On May 13, 2014, Chris Gethard took to Tumblr to announce that Comedy Central would not be bringing the comedian’s eponymous public-access variety show to cable. At turns grateful, apologetic, and rousing, the note is infused with the spirit of “lose well,” a philosophy of embracing and moving past defeat that’s become a motto for The Chris Gethard Show and its viewers. TCGS is the type of show that attracts mottos, credos, and catchphrases: It’s a call-in show with a heavy audience-participation factor, and that audience feels an intense sense of ownership toward the show. The audience also loves to chant.
“Lose well” also comes into play in a previous Gethard-penned Tumblr post, “The Chase Is The Thing And The Thing Is The Chase,” written in response to an anonymous reader question about getting “the courage to perform.” These two posts are of a piece: Both possess the grounded-yet-tenacious tone that has made Gethard an Internet-age hero, one-part outsider icon, one-part keyboard guru. The posts also deal with Gethard-led projects being cut loose by Comedy Central—though the first time around, that cutting loose happened in a much more public fashion.
In 2010, the Will Ferrell- and Adam McKay-produced Comedy Central series Big Lake was in need of a lead. Created by NewsRadio and Futurama veteran Lew Morton, Big Lake—about financial wunderkind Josh Franklin, who tanks an investment firm and moves back in with his parents (Deborah Rush and James Rebhorn)—was developed as a vehicle for Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder. But as production of the multi-camera sitcom geared up in March of that year, Heder quit, citing creative differences. Gethard—who’d worked with Ferrell and McKay as an audition reader for past projects from their Gary Sanchez Productions shingle—was chosen from a handful of potential replacements for Heder. The gig swiftly elevated Gethard from a regular presence at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre to the guy working alongside Saturday Night Live alumni Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz (the latter a founding member of the UCB Theatre’s flagship troupe). Preceded by a major press push focused on Gethard’s meteoric rise, Big Lake premiered on August 17. By September, it was gone. As the show’s star would later write, “99 percent of the people who have ever heard my name or seen my face in the entire world know me as ‘That guy who was really bad in that sitcom Will Ferrell produced.’”
The Gethard of The Chris Gethard Show is only recognizable in fits and starts on Big Lake. TCGS draws so much of its humor from its host reacting to things that affect him directly: strangers describing how they’d fight Gethard, a dominatrix dictating how he runs the show, a villainous recurring character forcing the host into a dog cage. Big Lake attempted a similar trick, only with Josh reacting to the madness swirling around him. He’s put in the same role Bob Newhart served on The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart: the last sane man in a world gone mad. Josh is making a sincere effort to sort things out in his hometown and make good on the debt he owes his parents; Josh’s big bust also wiped out their life savings. But those efforts are forever undone by the shenanigans of his friends and family—or undermined by the discouragement of Rebhorn’s Carl, the sort of disappointed father the late actor was born to play.
Denied a Newhart-like sardonic acceptance of the situation, and unable to dive Gethard-like into the chaos, Josh is flattened out into a chirpy optimist lacking the competence necessary for pulling off a get-rich-again-quick scheme. The star’s performance feels constrained by these qualities; the early scripts rarely provide him with anything in the way of an escape hatch. In the pilot, Josh admits he never fully understood the financial tool that was his downfall, and the character’s benign naïveté has all the qualities of a part tailored to Heder’s sleepy-eyed affect. (The most mortifying passage of the New York Times profile on Big Lake and Gethard, “The Angst Of An Accidental Sitcom Star,” involves the actor finding his name on call sheets marked “The Untitled Jon Heder Project.”) If the Big Lake theme had any lyrics, their singer could not genuinely describe Josh as the weirdest guy they know.
