Chris Gethard, Paul Scheer, and Jason Mantzoukas sit in front of a dumpster. The call-in audience has an hour to guess what is in the dumpster, or it will get rolled away without ever being opened. It is as simple a hook as is possible for an episode of television. And yet, this episode of The Chris Gethard Show might just be the greatest work of idiotic genius in comedy since Abbott and Costello conjured up a first baseman named “Who.”
I stumbled over the YouTube embed of “One Man’s Trash” (which I’ll include at the bottom of this post) on Twitter the other night. I’ve watched it end-to-end twice, and revisited individual clips and bits of it many, many more times than that, obsessively parsing through it like Gene Hackman pathologically replaying the same bit of audio over and over again in The Conversation. Someone be sure to come over and restrain me if I start looking to invest in saxophones and crowbars.
What the hell is it about this episode of The Chris Gethard Show? I feel like I just watched an alchemist spin shit into gold and he won’t come out with it and explain how he did it. I want to sit down and frame by frame study it to figure out how in the holy hell something so simple and so silly could become so…sublime. How the fuck did they pull this off?
Because make no mistake…this is a 43-minute episode of TV in which three guys sit around a dumpster and make jokes while people call in to guess what’s in it. NOTHING ELSE HAPPENS. For the sake of drama, I won’t even tell you whether or not the dumpster is ultimately opened (I’ll also advise you…if you want the full experience of this episode, do not do any research or read any comments relating to what occurs). So what in the name of God is the magic element that elevates this silliness into something….sublime?
Is it Gethard himself? He certainly doesn’t carry himself like any other TV host you might run across. Looking younger than his 35 years, Gethard’s soft features and nervous manner make it seem like he’s barely ever in control of what’s happening, if at all. There are TV personalities with unwavering reserves of charisma that leave you, the viewer, confident that no matter what happens over the course of the program, a strong hand is there to guide it all back to shore. And then there are hosts who cruise in a relaxed, DGAF state, who seem most in their element when the show has jumped the rails into chaos.
Gethard is neither of those things. As he tells you at the top of the hour, it is entirely possible that this venture could blow up in his face spectacularly, and there’s no back-up plan for if that happens. He’s riding the tightrope right alongside you, the viewer, and it lends the episode a palpable, nervous energy. At every second, there’s a sense that the whole thing is seconds apart from imploding in on itself.
That’s an area that Gethard knows well. Depending on who’s telling the story, Gethard’s career is either a cautionary tale for young comedians, or a Frank Capra-ian parable of perseverance and community. Gethard came up in the NYC comedy scene in the early aughts, quickly making a name for himself with the Upright Citizens Brigade in NYC, an improv group/incubator for future comedy stardom. But the phone calls for Saturday Night Live or network sitcoms or, heaven save us, movies, never came for Gethard. His biggest stab at traditional mainstream success was a fluke (he stepped into the lead role of Will Ferrell/Adam McKay’s Comedy Central show Big Lake at the last second after the original lead dropped out) and was a failure (nobody watched Big Lake).
But Gethard, like a true showbiz lifer, kept cranking away. He created The Chris Gethard Show for public access television, an unscripted talk show that indulged, nay, invited, a cult following of weirdos, misfits, and outcasts. Gethard’s community is worldwide, and the relationships forged in following the show are so profound that one couple actually met each other on his message boards and got married on the show, with Gethard officiating (with a bonus appearance by Ferrell). While the show now airs on Fusion, its roots as a small-scale DIY project floated entirely on enthusiasm and love are still visibly evident.
Shit, maybe that’s what makes the episode so funny? Gethard’s set is tiny compared to most talk shows, with the band, announcer, and various sidekicks all piled into the corner right behind Gethard and his guests’ seats, constantly visible as things twist and turn. The audience sits on the ground or whatever stray piece of set decoration isn’t being used. It’s loose, it’s congenial, and the physical closeness of all these people to each other and to that fucking dumpster only heightens the absurdity of what is happening. The dumpster, meanwhile, is big enough that the cameras can’t help but include it in almost every shot, its presence a constant, throbbing itch.
