MARCH 13, 2018
AFTER THE OPERA SINGER has told the story of marrying her ex-husband the day they met, her relationship with a sociopath, and her life in an ultra-specialized career, she finally coaches the comedian on his vibrato. He announces that he’s stepping away from the microphone, flexing his diaphragm, and then he lets out a warbling note. He admits that it was terrible, but she laughs and reassures him politely.
“I feel like I’ve done way too much talking,” she says afterward.
“Well, it is a podcast that’s based around the idea of conversation, so I wouldn’t say that,” he replies.
The comedian is Chris Gethard, host of the podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, which celebrated its 100th episode this February. The opera singer is unnamed, though after an hour-long conversation, not unknown. The conceit is this: Gethard takes a phone call from an anonymous stranger and they talk for 60 minutes, during which Gethard can’t hang up but the caller may disconnect at any time. Or, as he introduces each episode, “One phone call, one hour, no names, no holds barred.” (Gethard is a fan of both professional wrestling and punk rock.)
The opera singer is a longtime listener, first-time caller. “Your podcast is a huge thing for me,” she continues, “because it celebrates this idea of opening up and talking and the human connection. Beautiful/Anonymous is my favorite podcast, because I’m introverted […] I get a lot of my social stuff from this, being able to connect with the callers. And I love hearing people’s stories.”
“That’s very nice,” he replies. “Here at Beautiful/Anonymous we’re all about the human connection, and also sometimes poop stories. Also, that one time, just really graphic poop stories.”
It works like this: when Gethard is in the recording studio, he tweets out a phone number and people call in for the chance to participate. There’s no set schedule, no queue, and almost no vetting — producers simply make sure they have a clear phone connection. In the style of old-school radio contests, callers depend on plain luck to get through the line. The show recently broke its own record when nearly 17,000 people dialed in for one episode. A producer answers, connects the call to Gethard in the studio, and the phone hangs up after 60 minutes. Conversation topics range from geology to Satanism, gun control to scatological humor, and nothing is off-limits except names and identifying details. But there’s been no need to censor, no hate speech or offensive language, and it’s even a running joke for callers to apologize to Gethard’s mother — “sorry, Sally” — after they curse. The concept dictates that callers can hang up anytime, but Gethard can’t. That fail-safe has only been used once — the caller claimed he had to get back to work — and seems so unnecessary it makes one wonder what the producers expected when they made the rule. Were callers going to yell at Gethard, and he had to take it? Did they presume some combative conversation in which the caller decides to bow out? If so, Gethard is the wrong guy.
Beautiful/Anonymous and its host are a near-perfect match. At 37, Gethard is a staple in the New York comedy scene, with an offbeat career. In conversations on Beautiful/Anonymous, he describes himself as Springsteen-esque, an awkward working-class kid from New Jersey who champions the little guy. He has often been the underdog, with bit parts on shows like Broad City and Parks and Recreation while his friends like 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer have gone on to national TV glory. For three seasons, he ran an eponymous oddball talk show on public access television, which now airs new episodes on truTV. The most popular episode featured a dumpster on-set, while viewers called in to guess what was inside. In addition to his quirkiness, Gethard’s fans appreciate his openness about his struggles with mental health. There doesn’t seem to be much he won’t share, and he has recounted drug use and suicide attempts in his comedy. Last year, he detailed his experiences with depression and anxiety in an off-Broadway show-turned-HBO-special, Career Suicide. While that may not seem like the funniest material, he’s long been a master of fusing comedy and tragedy, and fans love him for his honesty and his bucking of the status quo (remember: punk rock, public access dumpster). He’s like the Pied Piper of the uncool, and one of the first iTunes reviews for Beautiful/Anonymous describes him as “the weirdo’s hero.”
