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UCBT's Chris Kelly Interviewed on

Feb 23, 2015


Chris Kelly is the consummate comedic-renaissance man. He is a staff writer and director for The Onion News Network and is a contributing writer for The Onion's new show on IFC. He has penned and appeared in sketches for numerous sketch teams at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York, and has delivered monologues for the theater's flagship improv showcase, ASSSSCAT, in New York and Los Angeles. His newest show, 'Oh My God, I Heard You're Dying,' opens tomorrow at the UCBT-NY. It's a dark comedy that explores the social awkwardness that often follows a tragedy. I spoke with Chris about his new show and his comedic philosophy.

Tell us a little bit about 'Oh My God, I Heard You're Dying.' What is it about and how did you come up with it?
I don't know how I came up with it. The show is just a series of character monologues about people saying their final goodbyes to this old man who is dying and they all just ruin it. It's mostly just people being self-involved, inappropriate or trying to be overly jokey around death. I had been thinking about death a lot, so I thought I'd just use death because it's a serious subject and I just wanted to make it funny. 

What is your comedic philosophy and how does it influence your approach when creating darker content?
I think anything is funny. I think the funny stuff is just the way people talk. I just like hearing people's conversations when they're not trying to be funny. I like people who have one crazy, gigantic flaw that they don't realize. I like dark comedy a lot. At The Onion that's obviously what we do. I really like mean comedy. Not mean for the sake of being mean, not like being mean to the victim, but mean to someone who deserves it. 

What's an example of a sketch you've written that was mean in this way? 
Well, one thing I wrote a while ago for the election, which was super dark and mean, was a story about a gunman in a mall who killed a bunch of people in a swing state and ONN was trying to figure out how many Democrats and Republicans were killed -- Did Obama or McCain win the massacre? I liked that a lot because it was mean but I felt it made a point. It was mean to how ridiculous the media is and how elections get and not mean to people who died in a mall getting shot.

So calling truth to power? 
Sure. Put that in the headline. Chris Kelly calls truth to power . If people say one thing about me it's that I call truth to power.

So, do you prefer this darker, meaner comedy to other types of comedy? 
I do like weird, bizarre, crazy what-the-fuck-is-happening-on-stage-this-is-crazy-nonsense-but-it- works. I like that comedy, but I feel like it's never what I end up producing. I wrote a sketch a couple years ago that was sort of awkward, but I really liked this idea that people at work were doing this human knot, this trust exercise, and they were all getting together, all these coworkers, and as soon as it started one woman just had to get off her chest that she and the guy next to her were getting a divorce and so everybody had to work through this human knot slowly and awkwardly while slowly talking through 'what are you going to do with the kids?' I like the idea of people bringing up things in awkward situations. I guess I like realistic comedy.

You've written a substantial amount of material for The Onion and UCB stage. What is your writing process? 
90% not writing. 10% writing . The process lately has been watching every single episode of television I can find, pacing around, eating everything in my apartment and being like 'god damn I fucking hate writing!" and then finally writing. Sometimes I'll be motivated to do it. 'Oh My God I Heard You're Dying" wasn't for anything. I had no deadline. I wrote the first draft of the script in a day, just finished it off. Obviously I punched it up and made everything better, but the format and all the characters stayed the same because I knew what I wanted. That was a rare example of 'I have no deadline' and 'I have the motivation to write 30 pages.' Usually it's just that I wait until the last possible moment and then write in complete duress and intense anger.

Is there a book, movie, television show, etc. that you can look at throughout history and are just pissed that you weren't the one who came up with it? Or is there something that you find yourself constantly returning to? 
Drama is usually the first thing I want to watch. Drama is oftentimes the first thing I want to write, too. I don't know. I love Six Feet Under I'm getting so obvious! I really like that show about death that occasionally has comedy in it. I'm getting so cliche!

Writing and directing aside, you've also been an accomplished performer and even had the enviable opportunity of delivering monologues at ASSSSCAT in both LA and NY. Is this something you see yourself doing more of in the future? 
Stand-up, monologues and storytelling. That's what I want my next show at UCB to be, which I'm starting to write now, but again, I have no deadline so I'm mostly watching TV. Yesterday, I was going to start writing my one-man show and then I downloaded season four of Friday Night Lights.

2011. UCBEast. The UCB4 said that the new theater would focus more on stand-up and storytelling. Maybe that's the opportunity you need to do more? 
I need to make a point of doing that more. Because I like doing that. I feel comfortable doing that. I loved doing ASSSSCAT... and I'd love to do it again.


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Oh My God, I Heard You're Dying
premieres Wednesday 8/11 and runs again on 8/18 at the UCBT-NY.
NY Shows

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Chris Gethard, Star of Comedy Central's BIG LAKE, Profiled in New York Times

Feb 23, 2015

The Angst of an Accidental Sitcom Star

A FEW weeks into shooting on the Comedy Central series Big Lake Chris Gethard said things were going more smoothly than he had imagined.

