DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Comic and actor Chris Gethard had a successful off-Broadway solo show called "Career Suicide," which was a comic monologue about his depression and suicidal thoughts, a verbal voyage in which he managed to be genuine and funny at the same time. That show has been adapted into an HBO TV special, which premieres Saturday night. Gethard also recently co-starred in the movie "Don't Think Twice" about a small improv group, which was written and directed by Mike Birbiglia. Gethard worked with the improv group the Upright Citizens Brigade for about 16 years.
He's becoming known through the movie, his HBO special and stage show, his cable access and Fusion TV program "The Chris Gethard Show" and his podcast, "Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People." When Terry spoke to him last fall, they started with a clip from his off-Broadway show, "Career Suicide." He's looking back on an incident in 2001 when he was 21 years old and having suicidal thoughts. He was driving near his hometown in New Jersey.
(SOUNDBITE OF OFF-BROADWAY SHOW, "CAREER SUICIDE")
CHRIS GETHARD: I'm behind this truck. The truck puts on the blinker. The driver has decided he's going to turn left, and I don't even slow down. I swing out. I'm going to go around him on the right, and as I do so, he starts coming back into the right lane. It's very clear the driver has decided he's not going to make the turn, and it's also clear I am in his blind spot. He does not see me. And I have time to think to myself, you should hit the brakes. And then I think, no, don't because this way it's just a car crash. And this way your parents don't have to go around town being the parents of the kid who killed himself because we don't judge people for dying in car crashes, but we do judge people when they die of suicide. It's one of the strangest things, I think, we've given ourselves permission to do as a culture. And honestly, I think it's really mostly a branding problem.
GETHARD: No, I do. I really think suicide has a branding problem because it has - it has a tagline. It has a catch phrase, and I bet a lot of us know it. It sucks. It's really condescending. I bet we've heard it - suicide, the coward's way out. I bet a lot of us have heard that. What a [expletive] tagline. A tagline's supposed to get you, like, pumped up, right? Like Nike - that's a good tagline. Just do it, you know? And I'm not saying that suicide should take that one at all. That's not what I'm saying.
Really, none of the big ones apply here. Although, I mean, Burger King, have it your way. I guess that does apply a little bit. And I'll say this. I'll say this too. I don't really understand how it's cowardly to kill yourself. I don't get it. Suicide - when I think of it, to me it means someone had a lot of problems, and they couldn't fight through them anymore. That's not cowardly. It's sad and nothing but.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
That's Chris Gethard with an excerpt of his show, "Career Suicide." Chris, welcome to FRESH AIR.
GETHARD: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Congratulations on the show.
GETHARD: Oh, thanks.
GROSS: I don't usually start with suicide in an interview. I usually work my way up to that. But I think in this case we'll just start there with your permission. So why did you decide to do a show in which you talked about some of your darkest thoughts, the kinds of thoughts that scare your family and friends and that you tried to protect them from?
GETHARD: Well, you know, it's funny because a lot of the impetus behind doing this show comes from a conversation I had with my friend Mike Birbiglia, who I'm sure many people out there are very familiar with. And I was on the road with Mike for a long time. Most of 2014, I was I was opening for him as we toured across the country. And, you know, when you're opening for someone and you're out there in the Midwest, there's a lot of, like, late-night drives. And on one of these long drives, he was like, you know, I've heard you make, like, some jokes about your depression stuff and talk about it a little bit. But what's the real story? Like, what's the darkest it gets? And I actually told him the story that you just excerpted.
And it's, you know, it's about kind of causing this car crash or going along with this car crash. And at the end of the story, I told him and I thought he was going to be really sad and he goes, dude, that's hilarious. You have to tell that on stage. And I was like, I don't think so, man. Like, my family doesn't know that story. A lot of people I'm really close to now, they don't really know all the details on that. And he said to me - he's like, you know, if you can get up there and make that funny, you've got something really special on your hands.
And I took that as a real challenge and, you know, I've always sort of talked to this stuff to a certain degree in my work, on my TV show. Like, I've never shied away from it. And I really, a few years ago, made a conscious decision to not be ashamed of it. But that conversation with Mike really - it kind of felt like he was throwing down the gauntlet a little bit. And you know, I'm kind of driven by having a chip on my shoulder. So I was like, all right, I'll do it and told a couple stories on stage and figured that the audience would be really turned off and that I could go back to him and say, see, I told you, man. Nobody is going to buy this.
And instead, the audiences in New York, they really met the stories warmly and a lot of people - almost immediately people started waiting for me after shows when I would perform stories that became "Career Suicide." And they'd tell me that they identified with them or knew people in their family who dealt with that stuff. And it was like on a one - like a one-on-one basis people were waiting for me to say, like, hey, here's my story. And you got to keep going with this.
GROSS: You know, the impression I get from the story that we excerpted is that one of the reasons you decided not to swerve into the oncoming truck and not to kill yourself was that you wanted to protect your parents from being the parents of the son who killed himself.
