Every week, comedian and podcast host Chris Gethard sits down in a recording studio in New York, tweets out a phone number to his nearly 80,000 Twitter followers, and then watches as thousands of calls flood in and light up the boards.
After a moment, he answers one of them. Only one.
Gethard doesn’t know who the caller is or what they want to talk about, but he’s going to stay on the phone with them for a full hour. That’s basically the only rule of the weekly podcast: Gethard cannot hang up the phone.
The podcast, which Gethard will be recording live at the TLA on June 9, is called “Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People” (or just “Beautiful/Anonymous”) and has become something of a cult hit since it launched during March of last year.
In a field of online radio shows full of high-profile celebrity interviews or “This American Life”-style magazine journalism, “Beautiful/Anonymous” stands out as a completely freeform (and only lightly edited) podcast about everyday people.
Sometimes the calls are light-hearted (“We had an episode that was just a guy telling poop stories,” Gethard says), other times they’re intensely dark and troubling. But they can also be joyful, or tragic, or awkward, or inspirational — or all of the above. The show truly runs the emotional gamut.
“I never know which way it’s gonna go,” says Gethard, over the phone on a recent Monday morning. “There’s that moment of anticipation where we put out the phone number and we know, in the first 10/15 minutes, we’re gonna find out what kind of ride we’re on.” Every episode is a surprise.
But the show itself has been a surprising ride for the comedian. During the past year, “Beautiful/Anonymous” has morphed into something not entirely expected, says Gethard, who admits, “I thought this was gonna be a comedy podcast, straight up. I thought it was gonna be comedy fans, young people who were fans of my previous work, calling me up and kind of messing with me.”
After a particularly emotional episode was featured on “This American Life” in April 2016, though, the tone of the show — and the kinds of callers it attracted — shifted considerably.
“We were just flooded with calls from tortured people with dark secrets,” people in the throes of existential peril, Gethard explains. “And, all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Is it even fair to call this comedy at this point?’” These days, “existential peril is kind of the running theme of the podcast,” he jokes.
The most honest moments of the podcast occur when “people call in and realize that the thing they wanted to talk about only lasted for about 20 minutes of conversation,” with 40 minutes still on the clock, he says. “You had this thing in your head, but we’re done with that, so now you might say the most random thing in the world. You might say something crazy, or sad, or hilarious. I don’t know what’s coming.”
He calls this “the real moment of truth,” the turning point that so often makes an episode of “Beautiful/Anonymous” memorable.
“People’s favorite episodes are the ones that took some turns we weren’t expecting; I’m not expecting it and the caller’s not expecting,” he says. “There can be a nerve-wracking moment, where I’m thinking, ‘Am I even going to be able to make anything entertaining out of this?’” That’s usually when Gethard’s show-business chops kick in.
About 17 years ago, the comedian joined the improvisational-comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade. Now, if a podcast conversation wanders onto awkward terrain, the host tends to lean on that experience.
Improv “absolutely helps me think on my feet and roll with the punches” on the podcast, says Gethard, who recently co-starred in “Don’t Think Twice,” a film about struggling improv comics. “It also helps create this environment [where] people know I’m not looking to shut them down or make them feel dumb or make fun of them. I’m trying to work with them to get their idea out there.”
But there are benefits to making “Beautiful/Anonymous” that go beyond helping callers.
Gethard, whose recent HBO special “Career Suicide” confronts his history with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, says there’s something comforting, and perhaps even therapeutic, in taking a break during a stress-heavy work week to have an honest chat with a stranger.
“There are so many people that, while I’m on the phone with them, my heart bleeds for them. I find myself rooting so hard for them,” he says. “It’s pretty nice for me, as someone who is a workaholic, who is riddled with anxiety that keeps me in my shell, to have a thing where every week I just talk with another human being.”
Hearing him talk about the show this way, it makes sense that Gethard would want to share the feeling of being actively involved in making it, which is what he’s doing by bringing “Beautiful/Anonymous” to audiences across the U.S. and Canada.
Unlike a live concert or comedy show, there is no set-list, no script, no telling where the show will go. But that uncertainty is part of the excitement, he says.
“I think there’s some concern: Are people gonna sit there and listen to a phone call all night? And, in my heart, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I think so,’” Gethard says. “But I think there’s enough exhibitionist weirdos out there who want to call, and enough voyeuristic weirdos who want to listen, and I think we can all get in a room, sit down, and have a good time.”
At the very least, it sounds like the show should be memorable, whether it ends up being funny, joyous, or grim — “or a disaster!” Gethard interjects. “Let’s be honest.”
“For years, I’ve given the caveat about my work that it might be a disaster, but I promise you it will be a watchable disaster,” he says. “I think some of my greatest moments as an entertainer have been people watching me go down in flames for their amusement.”
“Worse comes to worst,” he says, “that’s what this show will be.”