Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Chris Gethard Show 141: Should We Keep Doing This Show?

In my last post, I talked about how network TV shows have their creative direction constantly affected by the network's ability to cancel or renew them.  In an age of long-term story arcs, the network show is never quite sure just how long it will last.  On the exact opposite end of this spectrum is The Chris Gethard Show.  A product of public-access television and Internet streaming, the show can go on for precisely as long as the creators keep showing up to the studio.  And as a call-in/variety show, Chris Gethard doesn't have to think about when a story goes on to be wrapped up.  Theoretically, this show could go on forever, or at least until New York is underwater.

This is the most absolute form of creative freedom you'll find in TV (as in most popular art forms, freedom and obscurity go hand in hand).  But as we've all learned from Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility -- or, more precisely, with great freedom comes great significance.  Ending Chris Gethard would be a deliberate act, one that cannot be blamed on ratings or storylines.  There can be no "save our show" campaign, as the fans would have to uncomfortably argue that the show should be saved from those who create it[1].  I don't like to talk about "agency", but in independent art the agency of the creator is both blessing and burden.

"Should We Keep Doing This Show?" is a mostly symbolic attempt to extend this agency to the fans of the show.  The format is about as barebones as Chris Gethard gets: each caller phones in and responds to the titular question with either "yes" or "no".  After three weeks of deliberation and ambivalence by the creators, the yes-or-no format is refreshing in its directness, although it doesn't stop one caller from hemming and hawing through a longwinded list of TV analogies.

This episode is the culmination of a month-long arc titled "Evolve or Die", with each episode dealing in some way with the possible impending end of the show and the possibility of its reinvention.  This is another divergence from the chronological world of the TV series, which resists both evolution and death.  If anything, there's a palpable fear of The Chris Gethard Show becoming an institution, or even a regular job.

In part this is a discomfort with the show's success and its ever-growing cult following.  A few weeks prior, a remarkably sober panel discussed how Gethard could no longer describe himself as the underdog.  What was a scrappy public access call-in show watched by no one is now an internationally-watched show that is praised and criticized just like any other TV program (by people such as myself).

The Chris Gethard Show's improvisational interaction with its audience and friendly, accepting ethos (summed up by Mal Blum telling the audience "no one should ever be alone" the previous week) created an affectionate bond between performers and audience that was far beyond the usual relations of fandom.  Several viewers have spoke of the show as a kind of therapy.  But what is becoming increasingly clear is that this relationship is not all warm feelings, but also constitutes a responsibility, perhaps even a burden.  In previous episodes, Gethard despaired at the idea that he would have to stay on the air to keep helping people through their mental issues.  He said that it wasn't his responsibility to look after the mental health of strangers, especially at the expense of his own mental health, and that's certainly true.  But perhaps what's psychologically helpful about the show is precisely that it allows the audience to believe that they aren't strangers to Chris Gethard and the rest of the cast.

After weeks of experimentation, including the shocking cold open of "Why Did You Stop Watching The Chris Gethard Show" and the solo lunacy of "I Can Be Bad All By Myself", we get a conventional Chris Gethard opening: Murph screams at the camera, the LLC play the opening theme (sans Hallie this time), and the panel introduces us to the theme for the week.  It's a classic Chris Gethard panel too, with all of the show's regulars.  This return to convention serves two purposes in the episode.  Firstly, giving the audience what they've come to expect after weeks of scorning them is a gesture that helps invite them back into the fold.  (Although this is mitigated a moment later when Gethard chastises the audience for chanting.)  Secondly, it repeats the typical opening with the knowledge that this might be the last time it happens.

The actual call-in portion of the show is fairly straightforward.  There's some early pretense at keeping score, with Bethany drawing a tally on Jesse's chest, but pretty much everyone who calls in says "yes", and even the few who say "no" just want to see the crew work on other projects.  Whatever mixed feelings that are felt by the crew aren't shared by the audience.  This puts the creators of the show in a somewhat awkward position.

What emerges from the conversation is less a sense of creative exhaustion than physical exhaustion.  Gethard says "I'm very tired, almost all the time.  I'm growing up.  I don't know if I want to spend my whole life getting hit with broom by relative strangers".  As such, this string of episodes has felt a lot like Gethard asking the audience and the rest of the crew permission for a decision that he's already made, frustratingly disguised as a discussion.  This is permission that, for the most part, the audience refuses to give -- most if not all would be accepting of Chris's decision to end the show, but there are few "nos" among either callers or panelists.

But a funny thing happens.  A guy calls from Pakistan, and talks briefly about the weird cricket-star-lead revolution that's taking place in his country.  Gethard gets excited at the prospect of connecting to someone in such a radically different situation.  Towards the end of the episode, a guy with tattoos ased on the show calls in and proceeds to blow everyone's minds.  Far from the dejected, exhausted Gethard of "Why Did You Stop Watching?", we have the Chris Gethard of endless and uncomplicated enthusiasm, the force of positive energy that provides the ethos of the show.  He starts making plans for "If we come back".  By the end of the episode, I was distinctly more convinced that we'd see the show return than I was at the start.  The audience renewed their commitment to the performers, not by simply voting "yes" but by engaging Chris on a human level.

As usual, there's a lot more weirdness going on around the edges of the episode's main topic.  The set of The Chris Gethard Show is designed to convey total anarchy: there's Mimi on the Hoops, a man behind the plant, and a bunch of people in costumes sitting behind the main action.  These aspects are rarely commented on, but there's a sense that any one of these people could step up and become the protagonist of the show at any time.  Starting with its tradition of including "randoms" on the panel, The Chris Gethard Show has made the line between performer and audience porous to the point of nonexistence.

This sense of anarchy extends to the show's proceedings, where unexpected tangents often take on a life of their own.  The most notable example was a monologue by the Human Fish.  Besides being a great visual, the Human Fish usually doesn't do much more than his typical "A vs. B" judgement.  But suddenly, he speaks at length, and of course he has a complex inner life, and the flimsy backstory about him being here to learn about human society becomes meaningful and even touching.  The moments that have been self-conscious markers for the show's dumbness, like the "eat a burrito off my belly" episode, are moments of hope here.  When he announces that he will be returning to the sea, it's a more poetic rationale for why it might be time to end the show than any other justification made over the last month.

Less memorable is a recurring bit where the writers try out "characters we have to get on the show before it ends", which are of course all stupid one-note puns (Santa and Satan, Dr. Heckle and Mr. Snyde, the Nun-Chucks).  The purpose of The Chris Gethard Show's writers, as the show is usually better when it's being spontaneous, and as such the writing has often been the but of jokes.  This hews pretty close to the alt-comedy isn't-it-funny-to-think-someone-would-laugh-at-this routine, which I'm not a big fan of.  But even these jokes are enlivened by the positive energy that flows through The Chris Gethard Show, which suggests that maybe terrible puns deserve to be celebrated as well.

If this is the last episode of the show, it will be an odd one but definitely a fitting one.  Lots of television series, some quite mainstream, have done self-reflexive finales, but I can't think of any that have tackled the act of ending a beloved show so head-on.  But even with such a seemingly depressing topic, so much positivity comes flooding in through the phone lines and the energy of the performers.  Even the grimmest episode of "Evolve or Die" had a moment where a story about Gethard going to a baseball game made everyone crack up.  Even though I hope the show comes back, there would be no more appropriate way to end than everyone beaming and trying not to laugh at the end of a night they were prepared to be miserable.

[1]Although this hasn't stopped Doctor Who fans over the past decade.

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