"I've only broken down and cried once," Mr. Gethard (pronounced GETH-erd) said in May of his first starring role - really, the first television show on which he will have any recurring presence. "Which I think is a surprisingly low number. I would've predicted a much more consistent amount of panic-driven crying." If Mr. Gethard, a soft-spoken 30-year-old comedian with short hair and glasses, was feeling under the gun, it was understandable. Only a month earlier he had been plucked from semiobscurity to play the lead character in the scripted comedy Big Lake, replacing the actor Jon Heder, for whom the show had been tailored. The show makes it debut on Tuesday.

Now Mr. Gethard, a performer well known at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Manhattan but not widely recognized outside the improv comedy scene, was living both a show-business dream and a nightmare: the excitement of being the ingenue who's been given his breakthrough opportunity, and the crushing anxiety of feeling as if its success rests entirely on his shoulders.

"Otherwise," he said, "I've been really having fun and enjoying it." In July 2009 Comedy Central announced with some fanfare that it had struck a deal with Gary Sanchez Productions, the company of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, to produce a 10-episode series that the network could renew for as many as 90 more episodes.

Though the show did not have a fully formed concept at its announcement, Big Lake has the pedigree of Mr. Ferrell and Mr. McKay, whose collaborations include the films Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and The Other Guys. It also features the Saturday Night Live veterans Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz in supporting roles.

And then there was the presence of Mr. Heder, the nebbishy star of the 2004 independent comedy Napoleon Dynamite, playing a onetime financial whiz kid who returns to his hometown after causing the collapse of an investment bank.

But in March, as production on Big Lake began, Mr. Heder announced that he was leaving the show because of "creative differences with the character." Mr. Heder declined to comment for this article. But Chris Henchy, a Gary Sanchez partner and an executive producer for Big Lake, acknowledged that the show's ad-hoc assembly may have played a role in the actor's departure.

"We started that way, with Jon in mind," Mr. Henchy said. "We tried to force that fit, which didn't work." Mr. Sanz was circumspect in his discussion of Mr. Heder's departure. "How do I put this in a very careful way?" he said. "I just don't think he was comfortable and the show wasn't playing to his strengths, and I don't think he was playing to the show's strengths." But of greater concern to the Big Lake cast and crew members was whether the show would continue at all.

Recalling the day that Mr. Heder announced his departure, Mr. Parnell said: "I was really shocked to get the call from the production manager. But she quickly reassured me that they were still moving forward. It felt a little shaky at that point, but they seemed pretty committed to it." Among the handful of performers considered for the newly vacant role was Mr. Gethard, who was frequently used by Gary Sanchez Productions as a reader in other actors' auditions and who shares a small scene with Mr. Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as a bank clerk in The Other Guys. "My agent called me," said Mr. Gethard, who at the time was shooting a pilot presentation at a wrestling ring in Pennsylvania, "and she was like, 'I know you get nervous about everything, so usually I don't ever say this, but this is a big one.'" "She's right," he continued. "I am a nervous person, so if she has to tell me that, then it's for real." Though Mr. Gethard describes himself as "a weirdo from New Jersey," Mr. Henchy said he has shown he can hold his own against the likes of Mr. Ferrell and Mr. McKay.

"We're loud," Mr. Henchy said. "But once he settles in and he just starts going, there's some energy there and some intensity, which we loved." Beyond the superficial resemblance to Mr. Heder, Mr. Henchy said, Mr. Gethard had an intrinsic connection to his Big Lake character. "You can see Gethard living with his parents," Mr. Henchy said. "He totally fits that mold, for better or worse." After earning the part in April, Mr. Gethard had to contend with a grueling production schedule at the Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens, and occasionally coming across call sheets that still listed the show as "The Untitled Jon Heder Project."  

Meanwhile the Big Lake creators were trying to figure out exactly what the show was. Mr. Henchy said its original conceit was "a Comedy Central version of a sitcom," built on the premise that "we all grew up on these laugh-tracked, multicamera, brightly lit shows." But it quickly took a darker, more subversive turn: Mr. Sanz's character, a longtime friend of Mr. Gethard's, is an aimless ex-con, while Mr. Parnell's is a burned-out high school teacher. "He's kind of perverse, he's kind of a creep, he's somewhat amoral," Mr. Parnell said. "It's scary to look too hard, at how much of me is really in the character." Mr. Sanz compared their weekly adventures - like trying to turn a character's home into a Lee Harvey Oswald museum and theme park called Lee Harvey Osworld - to a bygone era of screwball comedy.

"We're like the Three Stooges," he said. "But we alternate who Moe, Curly and Larry are. No one is much smarter than anybody." What usually carries the day, Mr. Gethard said, is the unflinching optimism of his character, a trait that he is trying mightily to cultivate in real life.

"He's very much a believer in things working out the right way," Mr. Gethard said. "He's usually the collected one, even though he facilitates these characters who are super angry or drug addled or arguably evil." As the premiere of Big Lake approached, its more experienced cast members seemed unsure of whether they were rooting for it to receive a 90-episode pickup, which would keep them working - and dominate their schedules - for the next two to three years.

