One of the first things comedians set out to do is to define themselves for an audience. Are they a quickfire club comic with punch lines every few seconds? An absurdist like Andy Kaufman? A heartfelt storyteller? An angry, edgy comic? Chris Gethard, who records an episode of his “Beautiful/Anonymous” podcast and then performs a separate stand-up show at the Sinclair Saturday, decided not to choose. He can be any of those things, depending on the project.
“Believe me, I’m more frustrated than anybody that I don’t have an easy-to-describe career,” he says, speaking by phone. “I remember once telling an agent I do a lot of stand-up, but I also have a lot of respect in the improv world, and I’ve written books, and I hosted a public access show that was really strange.”
The agent’s response? He didn’t know how to make money with all of that.
Gethard might have more fame if he stuck to one kind of comedy, but that’s not how his impulses work. “I do a lot of different creative stuff,” he says. “I try to make sure it all feels honest, that it all feels worthwhile.”
No matter what he’s doing, Gethard is true to himself. The premise of his “Beautiful/Anonymous” podcast is that he posts a phone number on social media and takes one anonymous call. He has to engage with that caller and isn’t allowed to hang up for one hour. It was meant to stretch his improv comedy skills, but it has turned into a meaningful experience for Gethard and many of his callers. In recent episodes, he improvised songs with an improv pianist and talked a man from Portugal through the struggles he was having with his autistic son.
“People get on the phone and they put out their dark secrets or tell me about hard things they’ve been through or embarrassing stuff that’s happened to them that they don’t really share that much,” says Gethard. “And that’s a huge responsibility and a very fun responsibility and an addictive responsibility. We’re six years into doing the show, and I still walk away from the phone, pretty much every time we record, with my mind blown that I got to hear what I just heard.”
There is a deep empathy in Gethard for his callers, partly because he knows what it’s like to offer his most personal stories for public judgment. His HBO special “Career Suicide,” which was produced by Judd Apatow, and his memoir, “A Bad Idea I’m About to Do,” both detail Gethard’s battles with anger and self-hate. “‘Career Suicide’ was like, I need to start talking openly about my depression, or else it’s gonna win,” he says. The work has an edge, not because Gethard is aggressive with his audience, but because of his vulnerability.
Contrast that with the gonzo absurdism of “The Chris Gethard Show,” which started at the UCB Theatre in New York before moving to public access television, and then the Fusion and truTV networks. It had some elements of a traditional talk show in that it had panel guests and music performances, but that’s where the similarities end. The show featured a regular character, “The Human Fish,” who apparently lived in the walls and occasionally fielded questions. A guest once took a chainsaw to a load-bearing beam during an episode. It was mayhem, but not for its own sake. That was Gethard honoring the things he learned growing up in the New Jersey punk scene, bringing together a community of people who feel alone and giving them a place to let loose, something he also did on his “Planet Scum” channel on Twitch.tv during the pandemic and advocated for in his inspirational book “Lose Well.”
“I think people tend to find my work at a time when they really need it,” says Gethard. “And they need that sense of community. And they need to feel like ‘Oh, there’s some other outcasts out here.’”
Seeing Gethard as a solo performer, audiences are likely to think of him as a storytelling comedian, especially if all they know is “Career Suicide.” But Gethard wanted to sharpen his stand-up and started working at The Comedy Cellar in New York, the gold standard for working comics. “You’ve got to write really punch-line-driven stuff to keep up there,” he says. “And I’ve always been known for longer bits. I feel like I’ve added that weapon to the toolbox, that I can get more aggressive with the punch line.”
Part of that sharpness showed up in “Half My Life,” a kind of pre-pandemic tour special Gethard released last year that shows him performing for pancake breakfasts and, at one point, alligators. Gethard says the show he’s bringing to Boston is both more personal and more punchy. The birth of his son in 2019 got him thinking about his own childhood in the 1980s and ‘90s, and how he might apply that to his own role as a parent.
“There’s a lot of sort of saying can we maybe call out some of the old ways, discuss what’s good about them, what’s bad?” he says. “Let’s rip that apart.”
Gethard describes his comedy philosophy as “funny plus,” meaning that funny is where it starts, but he has to give the audience something more. His new hour of stand-up material may be the closest he’s gotten to realizing that ideal. “I’m usually someone who’s got low self-esteem and self-deprecates to a concerning degree. But dare I say it, I’m already proud of this one and I think it’s gonna keep getting better and better.”
“Beautiful/Anonymous” podcast taping, June 18 at 7 p.m. $21-$26. Stand-up show, June 18 at 10 p.m. $21-$26. The Sinclair, 52 Church St., Cambridge. 617-547-5200, www.sinclaircambridge.com
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.