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Comedian Chris Gethard on offensive humor: tell the jokes, but don’t police the response

“‘We get to be able to say whatever we want.’ While I think it’s true, it’s a double standard to say, ‘But you don’t get to react the way you want.’”

Lose Well
Chris Gethard’s new book, Lose Well, is a most unusual self-help tome.
Harper Collins
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Chris Gethard Show might have been my favorite talk show of the decade, a weird, tossed-off calamity that emerged every week like an odd magic trick. It combined the humor and goofy games of early David Letterman with a surprisingly sincere, unironic core that quickly won it a large cult audience (including me).

The would-be late-night show started out on stage in 2009, then moved to New York public access TV in 2011, then made the leap to more traditional cable networks, first to Fusion (2015) and finally landing on TruTV (2017).

Then earlier this year, it left the air, as TruTV and comedian Gethard opted not to continue making it. The ratings were never great, but his statement announcing the end made it sound like Gethard was a little exhausted at the prospect of continuing to push this particular boulder up a hill.

Yet the end of The Chris Gethard Show turned out to be the most weirdly appropriate promotion imaginable for Gethard’s new book, Lose Well. Published in October, it’s a self-help book with a twist, a tome that is meant to help people figure out not how to avoid losing but how to lean into it, how to learn from it, and how to change in its aftermath.

It compiles the stories Gethard has collected over a long career peppered with high-profile failures (as well as some high-profile successes, particularly his terrific interview podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People and his wonderful HBO special about his struggles with mental illness, Career Suicide), mixing them with his signature blend of earnest, sincere humor.

It’s that earnest, sincere humor, plus his thoughtfulness, that make Gethard somebody I love talking to. So when he came on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, and we chatted about the book and about losing and about everything else, I wanted to get his opinion on as many topics as I could think of. Which inevitably brought us around to the very hot-button 2010s issue of offensive jokes in comedy.

His answer is one of the best I’ve ever heard a comedian give on this topic, so I’ve excerpted it below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff

You and I are the same age, roughly. And I’m just old enough to remember the ’90s comedy scene, which was very, “Oh, we have to do political incorrectness. We have to tell faux offensive jokes.” But I understand where the people who are saying, “Oh, those are just offensive jokes” are coming from. I’m wondering if you feel similarly, like you can see both sides of that conversation.

Chris Gethard

It’s very funny, because there’s so many think pieces about comedy right now. I read them, just like everybody else does, and it’s weird that comedy somehow culturally represents this bigger picture to people about society!

One real problem I have is that I think there’s a little bit of a double standard among comedians. I do think that comedians sometimes have to say potentially offensive things. I do think that, especially when you’re testing out new material. If you want it to have teeth, and you’re trying to make a point, you might piss some people off.

I know when I was working on Career Suicide, it made some people very uncomfortable. There were shows where it bombed hard, because I didn’t have the balance of funny right yet to make people comfortable. You can imagine bombing with material that personal is a particular brand of loneliness.

Also, if you’ve watched Career Suicide, you know that at one point, I quote someone else who says the n-word in the show. I’m quoting someone else, and I’m citing it as an extremely negative, horrible thing in my life. It doesn’t change the fact that I am a white male saying the n-word. I said it on HBO. It was terrifying.

Team Coco House At NY Comedy Festival - Day 1
Chris Gethard performs at the New York Comedy Festival in November 2018.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Turner

You can imagine it took me many, many, many tries how to say that in a way that reflected the reasons I was saying it, the values I have. It offended people. There were two different times where, when I was doing that show off-Broadway, people stopped me and yelled at me. One time, the audience started booing [someone who was yelling at me], and I defended the audience member who was yelling at me, saying, “No, we’re not going to boo someone who’s offended by a white guy saying the n-word.”

You have to be able to offend as a comedian. What would George Carlin’s career have been like if he never took a chance on offending? Have you watched Richard Pryor? Some of that feels risky today, and it was 30, 40 years ago he put it out.

But what comedians often forget is that while we are allowed to offend, audiences are also allowed to get offended. This idea that comedians often [have], which is, like, “You’re being too PC. Why does everybody get offended?” It’s, like, because you said something offensive! And that’s fine. And your impulse that comedians have to be able to be truth tellers — I agree with it. But this idea of, “We get to be able to say whatever we want,” while I do think it’s true, it’s very much a double standard to say, “But you don’t get to react the way you want.”

You have two options. You either stand by that joke and say, “I am willing to offend you, and I am willing to create this dialogue, and I am willing to have this fight.” Carlin and Pryor are two examples of people who, they did offend, and they were willing to go, “Yeah, I stand by it. Come at me.” Or if you’re trying to say, “It wasn’t that offensive. You’re too PC,” you need to, I think, respect your audience more and figure out a way to make that point in a way that lands how you intend. It’s not on the audience.

There’s a lot of really big comedians now who say, “I’ll never play a college again. They’re too PC.” I don’t know. I’ve played colleges. I think young people are pretty smart, and there might be some areas where this is a challenge to upgrade your writing. It might just be a challenge to you to round out that joke so that it’s better.

So, yeah, we have to be able to say whatever we want. I will defend the free speech of comedians to my death. But don’t get mad when people get offended at offensive stuff. It’s your choice. Own it, or don’t. Don’t tell them they’re being babies for reacting to something you said. You don’t get to have it both ways.

I think some comedians get mad that I would say that, but it’s true. You don’t just get to scream and yell and say whatever you want and walk away, and then when people go, “Uh, I had a problem with that...” go, “Eff off, baby!” [Laughs.]

There’s been a couple examples, scant few examples [of unfair criticism of comedians]. There’s one in particular where a comedian named Sam Morril — great comedian, just had a special on Comedy Central — he got slammed with a think piece by someone who saw him, who really crushed him for telling a rape joke. I do think rape jokes are overdone.

Earlier in my career, I had a couple of them, then realized, “Why does everybody have these?” Because it’s easy to be shocking. That easy shock, if this many people have them, it’s a problem. It reflects hackiness.

That being said, he got slammed for this joke, and it wasn’t mentioned that this was a late-night show billed as an offensive show. And I think that’s a little unfair. There’s been some times where comedians get slammed for stuff publicly, where I’m, like, “No, that’s a good dude,” and that was a show billed as, “This show will shock and offend you.” If you’re not going to mention that, that’s an awfully tough thing.

So [there’s] some of that [unfairness that happens], but by and large, I think it is comedians’ fault when we offend, and you have to just decide, “No, I’m okay offending all of those people,” or fix it.

For so much more with Gethard, including his thoughts on the long, strange journey of his TV show and his reflections on an era where think pieces and comedy sets are blending together, listen to the full episode.

To hear interviews with more fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.