GROSS: So I'm just wondering, for real, if that was, like - if that's been a reason why you've managed to stay alive all these years is to protect your parents.
GETHARD: Yeah. I mean, there's definitely been elements of that, and I think there's - you know, having dealt with depression since a young age, you know, protecting my parents was actually a really big one. I remember - my first experience hearing of suicide in real life, I remember a kid who was a few years older than me in high school. He unfortunately killed himself. And I remember his parents tried to establish a scholarship in his name at our high school, and the school board wouldn't allow it because they didn't want to glorify it. And I remember feeling that that was so horrible. That was just so horrible that his parents were trying to remember their son, and they were being told, no, you're not allowed to - you're not allowed to make, you know, something positive in your son's name because your son did something that - you know, effectively they were saying this is shameful and shouldn't be talked about publicly. And I remember feeling so horrible for him and so horrible for his parents, even when I was a kid. So that was already at a point where I think I had been dealing with that. And that was something I always remembered was, you know, thinking about people like my parents and, you know, a handful of, you know, friends, girlfriends along the way, where, you know, you think about how is it going to affect those other people, and that was something that kept me hanging on from time to time. Ultimately, though, being largely on the other side of it now, I needed to I think stop hanging that on other people and eventually learn how to kind of deal with myself and fix things for myself.
GROSS: I think it was a psychiatrist who told you that it might be helpful to find out if there was a history of mental illness in your family. So you asked your mother. What did she tell you?
GETHARD: That was an eye-opening day of life and made me realize how hidden we keep this stuff. I found out - you know, I knew that there was - you know, I come from an Irish Catholic family. There are some drinkers, and I always knew that, but I didn't realize that I had a number of aunts and uncles on both sides of the family who were medicated. That was kept kind of quiet and hidden. And most strikingly, I found out that my grandfather had been put in a mental hospital at one point in his life. This isn't - I didn't know any of that. It was all swept under the rug. And I have to say what a shame. If I had known that, I think maybe I might have acted a little sooner when I started feeling like I was really in trouble. Finding that out was a real shock.
GROSS: Why do you think you might have acted sooner had you known about the history of mental illness in your family?
GETHARD: Well, you know, I should also mention, like, my grandfather lived across the street from me growing up. We were a very close family. So this is not like he was some - it's not like he had passed away or he lived hundreds of miles away. This was someone who was in my life on a very frequent basis and I was close to. And the fact that I didn't know that some of my closest relatives, who were in my, you know, weekly if not daily life, suffered - I didn't know that.
If I had known that, I wouldn't have felt as alone. I just can't - I just don't - I'm just so flummoxed that we're - this stuff's so stigmatized and viewed as so shameful that we hide it. And then what happens is that cycle perpetuates. And in my case, it did. I think if I knew my grandfather had been sick, I think maybe I would have been able to say to somebody sooner, hey, I think - I want to know what happened to my grandpa because I think it's happening to me.
I didn't even know that was a sentence I had the option of saying until after it was - things had hit rock bottom.
GROSS: Is it helpful to know that there might be a genetic component 'cause it relieves you of some of the responsibility? It's like, it's not your fault that you're depressed, it's not, like, you have a bad attitude. That's not the problem (laughter). The problem might be something more genetic and biological and therefore, that you can be a little distanced from it.
GETHARD: Yeah. Oh, yeah. The amount of times I was told to toughen up or stop being a baby, I think (laughter) - when in reality, what I needed was years of therapy and a litany of antidepressants. I think, yes, knowing there's a genetic component would have maybe helped me feel less like a baby and more like a sick person.
GROSS: You were initially afraid that medication for your depression would blunt your creative edge, but now you feel like, no, it made you funnier. It made you healthier and funnier. What are some of the ways that you feel it's been, you know, liberating for you as an artist and performer to have the appropriate medication?
GETHARD: It really helps. Like, the whole romanticized sad clown thing, we have to get rid of that. That has to go. That's just getting sick people to voluntarily stay sicker and sadder than they have to be. For me, I took medication and there's a few things. A, my ideas weren't born out of mania anymore. I would go and - I, you know - I very classically would go into manic phases, which were as dangerous if not more so than the depressed phases.
And I'd think I'd come up with the best ideas I ever had. And then the next day, I'd look at them and I'd be like, this is nonsense because it was born out of a manic episode. What a waste of time. And then on top of that, being medicated means that I can get out of bed consistently. I can do second drafts. I can keep things organized. I'm not giving into all sorts of impulsive behavior. Like, I can sit down and work and get things done.
So both creatively and organizationally, being medicated has helped me immensely. My career did not start until I was medicated. And then I can track - the years I was off medication, things dipped. And the years I went back on medication is when things started to get good for me again career wise. It is 100 percent in my case undeniable that being medicated helped my creativity.
BIANCULLI: Comic and actor Chris Gethard speaking to Terry Gross last fall. "Chris Gethard: Career Suicide," an HBO special based on his autobiographical one-man stage show, premieres Saturday night. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new sequel to "Guardians Of The Galaxy." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GRIFFIN'S "OPERATE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.