Take Me Back to Dear Old Jersey: Chris Gethard on the Smiths’ ‘The Queen Is Dead’
The comedian and longtime Smiths megafan discusses 'Queen' in advance of the album's 30th birthday
One of America’s funniest boys with the thorn in his side, comedian Chris Gethard may be best known for creating and hosting the anarchic call-in program The Chris Gethard Show (as well as for supporting work on Broad City and The Office), but he moonlights as a high priest of Smiths superfandom. In addition to sporting multiple Morrissey-related tattoos — which have found their way into his stand-up act on multiple occasions — Gethard even fronts the part-time Smiths cover band Mr. Frankly and the Shanklys, crooning shirtless as North Jersey’s very own Faux-rrissey.
We recently caught up with Gethard on the TCGS set, just as he wrapped filming on the show’s second full season on Fusion, to talk about the indie godfathers’ masterpiece (and one of the five best albums of SPIN’s lifetime), The Queen Is Dead, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. Gethard recalled his embattled history of growing up a Smiths fan, explained why he thinks The Queen’s message is even more relevant today than it was three decades ago, and winced in anticipation of being fact-checked by the Smiths’ fan community (including fellow celebrity Moz acolyte Thomas Lennon). Thirty years on, the Smiths’ brightest light — along with Gethard’s devotion — shows no signs of going out anytime soon.
Do you remember the first time you heard The Queen Is Dead?
I actually got into the Smiths via a collection called Singles. I think many people who discovered the Smiths in the ’90s, it was through that compilation. Then I kind of backslid into the albums, and being that I was [too young] when they broke up [in 1987], I didn’t have that experience of getting the albums in order as they came out. So I actually went in reverse order. [Their swansong LP] Strangeways, Here We Come was the first album I really became obsessed with, just randomly. But it was very clear to me as I became more and more of an obsessive that everything pointed toward The Queen Is Dead as their high-water mark. So I dove in, and went all in on that.
When I did finally get into The Queen Is Dead it was pretty transformative. [The 1984 compilation] Hatful of Hollow is actually my favorite Smiths release, because I think it’s kind of punkier. [But] of the four studio albums, Queen Is Dead is incomparable. And my favorite Smiths track is a song from the album. Although I actually feel like “I Know It’s Over” doesn’t stand out for me as much as the live recording on [1988’s] Rank. That’s my favorite recording of the Smiths ever.
And you have a tattoo of lyrics from that song, correct?
I do! “It takes strength to be gentle and kind.” I was having a really bad summer, mostly. It was weird. I’ve often found that many of the stretches of my life that are the most exciting and most positive are simultaneously some of the most unhinged and most negative. I feel like I’m a person who feels big emotional swings, which is part of why I’m a Smiths fan.
But I was having a summer that was very dark at times, but the good parts were really good, and I wanted to do something to remind myself of that. I wanted to remember that when things are bad, life is also pretty great. And the lyrics “It takes strength to be gentle and kind” jumped out to me, and it felt like that would be a good thing to always have to look at and remind myself to be a good person and weather the storm, and remember that there are other people out there with that mentality.
Was there a deliberation between “It takes strength” and the next line’s “It takes guts?”
Yeah, I did have to go back and forth between the two variations. There was also a brief stretch where I thought I might get “Will nature make a man of me yet” [from “This Charming Man”]. I had some friends step in and tell me that one might be a little bit hard-line.
But The Queen Is Dead, the first time I heard it, I was blown away because it’s also one of those weird experiences having heard the singles. You know, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” — you know the singles, and they’re killer, but then to hear that it’s this thing that builds, and has all of these messages in it. Being young and of the MTV generation, you hear the singles and then you buy an album, and then you just keep listening to the singles. The Queen Is Dead is one of the first albums I can remember where you never skipped to the singles. It’s about the whole album. You’re not just waiting to get to the things you already know and love. “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” is such a weird song! But you can’t skip it, never skip it.
