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Chris Gethard’s life has been shaped by chaos — from his short-lived career as a sitcom star, to his pioneering public-access talk show, to his mental-health struggles documented in his excellent HBO special and two highly inspirational books. For the last three and a half years, one constant has remained: Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People. Gethard’s superb interview podcast has received a slew of well-deserved coverage across the internet. Perhaps most impressively, the accomplished and self-deprecating Gethard himself says of the show, “On my best days I think the show crosses over into actually being something important. Like most of my work, it has a healthy cult following but isn’t viewed as being in the full-on mainstream … More than almost anything else I’ve done, I think that’s a real shame.”
It is a real shame. Unlike other interview podcasts, Beautiful/Anonymous’ subjects are random callers, who often bring the depth of a Marc Maron WTF interview combined with the spontaneity of Jersey sports radio. Most episodes offer up a slice of life hard to find amidst the usual lineup of professional and amateur podcast guests. Who needs Marvel movies when you can listen to these everyday superheroes (and some villains) detail their own battles involving love, apathy, substance abuse, scandal, survival, or having a blessed laugh? For my money, the power of Beautiful/Anonymous and Gethard’s compassion as an interviewer reached its highest peak (so far) in episode 161 earlier this year, “Sky Full of Ghosts.”
“Sky Full of Ghosts” is actually a past caller appearing in studio almost one year to the date of episode 104, “The Whirlpool Galaxy.” The original episode is a heartbreaking hour that follows this astrophysicist’s uphill climb after losing both her husband and son in an unspecified accident. The ensuing fallout caused an estrangement from callous members of her family, making the climb even steeper. She somehow endured through it all and decided to pursue a career in astrophysics in an attempt to regain purpose in her life. But there was still a pain in her story left unresolved. By the end of the hour, listeners couldn’t help but root for her to return to anything resembling normalcy, but like most Beautiful/Anonymous episodes, they would probably never get a chance to find out what happened next.
Gethard has recorded follow-up calls and interviewed strangers in person, but prior to this episode he’d never done both at the same time. Two acquaintances talking in a studio for an hour doesn’t sound groundbreaking by any means, but it’s a punk-rock compliment that the most experimental version of Beautiful/Anonymous to date is the closest to a standard podcast format the show has ever taken.
In “Sky Full of Ghosts,” the caller’s story vibrates with a nervous energy and texture a one-hour phone call could never reach. Even the short wait for her to enter the studio is accompanied by Gethard’s trademark anxiety, of course downplaying his in-person conversational skills to lower everyone’s expectations. “I’m much better on the phone than in person. I’m bad at eye contact. I’m a squirmy fellow,” he warns his new friend. It not only makes her comfortable, but the listeners too, since most humans have at some point felt the anticipation of an hour trapped with a stranger, somewhere. The caller is quick to admit that her first appearance was a turning point, in a good way. Coming on the show led her toward acceptance of grief, instead of the avoidance that plagued the first year after the loss. Already there is a change in rapport in the room — the pauses are heavy. Gethard’s nerves have settled. Instead of his scrambling to fill the hour with questions, the gears churn in his head as he listens and processes everything she throws at him. This is intimacy.
The discussion bounces back and forth from Gethard’s playful interest in astrophysics to the caller’s personal life. As she details the changes in her life since her call — the move to a new city, away from supportive friends and unsupportive family and toward the embrace of new, generous friends — she casually drops all sorts of universal wisdom. On the big decision to move to a new town, where she knew zero people: “I didn’t want to be hurt anymore — life’s hurtful enough as it is.” On her family’s lack of support: “Hope can be beautiful, but it’s also not appropriate. They hope, but they could be doing something about it.” She mentions donating her son’s favorite toys to children in need to commemorate his birthday. Random acts of kindness have been a recurring theme of Beautiful/Anonymous, and Gethard is quick to recall his chat with a Las Vegas shooting survivor who also helped herself through helping others. Gethard’s willingness to listen empathetically and give 100 percent of his attention to each of his Beautiful/Anonymous callers is in itself a random act of kindness.
A lot of knowledge-based podcasts come off as regurgitated Wikipedia pages, but here listeners get a mini lesson on the great unknown straight from the source. (Gethard still owes Beautiful/Anonymous fans a screening of Carl Sagan’s Contact per the caller’s assignment.) Sensing the hour coming to a close, the caller pivots this time. She thanks Gethard for being sensitive on their first call and gives him permission to ask more direct questions about the incident. She’s clearly in a more comfortable place than a year ago, explaining that “once you embrace the pain and the grief, it was a powerful feeling, because you realize you survived your worst imagined nightmare, so what else can happen? I can handle anything.” Even impostor syndrome, apparently. Astrophysicists and comedians have way more in common than Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter leads people to believe. Gethard admits how her story affected him as an expectant father and admires her perseverance through it all. “You had 99 reasons to stop in your tracks and one reason to keep going,” he applauds. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own day-to-day anxieties and disappointments, but this tiny portrait of one woman’s bravery helps put all that into perspective. You can’t help but root for her to take us to Mars one day.
The chat winds down with the guest’s stunning recollection of what exactly happened on the day of the accident, and it finally becomes evident the light-years she has traveled — from day one to her first Beautiful/Anonymous call to this interview. Much like any make-believe superhero, the caller will go on to fight many battles we will never hear about. Like the upcoming (at the time of the recording) two-year anniversary of the accident, on which she is determined to overcome her PTSD. Listeners may never find the outcome, but they can take solace in her own lesson: “One of the things I’ve learned to not do is think about the things you don’t have control over … Those things can really torture you.” Thanks to the lens Chris Gethard and Beautiful/Anonymous have provided, the part of the story listeners were lucky to observe — even at such a telescopic distance — will do just fine.
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