"Anything that's two or three years, it's like prison," Mr. Sanz said. Though the job would bring security, he said, "there's also security at prison. You don't have to get a job. Food's taken care of." Characteristically Mr. Gethard was fearful that the progress he had rapidly made in the entertainment industry could just as rapidly vanish. "I'm so scared that it's going to be like 'Flowers for Algernon,' " he said. "My life is going to go back to what it was before." But, starting to sound like his Big Lake protagonist, Mr. Gethard said another 90 episodes of the show would be a gift on top of the 10 he has already been permitted to make.

"I'm kind of like, 'Awesome, I'll have a job for three years?' " he said. "I'm amazed that I had a job for two months. I'm so happy."
NY General

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Chris Gethard, Star of Comedy Central's BIG LAKE, Interviewed on

Feb 23, 2015

New Jersey native Chris Gethard to star in 'Big Lake' on Comedy Central

Comedian Chris Gethard is starring in the Will Ferrell Adam McKay produced Big Lake on Comedy Central

Comedian Chris Gethard had big shoes to fill with his latest project. He stepped in to replace Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) on the Comedy Central sitcom, Big Lake, co-starring Horatio Sanz and Chris Parnell.

The show, premiering tomorrow at 10 p.m., features Gethard, 30, as a Wall Street dreamer who loses his money and returns to his parents' house in the fictional town of Big Lake, Pa. The cast of characters includes a diet-pill popping mom and a gun-toting, drug dealing 13-year-old kid brother.

Gethard, who was born in West Orange, studied history at Rutgers University and edited Weird NJ, has been sustaining himself delivering jokes with the improv troupe, Upright Citizens Brigade in New York.

On Aug. 28, he's hosting a benefit for March of Dimes at UCB called the Telethon of Shame. A group of comics will perform stunts for pledges. For example, if members of the crowd donate $5, they can throw eggs at one of the funnymen. (More details below).

In addition to his comedic pursuits, Gethard is also a jiu-jitsu fighter, as well as a passionate fan of droll troubadour Morrissey (though he's not diehard enough to follow the singer's vegetarian diet).

Gethard lives in Queens, but dreams of returning to the Garden State and settling down in Weehawken. We spoke via phone with him about Big Lake, bad gigs and Jerseyana.

Q. The show is about a fictional town in Pennsylvania called Big Lake. I'm wondering why Pennsylvania and not New Jersey?

A. I wonder, too. I'm a huge Jersey guy. It might actually be a compliment that Jersey people are a little too smart to buy into some of the schemes that the characters go after.

Q. I like how you turned that into a positive. I also attended Rutgers and I definitely have a certain nostalgia for New Brunswick.

A. That town crushed me. My years there were not my greatest moments.

Q. Do you blame New Brunswick?

A. I look back on it and I shouldn't have gone to a school with 40,000 people. It was an environment I wasn't ready for. I don't think it was the school's fault or the town's fault.

Q. This story is to preview Big Lake and I'm wondering if it's timely because, even within my very small social circle, there are people who have moved back in with their parents.

A. We're finding humor in the horrible stuff that's going on. There's a lot of people moving back home and losing money. We show the cracks in the armor that are showing up in a lot of families. It's a very weird little show and it's produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell.

Q. I love that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay brought George Bush to Broadway. In a way, it seems like they're deconstructing the sitcom in the same way that they deconstructed theater.

A. The comedy they've done has so many smart, subversive sides to it. This is their attempt to take a sitcom and mold it into their vision.

Q. You have a live show coming up called the Telethon of Shame?

A. People are going to be seeing all sorts of strange things and the money is going to the March of Dimes. If we raise $750, I will get naked and host the show nude.

Q. Because you'll be recognizable on Comedy Central, everything could step up a bit -- the number of people who go to your shows, check your Twitter account. Are you ready to be that public?

A. It has become a major issue in my life. A few years ago, I was doing shows about stories from my life. We rented a bus, and went to New Brunswick and West Orange. We went to the basement of the house where I grew up.

Q. What was your worst sketch ever?

A. We were booked to do a show at Villanova University, but no one had told us that it was a benefit show for children's leukemia research. I'm always happy to do benefits, but you want to know so you can put together different material. We opened with this sketch about a guy who gets hit in the (crotch) 200 times.

Q. For Weird NJ, did it start with a location that you told them about?

A. During the '80s, New Jersey shut down a lot of the mental hospitals and there was government housing in West Orange, so we had these character wandering around. There was a guy who dressed like Elvis and pushed a lawnmower around.

Q. Weren't your parents like, 'Stay away from lawnmower Elvis?'

A. Yeah, they were like 'Watch it. Keep your eye on the guy,' but the King just wanted to be left alone.

For info about the 'Telethon of Shame,' call (212) 366-9176 or visit
NY General

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