WHITE MALE ART has its fair share of surprisingly well-built figures. Sufjan Stevens is the most obvious, looking like he chops wood for eight hours a day and tunes his antique harp collection by night, and when Chris Gethard, UCB alum and host of his eponymous show on Fusion as well as the podcast Beautiful Stories for Anonymous People, lifts his sleeve to show the name “MORISSEY” written on his bicep, it’s not a bad arm, despite the condition he demonstrates where he can’t fully stretch either of them. This, we find over the next hour of his show Career Suicide, his first trip to Edinburgh Fringe, is the least of his problems.
Gethard wants to avoid the kind of trite buzzphrases associated with the kind of mental illnesses that have affected him since a young age. “It Gets Better” was a great and campaign, he says, but after struggling with anxiety and suicidal depression he’s less interested in getting better than he is in understanding his illness and finding meaningful ways in which to cope, whether it’s through therapy – in the form of his slightly inept but also somehow brilliant shrink – or through comedy, the lens through which he was able to understand the world as a younger improv comic.
There’s a certain bravery in admitting fear, and Gethard lays it out for the audience over the hour in a way he understands more clearly than anything else, and so is able to tell stories of genuine pain and suffering but allows you to laugh about them, too. Gethard fundamentally understands comedy’s effect; he’s not a therapist himself, and goes to great pains to establish this, but recognises how necessary his stories can be to those in the same boat. There are moments of bonding with the audience when Gethard recounts the horrific side effects of his antidepressant-antipsychotic-muscle relaxant cocktail, and takes the opportunity to bond with the locals, as all visiting comics must do.
During a story detailing his heavy drinking years, he noted the difference in reaction from the Scottish crowd over when it’s told in America. “You stopped there?” he asks himself on behalf of the audience, and the audience laughs and thinks “It’s true! We do drink a lot.“ And then they did.
Gethard notes his anxiety when audience members get up to leave, including one where no one is quite sure if the exiting person has offered a thumbs down; the ongoing bit is delayed until the guy finally returns, both thumbs pointing at the sky. I’ll give him five, in the hopes they put me on one of those big posters in the city. And also because it was great.
“Is that a Glasgow accent?” Gethard jokes as a punter heads back to the bar. The New York native doubts he’ll be back. His everyday anxiety hits close to home for many of Gethard’s fans; those who watch the TV show too escape into its anarchic humour, or who vicariously consume Beautiful Anonymous every week to gain some direction and perspective in their own lives (guilty) and his honesty and enthusiasm onstage made the hour-long show brilliantly engaging throughout.
Gethard closed the show by drawing attention to his own insignificance in the Grand Scheme of Things, and the beauty he finds in that. From where I was sitting, it seemed to me there was also a beauty in mattering, and Chris Gethard may never know the full extent of how much his honesty and humour in the face of despair can matter to his audience.