Shortly before midnight on a recent Tuesday, comedian and host Chris Gethard was standing nearly naked in front of a live studio audience at his late-night show, shivering as handfuls of dirt were chucked into his face and his body was smeared with a gooey red concoction described as "turtle blood." As audience members looked on, clad in masks and black capes that had been provided to them by the show's producers, bodysuited figures pranced and chanted around Gethard, who increasingly resembled a Jackson Pollock painting. Saturday Night Live alum Will Ferrell - an executive producer on The Chris Gethard Show who was also that night's celebrity guest - acted as shaman, berating Gethard (who looked alternately amused and terrified) and leading a call-and-response chant of "You are nothing! Increase the numbers! This is not art!"
It was all part of a pre-planned "Ritual of the Minds," an elaborate ceremony whose stated purpose was to, of all things, improve The Chris Gethard Show's ratings. That was, in fact, the running gag throughout the entire episode, which featured Ferrell making a winking appearance as the outraged executive producer, coming to set to personally fix the ratings problem. The sketch ended with Gethard pretending to suckle from Ferrell's teat as Farrell cradled him, saying "You're literally the only one I've ever convinced to do this."
Somewhere in between the dirt and the blood and the shivering and the chanting, Gethard experienced a familiar emotional dichotomy. "I think our best shows are the ones where I simultaneously feel like we just pulled off something great and also wonder if I just had a self-inflicted setback on my career," Gethard told TV Guide later that week. "We were definitely there."
It's a philosophical struggle Gethard knows all too well. His late-night show originated as a live stage show at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade before moving to public access television, then Fusion, where it aired from 2015 to 2016. Last year, it was picked up by truTV, where it's now in the midst of a 10-episode spring season whose featured guests have included Legion's Aubrey Plaza and Broad City's Abbi Jacobson. But as the show strives to gain more viewers (and thus more episode orders), Gethard and Co. find themselves in a bit of a grey area.
The show's punk rock aesthetic and anarchic spirit - the cast and crew, not to mention Gethard's community of hardcore devoted fans, never know what's going to happen on each episode until it does - brings with it a common dilemma faced by underground artists: How much mainstream success can you attain without abandoning the ethos that attracted your most die-hard fans to begin with?
"It's a push and pull," Gethard acknowledges. "I really would love more people to see my show. ... At the same time, I feel like what makes us good and what makes the people who really love us is that we're doing something very different."
Cut to the "Ritual of the Minds," a bonkers bit that, like the show itself and many of its fans, seemed to revel in its own oddity and inaccessibility. You won't see that on The Late Show.
"Sometimes I take a step back and I get bummed out because I sit here and stress so hard about, man, we've got to get more eyes on this thing, but it's my idea to do a cult ceremony with the biggest guest we've ever had," Gethard acknowledges. "It certainly makes me giggle that we did a show where the whole theme was that we were really banging our heads against the wall looking for mainstream success, and then ended it with me covered in blood and dirt, being born out of a giant representation of a vagina."
But die-hard fans need not worry. Gethard has no interest in making his show more palatable. In a lot of ways, he isn't setting out to be liked or even accepted by the masses.
"If the way we got big after all this time was by watering it down, I'm not going to be proud of that when I'm on my deathbed," he notes. "The goal is to try to stick to our guns and say, 'We're doing something artistic. We're doing something strange, but it's got a lot of heart and... smart things to say. Come figure it out, America.'"
With that said, Gethard doesn't have a concrete answer when asked what success means to him, or to describe what the show would look like in its ideal form.
"I actually feel like, if... I said, 'This is the ideal version and this is what it has to be, every episode forever,' that would be a sign for me that it was probably time to retire," he says. "Because to me, part of the whole point is, let's make a TV show that's kind of a living organism ... The second we find a formula that works for us, I assume everyone who works on the show will quit, because no one signed up to do something that's the same every time."
It's not what his audience has signed up for either. Filmed in a small studio on the eighth floor of an office building in midtown Manhattan, The Chris Gethard Show has a number of regular guests in the crowd, not to mention viewers from further afield who participate in the show by calling in on the telephone or via Skype.
"If the way we got big after all this time was by watering it down, I'm not going to be proud of that."
The show, an outlier in itself, is proudly made by and for outsiders. Any uptick in viewers will probably come from that target market, which Gethard knows hasn't been fully tapped. In terms of his guests and audience, there's always an element of kindness among the chaos. One of the only things he adamantly refuses to do as part of the show is anything that would make his audience or viewers feel foolish or embarrassed. "I think there's enough TV that makes people feel dumb out there," he notes. (The other taboo he cites is taking a lie detector test live, an idea that has been pitched numerous times by his writers.) Though he doesn't state it explicitly, it appears that one of Gethard's goals for the show is to create a safe space for people who have a hard time fitting in elsewhere.
"There's like a whole island of misfit toys, tons of people out there who maybe feel a little different, feel a little frustrated, feel like nobody listens to them, and this is the show for them," he says. "We've just got to hang on long enough that they find us. Because I know they're out there."
