(Editor’s note: This article is from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription! Please note there are mild spoilers in this article.)
If you ever have come across Chris Gethard, through the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, his “Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People” podcast, or his self-titled television show, you know that he embraces the unconventional, unexpected, and unplanned in his comedy. In his recent HBO comedy special, “Career Suicide,” based on his off-Broadway one-man show, he begins by putting the audience at ease, “I see a shrink. We’re good,” and cautions the audience that, “Sometimes people just break … Welcome to a comedy show.”
In the course of 90 minutes, Gethard describes his lifelong experiences with anxiety and depression — explaining that he thought it was common for an 11-year old to have an “internal monologue like the guy from ‘Taxi Driver,’ ” the relationship with his unorthodox therapist of ten years, Barb (who helps Gethard discover his alcoholism and could easily be a sitcom character), and his suicide attempt at the age of 21, including the aftermath of telling his mother what happened. Before waking up his mother in the middle of the night, Gethard suddenly realized that, “this is the last moment in my mom’s life, where she gets to think that she has a normal kid.” That fear, for some of us, of having to tell our loved ones about our mental health — for those who know or love someone suffering — is just one of ways that Gethard illustrates in “Career Suicide” how people do not get the help they need.
Deftly, with great humor and insight, Gethard takes head-on the various cultural stigmas regarding mental illness. On his comedic docket is to rebuff the attitudes taken toward mental health medications. He frankly describes the ones he has taken (and, to great comedic effect, the side effects). In contrast to treatments of physical health, he sharply proposes that no one would ever question to a diabetic, “You’re gonna take insulin … For now, right? You’ll get off that s— someday.” Gethard finds this sentiment to be a great obstacle for those needing support for mental health — the notion that you won’t be “yourself ” anymore — and, certainly in Gethard’s case, that he would not be creative and funny. Gethard cleverly deconstructs what he considers the biggest myth about mental illness — that you have to be a tortured soul to be a talented artist — and defiantly states that he’s a better comic on his meds.
By his performance in “Career Suicide,” one gathers that Gethard has come to terms with his concerns about being inauthentic — his show feels like having a heart-to-heart conversation with an old friend. At times, he appears just moments away from choking up in detailing his past struggles, and in other moments is in pure fan-boy mode when describing his love of “Saturday Night Live,” basketball, Marvel Comics, and his favorite band, The Smiths. In performing “Career Suicide,” Gethard is well aware of the sensitive ground he is treading on. When interviewed by HBO, he acknowledges that others may not be “ready for jokes” and feels a strong responsibility to be “invested in every single time I do it, or else that’s really — not fair.”
Toward the end of the show, Gethard recounts the thousands of Facebook and email messages he has received from people asking for help. He shares that how Barb responded to him in a difficult time altered his path, and that he cannot know what that pivot will be for others. Gethard pleads to those struggling for salvation to “keep your eyes peeled for it … because I bet it’s out there, and I bet you can find yours, because I found mine, and I never dreamed, I’d be strong enough to say that.” Eagle-eyed viewers of “Career Suicide” may spot the lyric from The Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over” that is tattooed on Gethard’s inner right arm: “It takes strength to be gentle and kind.” Gethard took this precept to heart in his journey toward mental health, I presume, and likely still employs it today to help others to laugh — and heal.