This notion of being a weirdo, just like his fans, is a thread throughout his work. By branding himself as a misfit underdog, he has established himself as a sort of egalitarian performer, breaking down the distinction between entertainer and audience. Hosting Beautiful/Anonymous, where he allows other people to share their stories, seems like a logical next step. It feels as though he is saying, “You’ve heard all of my secrets, now let’s hear yours.” When so much of his work pulls from the sad, awkward, funny moments of his life, it feels authentic when he listens to the sad, awkward, funny moments of someone else’s. In the intro to a recent episode, he says, “The whole premise of this podcast might just be, ‘Maybe we can all be okay. Let’s talk about it.’”
Beautiful/Anonymous is all a bit more warm-hearted than perhaps even the creators expected. It is almost quaint to hear people’s candid, extemporaneous voices now that hour-long phone calls have become passé and most personal communication is done by text message. For a podcast hosted by a stand-up comedian, it isn’t really funny, at least not consistently. Gethard makes jokes but mostly it’s just strangers talking, with a vibe somewhere between a first date and a therapy session, and all of the ice-breakers and sadness and mundanity and, yes, humor, two people can share in an hour. Participants call on their lunch hours, in their cars, tethered to their phone charger on the floor of their office, from a storage unit, while getting a tattoo, in a Dunkin’ Donuts bathroom, while walking the streets of France. They are a midwife, a public defender, a queer black punk from Appalachia, a teenager who just experienced her first kiss. They tell their life stories, or sometimes just chit-chat, and their stories are ordinary, fascinating, serious, light — often all at once.
When the show began in March 2016, most of the callers were already fans of Gethard’s: comedy nerds and aspiring artists and twentysomethings nervous about their careers. The episodes began to feel a little one-note, so a voicemail box was set up so people could leave a pitch for what they’d talk about if they ever got on the show. These messages have been used for a call a handful of times, such as with a transgender man who wanted to share his experience, and with a black veteran from Charlottesville soon after the tragedy there. As the show gained traction — thanks in large part to an excerpt on This American Life — callers became more diverse, including a Southern woman in her 50s who wanted to discuss her support of Donald Trump. It was a vast departure from Gethard’s usual demographic, and as he respectfully disagreed with her politics, he also empathized with her stories of motherhood and domestic abuse. It aired in mid-2016, when Americans were beginning in earnest to pull away from each other, making this coming together seem simultaneously shocking, uncomfortable, and important. It was one of the most compelling episodes of the show’s run.
Beautiful/Anonymous shares DNA with longform interview shows like Marc Maron’s WTF and the thoughtful features of public radio, but it isn’t quite like anything else. Gethard’s style is unique: more conversational than an interview, yet more one-sided than a conversation. Like Beautiful/Anonymous, S-Town and This American Life cover the lives of regular people, but those interviews are researched, edited, and crafted by the producers; the stories are told by others. Instead, the conversations in Beautiful/Anonymous are expressed — verbatim, in their entirety — by the protagonists themselves, like The Moth without the polish or StoryCorps with a host. Beautiful/Anonymous is raw footage, like the “Before” image of a prestige radio segment. And in that way, it may be the most authentic podcast there is.
True authenticity, of course, is arguable — likely impossible — in any public medium. Participants are, by definition, listeners of the show, and often will refer to past episodes in a sort of meta-conversation. A phone call with a stranger isn’t the most natural setting, and it’s even harder to have a real conversation when there’s an element of fandom involved — some callers idolize Gethard and are nervous to talk to him. Knowing that they’re speaking to him, and to an invisible audience, inevitably shapes their stories, whether consciously or not. Gethard plays a role in shaping these stories as well. He asks questions that are most interesting to him, but it would be naïve to assume that he’s not also guiding the conversation into what makes good radio.
Except it’s not always good radio, not in the constructed way we’ve come to expect. Sometimes conversations are awkward or repetitive or over-eager, because in real life, people are most definitely awkward, repetitive, and over-eager. Yes, some episodes are shocking: the mother who unknowingly married a pedophile; the immigrant who fled the civil war in El Salvador; the guy with four kids who doubts that his wife still loves him … and hasn’t talked to anyone else about it. But many are boring, regular conversations with regular people. The college student skipping her internship to make the call. The millennial who recently fell in love. The pregnant woman who lies that it’s her birthday. Gethard’s callers aren’t media-trained, and they don’t speak like prepared entertainers or pundits. There’s an air of truth to what they’re saying and how they say it. Even if total public authenticity is doubtful, Beautiful/Anonymous comes close.
