The Chris Gethard Show prides itself on having as much loyalty to its fans as the fans do to the show.
On last week’s live broadcast on truTV, Gethard locked himself in a clear box for a stunt in which guest Matt Walsh (Veep) had to convince fans to answer revealing questions via phone and Skype so he could free Gethard from the box before 100 pounds of human hair fell on top of him.
That high level of audience participation has been baked into the show since the start, even before it aired on TV. In 2010, when Gethard was still hosting his radical vision of a talk show as a monthly stage production in the basement of New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, he flew one fan from Ohio to Manhattan so Gethard’s famous funny friends could pay tribute to him. The fan. It included video greetings from the cast of Saturday Night Live, as well as UCB stars out in Hollywood.
“That was in real life interactivity. Not Internet based,” Gethard recalled. “That was a real fun time. That show brought a lot of deep meaning to me.”
When The Chris Gethard Show moved to Manhattan Public Access in June 2011, with episodes broadcast live on TV and livestreamed on YouTube, Gethard said the notion of interactivity “really came to life.”
“One of the big reasons I was excited to try public access (TV) was they put it all online,” Gethard told me. “I really felt that was the way we were going to survive. This was a show, that again, was on public access. There’s not so much potential for something to explode there. Every time we get one person to watch, we have to make it worthwhile – give them a reason to keep watching.”
Gethard looked right into the camera, trying to reach each new fan individually and make a loyal connection to them.
“That was really all me. If only because in the early days, a lot of the show was me and three other people,” he said. “And I just really found it so exciting. Our first 10 full months, we were only getting crank calls from people in Manhattan. All of a sudden, we’re getting calls in the Midwest. Then Fred in Honolulu. Then it got crazy. One of our most popular callers was this guy from Sweden every week.”
And in those early days of the show, Gethard’s connection to them was perhaps too personal.
He recalled packing up and sending out T-shirts to fans himself. “They sat in boxes in my apartment in Greenpoint. Back then, I would never do this today, they had my real return address,” he said. “I moved once I got engaged, moved in with the fiancée who’s know my wife. Certainly a game changer.”
And the show has moved up the TV ranks, from public access to Fusion and now to truTV, where it again airs live.
TruTV has employees interacting with fans via social media. So does Gethard. “I think we did a smart thing. Back in the day, there were a handful of people on Tumblr who really got the show, embraced it and spread the word. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I thought, why not hire one of those people? So we hired a fan. Her name’s Sarah Davis. She’s so bad-ass and good at what she does.”
The show and staff are populated by fans.
“If there’s one thing I’ve been smart about in my career, it’s been recognizing people’s talents and cultivating them.”
Gethard’s show also was the first to devote an entire episode just to the Reddit community. “That episode, our writer has since moved on to HBO, Ana Fabrega, where you can have universal printers…(and) three different robots that our fans could control.” One of them wound up firing balls at guest John Oliver’s head.
Unlike almost all other TV hosts, Gethard truly loves when his fans prank him or attempt to make him feel uncomfortable.
So reacting to Facebook and Skype and everything else plays right into that.
“Every episode involves a lot of Skype and a lot of phone calls. Phone calls are the heart of the show, at the end of the day. It’s funny because phone calls seem like an outdated medium. But you can maintain your anonymity, and it’s lower stakes,” he said.
Monitoring his show’s Facebook group live on air also keeps him honest. “That’s feedback that I can track,” he said. “That is the most important to me. Not what the network thought or what the writers thought. There’s also a pretty accurate subreddit that offers me feedback.”
So what’s next?
“I’m always looking for what’s the next trend,” Gethard said.
He has come a long way since asking “Diddy” (Sean Combs) to attend his UCB show over Twitter, a move that garnered him coverage in The New York Times.
“Moving forward, things are going to have to become more internal and personal,” Gethard predicted. “How do you have a platform that’s big enough to get attention, but make the viewer feel like it’s one on one? Every show is running Twitter reactions and hashtags and Facebook polls. But maybe you’re getting pulled into a faceless nameless horde. And then maybe you’re worried you’re getting sucked into a void.”
Not on his watch.