Standup comic sparks frank conversation of mental health with WOHS

Chris Gethard

WEST ORANGE, NJ — When comedian Chris Gethard posted a speech for the students at his former high school on his Instagram page on Feb. 1, it created a stir that he wasn’t expecting. A West Orange native and member of the West Orange High School Class of 1998, Gethard said district administrators had suggested that his comedy work, which features discussions about mental health and suicide, would have to be toned down if he were to return to WOHS and speak to students.

Gethard is the former host of truTV’s “The Chris Gethard Show” and has a standup special on HBO called “Chris Gethard: Career Suicide.” In October, Gethard’s book “Lose Well,” which tells stories of his own life, was released. A former classmate with whom Gethard has kept in touch asked him why WOHS had never invited him to speak to students, and Gethard said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Feb. 7 that the classmate also emailed the district to ask.

The response, which came from the superintendent’s office in September, said, “The Superintendent is glad to pass this opportunity over to the principal but would require an outline of the presentation or a direct contact with a publicist for Chris Gethard. The presentation would need to be tailored to be appropriate for students as compared to the program that airs on HBO. As always, we very much appreciate your consideration of the West Orange Public Schools. Thank you.”

Gethard said that he wasn’t really interested in returning to WOHS to speak anyway, but was fine with his friend asking. However, he wasn’t fine with the response he received.

“I’m not saying everything I do is family appropriate,” he said. “But it said the HBO special was inappropriate. I feel a little silly, because I wasn’t looking to go back and they weren’t looking to have me, but I thought the topic was really important to discuss because I went through a lot of those experiences at that age.”

So to address students without actually taking the stage at WOHS, Gethard wrote the speech he would have given and posted it online.

“I am the first to admit that certain aspects of my career are inappropriate for high school students,” he wrote. “You could have pointed to literally any of 95 different episodes of TCGS from over the years and said ‘I don’t think this is the guy for us. Thanks, but no thanks.’ And I would have said ‘Yes, that makes sense!’”

Gethard added that of all of the topics his comedy covers, mental health and suicide are the most appropriate for high school students. They are issues he has struggled with himself and had he been able to talk about them as a student at WOHS, maybe he would have had an easier time, he said.

In the speech, he also linked to a New York Times article from 1998 about Jonah Eskin, a WOHS student who took his own life before Gethard was a freshman at the high school. From what Gethard can remember, there was little support for students after Eskin died.

“I don’t remember anyone saying a thing about it to us. I remember kids whispering about it. I remember hearing his name. I remember people pointing out who his friends were. But I don’t remember a single teacher, administrator, counselor or anyone taking any time to explain to us students what had happened,” Gethard said in the speech. “Maybe they did. It was over 20 years ago, maybe I’ve forgotten. I want to be fair and say that might be the case. Or maybe counseling was only available for kids in his grade. I don’t know for sure. But among friends I’ve talked to — not one person remembers the adults taking the time or effort to help us understand what happened. We were teenaged kids. We could have used that.”

After Gethard posted the speech, he said it took on a life of its own. The speech, which he expected to be seen only people who follow his work and some others he grew up with, captured the attention of many others, including WOHS Principal Hayden Moore.

Moore responded to Gethard online, saying that he had never received Gethard’s friend’s request to have the performer speak at the school, and asked him to reach out.

“I never got that, so I didn’t get a chance to speak with him,” Moore said. “That’s unfortunate, because I didn’t know about it. We’re open to it and I hope that all former Mountaineers feel that the high school is still supporting them.”

“Mental health is one of my key platforms & I would love to speak w/ u about coming to speak to our students,” Moore said in a Feb. 3 tweet.

Since the exchange, Gethard and Moore have spoken on the phone.

“We’ve talked privately,” Moore said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Feb. 7. “What I’m trying to do is create a positive exchange. He was absolutely wonderful.”

The conversation between Gethard and the superintendent’s office happened in September, before the departure of former Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky on Oct. 19. Former Assistant Superintendent Eveny de Mendez has since taken over as acting superintendent. De Mendez did not respond to a request for comment by press time Feb. 12.

Moore said the school administration works with all speakers who visit WOHS about what they say to make sure it is appropriate for students, and take into consideration the topics and how they are presented to students.

“For the most part, students are minors,” Moore said. “I don’t want to say we censor people, but we do have a conversation about content and how it is presented. Mental health is truly important to us and we understand that it is important to talk about. I want to make sure that people are aware that we want to work with students on these topics and help support them through it.”

Gethard said he was impressed with Moore’s response and the conversation they had after he posted the speech.

“He seems like such an open and honest person,” the performer said of Moore. “It’s a conversation he wants to have and I’m hoping some good can come from it and that people can have that conversation. I got the sense that the students there are in the hands of someone more open than I was and that’s great to see.”

Since he was never really looking to return to WOHS in the first place, Gethard said that maybe he can serve the community in another way.

“I hope old neighbors don’t think I was trying to make trouble,” Gethard joked. “We’ve talked about ways we can build something out of it. Anyone who follows me knows I never shut up about New Jersey. I love West Orange, I try to mention West Orange in every set I do, so I hope putting it out there and moving forward will help.”