There’s a larger value in listening to regular people. That they are featured so prominently on a podcast gives weight to their stories, their lives, and, thus, to the listener’s. Beautiful/Anonymous highlights the individuality of people’s stories and shows that there aren’t any one-note lives. My descriptions — the opera singer, the immigrant — are incomplete. No one is a cliche or a type; there are no basic bitches or typical bros. Similarly, no caller is a celebrity or memoirist or subject of a TV drama, but all of their stories have humor, pathos, and validity just the same. There are as many fascinating conversations as mundane ones, and then you realize that even the mundane ones are fascinating in their own way.
This appreciation of the average Joe is thanks to Gethard himself. In conversation, he’s enthusiastic and attentive, and is able to find a connection with anyone. Like the intern, he also majored in American Studies! He and the Australian both love Morrissey! He swaps supernatural stories with a ghost hunter! He’s non-judgmental and impressed with people’s stories. He asks probing questions, shares his own anecdotes, and thoughtfully challenges the points he disagrees with. He’ll give a little shit and crack a few jokes too; you can’t take the comedian out of the interviewer. Just as he does in his comedy work, Gethard seems genuine and vulnerable on the show, like when he cried openly while talking to a mother waiting for her five-year-old’s cancer prognosis. Participants often feel so comfortable that they mistakenly say their name, though any slip-ups are bleeped. Each episode, Gethard develops a connection with the caller, which filters over to the listener; it’s what the opera singer experienced as both.
Most interesting is the vast emotional ground covered in these conversations, which almost always turn intimate — often dark — but still maintain an element of lightness. The Charlottesville veteran plays Mario Kart during his call. A major crimes detective microwaves a Hot Pocket. The Australian guy recounts his suicide attempt and then ends the call in a sing-along, with Gethard, to the show’s hold music. Of course, it’s impossible to cover the whole of someone’s identity in an hour, but it’s amazing how much Gethard is able to mine in that time, like a cross-section of a person’s life. Everyone has joy and pain and occasionally funny stories about vomiting. Some conversations are entirely pleasant, but never wholly dark, which says something about humanity — we skew toward the positive, the fun, and, like Gethard, avoid letting the darkness overtake us.
Gethard’s honesty about his own mental illness seems to be the major thing that brings people to the podcast, both as callers and listeners. Almost every caller mentions a struggle with mental health, and his public vulnerability allows them to be vulnerable too. Some callers may believe he’s better than a therapist because he’ll admit to his own issues, and though he avoids giving advice (his own shrink told him not to) he often becomes a reluctant mental health guru. When the mother in the children’s hospital says, “You get to be my therapist for the next hour,” Gethard hesitates. “Well, I can’t be that…” he says. Instead, he’ll often respond with “I’m sorry you’re going through that” — supportive, noncommittal, but apparently genuine. The show sometimes moves into self-help territory, and the less generous listeners among us may roll our eyes at the melodrama in some of these stories: everyone has problems, why should we listen to yours? But Gethard doesn’t. And that’s the key — he cares about people, so we care about people.
What’s notable is that these are real, ordinary people. Not real people who become YouTube stars or reality show favorites. Not real people who are tracked and meme-ified like Damn Daniel and Ken Bone. Anyone can become a blogger or Instagram influencer, with the backlash that may come along with it. Beautiful/Anonymous gives people an opportunity to be heard as themselves, with more nuance than a meme and without the glory — or burden — of recognition. Callers get the chance to say anything they want to a large audience — most episodes are listened to by over 100,000 people — without the expectation of fame. And for listeners, in an age of curated online presences and #brands, it’s moving to hear someone share something that isn’t connected to their constructed persona.
