Chris Gethard’s Lose Well and the Responsibility of the Cult ComedianMain images adapted from cover of Lose Well Comedy Features Chris Gethard
Art has done a lot of good for people. It gets you through bad bouts. Enough ink has been spilled on that. But anyone would have to admit that Chris Gethard has done more direct good for his fans than most. The rise of Gethard as a folkloric figure in the alternative comedy scene is tied inextricably to both the level of fan devotion to his work and his responsibility to those fans. Gethard has talked specific members of his audience through dangerous times, both on the highly democratized iterations of The Chris Gethard Show and the Barton Fink-esque stories-of-the-common-man conversations he hosts on his podcast Beautiful/Annonymous. In all of his projects, there’s a working ratio of comedy-to-pep-talk that has endeared him to a devoted group of misfits with creative aspirations.
It’s a responsibility he clearly takes extremely seriously, but it’s one that he seems to be wary of in its implications as well. His new book, Lose Well, ups the pep talk factor significantly, though not without reservations. “I want you to know I believe in you…” he writes early on, before adding: “Some caveats…”
Lose Well’s chapters follow a certain pattern. He begins each with a piece of advice relating to his central thesis: that you likely will not succeed the way you imagine you will in your youth, but your actual success will be defined by how gracefully you fail and what you learn from that failure.
Gethard has a seemingly infinite reservoir of stories meant to illustrate this. The most memorable ones dive deeper into his past, before he had reached any semblance of fame or success, resembling the misadventures of his first book, A Bad Idea I’m About To Do. Gethard was able to weather humiliating experiences being thrust into the title role in Bye Bye Birdie when he was supposed to be playing the nerdy younger brother, or being chewed out by his boss at a grocery store for daring to talk back to a demanding old woman. “We don’t do that at A&P!” Gethard is told. “…We do not stand up for ourselves here!” For a while, the lesson seems to stick.
Whether or not it is specifically designed this way, Lose Well often reads as Gethard taking control of that aforementioned responsibility, speaking to it directly, and using his own identity as a model. He states very clearly up top that he still identifies as a failure despite his considerable success. As that success grows, does Gethard feel a commensurately stronger desire to ground it? “The average people you pass on the street every day,” he says of the ideal guests for Beautiful/Anonymous. “The person on the subway. The lady who stole your parking spot. What are their stories?” That is the central tension of Lose Well, and is bound to be central tension of the next leg of Gethard’s career.
And so this kind of pessimistic advice that goes all the way around until it becomes uplifting—the kind Geth-heads crave—is given new shades. Gethard seems to recognize that he officially wields the kind of influence where he needs to be as considerate as possible in his words of inspiration. He encourages his readers to follow their dreams, but also gives them a stern warning: the moment they wonder whether they should quit is the moment they need to decide if they will. He knows all too well the pain of living in that question for too long. His therapist, in fact, gave him the same advice back when he was not sure whether his reliance on teaching and freelance writing was holding him back from his other goals: “It’s living like this, where you’re half in, half out, not sure. That’s what causing this.”
He clearly doesn’t want to give a false impression of the world that faces those he might encourage to pursue a Gethard-esque path. Several parts of the book remind me of an anecdote Gethard used to tell on podcasts back when the Gethard Show was beginning to really blow up. He describes being in the green room at UCB hearing comedians working for SNL and The Daily Show panicking about what will happen to them when their contracts ran out.
You can reach the highest levels of success but you will never get comfortable. If you’ll never outrun that fear, just try to do what you can on your own terms. Gethard left UCB for the most part in 2012. Fear is his bread and butter, and in the final chunk of Lose Well, he’ll tell you as much. “The duty of any creative soul,” he writes, “is to avoid the sad fate of complacency. I highly encourage that when you get to a point of proficiency, where your dreams don’t terrify you anymore, that you find that terror anew in some other area of life. You should make it a lifelong goal to always be free.”
His newfound success doesn’t change that imperative, and if Lose Well is any indication, he’s fully engaged in the struggle of trying to find an honest way to connect with his roots and provide the same level of mentorship to his fans that they still look to him for. After reading the book, I trust that he’d tell them if that was no longer possible. It won’t be an easy mission, and there are, admittedly, sections of the book that show the strain. But if Gethard has proven anything, it’s that if he fails, he’ll do it in style.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.