Chris Gethard’s career may be the most zigzag-filled in comedy.
He’s the author of several books, including “Lose Well,” on the importance of failure; an actor who’s appeared in high-profile TV shows and blockbuster movies; and a podcaster whose approach is as empathetic as it is slyly funny.
If you listen closely enough, he also offers advice on listening that could boost any journalist.
An improv-comedy veteran who worked with the acclaimed Upright Citizens Brigade, Gethard is the host of “Beautiful/Anonymous.” The podcast’s absorbing premise is that Gethard tweets out a phone number, and invites anyone to call and talk. Gethard tells listeners that no matter how strange, raw or surprising the call he ultimately takes, he’ll commit to talking to to the caller for at least an hour. Or, as the poscast homepage declares: “1 phone call. 1 hour. No names. No holds barred.”
He said he expected the result to be “a funny podcast where I’d get prank-called by weirdos.”
That’s not what happened. Instead, he found himself talking to callers whose stories were wrenching (a mother whose daughter was suffering from cancer; a survivor of a mass shooting) and those whose stories were unexpected (a former corporate employee who moved on to selling crossbows).
In a post on Medium.com, : “This project has transformed my life by becoming a weekly tribute to empathy, openness and honesty. People have shared their lives, one by one, in a way that truly makes me feel like the world is a smaller place, and that people are people, and that everyone has a story worth telling.”
And this lighted edited excerpt from a 2018 interview on Vox’s “I Think You’re Interesting” podcast with Emily VanDerWerff, on what he learned from improv theater):
“One of the real things I loved, when you start to think hard about the mechanics of improv, is it teaches you to want to listen more than you want to talk. And it teaches you specifically … to listen more than you’re talking and really listen hard for what the most unusual thing is. What’s the thing about this that stands out? What’s the detail that seems like it informs everything else? What’s the thing you hear that raises a red flag where you go, ‘That’s what this scene should be about,’ because that’s interesting, that’s unique, let’s focus on that.
“When I buckle down to have a conversation, I just listen. When I hear that thing that stands out, even if it’s under the surface I go ‘Wait, hold on, what about that? That’s interesting.’ That’s all muscles that are super-strong from a decade-plus of trying to keep up with the funniest people in the world.”
Listening for better stories
As a journalist, it’s scary-easy to listen less than intently to the other side of the conversation. You ask a question and are so set on writing down the answer — or anticipating your next question — that the unusual detail or unexpected detail in the conversation slink by unnoticed. But with work, you can build the same “super-strong” muscles as an improvisational master such as Gethard.
You can listen keenly, ready to seize on surprising details as a tiller to guide you to a story that, like a lot in life, isn’t what you may have expected.
Trevor Pyle is a former newspaper journalist who now works as an information officer in the Puget Sound region.