Summary:

Thanks to public access television, comedian Chris Gethard has found a way to bring the New York alt comedy scene to the web with The Chris Gethard Show, one of the strangest and funniest interactive talk shows you’ll ever see.

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Last Tuesday, Americans had no shortage of options for live coverage of the 2012 Presidential election, offline and online. But only one featured a live band, a Presidential candidate campaigning for write-in votes, pizza delivery, people in animal costumes and a host going increasingly insane over the course of 12 hours.

The Chris Gethard Show, a weekly hour-long series running on public access channel Manhattan Neighborhood Network and live-streamed through Justin.tv, ran for 12 straight hours this Election Day, from 12 PM to 12 AM EST. All day, Gethard and the eclectic bunch behind “the most bizarre and often saddest talk show in New York City” kept themselves busy with live music, comedy, stunts and audience interaction, including a 15 minute stretch where the show was co-hosted by a slightly unhinged heckler named Don, as well as a dance party when the election was called in favor of President Obama. A far cry from CNN’s coverage, but right in line with TCGS‘s established blend of awkward stunts and wild improv.

Gethard, a comedian, author, and established fixture of the New York alternative comedy scene, began hosting TCGS in 2009 as a live stage show at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in New York, where it accumulated a cult following and some press attention after Gethard successfully used Twitter to book Sean “Puffy/Puff Daddy/P. Diddy” Combs as a guest.

However, once Combs finally did appear on the show (it took a year to schedule a date), Gethard felt that TCGS had peaked in its current format. “It’s hard to top using the Internet to get P. Diddy on your show,” Gethard said via phone.

Thus, when a friend connected Gethard with MNN, a New York public access channel, in June 2011, it became an opportunity to stretch beyond the stage — and New York City, for that matter, thanks to the MNN studio’s ability to live-stream its content.

New York public access is supported by local cable companies as a public service — MNN 4’s only rules for what you can’t do are:

Advertise or sell products or services; use copyrighted material; show animals or humans being injured or killed; slander anyone; or show hardcore pornography, such as penetration or any genital contact. Any shows with adult content or language must be aired after 11:00 P.M.

The lack of restrictions give Gethard and his team plenty of freedom, and the live-streaming opened the series up to a new worldwide audience — however, leaving UCB meant that the show struggled to regain the loyal audience it had found there. “We lost our UCB following, but we rebuilt that. Now people everywehre can see some of the weirder alt comedy stuff happening here in New York,” he said.

Gethard cites the October 27, 2011 episode, “The Great American Presidential Debate and Halloween Spooktacular,” as the turning point for TCGS 2.0, due to a surprise twist in a pre-planned bit.

The afore-mentioned write-in Presidential candidate, comedian Connor Ratliff, was running for President on the campaign “I am 35 years old and legally qualified to be President,” and had issued a challenge to any and all Presidential candidates to debate him on TCGS. He anticipated that no one would even bother replying — thus leaving him alone on stage.

However, he did get two responses: One, from the Romney campaign (which declined the invitation), the other from Jimmy “The Rent Is Too Damn High” McMillian, a New York local legend who campaigns for every elected office, and whose political aspirations went viral in 2010. McMillian wanted to debate. So TCGS made it happen. According to Gethard, “It twisted our arm into doing something a little more elaborate and more high concept.”

Other notable TCGS episodes:

  • “The Night of Zero Laughs,” featuring a wide range of panelists from 30 Rock, UCB, College Humor and other New York comedy establishments trying not to laugh at call-in jokes and each other.
  • “Ruin This Show,” in which Gethard challenged the call-in and studio audience to disrupt the show at all costs. (Gethard referred to this episode as his least-favorite. “We just sh– the bed real hard on that one,” he said.)
  • “Smash Cut to the Future”, in which Gethard travels to the future to defeat a robot army.

All episodes (save the 12-hour election special) are archived on iTunes and Blip, where Gethard says most of the viewing takes place, with episodes getting 35,000-50,000 views. “Uploading an hour-long episode very week isn’t cheap — Blip was best built for us to deal with that, with a lot of infrastructure and control. Also, they really got a kick out of what we were doing and helped us out a lot in terms of promotion.”

What kind of ratings does the show get on public access? Gethard has no idea, because MNN 4 doesn’t track them. But while public access seems like a quaint throwback to a time before YouTube, Gethard likes being on public access, as it hearkens back to the kind of programming he grew up with.

“It’s a part of the past I miss — I miss regional television, stuff that had a lot of heart but not much production quality,” he said. “We think of [TCGS] as a public access television show that we can expand beyond what people think of public access. It can be low budget and silly and crazy at times, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”

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