But Gethard isn’t bad on Big Lake, and Big Lake isn’t a bad sitcom. Heder’s departure set the show a few steps back before it even began, but the nerves on display in the pilot, “Josh Comes Home,” are noticeably calmer in episodes filmed deeper into the show’s production schedule. By the time of “Chris Moves In” and “Josh Goes To Work,” the rest of the ensemble steps up to ease some of the burden off of Gethard, with Parnell in particular doing spectacularly deadpan work as unscrupulous school teacher Chris Henkel. World-building is the target that Big Lake hits with the greatest accuracy: Josh returns to his former home expecting it to be a respite from the big-city roller coaster, but things are just as messy and weird—if not more so—in Big Lake. It’s an absurd universe that only had so many episodes and so many standing sets to grow from, but it’s ideal for the live-action cartoon at the heart of the show. Josh’s golden-child kid brother, Jeremy (Dylan Blue), fakes a lisp and a promising academic career in order to run the town’s vice operations on the sly; when the mayor undergoes a routine medical procedure, Chris customarily takes his place, getting drunk on power and responsibility in just under 24 minutes. As Josh’s over-medicated mother, Linda, Deborah Rush could’ve easily been subjected to a gauntlet of spaced-cadet punchlines. Instead, she factors into some of the show’s most surreal sequences, like this quick-cut montage of Linda bonding with the hooded beast who haunts her night terrors.
If anything, Big Lake could’ve used more sequences like this one, more chances to display its inner oddness. It’s too tempting to blame the series’ flop on the multi-camera, studio-audience format, the type of series Comedy Central was more akin to send up, as it did with the Trey Parker and Matt Stone anti-sitcom That’s My Bush! in 2001. But Big Lake isn’t as purposefully satirical as That’s My Bush! or intentionally envelope-pushing as something like HBO’s Lucky Louie, Louis C.K.’s short-lived shot at making The Honeymooners for a post-Sopranos world. Big Lake is an old-fashioned redemption story with a familiar domestic setting—it just happens that it was produced for a basic cable network in 2010, so the language is a little saltier and the situations of its comedy decidedly more adult. It only fitfully found ways to lean into that disconnect, usually in moments when the cast was set loose to apply its improv- and theater-trained chops to a scene. Big Lake is at its most alive in these moments, be they ex-con Glenn (Sanz) explaining to Josh, in great detail, how he confused a fundraising thermometer chart for an image of a penis, or Josh rifling off ideas to boost sales at the Franklin family restaurant, Cheddar Creek.
Taking into consideration the year of Big Lake’s premiere, the improv-heavy school of comedy filmmaking partially ushered in by Ferrell and McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, and the fact that all 10 episodes were directed by regular 30 Rock hand Don Scardino, Big Lake might’ve made more sense, and might’ve stood a fighting chance, as a single-camera sitcom. But that’s not considering some idiosyncratic details of the show’s production. While Gethard provided the headline for articles like that New York Times profile, the show’s newsworthiness was tied to its distributor, Debmar-Mercury. With the help of Tyler Perry, the Lionsgate subsidiary spearheaded a new concept in TV syndication in the mid-’00s: If the first 10 episodes of a Debmar-Mercury-distributed show clear a certain ratings threshold, the network broadcasting that show has the option of ordering 90 more installments. The so-called “10-90” model obliterated traditional means of getting a series over the 100-episode syndication hump, in which studios and distributors duke it out with networks in order to keep a series on the air long enough to get at where the real money in TV is: those sweet, sweet off-network licensing fees. It’s for this reason that Terry Crews shot three episodes a week of Are We There Yet? before jumping to Brooklyn Nine-Nine; it’s because of Debmar-Mercury that local affiliates will one day have another misanthropic Charlie Sheen sitcom to run after the 10 o’clock news.
For invested parties, the payouts from the 10-90 model are outrageous: As Gethard told The A.V. Club in 2013, he stood to make $2.2 million if Big Lake made it to its 11th episode. Given Comedy Central’s standing in 2010, however, the rewards were not worth the risk. After hitting consecutive jackpots with Chappelle’s Show and Reno 911! in 2003, Comedy Central failed to find another breakout hit in the years that followed. Uncomfortable, racially charged laughter on the Chappelle’s Show set sent Dave Chappelle packing in 2004; Reno ran until 2009. In between, the network greenlit and canceled with impunity, scoring in late-night with The Colbert Report in 2005, but falling short in primetime, where Stella, Dog Bites Man, Freak Show, Halfway Home, Reality Bites Back, and several others were in and out after one season. Big Lake would be another to fall on the path to Comedy Central’s recent commercial (Tosh.0, Workaholics) and creative (Key & Peele, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Review, Kroll Show, Nathan For You) renaissance.
