Through his years going to shows in New Jersey’s punk and hardcore scene, Chris Gethard learned the value of getting shit done.
“I’m much more of the mentality of if you want something to happen, you make it happen,” explains Gethard. “You find the other people who are into it, you team up and you make it happen.”
Making things happen for Gethard also meant convincing his longtime friend Mike Dolan (Mike D) to come on his comedy stream, and talk about the time he quit his job at McDonald’s.
“Chris called me one day and he’s like, ‘Hey last night I was doing this livestreamed comedy talk show and one thing led to another and somehow I got on the topic on how you work at McDonald’s and what happened to you and how you quit that job, and the crazy story that happened. People reacted crazy to it and they thought it was too crazy to have happened,’’’ remembers Mike D.
“And then he asked me to come on and explain the story. I’m not really a public person, and I’m a textbook introvert ,so I was like, ‘Alright, because you are my guy, Chris.’”
Mike D did go on the livestream to explain his unfortunate incident with hand puppets at the McDonald’s. The duo then realized their other lifelong friend, Nicky Bonadooch, was in the chat as well. What was supposed to be an hour stream turned into a marathon streaming event.
“The three of us start talking and it turns into this epic event,” says Mike D. “It was supposed to be an hour stream and it ended up going for almost five hours and at some point it was 2 o’clock in the morning. A day or two later Chris was like, ‘Everyone loved this and we should turn it into a podcast and see what happens.’”
The podcast ended up becoming New Jersey is The World and it’s still going strong a few years later. NJITW gives listeners an alternative talk show about Jersey that isn’t NJ 101.5. They debate about topics like who is the least Jersey person ever born here, and what would add or subtract time to the New Jersey doomsday clock, but also dive deep into the food, music, small businesses, politics and culture of our state.
For Gethard, NJITW is not only a chance to showcase his love for our state, but to also hang out with the people he grew up with.
“I’ve been around some of the funniest people in the world because of my career and I would put my friends I grew up with up against anybody,” says Gethard. “I had this idea in my head and all of a sudden it’s like I’ve moved back home, I’ve got these funny friends and I never shut up about Jersey. It’s the pandemic so none of us have anything to do, so let’s start getting our stories down.”
Gethard’s story begins in West Orange, or WoTown, as locals call it. Gethard describes it as a “typical North Jersey experience.” It’s also where Gethard’s love of music and comedy developed.
“One of my formative experiences was the first show I ever went to in a church basement in West Orange,” explains Gethard. “My second show was in my friend Bonadooch’s backyard and they had gotten a message from a band from Florida that was like, ‘Hey, our Jersey show fell through, can we hop on this barbecue that you guys are throwing on July 4th?’ That band ended up being Less Than Jake on their first tour. The guy who threw the first show was my buddy Mike D. The second show was put on by Bonadooch. I’m still making stuff right now with the same exact guys who introduced me to punk rock when I was 13 years old.”
For the hosts of NJITW, the VFW halls and church basements provided them with a set of ethics and guidelines for life, and they still carry those lessons years later. Mike D was influenced by zines he read as a teenager, and realized that a lot of the places in the zines were in the Garden State.
“I feel like I had kind of fallen into an amazing underground river that was operating just below the surface of what you see every day,” explains Mike D. “And I thought it was an extremely cool secret to be in on. We would go to school and all the kids we went to school with were like, ‘OK, we’re all gonna go drink behind a dumpster this weekend,’ and I’d be like, ‘OK, have fun. I’m going to see like four different shows over the weekend that are all right here and they’re all run by kids like us,’ you know? It was just amazing to me that this whole sub-world existed. And to me it was just a much cooler and better world than what I saw kids around me being into.”
Gethard parlayed the lessons he learned in the punk scene for a career in comedy and podcasting. The experience of going to improv classes at the former UCB Theatre in New York felt a lot like going to shows at the Meatlocker in Montclair.
“Back then, the theater I found was in this old shutdown strip club,” says Gethard about UCB. “It was really scrappy, it wasn’t famous yet at all. And it’s kind of like nobody cared that I was young, nobody cared that I had a real North Jersey accent at the time. I mean I said coffee and dog horribly and all these things that I could maybe feel self-conscious about. Instead it was just like, well if you work hard and you’re funny, then you have a place here. And that was very cool and very empowering. And what it really reminded me the most of was going to punk shows as a teenager all over New Jersey.