And Gethard knows they are out there because he was that kid 30 years ago. He recollects the years he and his brother would find solace in weird, middle-of-the-night TV on random channels. "This was back in the '80s and '90s... It would just be such weird stuff on, and strange stuff. And it made us laugh. It made us happy," he recalls. "In those times where my show gets really extreme, I always find myself thinking, man, when my brother and me were just 13-year-old, 15-year-old kids sitting in our basement, if we found this, we would be flipping out. I just try to always let that be my guiding principle, because I know that this is the thing that would have made us just giggle so hard when we were lonely, misfit kids. And this is giving me hope that maybe there's some lonely misfit kids out there now who realize there's somebody trying to make something for them."
Which is exactly why The Chris Gethard Show looks unlike anything else on TV. "We've always tried to attack the idea of what a talk show can be," Gethard says. "A lot of the things I loved the most growing up were, on the surface, kind of challenging or impenetrable. I loved Andy Kaufman, and half his shows, people would walk out in a rage. I love punk rock, which is notoriously music that doesn't always sound very inviting or appealing, but I think unquestionably has the most heart, the most integrity."
While cataloguing his inspirations, Gethard cites Andy Kaufman, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, but also mentions Vanguard Championship Wrestling and Noches con Platanito, a Spanish talk show/game show hybrid hosted by a clown, that Gethard (who does not speak Spanish) once appeared on as a guest. "They had me do a bit where I had to dress up as a bandit and run through an obstacle course and jump over bales of hay and essentially rescue a lady from an evil person," he explains. "And I tell you... this is the only show kind of doing us as well as I'm doing us. In my heart, our true competitor is Platanito the clown."
Gethard pauses. Despite his unwavering belief in the creative voice of the show, there's that sense of conflict again.
"In this discussion of how to harness the mainstream, when the things I'm bringing up are a dead wrestling league from the '90s and a Spanish language show hosted by a clown... " he says, resignedly. "It's funny, because I fight so hard and I'm like, we're doing something special. Why aren't people catching on? And then I say these things out loud and I hear myself and I'm like, 'Oh, right.' Like, I get it."
As Gethard moves closer to the realm of what he calls "real TV shows," the question worries him more and more — which isn't surprising, given the additional money and resources he's been gifted by truTV. "They're allowing us to make a public access show with a cable budget now, which is nuts," Gethard marvels. "We're doing things now that I feel like we always would have done if we had the money to do them. I'm sure there are days where the executives must regret that. But to their credit, they have allowed us to stay the course and really try to build it our own way. I just hope that we make them proud of their decision to take us on more often than we confuse and frustrate them."
When you're young, you think success is going to make some of those problems go away. It doesn't.
The Will Ferrell episode "certainly felt like one of the biggest swings we've ever taken," Gethard says. But it's not the first time Gethard has tested the boundaries of typical standards and practices - and it surely won't be the last. He recalls one episode in which a caller described hooking up with a man he had met on the internet, and then discovering that a few days after their encounter the man was arrested for cannibalism. "He called up and told us what it was like to make love to someone and then shortly later find out that they eat human beings," Gethard says. "That was one of those moments where - in my head, as it was happening, I was like, I've never been more thrilled, more proud of what I've built. I also wonder if the powers that be are going to be waiting directly offstage and say to me, 'Hey, we gave it our best shot but this is not doable, man.'" (They did not.)
But the possibility of being dragged off stage left and being told he's not worth the investment will always haunt Gethard, no matter how big the show gets.
Gethard has been incredibly candid about his own struggles with depression and anxiety, issues that are not alleviated by any success the show has found so far, but rather exacerbated by the pressure he now feels to grow the audience. As he prepared to head to the studio on the afternoon of Ferrell's episode, Gethard says he burst into tears when his wife asked whether he was excited.
"I'm riddled with panic," he admits. "I was like, I am excited but I'm also just so scared. ... I want to get [it] right, and... I want to make sure that, in the course of bringing it to more commercial platforms, I don't sell it out too hard. It's tough. I have a lot of problems in my head. I think when you're young, you think success is going to make some of those problems go away. It doesn't."
Gethard checks himself before continuing. "I always just try to remind myself, like, at the end of the day, no matter how much pressure it is to be a TV show host, you still get to be a TV show host. There are, like, refugees dying in the desert, and I have a very lucky, blessed life."
A strong support network at the office helps. Gethard describes his staff, many of whom have worked on the show since its public access days, as his "best friends." Perhaps most importantly, his wife, Hallie Bulleit, is the singer of house band The LLC, which recently released an album of pop-punk tracks titled Television Music: Songs from the Chris Gethard Show.
"I'm surrounded by a safety net of people who are very good about reminding me, at the end of the day, our job is to just try to make a thing we're proud of," he notes.
The question of how to get that message out to a larger audience is, perhaps, an unsolvable one. But that won't stop Gethard from trying — even if the growing pains are, at times, literally physical. Even as he professes a desire to draw more eyes to the show and vows to continually evolve the show, one gets the sense that Gethard is also at peace with what he's created thus far.
"Even if all it ever is is this thing that was small and underground, it helped a lot of people and provided a little bit of a safe haven for some people who didn't feel like they had that," Gethard says. "And at the end of the day, that's pretty rad."
The Chris Gethard Show airs Tuesday nights at 11/10c on truTV.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)