Comedian Chris Gethard Talks the Basement Punk Show That Changed His Life
I feel lucky to say that the first concert I ever went to was a DIY affair held in the basement of a church. It was the summer of 1994, I was about to enter high school, and I had a sneaking suspicion that the way I thought wasn’t the way most people think.
I’d never seen live music before. I’d never been to an arena rock show. My parents never brought me to see pop acts of the day, or reunion concerts of safe bands gone by. My intro to the concert-going experience was a grungy basement show. This church was on Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange, New Jersey, the same road Carole King lived on and immortalized in “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” I have no idea what day of the week it was but, Sunday or not, it was a quietly life-defining evening.
My older brother’s friends put on the show and it was my intro to good old do-it-yourself suburban punk rock. I believe there were four bands that played that evening, but I only remember three of them. The Missing Children went up early. (I maintain that’s a great name for a punk band. Bought their seven-inch that night. It was good but, in typical fashion, poorly recorded.) The closer was from Bound Brook and they were called One Nature. (Bought their double seven-inch that night. It was moody and angry and I loved it.)
But more than any other, the band that played between them caught my eye. They were called Felix Frump and they were spazzy and goofy and sang songs about girls. This was my first introduction to pop-punk, a genre that would consume me for all of my teenage years and that I’ve never fully outgrown. Felix Frump was four guys, but really they were their frontman, a bearded kid who couldn’t have been much older than I was, who was giving it his all.
I had no idea what a circle pit was, but when one broke out I gleefully joined in. I slammed into the other 40 or so kids who were there that night, and being that I was a prepubescent child, they all took care of me and treated me like the joyful kid I was. I left that show wearing a Felix Frump shirt and clutching a Felix Frump tape, the crown jewel of all the swag I’d gobbled up that night.
Before I stepped out the door, I approached the lead singer of Felix Frump and said “Hey, man.” He turned around. “I want to be you when I grow up.”
He smirked. “Nah, dude,” he answered, “I want to be you.”
It was in that moment that punk left its imprint on me. The music was fine, but ultimately it was inconsequential. That guy basically showed me in a handful of songs and even fewer words: go out, make something, be who you want to be. I’d felt lonely and discontent for the past few years. What I’d later find out to be depression was setting in as I became an angrier and angrier young man who felt like the world didn’t work in a way that made sense to him. That night I didn’t necessarily feel less lonely, but for the first time in my life I felt like at the very least I’d found a world of other people who felt like the world didn’t make sense either.
I went home and my research began. There were other local bands that fit my fancy, like Thirsty, and the Lavalinas. I started finding out about bands from far away, like Screeching Weasel and the Mr. T Experience and their Lookout Records comrades, like the Automatics and Boris the Sprinkler and all the other Mutant Pop Records stuff. I was too scared to go into New York City, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t order an Egghead seven-inch straight to my own door. I barely knew about Jawbreaker before they sold out, and then I had to learn exactly what selling out even meant. As I got angrier, so did the music I was finding — Minor Threat was great, and for a few months I actually pretended that Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today wrote listenable songs that I actually enjoyed. I saw H20 at a roller rink way out in West Jersey and after he noticed me standing alone and sad in the back by myself, Toby Morse himself came up and asked if I was OK. He didn’t have to do that. He was the man, and I was a kid. This world, this supportive and homemade world, was unfolding in front of me.
I’ve never been in a band. Well, for two weeks I played bass in a hardcore band called Ground Zero 1945 that met in my friend Carson’s basement. But, realistically, I’ve never been in a band. I’m a comedian now. And I’d like to think that those early shows I saw, the music that I found, and the attitudes behind all of it has informed me. I try not to do things I don’t believe in. I try to do things my own way.