“The way that the UCB theater was built in its earliest days, it was all just about, can you contribute to the community and are you talented enough to not get swallowed up? To me that felt the same exact way as seeing a band when I was 15 and finding out that the kids in the band were 18, you know? Like to be a teenager and you go to a show and this band blows you away and you buy their seven-inch at the merch table and you find out like, oh the bass player isn’t even old enough to have his license yet.”
Gethard grew deeper into comedy when he moved to New Brunswick to attend Rutgers. He had a mixed experience attending our state’s flagship university.
“I walked out of New Brunswick with a lot of good stories, that is for sure,” explains Gethard. “I’ll tell you I didn’t have a great experience at school. I wound up being medicated for depression for many years of my life, and I would have been depressed wherever I went. But looking back at it, Rutgers has a huge campus and I think there were 40,000 people there when I went there. And if you’re an 18-year-old kid who’s kind of depressed and doesn’t know how to talk to anybody about it, going to a giant school where there’s 200 people in every lecture hall, 400 people in your Intro to Philosophy class, it’s just built for you to feel like nobody’s noticing. … But I also look back and I go, it’s such a motivating force because part of where my head was at was realizing like, I don’t want to live a standard existence. I don’t think I’m someone who’s built for a shirt-and-tie corporate life and I was sorting that all out.
“So that is what led to me kind of really trying to give it a go as an artist and really pour myself 110% into the idea that I was gonna make something else happen for myself.”
After leaving Rutgers, Gethard worked for Weird NJ, and it was a formative experience for him learning more about the state. He also moved to Los Angeles for a little bit, and that’s when he felt how absence makes the heart grow fonder.
“In 2003, I went to a music store on Sunset Boulevard,” remembers Gethard. “I picked up a couple things and then saw Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits and I’m like, ‘Am I really gonna do this?’ I bought it and it wasn’t until I was 3,000 miles aways that I finally understood ‘Thunder Road.’ Being that I grew up there, went to school there, even in my early years of doing comedy, going over the river, I was always coming home. It’s one of these things where it’s hard to see what you’ve got when you’re standing in the middle of it, you know? So to go to a place that moves at a different pace, to go to a place where all of a sudden I’m kind of the only person who grew up in NJ. And then you hear these lyrics that are all about like, I have this drive and this feeling that I gotta get the fuck out of this place, you know, which is so many of the songs on Springsteen’s Greatest Hits. His album just comes down to, like, I need to get in a car and drive somewhere else. And I had done it, I had driven somewhere else, all of a sudden it was making me homesick, this feeling of growing up around people who worked really hard, growing up around people where some people had a lot and some people didn’t have two pennies to rub together.
“All these themes that he had in there that felt sort of corny when I was a kid, it was the first time I heard them and I was like, ‘Oh, he actually wrote the songs for people like me.’ I just didn’t understand how meaningful that was because I’d never ventured out and been around anyone who didn’t get it.”
Listening to Springsteen in LA hit Gethard like he was going down the Cannonball Loop at Action Park, heading towards the water. Besides NJITW and his other podcast Beautiful/Anonymous, Gethard is most known for his work in the HBO documentary Class Action Park about the infamous Vernon amusement park. One of the first episodes of NJITW was about Action Park and in some ways Gethard thinks it’s a metaphor for NJ at large.
“The thing that NJITW has kind of made me see that I didn’t always see when I was younger was how much of an ecosystem Jersey is in terms of not just its culture, but its politics, its food, all of those have these weird commonalities that tie together,” explains Gethard. “We all know that the politics are very shady and you don’t have to scratch the surface to understand that machine politics is kind of alive and well here, maybe more than any place else in the nation. And we all think it’s backwards and messed up and bad, but no one does anything to stop it. And to me that’s exactly the same as Action Park, right? Like, kids are dying there, we’re not getting it shut down. To me it’s the same reason that we go, ‘Well, the best food that we have to offer is a breakfast meat that is disgusting and we’ll fight to the death over what the name is.’’