How many times in your life would you say you’ve listened to the album?
I mean, it’s up in the thousands — has to be. Especially as someone who grew up in New Jersey, where everybody drives all the time. The amount of times that it would play straight through while I was driving, and then I would listen to it again.
Have your favorite songs on it changed over the years?
It does change. I would say, historically, “Cemetry Gates” is my all-time favorite song off of The Queen Is Dead. The Smiths have this reputation for all of the emotional stuff, and they have a reputation of being a sad band, but I’d actually say that The Queen Is Dead is actually the one that disproves that the most.
It’s a very funny album.
It’s a very, very funny album, and also, I think they get lumped in with the Cure so much, and the Cure played into the sad imagery a lot.
I assume you know that supposed Robert Smith quote about the Smiths? “All Morrissey needs is a steak and a good f**k”?
Yeah, that’s an infamous one. I have a very weird territorial protectiveness of Morrissey that makes me like the Cure less. I listen to the Cure songs and I understand that you can listen to them and like them, the lyrics are great, you can dance to them more than the Smiths. But that being said, man, f**k the Cure. If [Robert Smith] is going to say s**t like that about Morrissey, then he’s the one drawing the line, not me, and I’m proud to stand on Morrissey’s side. I’m Team Morrissey all the way. [Rolls up shirt sleeve to reveal “Morrissey” tattoo.] That’s his actual signature, by the way.
Did you keep your arm unwashed until you got the tattoo?
Yes, absolutely. I turned to a friend of mine who was with me and I said, “I have to get this tattooed, right?” and he said, “Well, your other option is not getting it tattooed, and you’re not doing that.”
But yes, I feel like The Queen Is Dead is a funny album, and part of why it’s their best album is because of where you are at in your life when you listen to [the Smiths], you get different things out of them, more so than any other band I can think of. Most bands may represent a time in your life. But I was young, like 14 or 15, when I discovered them. I was a very troubled and depressed kid, but that wasn’t diagnosed yet, and I wasn’t able to deal with it yet. I would cling to lyrics like “I wear black on the outside / Because black is how I feel on the inside” [from “Unlovable”]. It was like, “This band gets me.”
But then you get older and get your head together, and they’re actually very funny. There was a stretch where I thought The Queen Is Dead was an extremely funny album. But now I’m 36, which I think is officially late-30s. And now I think that the world needed to catch up to the Smiths in many ways. You look at the gender politics of 2016, compared to when Morrissey wrote those songs, and you realize, it must have been very scary at times for Morrissey to face off with people, being who he was, dealing with what he dealt with. He lived in a working-class, emotionally depressed city in the ’80s, when the world is not friendly to feminine men at all. And it’s very interesting to me now, to see all the social movements toward embracing people who don’t view gender as a black-and-white issue. I’m realizing that, to me, The Queen Is Dead had something that I think I identify with.
Being a guy from North Jersey — which I think has some similarities to the Manchester attitude from what I’ve read, as far as toughness goes — what I’m really obsessed with about The Queen Is Dead right now is this idea that you can be a feminine man but still be tough and say, “Nobody’s going to push me around. You don’t get to put me in a box, I still get to stand up for myself, I still get to be tough.” I feel like “Bigmouth Strikes Again” might represent that more than any other song. People always say that the Smiths are really sad, and Morrissey’s very feminine, but there’s a lot of anger, and a lot of toughness in his lyrics, and he’s actually very funny. You don’t need to listen to it too many times to realize that what Morrissey’s actually saying and doing really contradicts the stereotype that other people have of what the Smiths do and say.
Are there any lyrics on the album that absolutely flummox you?
I mean, “Some Girls Are Bigger than Others” is absolutely one that’s a little strange. And “Cemetry Gates,” my favorite song from the album. I’ve always really loved that song because it’s just a slice of life. It’s this very interesting song where, ultimately, it’s about him meeting his friend and wandering around in a cemetery, but it’s also got these opinions on art and staging your most comfortable friendship in a place that is considered the most uncomfortable place for a human. It’s very much a slice-of-life hanging out, but if you want to keep thinking hard about it, you can.
