Chris Gethard and Maria Bamford Make Comic Glory out of Mental Health
Gethard: His own avatar.
Chris Gethard, the comedian and talk-show host, has the look of his own comic-strip avatar. Those black glasses, that elfin, upright forelock, the eyebrows that dance in alarm and amazement: Onstage, in his one-man show, Career Suicide, Gethard could be Charles Schulz’s sketch of Chris Gethard, a work of cartoon iconography just undetailed enough for you to project your own problems onto.
Career Suicide has jumped from Off Broadway to a film for HBO, where that relatability is put to a new test. Will TV audiences stick with what is essentially a 90-minute stand-up special about coping with depression? Who knows. Those who do will be treated to — and maybe challenged by — a crisply funny and bracingly honest account of Gethard’s lifelong efforts to shape an existence worth living, despite his brain’s insistence that that’s impossible. He politely apologizes on occasion for the darkness of the material, reassuring the audience that this is a comedy show; the most involving passages of his monologue tend to be the bleakest, but those also build to the biggest laughs.
Early on, he describes a car accident that he, as a young man, found himself uncertain he even wanted to avoid — in the moment, he was tempted to commit a sort of suicide through inaction. There comes a crash, one from which both Gethard and the other driver emerge mostly unscathed, and then a near fight, as that other driver rages at the kid who didn’t swerve away. What happens next is like the punch line of the best story your funniest friend might tell you over dinner, a tale that at first stirs optimism for humanity and then dashes all hope. A wince-laugh is still a laugh, though, and the sight of Gethard standing there before us, making us roar, balms whatever burns his truthtelling inflicts.
Unlike many comics, Gethard doesn’t limit his frankness to the ugly stuff. Yes, he alerts us to which medications wrecked his sex life, and he’s excellent on the way the hard-ass Jersey dudes he grew up with sneer at the very thought of tending to one’s mental health. “Like you get to fix your life up?” he asks, in their voice. “You think you’re fuckin’ better than me?” But he’s also upfront about how vital treatment is to keeping himself on track. Without skirting into PSA mode, Career Suicide at times becomes a brief on why staying on your meds is nothing to be ashamed of. He even bats away the fear among creative types that medication might kill whatever slice of the mind generates ideas. His argument’s best evidence: his own bad ideas when he was deeply, clinically depressed.
Gethard’s show succeeds as comedy and as confessional theater, complete with stellar impressions of Morrissey, but let’s not discount its power as a model of behavior. He’s hilarious on the subject of his therapist, who’s daft but reliable, and even on the usually uncomic topic of pulling his life together. “I am significantly fucking funnier on medication,” he tells us, and the proof is in your aching sides.
In the movies, where comedy ain’t what it used to be, the current standard comic arc is: Funny trainwreck smashes all rules of society for 75 minutes and then becomes a good, stable person in the laughless last 15, usually thanks to Pure Love. (Add a half-hour if it’s an Apatow.) The implication: Funny dies when the self gets healed. Shows like Gethard’s propose a less crowd-pleasing but ultimately more hopeful alternative. So does Old Baby, the for-the-ages new Netflix special from Maria Bamford. Taking care of yourself, both comics suggest, frees you to take on the world with greater clarity and power.
Like Gethard, Bamford has made her struggles with her own mind the subject of her comedy. Her brilliant web series, The Maria Bamford Show (2007), sent up — or maybe documented — her own breakdown, imagining the comic’s life after a mental snap forces a move back to her parents’ house in Minnesota. Bamford, a polymath of mimicry, played all the parts in amusingly half-assed costumes. The effect was like a playdate inside her own head, like one of her stand-up appearances dramatized and made intimate. On the series, though, she never had to push to a big finish. (I’ve seen her perform live in clubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.)
At that show’s delirious peak she offered a touching appeal for sanity: From beneath her blankets, leading a sing-along of all her characters, she shared her diagnosis (unwanted thought syndrome) and flashed the phone number for a suicide hotline. Of course, Lady Dynamite, her pedigreed Netflix sitcom, couldn’t quite measure up to her solo act — the writers’ room diluted Bamford’s singular genius, imposing structure and pals and plot-driven consequences on a performer whose work is a free-associative polyphony of one.
Bamford is on her own again in Old Baby, and I’m tempted to say it's her strongest comedy special yet, though I almost certainly pronounced her last one the same. This is certainly her most confident. Now 46 and recently married, Bamford exhibits throughout new coping strategies for bearing up to the responsibilities of a comedian. She warns us, at the start, that this show might not be for us and then reassures us that this is fine — she couldn’t sit through War Horse, so why should someone not feeling her sit through Old Baby? These first lines she delivers alone, into a mirror, in what fans will recognize is her own house. Soon, she’s talking about her marriage for a crowd of one: her husband, Scott Marvel Cassidy. (He beams.) That’s not much of a surprise, considering she performed her previous stand-up masterpiece, 2012’s The Special Special Special (also on Netflix), in front of just her parents, on her couch — a situation whose irresistible awkwardness was compounded by the fact that impersonations of them made the centerpiece of her act at the time.
Old Baby at first suggests that Bamford has continued her retreat from the stage. (“I didn't want to do this show today,” she admits, during a priceless run about how people who have succeeded in show business tell strivers to just keep at it.) But as it wears on, it grows, like a reverse Stop Making Sense — here it’s the audience that keeps expanding. Soon, she’s grunting and playing full-body peek-a-boo for a handful of fans on the bench in front of her house. Then she’s at a bookstore, addressing a small throng in the stacks, then telling a couple dozen listeners in an alley about bizarre encounters at a dog park. And then she’s at a bowling alley, standing in the lane, exposing and patting her belly, her audience roaring in the bowlers’ seats.
Even here she admits some anxiety about performing. (“What is this, a speech?” she asks, in the voice of a confused comedy fan.) When, halfway through, she’s finally at a theater, getting the same deeply personal material over to a crowd of hundreds, the very basics of what we expect in a stand-up special become triumphal.
“Sometimes people just break,” Gethard says in Career Suicide. Like him, Bamford directly addresses those breaks, illuminating them not through assured storytelling but via the stream-of-consciousness narration of her state of mind at the time. The story he tells is one of learning to live with a brain that rebels against you, but both his show and Bamford’s demonstrate something more than the basics of that narrative. They demonstrate the greatness that, with care, such brains still can achieve. Watch, laugh, and take care of yourself.
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