In an era of texting and Facetime, Chris Gethard is skilled at getting people talking on the phone.
His podcast, Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, consists entirely of phone conversations between the comedian and complete strangers who share stories, thoughts, and whatever else comes to mind.
The only rule? Gethard can’t hang up until his caller does.
When Gethard answers the phone for our interview, he’s his typically warm, irreverent self, and is especially excited about his current standup tour, which stops at Acme this week.
“I’m very proud of all the different stuff I do,” he says, “but I feel like I’ve been working these muscles very hard for many years and I haven’t really unleashed them.”
He isn’t kidding about all the “different stuff” he does: In addition to Beautiful Stories, Gethard was, up until its cancellation earlier this month, the host of the anything-goes TV variety program The Chris Gethard Show, a charmingly gonzo comedic experiment that celebrated the weirdness in all of us. (A typical episode featured an “under the sea prom” with Lena Dunham as a mermaid and a performance from They Might Be Giants.)
“I think I’m known for doing stuff that’s a little weird and experimental,” he says. “The Chris Gethard Show can be very strange at times. But at the same time, I go up on stage in New York multiple times a week, drilling jokes. I try to find themes that connect them and emotional angles that unify them. This is full-speed ahead comedy. No artsy experiments, just lock and load, let’s go.”
This back-to-basics approach is also notable because his last standup turn, last year’s acclaimed HBO special Career Suicide, addressed Gethard’s struggles with depression and anxiety, albeit in Gethard’s humble and warm style. (He also touches on these topics in Lose Well, a very funny and touching book about learning from failure out in October.)
When asked why he wanted to talk about these subjects so publicly, Gethard says it started as a challenge from friend and fellow standup Mike Birbiglia.
“He sat me down one day and asked, ‘What’s the most real that stuff got?’” When Gethard replied that he purposely crashed his car because there’s less shame in car crashes than suicide, “[Birbiglia] just paused, burst out laughing, and said, ‘You’ve gotta tell that on stage. You’ve got a way of connecting to people. It may actually mean something to people.’”
As it turns out, it did: Gethard hears every day from people affected by mental health issues. In fact, between this correspondence, his podcast, and the call-ins of The Chris Gethard Show, so much of his career has become an ongoing conversation, which he clearly loves.
“[The podcast has] been so eye-opening,” he says. “People tell you their stories one hour at a time. It’s just made me a better person. It makes me a little more considerate, more willing to slow down.”
One episode featured a call from a woman going to prison in four days; another recent caller talked about growing up in Northern Ireland with a Catholic mother and a Protestant father.
While this interview took place just days before his TV show’s cancellation, Gethard had a feeling the show’s recent season was its last.
“It’s been a project that’s existed for nine years of my life,” he says. “We’ve made over 200 episodes on multiple platforms. When the show’s fun, it’s the most fun thing in my life… I’d be thrilled to keep doing it, and if not, I’d be very happy to see what’s next.”
He also addressed the show’s possible cancellation in what ended up being the series finale by echoing his book’s main thesis: Failure can be just as valuable as success.
“It was always a show about failure and about losing, and I think we nailed that. I think we lost so well around here that we eventually succeeded.”
IF YOU GO:
Acme Comedy Co.
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 10:30 p.m. Saturday