In every episode of Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, Chris Gethard gets on the phone with a complete stranger, and plays a role that’s equal parts interviewer, confessor, and confidant. Over the course of 120 episodes, he’s heard from the likes of an Australian aerialist turned sexual education teacher, a former cult member, and a woman who found out her husband was into child porn, all speaking freely, anonymously, and with the promise that Gethard can’t hang up. “It’s sort of hard to shock me at this point,” he recently told The A.V. Club.
This week’s Beautiful/Anonymous, however, was an exception. “I am living my own version of Orange Is The New Black,” the caller tells Gethard, going on to describe how she, like Piper Chapman and the memoirist who inspired her, is headed to prison on drug-trafficking charges, after turning herself in. “Very early on, I was like, ‘Oh, I got to buckle up for this one because this lady has really got a perspective that I’m never going to hear again and that I’ve never heard before,” Gethard said.
In an exclusive interview with The A.V. Club, Gethard previewed the episode, compared the Beautiful/Anonymous experience to riding a roller coaster, and hoped that this doesn’t end in his beheading (though he jokes that’d be a fitting end to such an unpredictable career).
The A.V. Club: A call like this has the promise of a juicy story behind it, but you also don’t want to exploit this stranger who’s being very open and vulnerable with you. How do navigate that fine line?
Chris Gethard: And hence the major concern I have with every episode of this podcast. I want to make it an environment where they feel free to share what they want to share—and even more so free to hold back on things that seem like a bad idea in the moment. So I really do try to say, “Hey, I’m going to ask you some questions—if any of them are uncomfortable, feel free to tell me to back off.” I always try to make it clear that they don’t need to be sensationalistic. If you hang back on some details or it gets a little boring, the worst thing that happens is we just don’t put it out. But your comfort, your feeling of safety, that’s priority number one.
AVC: Have you been expecting to get a call like this?
CG: I don’t expect anything. This podcast has changed the way I walk down the street—like I’m sitting in a restaurant right now and there are seven human beings in this restaurant with me and I’ve come to firmly believe that if I sat any one of these seven people down and said, “Hey, I won’t tell anybody. No one will ever know about it. What’s the real story with you?”, they’re going to have something that you’re never going to see coming and it’s going to blow you away. Every time I sit down in that studio [for Beautiful/Anonymous]and I get ready to tweet out that phone number, it’s the same feeling when you sit down on a rollercoaster, and you pull that safety bar over your lap and the worker comes by and pulls on it to make sure it’s tight. That’s my mentality: “What the fuck is the world about the throw at me this time?”
AVC: Do you think she’ll call back when the sentence is over? Do you think this is an episode that gets a bookend?
CG: In the very early days, we were so overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for the podcast that we did not keep people’s contact info. Now, just in case, there’s all sorts of contingencies. We just keep the phone numbers. I never see them. Our producers note the person’s contact info. For the first time ever a movie producer just contacted me about wanting to contact one of these people to write about their lives. It’s a cool thing.
So with [this week’s caller], it’s a tough thing because it really is “Oh, how do we get in touch with you?” “Well, I guess I have to call from a payphone in a prison and we need to sort out a time.” But we’re planning on doing a series called Beautiful Followups. It’s going to come out maybe the end of this year, beginning of next year. Some of the calls that people have talked about the most, let’s see if they want to do a round two and let us know the updates on their lives. And she’s definitely one of them. She actually suggested we should do another call from the prison, so this is one that I would imagine might not even have a bookend, it might have a beginning and middle, and maybe some day a half-decade from now I’m able to follow up, get the postscript.
AVC: When you get off a call like this, is it something you have to run by Earwolf’s legal department? Also, she was working for a drug cartel: Are you at all worried about reprisal?
CG: I haven’t totally thought about the cartel implications until right now. Here’s the thing about being me: I’ve lived such a weird life and I’ve done so many weird things that if a cartel beheads me, is there any funnier way for the life of Chris Gethard to end? I do often think about legacy and the storytelling aspect of my life, and for a guy who’s never attained mainstream success—between the failed sitcom and the public-access show, and now phone calls being such a big piece of my career, I’m a weird dude. I’ve walked a weird path. If they behead me, they behead me. It seems like a fitting end.
I’m not hoping they behead me. I’m a pretty easy guy to track down. I have a touring schedule on my website, and I often go to the Southwest. It’s not the thing I want to happen: I’d love to die peacefully in my own bed, surrounded by loved ones. That being said: If I die in a weird, goony way, I think everyone would get a good kick out of it, so it’s not the worst thing I can imagine.