Or maybe the reason the episode works so well is Scheer and Mantzoukas. Both guys are practically the definition of comedy professional by this point, with an immediate and instinctual chemistry with one another, honed over years on The League or their wonderful (if occasionally straight-maddening [HOW YOU GONNA TALK SHIT ABOUT STREETS OF FIRE?]) podcast How Did This Get Made? Both Scheer and Mantzoukas have well-established comedy personas that they slip into effortlessly, keeping momentum going even as the wheels come off the show.
Scheer is the consummate ringmaster, the guy who can’t help but egg the game on. Across his various podcast appearances and roles in TV and films, Scheer has carved out a niche for himself as the guy who is always hustling, always playing an angle, and in “One Man’s Trash” he’s the guy who’s taking notes and dropping hints, all-but mocking the audience for their inability to suss out what’s in the dumpster.
If Gethard and Scheer embody attempts to impose order, with varying degrees of success, Mantzoukas is pure chaos. Like a cackling trickster god, Mantzoukas wields anarchy like a bat. The more flustered Gethard gets, the more palpable the delight Mantzoukas takes in disrupting the show. That’s a Mantzoukas special, evident in everything from his turns on The League and Brooklyn 9–9, to his legendary appearances on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast. Mantzoukas’ chaotic nature works best when it has something to work against, and Gethard’s attempts at order, combined with the ticking clock nature of the episode, gives him the perfect springboard to, well, spring off. With Gethard trying to keep the show moving, Mantzoukas doing everything he can to keep the show disrupted, and Scheer playing both sides against the middle, giant bombs of laughter are constantly being set off. So maybe that’s it…
Or, wait, maybe it’s that ticking clock that makes this thing work so well. After all, how often can comedy be said to have stakes? And, sure, these are small-scale stakes, especially since the episode aired a year ago and the answer to whether or not the dumpster is opened is a quick Google away. But that would be fucking cheating, and once you get invested in the episode, it would seem tantamount to sacrilege to Google the answer. There’s something maddeningly, ineffably tense about watching the minutes tick away while the dumpster remains unopened. I don’t know…hand me a box and say I can open it whenever I feel like it, maybe I’ll get around to it at some point. But show me a box and tell me that there’s a chance I’ll never learn what’s inside and suddenly NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT ON THIS EARTH THAN OPENING THAT GODDAMN BOX, and “One Man’s Trash” exploits that basest of human impulses mercilessly.
And it’s not just me! As the episode progresses, the atmosphere in the audience changes. There’s a charge running through the laughs and gasps and groans as everyone tries to work it out. At one point, Chris’s comptroller interrupts the show to loudly chastise people running down the clock with joke guesses, because GODDAMNIT SHE WANTS TO KNOW WHAT’S IN THE GODDAMN BOX.
Or, hell, maybe the episode works so well because of the punchline. The punchline is amazing.
Really, it’s all these things. And I honestly think Gethard stumbled over something almost…elemental…about show business, or at least comedy, when he came up with this little stunt. Because this is such a stripped down, simple premise, it makes every detail stand out. It’s the way first Paul and then Jason’s entire body language changes after they peek in the dumpster and realize what game Chris is playing. It’s the look of thunderstruck glee that crosses Jason’s face after he sees what’s in the dumpster. It’s the way everyone, including the staff of the show, gape and react at each twist and turn. It’s the fact that people call in from across the country, and out of the country, to ask questions and take a stab at guessing, all these disparate people united by some foundational curiosity wired into our collective brains.
In reading about Gethard and his career, it seems that the unifying principle of his work is a desire to connect with people through the absurd, the silly, the base. Shame does not exist in this dojo. There’s no ego on display here, no frills or tricks deployed. A bunch of people came together to spend time do something really, really, silly, something transcendently dumb, and the end result may be one of the most joyous things I have ever had the pleasure of watching.