Also, I would say “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” which I think is very publicly known as a diss track against [label head] Geoff Travis from Rough Trade. I think that song is kind of baffling, just that they would do that. They make this catchy, goofy song as a f**k-you to one specific person. They have a level of integrity that crosses over to a point of self-sabotage in a way that you have to laugh at and love. It also makes you realize these guys were the real deal. And maybe that’s why they employed it when major-label success was knocking, because they were self-sabotaging. With a song like “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” it makes it clear, “No, we’re going to do it our way and we’ll tank this whole f**king thing rather than let somebody else push us around as artists.”
There are many ways that, as a comedian, Morrissey and the Smiths influenced me. It’s that feeling of “You have to do it the way you view is the right way, and you have to be willing to walk away from it if anybody tries to meddle with that, and you have to be willing to fail.” You can’t keep giving people the thing they’ve already liked. There are a lot of things about them that I really firmly hold onto in my own set of [professional] ideals, which I think sometimes get in the way, and stop me from busting out on a bigger level. But at the same time, I do look to them with really great admiration for that.
And in addition to being influenced by them as a comedian, you’ve literally performed their songs before.
Yeah, I accidentally started a Smiths cover band. We’re actually called Mr. Frankly and the Shanklys. We’ve been opening up for some of our friends. It’s me and three other guys who are involved in the punk scene. We did it as a cover set at the Fest in Gainesville. People responded to it, and we’ve been asked to open up for other punk bands who are friends of ours.
I was at the Chumped show where you guys opened.
The Chumped show was really interesting. I was baffled because the people in the front row were actually letting me know they were having a bad time, and I called them out. They said, “We hate the Smiths.” The guy front-and-center was glaring at me, and said, “I f**king hate the Smiths.” That’s part of being a Smiths fan — there are people who take great joy in actively hating the Smiths.
There are a few things I remember that I think the world has forgotten a little bit. One, the punk scene loved the Smiths. I knew them as a punk band. You listen to them, and they’re not a punk band, but I would actually argue that they’re one of the most punk bands, if you look at punk as “You do your own thing, you say what you have to say, you don’t compromise or fit into anyone else’s box.” I think the Smiths came out of that world and that era.
But when I was a kid, liking the Smiths… People reacted poorly to that. If you put on a Smiths T-shirt in high school, when the Smiths were not necessarily the coolest thing, it would often be met with an aggressive and closed-minded attitude. “What’s that mean, are you gay?” It was a thing that you had to embrace fully. I was talking with another friend of mine who grew up in Jersey and was a big fan of the Smiths, and he was like, “People don’t remember that you would wear a Smiths T-shirt, and jocks would want to punch you in the f**king face for it, just on principle!” People react very divisively to it, and I think that that’s remarkable. People who don’t like the Smiths really want to let you know.
It’s not always rooted in their music. Some people say they don’t like the music — Morrissey solo stuff, sure, you might not like the music, but you can’t deny that Johnny Marr’s guitar is unique and genius-level. And then there are other people who are like, “Oh, Morrissey is such a clown.” They want to write it off to that. And I’m sure for a lot of those people, it’s true. But I think there are a lot of people who say they hate the Smiths, and it’s actually rooted in some internal angst and some internal reaction to their politics, and they can’t handle just saying that because it makes them look bad.
But even as a mega-fan, I’m sure Morrissey has done some things that have made you kind of cringe a little bit.
I mean, having a Morrissey tattoo when that island got shot up in Norway and the very next night on stage, he said something along the lines of “That was really sad, but more death happens at KFC every single day,” there are a lot of jokes and derision that come my way. Yeah, that was very, very bad timing and completely inappropriate. That being said, he truly believes in animal rights, and he’s going to stick to his guns, and I respect him for it. Though it’s not always the easiest when the world turns around and is like, “Dude, shut the f**k up.”
