is right, when the time is right. Why would they keep that from the public?”

Grace often snickers at Michael Jackson’s lack of awareness about his public image, but the criticism easily applies to her. For a media supernova, she has very little control over her facial expressions. Every time I freeze-frame her show, I catch Grace wrinkling her nose in blatant disgust or twisting her mouth in a contemptuous gesture. (She obviously doesn’t follow Tyra Banks’s advice on America’s Top Model to practice making pretty faces in the mirror.) She’s a Saturday Night Live sketch waiting to happen, a self-made cartoon character who turns world weekly news into a baroque passion play. It’s rare to see this kind of female rage vented on television, though it doesn’t amount to anything more revolutionary than the angry white-male pundits. But Grace has a growing viewership, and it’s not a question of them liking her despite her transparently wrathful facial expressions but because of them. She embodies a kind of unfocused anger that ignites around flashpoint cases, tapping into her viewers’ sense that things have gone wrong and ordinary people are getting a raw deal.

Watching Nancy Grace, I can feel two sides of myself in bitter conflict. There’s the irony-soaked Gen X’er in me who treats the show as a spectator sport, delighting in every sleazy line of inquiry. And then there’s the more earnest me who understands how many people watch Grace in utter seriousness—the me who agrees with Jon Stewart’s contention that this kind of blowhard demagoguery is “hurting America.” May the better half win.

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Remote Patrol

Battlestar Galactica was such an irrelevant speck of ’70s pop culture that I never imagined it would be fervently welcomed back. But the SciFi Channel has revived it as a full-fledged series—and so far, an enjoyable one. In an amusing nod to contemporary gender and racial equity, Starbuck is now a feisty woman, Edward James Olmos takes over the commander role once played by lily-white Lorne Greene, and Mary McDonnell serves as president, all of them under siege by a race of pissed-off cyborgs.


PBS’s Independent Lens presents this dynamite doc about the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Ostensibly a movie about the struggle between a formerly Communist populace unused to paying for electricity and the Georgian electric company (taken over by an American multinational), Power Trip reveals itself to be a complex portrait of a country in turmoil and transition.


Not many Off-Broadway plays could survive a trip to Court TV as well as The Exonerated, a stark tale of innocent people who languished on death row, played by celebs (Aidan Quinn) and should-be celebs (Delroy Lindo), each performance a ringing indictment of the death penalty.

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Remote Patrol

THE SMOKING GUN YEAR-END SPECIAL

December 9 at 10 on Court TV

If all those jolly holiday specials rub you the wrong way, take heart in this jaundiced view of the year’s scandals courtesy of the guys at the Smoking Gun, plus special guests like our own Michael Musto.


HENRY’S FILM CORNER

Saturdays at midnight on IFC

“Everyone hates a critic but everyone is a critic, so why not me?” Henry Rollins says in his best angry-existentialist voice, before proceeding to discuss movies with his mailman, some porn stars, and other noncritics. So far, more amusing in theory than execution.


SCORSESE ON SCORSESE

December 14 at 10 on TCM

This salute to our favorite Little Italy native garnishes footage from Scorsese’s great films with entertaining commentary from the man himself. It’s far from comprehensive, though, skipping over the aesthetic flops.


SPIKE VIDEO GAME AWARDS 2004

December 14 at 9 on Spike TV

Ever wondered what your favorite game designers look like? Here’s the chance to see them in this second annual ceremony, hosted by Snoop Dogg.

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Death Watch

DAVE SOLOMON

Age 48

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Messenger

Do you believe in the death penalty? It’s a tricky thing. McVeigh should be put to death for the Oklahoma City bombing, but so, too, should a president who stood there and lied to the entire country.

Should executions be public? No, that would make us like the Romans. This country is very confused about how it metes out justice. The drug war is a perfect example. If you light up a joint, you’ve got 20 cops on you in an instant, and yet more serious crimes go unpunished.

Would you watch one? Personally, I don’t think I would, but both the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh deserve to be put to death. McVeigh says he wants to die. He reminds me of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, the guy who wants to die at the hands of someone else because he’s too chicken to kill himself.


ALICE TEMPLE

Age 33

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Musician

Do you believe in the death penalty? I think I’m against it for the simple and corny reason that one innocent person might be put to death.

Should executions be public? Deep down, I think the public should have a right to see it. The government should own up to the fact that they’re executing people. I do believe that 90 percent of the audience for an execution would be there simply for the gore factor, so I don’t exactly know who would benefit.

Would you watch one? Yes, I probably would. I wouldn’t tape it to watch later, but if I knew it was on, I’d watch. Killing is a very human instinct, and people have been doing it to each other for hundreds of years.


KATHY DAWKINS

Age 38

Resides Brooklyn

Occupation Computer administrator

Do you believe in the death penalty? No. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and we don’t have the right to take a person’s life. There has to be another way. What about putting someone in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives?

Should executions be public? Yes. Heaven knows how many innocent people have been wrongly executed. It might make us think more about the death penalty.

Would you watch one? I would watch for the experience, but honestly, I’d be watching the faces of the guards doing the killing.


DEBBIE STOLLER

Age 38

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Editor

Do you believe in the death penalty? No, but primarily because it’s not a deterrent.

Should executions be public? No, it’s barbaric, and I think rather than sensitizing people to the issue of the death penalty, it would desensitize them. People see so many killings on television anyway that a live execution would just get high ratings. They could market it like Temptation Island.

Would you watch one? I wouldn’t watch for entertainment. I can’t even watch wrestling. It would be like watching the Christians being thrown to the lions.