For the past few years I’ve hosted a television show on public access, and in January I filmed a pilot for a version on Comedy Central. I was so thrilled, not just to be working — but because I found a DIY way to get on TV. The same way bands I always loved put out their own music until it found an audience, I found a way to put out my own TV show until it found an audience; until it got a chance. Punk comes in and out of fashion, but the spirit behind it will always have a place. For me, those ethics have led to the most exciting opportunity of my life, and all the things I’m most proud of.
So to thank the guy who initially stoked my punk rock flames, I tracked down Graham, the lead singer of Felix Frump, on Facebook. Twenty years after I first saw his band, I sent him something heartfelt. A few minutes later, he sent me back something heartwarming. I love that I found this stuff. I’m so grateful this fire got lit.
There’s no way you remember me, as we only spoke a few times in passing between 1994 and 1996. I grew up in West Orange, NJ and my friends put together shows. They used to run Marcia Fanzine. I have no idea if you’ll remember them.
In 1994, I attended my first concert — it was in a church basement in West Orange and it blew my mind. Felix Frump played and I danced and ran around and had just about as much fun as I’d ever had in my life up until that point. I was just about to enter high school and it put this feeling in my gut that I’d never felt before. I went from being a universally depressed kid to a sometimes excited and sometimes depressed kid. I saw and met people that night who immediately showed me that there was a different way to approach things. For the first time, I saw other people who very visibly seemed to think that the regular way of doing things didn’t feel right or comfortable. You and your band showed me punk rock both in the musical and spiritual sense. It changed me.
I bought your cassette that night and still remember just a chunk of one of the songs. “I, I, I never knew, knew, what it was to be a man/I don’t understand/She took me by the ha-and/now I can’t sta-and, being a man with her!” I haven’t heard that song in 15 years but can still hear all the breakdowns and singing and joy in it when I stop and think about it.
I’m writing you 20 years later to let you know that I’m a comedian now and I’ve been doing things my own way. I’ve had some ups and downs in the old career, but at the end of the day I just sold a pilot to Comedy Central based on a show I did on public access all by myself for no budget. I don’t think I would have had the guts to take that chance and go that route if I didn’t find punk rock. And I don’t think I would have found punk rock if your band didn’t make me dance one summer night back in 1994.
I guess what I’m saying is — I have no idea what your goals were when you started playing music back in the day. I have no idea if stardom was the goal. I also have no idea if you’re still playing music.
BUT – I wanted to let you know that if any part of the goal when you picked up a guitar was to get through to other kids who felt the same things you were feeling, I can guarantee you that it worked at least once. On me. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I heard you and I’m still going – that dinky little show was a pebble that got dropped in a pond, and the ripples from that night are still guiding how I go about things.
Thank you so much. Sorry this was weird and came out of nowhere.
– Chris Gethard
“Well. Wow. I think this is one of the most amazing and heartwarming communications I’ve ever received. It’s rare that I stop and think about the impact I have or have had on others.
Although I didn’t define it in words back then, I’ve always believed in a person having the freedom to express themselves. We played for ourselves and had as much fun in our practices as we did at our performances. Our heartfelt joy and antics were often contagious. I started the band with my best friend and his younger brother. We had nothing to hide from each other and played for the fun of it. In fact the idea before our first practice was to do a joke band, but after 15 minutes into rehearsal we realized we had something that was special to us.
Congratulations to you for making your way “your way.” I’ve also taken that DIY punk-rock attitude forward with me. I’m a sound mixer for film and television. Self taught. The jobs I get are on my merit or the recommendations of people who know the quality of my work.
Some of my favorite jobs have been with comedians (Lewis Black, Joan Rivers, Greg Giraldo and a bunch more). You have chosen a difficult and painful path to bring smiles into the world! Selling a pilot must be thrilling as hell and I’m excited for you! As someone in the industry I’d like to hear more about it.
Thank you so much for reaching out and sharing this. After reading your message I was walking around beaming and I felt that same joy I had when I was playing. The crew on the show I’m on were smiling at me as I was walking around smiling at them. Contagious good feelings. Spread the disease!