In the last two decades that Chris Gethard has performed stand-up comedy, he’s never performed in as many fields and parking lots as he has in the past few weeks.
“I was in Fairfield, Connecticut, last night performing in a field behind a hotel,” says Gethard over the phone. “The night before that I was in Royersford, Pennsylvania, in a vacant lot that the promoter had filled with 10 tons of fake sand to make it look like a beach.”
The creativity of performance spaces is, of course, born out of necessity. Thousands of venues across the country shuttered their doors in March, when quarantine procedures made hanging out in tight spaces -- often indoors -- safely an impossibility.
“The level of catharsis and connecting that these shows are bringing to people, I can say on my end, it's been quite meaningful,” says Gethard, who recently appeared in “Space Force” on Netflix.
Nearly seven months later, entertainers like Gethard are finding ways to bring joy people, even if the vibe is a little askew. On Sunday, Oct. 4, Gethard will perform two sets at Phantom Power in Millersville -- one at 5 p.m., and the other at 7:30 p.m. Shortly after the venue opened its doors in March at the former Point of View Theater, Phantom Power had to pivot to outdoor events due to COVID-19 precautions.
"Obviously, I'm very happy with the local acts that have been playing here, but it's an awesome feeling that excitement that people get for someone that they wouldn't normally be able to see,” says Gregg Barley, owner of Phantom Power.
In addition to local bands, the venue now offers a regular weekly comedy open mic on Monday nights. Comedian Sam Morill is set to perform at the venue on Friday, Oct. 9.
“Especially right now, with how much negativity and fear there is right now, it's nice to offer something that people can come and kind of take a break from that for an hour or two and have a good, honest laugh,” says Barley.
Initially, Gethard wondered about the driving distance from his home in New Jersey to the show.
“Then I looked up the venue and saw that they opened in March and was like, 'Man, that's a rough go of it,’” Gethard says. “I don't know if I can help, but if I can sell some tickets and support a place that got put in that situation, I'd really love to do it.”
The concept of helping struggling venues by performing has become a minor theme for this ad-hoc tour.
“There’s places like the Ottobar [in Baltimore], which is one of my favorite places ever to perform,” says Gethard. “They’ve got a Gofundme going right now that’s so close to going over the top. Who knows? I might bomb and sell no tickets, but if people get excited, then it really helps them. … We've all got to team up right now, especially in the live performance industry.”
That being said, it doesn’t mean that Gethard’s show will serve as a concert-length dissertation on COVID-19.
“There's no way around the fact that I'm going to mention it,” says Gethard. “It would be silly not to when we're all sitting in fields and backlots and parking lots. You have to kind of diffuse the tension of that or find a way to make fun of it to make it easier for everybody.”
‘Having a good time’
In the midst of performing in the middle of a pandemic, Gethard is having one of his most visible years since the 2017 release of his landmark HBO special, “Career Suicide.” For starters, Gethard and his memories were given top billing in the recently released HBO documentary “Class Action Park,” an account of the infamous Vernon Township, New Jersey theme park. On Netflix, Gethard was cast in the ensemble comedy “Space Force” alongside Steve Carrell and John Malkovich.
“Usually I get asked to play a 'sadsack weirdo,' and in [‘Space Force’] I was challenged to play more of a ‘random weirdo,’ so it felt like a good change of pace,” says Gethard.
By the end of 2020, Gethard will also bring his podcast, “Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People,” to the small screen. The podcast has a simple premise: Gethard posts a phone number that anyone can call into, and then he talks with that anonymous person about their lives for up to an hour. Although there are 234 episodes and counting, Gethard initially wasn’t sure how his phone call-based podcast would work as a TV show. But he has seen the first episode and he’s “pleasantly pleased and optimistic.”
“The platform is called Topic, which has shows coming from [fellow comedians] Wyatt Cenac and Maria Bamford,” explains Gethard. “I thought, ‘Those are people that I really like and trust and it's always an honor to be mentioned in the same breath as them -- so sign me up.’”
With projects bubbling up at a fever pitch, not to mention a young child at home, no one would fault Gethard if he decided to wait out the quarantine. But he isn’t.
“My impulse is that this is about the audience. This is about people having a good time,” Gethard says. “If I can give you a reason to laugh, I feel like I'm doing some good in this world.
“That might sound pretentious, but I think it's our job as comedians to go out there right now and say, 'Hey, I know you have to think about all this stuff and worry about your safety. But for now, why don't we laugh about the fact that my one-year-old son recently pooped on the floor and I'm trying to figure out how to be a good parent.’”
Chris Gethard performs at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 4, at Phantom Power, 121 W. Frederick St., Millersville. Tickets are available here.