Buried in a chapter about his (to put it lightly) not-quite-right grandfather—the man once set his own lawn on fire and did nothing to stop it—Chris Gethard speaks to his mother in an aside: “[Pa] was crazy…but at least he was crazy in a good way.” His mother agrees. “It’s not so bad,” she says. “You just have to figure out how to be crazy in a good way, too.”
The elevator pitch for A Bad Idea I’m About to Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgment and Stunningly Awkward Adventure is that Gethard, a Queens-based comedian who hosts weekly public-access pageant of sketch and stunt The Chris Gethard Show, has found himself in a lot of uncomfortable situations. But that’s only scratching the surface of this frantic, hysterical and essential memoir. Gethard doesn’t just happen across weird things occurring or seek them out because they’d make for great stories. He’s compulsive, diligent and genuine in his love for the offbeat and the strange. When he’s given the unexpected opportunity to live out his childhood dream managing a professional wrestler as the nerdy pimp “White Magic,” he says “Absolutely.” When his favorite teacher asks for a volunteer to accompany him to a local prison’s Scared Straight program, Gethard’s hand shoots up. When his school offers a class called “Animal Grooming, Husbandry And Exhibition. Section: Goat,” Gethard signs up immediately and pre-names his goat “Jeffrey Timmons, World’s Foremost Goat.”
Gethard has found a way to be crazy in the best possible way: Embrace it, then tell as many people as possible. It helps that Gethard is a fantastic storyteller. Bad Idea’s chapters unfold conversationally and contain plenty of nods to how ridiculous the situation might seem to modern-day Gethard—or really anyone reading the book. One chapter recounts the story of his first kiss, which occurred after three weeks away at a debate camp. While there, Gethard stumbled upon another kid in the shower with a full head of pubes and instantly became ashamed of his bald mound. “I was furious at my dick,” he writes. “And instead of suffering quietly, I let it know.” So he screamed at his penis for three weeks before returning to an eager girlfriend, and because he was so embarrassed he cut his first kiss short, forcing her to lie on a pillow in his lap for the entire duration of Say Anything. She dumped him the next day because something was off. “It was just my boner stabbing you in the temple through a pillow,” he thinks to himself.
It becomes impossible to tell whether Gethard truly remembers his thoughts or if he’s ironically winking from the future, but it hardly matters when Gethard himself (and his lack of pubes) is the target of his ire. He freely admits that many of these situations come into being because his emotions don’t have a middle setting; running out of cereal elicits the same sadness as attending the funeral of a relative. Thus when a Princeton student sends him a virus via Instant Messenger, his first instinct is to drive from Rutgers and beat that kid up. The title of the book actually comes from his thoughts just before entering the Princeton dorm, demonstrating Gethard’s uncanny self-awareness (albeit with lack of restraint).
Bad Idea also serves as a chronicle of how that self-awareness grows. It starts by introducing outside factors: his maniacal-at-times father, the aforementioned grandfather, the tale of neighborhood kid Koozo, whose story was the stuff of urban legend. (When his mom’s friend visited Koozo’s house, “Koozo answered the door himself. He was wearing a t-shirt, but was otherwise nude. In his hand he was holding a roll of paper towels. It was on fire.”) He continues into his college years with stories of losing his virginity and combating a particularly hellacious roommate, all the while beginning to understand that his manic-depressive nature makes him more neurotic and confrontational than others. The final few chapters demonstrate that even as a medicated adult he can become unnerved, like when an awkward afternoon with a girlfriend at Coney Island leads to a ridiculous STD scare. This is the part of the book where the material, like Gethard himself, becomes tamer, but Gethard can electrify even an odd-if-not-routine story about a colonic with the opening line, “Doing diarrhea onto another person’s hands is the sort of thing you don’t know you want to do until you do it.”
Gethard is engaging and endearing, humbling himself at every opportunity with as much humiliating detail as possible. And like The Chris Gethard Show, the audience is as much an active part of the story as Gethard himself. There he encourages them to call in with heckles; here he encourages them to embrace their own version of crazy. Life’s a lot more fun that way.