He doesn’t make it easy, but he stays on message. And you have to respect that. My wife — who’s a vegetarian — is just a couple years older than I am, and she said that when [1985’s] Meat Is Murder came out, Morrissey was the first person who made vegetarianism cool. It was the first time that people could say, “This hip band is endorsing this!” It’s from things like that that you could probably say he’s saved a lot of life on Earth. There are probably a lot of animals that didn’t get eaten because he spoke up about it.
Has performing the man’s songs given you a new respect for him as a vocalist, or a frontman, or a shirtless person?
Well, definitely as a shirtless person. I’ve seen Morrissey live nine times. By anybody’s standards, seeing a band live nine times makes you a very ardent fan, but Smiths fans roll their eyes. I think I’m well-known as a Smiths fan and I’m just enough of a public figure that the whole Smiths community roll their eyes at me as a poser, that someone who’s seen him nine times, has two tattoos, has listened to his songs thousands of times. I think they think I’m faking.
You’re going to get flamed for this?
Oh yeah. Thomas Lennon, if you get a chance to talk to Thomas Lennon — he’s on The Odd Couple, he’s on Reno 911. He puts me to shame. Thomas Lennon puts everyone to shame. There’s nothing you can slip past Thomas Lennon. He’s like a living encyclopedia of Smiths knowledge.
Is crashing into a double-decker bus the height of romance to you?
It’s the absolute most romantic song I’ve ever heard, and I’ll stand by that. There are two songs that, if people don’t like the Smiths, you can get them to admit that they like. You can get them to admit they like “Ask.” People can’t deny that song’s f**king catchy. And then “There Is a Light…” the lyrics are just like poetry. To me, that’s the most romantic song ever written and maybe the best song ever written.
Do you have one favorite memory associated with The Queen Is Dead?
I do. And it’s a very basic one, which is that when I was 24 years old, I moved to Los Angeles for just under six months, and there was no UCB theater out there. I didn’t know anyone who lived in Los Angeles. I always lived in New Jersey, never more than half an hour from my parents, and I had a lot of depression stuff. And moving that far for a job, it was very scary. And a friend of mine bought me a Queen Is Dead T-shirt that I still have today. It was a very comforting thing to just have that shirt and have that album. I think [my friend] knew it would be a little bit of a security blanket for me, and it was.
Any final thoughts, misconceptions you want to clear up about the Smiths?
I just wish people would actually listen to those lyrics and the music and realize that the Smiths are actually four pretty tough dudes from Manchester. My prediction is that there are going to be a wave of thinkpieces that re-examine the Smiths, because that happens every five years or so. But I think many people will get a lot of clicks on their clickbait-y thinkpieces by looking at the Smiths in the context of modern gender politics. Everything that’s happening in North Carolina with bathrooms right now, everything with people being able to define their own sexuality — let’s just all remember as a culture how much s**t everyone put Morrissey through, debating his sexuality, not believing him when he said he was asexual.
If you look at how we’re redefining masculinity in America, and you listen to the Smiths’ lyrics, he’s actually the most tough, badass man — that also embraced his femininity — maybe the world has ever known. And to me, as a guy who’s not the most masculine man, that’s always been an inspired thing. And his lyrics are about kicking you in the eye! That’s kind of why I like “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” I’ve been obsessed with that song lately because of the very first lyric: “Sweetness, I was only joking when I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head.” That’s tough, there’s nothing weak or soft or sad about that. This is a dude who’s going to lace up his boots and kick you down a flight of steps if you hurt the people he loves, or if you threaten him.
I just think the modern world is still catching up. Morrissey took it on the chin, he said a lot of stuff in 1983 that bigots in North Carolina right now are making people’s lives hard about. And to anyone who wrote the Smiths off as a maudlin caricature, you were thinking of the Cure the whole time! Revisit the Smiths and really listen to those lyrics and I bet you might really see some things that you didn’t see the first time around.