In an age when you can’t turn a corner of the internet without tripping over a comedy podcast, it would be easy to overlook another show featuring another standup conducting interviews. But in the case of the new Earwolf podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, or Beautiful/Anonymous for short, there are two crucial differences: first, the standup is Chris Gethard; second, all of the interviews are with totally anonymous strangers.
The rules are simple, but straightforward: callers are allowed to talk about whatever they want for up to an hour and can hang up at any time (Gethard himself is not allowed to terminate the call). But they have to remain completely anonymous. Personal details are revealed coyly, and only rarely at Gethard’s request.
It’s refreshing that Beautiful/Anonymous doesn’t inhabit the same vacuum chamber currently occupied by countless comedy shows on countless podcast networks – standup X talks to Improviser Y about standup and improv. Lather, rinse, repeat. To be clear, I love those podcasts as much as the next comedy nerd, but how many times have we all sat listening to You Made It Weird or WTF and fantasized about what it would be like to be a guest on one of these shows? With Beautiful/Anonymous, it’s finally happening, one lucky stranger at a time. And it means that, free from the confines of bits, plugs, and junkets, we get to hear a totally genuine conversation.
What truly sets the podcast apart, though, is Gethard’s uncanny ability to draw people out. Half of the time, anonymous guests call in with a pre-set agenda. They have something they want to talk about, and Gethard patiently engages with them, but he always guides them towards a more worthwhile topic, usually something mentioned off-hand. One caller phones in to talk about parking in New York City, and eventually finds himself examining his ego and artistic aspirations. Another wants to tell a personal story about obtaining a passport on short notice, but is coaxed by Gethard into discussing his strict religious upbringing.
The anonymity is part of the puzzle that lets this magic happen, but the crucial driver is the host himself. The self-proclaimed Godfather of Alt Comedy, no one is more skilled than Gethard at finding the hilarious and remarkable in ordinary people. It’s the linchpin of his endlessly funny and innovative television show, The Chris Gethard Show (now entering its second season on Fusion). In his years of taking anonymous calls from viewers, especially in the public access days, Gethard showcased his ability to wait out the things that fans thought might be funny or interesting and get down to what’s actually funny and interesting – the fans themselves. Whether or not it’s his goal, the end result always seems to be a particular rapport between Gethard and his nameless guest, and listeners will find that the affinity is disseminated through their earbuds.
Perhaps the best example of the show’s power to create empathy is the most recent episode, in which a young woman calls in and asks Gethard what animal he would prefer to be eaten by, and over the course of an hour, relates her struggles with homelessness and sex work. Laughing through her tears, she wins Gethard and the audience over easily with her courage and willingness to be vulnerable. By the end the host decides, inevitably, to break his own rules – they stop the clock, she reveals her identity, and he calls on his dedicated fanbase to rally and offer their support. Gethard is rooting for her to the point that he is yelling at the producers, and you shouldn’t be surprised if you pump your fist in the air right along with him.
The level of intimacy achieved by Beautiful/Anonymous would be surprising if it didn’t feel so effortless, and perhaps it’s because the stakes are low. The only objective is a truly interesting conversation, and the show clears the bar every time. But even more than that, it leaves you with a stark reminder that each one of us has our own struggle, and our own worth. Beautiful/Anonymous is the kind of podcast that makes you fall in love with humanity.
Photo by Atisha Paulson/FUSION.