KIEFER CHEN

Age 29

Resides Queens

Occupation Graphic designer

Do you believe in the death penalty? Yes, for certain crimes. I think we need better testing because you’ve got to be certain you’re not executing an innocent person.

Should executions be public? Are you asking me if I’d go to Astor Place to see someone be hanged? No. It is a deterrent, but it should be carried out in private.

Would you watch one? No.


DARRYL WHITFIELD

Age 38

Resides Queens

Occupation Floor installer

Do you believe in the death penalty? Yes. An eye for an eye is the law. If you kill someone, you should die. On the other hand, the system works differently for rich people than it does for the poor. Rich football players who commit violent crimes should be put to death, but they have enough money to buy their way out.

Should executions be public? Yes, it would certainly satisfy a lot of victims, and I think it would make us think more about the issue.

Would you watch one? Yes, I watch Court TV every day after work. I’d watch an execution.


DOUG KELJIKIAN

Age 42

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Photographer

Do you believe in the death penalty? No. Institutionalized murder is no better than ordinary murder.

Should executions be public? I don’t know. It’s a grotesque issue.

Would you watch one? On some academic level, I suppose we should bear witness to the best and the worst that we’re doing, but having said that, I wouldn’t make time for it in my date book.

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Free to Be Deported

Julie Colon never planned on becoming an activist. But two years ago, when her mother sent her a newspaper clipping from prison about a new group for drug offenders’ relatives, Julie, then 20, decided to check it out. She discovered that prisoners’ families were trying to repeal New York state’s strict drug laws by holding protests around New York City, and so she began attending their rallies. Carrying a poster with her mother’s photo—and surrounded by other inmates’ relatives—Julie imagined her efforts might help repeal the so-called Rockefeller drug laws.

Three days before Christmas, Julie received a far greater reward for her activism than she ever expected. Governor George Pataki granted clemency to five drug prisoners, including Julie’s 57-year-old mother, Melita Oliveira. In 1987, Melita had been arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport, trying to return to the U.S. with five and a half ounces of cocaine hidden inside her girdle. Though she did not have a rap sheet, the state’s drug laws required a judge to punish her with a mandatory prison sentence: 15-years-to-life.

Julie, who was nine years old when Melita went to prison, was ecstatic that her mother was finally coming home. Then the bad news arrived. Melita called from prison to say that the INS was planning to ship her back to Peru. It did not matter that Melita is a permanent legal resident nor that she moved from Peru to Paterson, New Jersey, more than 20 years ago. The INS routinely deports most noncitizens who have been convicted of drug crimes.

Melita is scheduled to go before the state parole board on January 24. Clemency recipients usually leave prison a few days later. But after 13 years in prison, Melita will likely be taken to another jail—the INS detention facility on Varick Street in Manhattan—while she waits for INS officials to decide her fate.

Meanwhile, Julie has dived back into the role of activist, dialing lawyers and trying to convince them to pick up her mother’s case. Last week, she found an attorney with the help of Randy Credico, head of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which organized the anti-drug-law rallies for prisoners’ families. The attorney, Manuel Vargas, head of the Criminal Defense Immigration Project of the New York State Defenders Association, is hopeful.




It did not matter that Melita is a permanent legal resident. The INS routinely deports most noncitizens who have been convicted of drug crimes.


“If there’s any case where [INS officials] should be exercising discretion, it’s this one,” Vargas says. “Clemency is so rarely granted that you have to assume anyone who is granted clemency merits one of these immigration waivers. [But] if the immigration service does not exercise discretion, she could wind up in the situation thousands of immigrants are in now”—languishing in an INS jail while awaiting resolution of their case.

Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesperson, is less optimistic. “There’s really no leeway at all,” Strassberger says. “The kind of conviction she received would prevent her from having any form of relief—because of the nature of the crime and because it involved drugs and because of the length of the sentence.”

The INS considers Melita a “criminal alien,” and as the INS spokesperson explains, “Removal of criminal aliens is the top priority of the agency.” Meanwhile, Melita’s children cling to hope of a family reunion. When their mother went to prison, Julie and her four older siblings were separated and sent to stay with assorted relatives and friends. Now, all five of Melita’s children, who range in age from 22 to 32, reside in New Jersey. Four of them, including Julie, live together in the Paterson house their mother still owns.

When Julie first began attending anti-drug-law vigils, she was pregnant and had a fairly empty schedule. “Some of my relatives were afraid—with the careers they have—that there might be some sort of discrimination or they’d lose their jobs,” says Julie about her siblings, who include a nurse and a police officer. “So at the time, I decided—let me represent my family.” Today, Julie is a political-science major at Passaic County Community College and has Nasir, a 16-month-old baby, to raise. Still, she continues to act as the family’s public face.

Last Thursday, Julie, dressed in a black suit, was picked up and driven from Paterson to the mid-Manhattan studios of Court TV. It was to be Julie’s first appearance on a talk show. She had left Nasir with a babysitter and e-mailed a professor to explain why she was missing class. But at the last minute, her appearance was canceled. The trial of Rae Carruth, the former NFL wide receiver who was eventually convicted of conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend, bumped the segment about Julie’s mother off the air. Court TV invited her back this week.

Julie is nervous about appearing on national television, but she is convinced that her mother’s only chance at freedom depends on her continued activism. On Sunday, Julie traveled to Taconic Correctional Facility in Westchester County to see Melita. “She doesn’t know much—like when she will be released, or how long the INS will take,” says Julie, who hopes her mother will soon move in with her. “I have my fingers crossed.”