The special premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO

By Ariana Bacle
May 05, 2017 at 03:52 PM EDT
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Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Not far into Chris Gethard‘s charming, darkly funny one-man act, he drops a harsh truth: “Sometimes people just break,” he says gently, his face giving way to a wide grin. “Welcome to a comedy show!”

From there, the comedian speaks candidly about his years-long depression and the suicidal urges it caused. It’s heavy stuff, sure, but that’s the point — and it also makes Gethard’s highly silly asides all the more effective, each one a striking relief from whatever somber story he’s telling. At one point, he takes a break from recalling the one time he let a car crash happen — dying that way would be easier for his parents to explain than if he died by a more obvious suicide, he reasons — to deliver an impassioned ode to Edie Falco as Carmela on The Sopranos. “She earned every award she ever won,” he says to the laughing audience. “And that’s the real message of this show tonight.”

That’s a joke, of course (sorry, Edie): The real message is that getting help, no matter how daunting, is better than the alternative. And, as Gethard shows, it’s incredibly daunting. That’s most apparent when he goes back to the time he woke up his mom to tell her he was suicidal, a conversation he recounts in powerful detail, and one that’s ultimately the catalyst for his first attempt at getting better.

“Attempt” is a key word here. Throughout the 90-minute set, Gethard describes the ups and downs of this journey, down to the very graphic, very amusing — for anyone not him, at least — side effects of one medication he went on. It’d be easy for some of these stories to come off as discouraging, as a warning sign to anyone thinking about getting help themselves. But by the end, it’s clear that Gethard’s show isn’t about what a terrible time getting help is; it’s about how necessary — complications and all — getting help is.

This brings us to Barb, Gethard’s shrink. The whole show’s buoyed by amusing tales of her, an eccentric woman with an X-rated past and zero boundaries who proves instrumental in Gethard’s story. Although she’s an unlikely savior, what with her theories that brains are computers invented by aliens, she’s a savior nonetheless. “You don’t get to pick what breaks you,” Gethard says toward the end in a beautifully earnest, Carmela Soprano-free moment. “And you really cannot predict what’s going to save you. But, please, keep your eyes peeled for it. Please. Because I bet that it’s out there, and I bet you can find yours.”

Pop culture about Important Topics is often heralded good simply because of its subject matter. Gethard’s show isn’t good just because it’s about suicide, though. It’s good because he is vulnerable and honest and funny and hopeful, a deft storyteller and living proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel — and that, sometimes, there’s even light inside it, too.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Find more information about suicide here.