Entertaining as it could be, Big Lake’s cancellation is a victory of creativity over commercial concerns. In the Times profile, Sanz expresses ambivalence toward the 90-episode pickup:
“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.”
And that’s coming from the guy who was on SNL for eight years. Ten episodes is just enough time for a sitcom to find itself, but Big Lake still feels formless at the end of episode 10, “The Interview.” This could be Josh’s show, it could be Chris’ show, it could be Jeremy’s show—that’s an asset for a series that needs to produce 50 hours of TV (or more; House Of Payne, the original 10-90 series, ran for 254 episodes), but it robs Big Lake of that crucial comedic element: perspective. At times, the show feels like it could be the sitcom equivalent of Twin Peaks or Northern Exposure, if only Gethard was given a POV character as rock-solid as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper or Dr. Joel Fleischman.
To date, Big Lake is the only original distributed by Debmar-Mercury to not receive the big pickup. FX has yet to disclose the future of its George Lopez vehicle, Saint George, which wrapped its first season in May 2014; television ratings aren’t what they used to be even four years ago, but the fact that Saint George’s second week on the air had a lower viewership than Big Lake’s second week doesn’t bode well. (FX has one more Debmar-Mercury series in waiting: the Martin Lawrence-Kelsey Grammer teamup Partners.) The 10-90 model isn’t foolproof; Tyler Perry’s third series with the distributor, For Better Or Worse, only received a 35-episode renewal from TBS before following its creator to the Oprah Winfrey Network.
These shows might make money by the boatloads, but they’re not future classics. Anything done so nakedly for profit for such a long period of time is bound to take on workmanlike qualities at some point. Big Lake didn’t last long enough for that to happen, and there’s still evidence of some passionate, engaged work at play in “Josh Goes To Work,” the final episode in the production order. The main story ends with Scardino breaking through the show’s standard camera setups to cut a lovely, swooping path across the show’s restaurant set, the showy kind of multi-cam choreography that used to get a prime seat in the Mary Tyler Moore credits. But it probably wouldn’t show up in, say, episode 77 of Big Lake.
In a sick twist, a show about a guy who dragged down an entire bank failed to make its star a multimillionaire. But Big Lake’s cancellation also gave Chris Gethard the freedom to pursue more personal comedic visions: his 2012 book, A Bad Idea I’m About To Do, and the public-access version of The Chris Gethard Show. In “The Chase Is The Thing And The Thing Is The Chase,” Gethard relates the emails he’s received from TCGS viewers, telling him how much the humor, enthusiasm, and kindness of the series means to them. This comes after he describes the show as a “failure,” a money-losing enterprise that freaks out the types of TV executives who greenlit Big Lake, and who later passed on TCGS. (Ironically, that The Chris Gethard Show is the series that’s run for 100 episodes and counting.)
All this relating to a show that IS A FAILURE. Monetarily, failure. Ability to move to a traditional network, failure. Ability to get a huge audience, failure.
But nobody was writing letters like that about Big Lake. That show had the potential to reach millions of people, and if it went one hundred percent swimmingly, it would have been regarded as a funny show. Big Lake would have gotten me 2.2 million dollars. TCGS will get me about negative 80 dollars a week, but it will also get me letters from kids who remind me of myself, letting me know that I’ve built something for them that I wish I had when I felt like them. Is that worth 2.2 million dollars? I guess everyone has to decide that for themselves, but I know in my heart how I answer that question.
Chris Gethard lost a TV show and $2.2 million. But he lost them well.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Weirdo
Next time: John Teti digs into the British series Snuff Box.