“That’s a very common attitude here, too, how people always think of the gritty side of New Jersey and that’s the stereotype that we all really embrace and love. But then you start to think about actresses like Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep and you’re like, well those are people as classy as it gets, how do they fit in and get as much love in the same state that loves Arturo Gatti? Springsteen sings all these songs about being working class, but he lives in a cul-de-sac and he just sold his back catalog for a billion fucking dollars. Like how do those things fit together? You know, like how does the politics of someone like Corey Booker fit in with the films of someone like Kevin Smith in the way that there’s all these moving parts that seem very disconnected by looking at all of them. With NJITW, you start to see that for a small state that is ridiculous as it is, there is a real beating heart to it that infects everything.”
Along with NJITW’s WoTown show, which is Gethard, Bonadooch, and Mike D., Gethard also has a series on Newark called Newark Conversations, and a series on South Jersey called South Jersey is the World Also. In his Newark series, he talks to people who are making an impact in the Brick City. It’s a forum to correct the out-of-pocket shit people who grew up in the ’burbs sometimes say about cities like Newark.
“My father went to high school in Newark and I lived a 10-, 15-minute drive away,” Gethard says. “And we were taught throughout my childhood that Newark is the stolen car capital of the world. It’s dangerous down there, it’s trouble, there’s no reason to go there. You sit there and you realize, man, we’ve got this huge city for all sorts of people, art, and culture. And we were just taught to avoid it, you know? My dad has deep affection for Newark; my grandfather worked there, my father went to high school there. It’s more just overall culture and it just really bothers me now that I’m older to think back to that and go, man, like in 1967 there was a race riot in Newark and a lot of the towns around literally pulled the bridges up so that people couldn’t enter town, and I kind of feel like the bridges went back down physically, but not mentally. … I think a lot about the relationship between the cities and the suburbs in the state, because it’s not just Newark, it’s Camden, it’s Paterson, and it’s Trenton. A lot of the cities kind of caught this label in the ’80s that they were ‘unsavable.’ And it’s just not reality. The whole state would be healthier if we could figure out how to get all these things to work as a system.’’
South Jersey is the World Also touches on the people and things that make up the area from about Florence to Cape May. SJISTWA co-host and producer Andrea Quinn got involved after hearing NJITW say some inaccurate things about South Jersey.
“I would comment a lot on the Patreon on what they were getting wrong about South Jersey,’’ says Quinn. “Geth or someone would make really wild blanket statements about what things are like down here. Originally Geth pitched SJISTWA as a short series. He emailed one day and was like, ‘Hey, is this something you would be interested in doing?’ Every week I would bring up a South Jersey person, place or thing I wanted to highlight. It eventually became Geth and I working out why our sides of the state are different and what we have in common.”
But the OG show for NJITW is WoTown, which comes alive because of the long friendship between Gethard, Bonadooch and Mike D.
“We’ve never been envious of each other.” says Bonadooch. “We’ve always all helped each other whatever goal we were shooting for. So everybody’s really supportive. This comes from being on the punk rock scene. There was never anything that you were embarrassed to talk about or say you were into because somebody was gonna think you were weird.’’
In the future, Gethard would like to have Brian Fallon and Kevin Smith come on NJITW. Gethard would also like to do a show dedicated to the volunteer organizations around the state. Gethard is a volunteer EMT in Morris County, and he says that it’s pretty punk-rock.
“I promise you, if you’re someone out there who wants to change the world … the place to start is what’s right in front of you in your hometown,” says Gethard. “Because there are food kitchens right now that need people to help hand out food. There are first aid squads all over the state that are shutting down because volunteers are in their 60s and they’re retiring to Florida and young people just aren’t signing up. There’s volunteer fire departments, there’s homeless shelters, there’s stuff right in front of you where you could walk in the front door and they put you to work today helping your neighbors in a way that’s eye to eye, that’s not theoretical, it’s actual work that can happen right now. And it’s in the cities, it’s in the suburbs, it’s in the rural parts of the state.
“So, it’s gonna feel dumb saying it, but as someone who’s gotten a lot of credit over the years for being kind of brought up punk rock and converting that into a comedy career, joining the EMT squad in my town is one of the most punk rock things I’ve done in a real long time. Because it’s about community and it’s about localism and it’s about helping the people right in front of me who need help right now. I just encourage everybody, let’s make volunteerism cool again.”
Find out more at newjerseyistheworld.com.