Chris Gethard brings anonymity and audience together in Beautiful, Anonymous

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      A JFL Northwest presentation. At the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday, May 30

      The Biltmore Cabaret was transformed into an intimate space for a heartfelt phone call between two strangers, approximately 300 audience members, and thousands of podcast listeners on Tuesday night, as comedian Chris Gethard kicked off the first show in a live tour of his podcast Beautiful, Anonymous.

      Beautiful, Anonymous is a relatively new project for the comedian. Each episode, Gethard takes a call from an anonymous person, to talk about whatever he or she wants for one hour. The caller can hang up at any time, but he cannot.

      Bringing his signature brand of sincere, heartfelt humour to the conversations, Gethard’s podcast has been a hit, and the show’s fan base has grown considerably since its launch – enough for the host to set off on a 14-stop live tour, starting in Vancouver.

      As a standup veteran who cut his teeth in New York’s improv scene, Gethard is no stranger to anything-goes, uncomfortable moments on stage. But even he expressed some nervousness at how a live show based on a phone call with an anonymous person would go over in a room full people. 

      The concerns of the performer – and probably the audience – proved to be unfounded. In his introductory monologue, Gethard mentioned how a friend described Vancouver’s vibe: “It’s a bunch of nice people hanging out in the rain,” a perfect fit for Gethard’s friendly, honest, and often very sad material. Really, this show shouldn’t have worked live, but it did, thanks to a pretty respectful audience, nice atmosphere, and unconventional approach to a live show.

      More than a few comedy rules were broken, at the outright encouragement of the performer. The usual no-phones rule was thrown out the window, with Gethard telling the audience to get on the hashtag #2clean to interact with him and the caller. (2clean referred to the one negative comment he received about Vancouver: “It's too clean, I don’t trust it.”) After starting the show with some ground rules and a brief standup set, Gethard commented on the strange situation that opening act Joe Rumrill was in, having to “follow and open for” the headliner.

      The set design was simple, with a seat for Gethard, a large digital clock counting down the minutes left on the call, and a stool for the audience member chosen to watch the clock and blow on a vuvuzela horn when time ran out. Gethard regularly checked a laptop in the back corner to read audience tweets, and bring people into the conversation with the anonymous caller: a young woman in the fashion industry, figuring out how to navigate her relationship with her estranged, abusive mother.

      A lot could have gone wrong, but what Beautiful, Anonymous live demonstrated was the community based on trust and understanding that Gethard has built with his fanbase. People tweeted out their support for the caller, and brought important technical issues to Gethard’s attention. (“Are you going to edit out the constant sound of flushing toilets?”).

      With Beautiful, Anonymous Live, Chris Gethard pulled off an unlikely combination of standup, interview, and audience participation, using Twitter, a phone line, and good, old-fashioned human interaction. The live-music club was packed with alt-comedy hipsters, friends who were dragged along, venue staff, and middle-aged moms who found the podcast on This American Life, everyone engaged in listening respectfully to the life story of someone they will never meet. This, really, is what Gethard’s comedic project seems to have been about – to show that everyone can have something in common if you just ask, and mostly, listen. The success of the Vancouver show bodes well for the rest of the tour, demonstrating that something beautiful can happen if you’re willing to take a chance on something weird.