Anonymous media isn’t groundbreaking. A decade ago the website PostSecret displayed unsigned postcards of funny, shocking, or sad secrets to millions of readers, and now famed psychotherapist Esther Perel broadcasts an anonymous couples therapy session on her podcast Where Should We Begin?. It’s no less compelling to listen to Beautiful/Anonymous and hear the personal stories of love, abuse, and longing about families, partners, politics, and jobs, with a level of honesty only available to those who are unidentified. In this way, Beautiful/Anonymous presents a paradox: though names and biographical details are usually the first thing we learn about people, in the show we start to deeply know someone who remains unnamed. In today’s world, we are so closely connected to the daily lives of our friends, but the conversations in Beautiful/Anonymous contain things people can’t share with family, therapists, in Snapchat stories, or possibly anywhere else. “I can just be openly blatantly honest with you ‘cause that’s the whole point of this, right?” one caller says early in the hour. “Yeah,” Gethard replies, “no one’s ever going to know.”
Gethard says the goals of the show are human connection, giving someone a platform, and bringing people together in a time when our world feels so fractured. That’s a lot for one podcast to take on, and it doesn’t quite accomplish all of it — at least not in every episode. Gethard hopes listeners will benefit from hearing differing opinions, at a time when the current political climate has closed people off to dialogue. Which, okay sure, the show does that. But we already have cable news panels and coastal thinkpieces and Hillbilly Elegy. The value of Beautiful/Anonymous isn’t solely political. It’s in simply listening to people, with all of their complexities and contradictions, unbounded by names, identities, and the expectations around them. After 45 minutes, we learn that the Salvadoran immigrant was paralyzed by shrapnel. The ghost hunter is also a Sandy Hook denier. The Russian sex worker is a Christian who harbored a murderous revenge plot after he was raped. You may disagree or judge or cry or fall in love with them for an hour, but either way you’re listening.
There’s an irony, though, to the idea of feeling connected to anonymous strangers through a podcast. On the subway, with Beautiful/Anonymous in my headphones, I’m not engaged with the anonymous strangers surrounding me, but rather a conversation that was taped weeks ago and that doesn’t include me. The show becomes both a throwback — phone calls — and a symbol of our contemporary disengagement — listening alone. There’s safety in the anonymity for the caller, naturally, but for the listener too. We can feel close to someone we don’t have to see or know in any other context. For us perhaps it’s a baby step, a low-stakes connection. You don’t actually have to make a new friend, or more scarily, talk to anyone who disagrees with you. As I’m listening, I understand that the lives of the strangers around me are surely as rich as the one in my headphones. Listening to Beautiful/Anonymous is an exercise in empathy, thanks predominantly to Gethard himself. He feels it, he shows it, and he brings it out in us. We learn empathy by his example.
I wonder whether Beautiful/Anonymous has encouraged anyone to be more open and vulnerable in their own life. The fact remains that in public, in person, with our own identities, the barrier between our interior and exterior selves is hard to cross. But while there is no empirical evidence for this, I have a feeling that the show makes people kinder, or at least more thoughtful about the lives that surround them. What Beautiful/Anonymous seems to be saying, or — I should be honest — what it says to me, is that your regular-person life, with or without jokes or success or depression or a million Twitter followers, is good enough. And that there is value in sharing it, for both the speaker and the listener.
At its best, the show is about the power of conversation, whether intense or casual. It’s fascinating to listen to two people just talking, the awkward dance toward intimacy, and we hear something deep and true from a person like us. Or not at all like us, but somehow there is a feeling that we’re in this life together. It’s not a constructed reality show or a crafted essay, just a conversation about being in the world. We listeners are voyeurs, but we can find ourselves in others’ minutiae, insecurities, jokes, and tragedies. These stories act as mirrors for our own, or windows to other lives. Either way, we feel less alone.
Katy Hershberger is a writer and book publishing professional living in New York. She is an MFA candidate in Nonfiction at The New School and her work has appeared on TinHouse.com, Bustle, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @katyhersh