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A Comedian And An Angry Kid Find An Unexpected Connection On Twitter

Comedian Chris Gethard's show brings a wild, unplanned public-access sensibility to mainstream cable television. But that spontaneity can attract trolls.
Zac X. Wolf
Comedian Chris Gethard's show brings a wild, unplanned public-access sensibility to mainstream cable television. But that spontaneity can attract trolls.

When you're out there on the Internet, sometimes it's worth remembering there's a person on the other side of the screen; it could lead to an unexpected connection.

This story begins with a guy named Chris Gethard, a comedian who hosts The Chris Gethard Show on the cable channel Fusion.

He's funny. And he's weird: Recently, he did a show for an audience of dogs. Dogs in the studio audience, and, he was hoping, dogs watching at home — to whom he revealed human secrets, like the difference between sleeping and being put to sleep.

"Our show is very dumb," Gethard says. "I'm willing to admit that we do dumb things like put on shows for dogs. But at the same time, there's a part of me that's always trying to poke the traditional talk-show format, to just kinda say that this will be as different from that as can be."

Gethard grew up in working-class New Jersey. "Irish Catholic neighborhood, a lot of kids whose parents were drinkers, a lot of, like, bullying — at the end of the day, that's what it was," he says. "The one-word story about why I have a chip on my shoulder is 'bullying.' "

As a kid, Gethard found some relief from the bullying by making prank calls — and, as he puts it, "tormenting people" in AOL chat rooms. But a teacher at school saw more in him and encouraged him to take her drama class. That was his path to comedy.

These days, Gethard often does standup about his struggles with depression and anxiety. "And one day, I put up this tweet," he says. "I was like, 'I'm doing this show tonight, if you're in New York, you should come. It's all about depression. You know — comedy."

I remember what it felt like to be a creative kid who felt trapped. And I think some of these trolls are sociopaths, but some trolls ... might be creative kids who haven't been encouraged.

Almost instantly, a kid named Randy replied with an obscenity. "And I saw it, and I immediately was, like, half mad and half instantaneously amused. I clicked on his profile, he was clearly a teenager, he was from Virginia ... and I just got in a fight with this teenage boy, and it lasted for three days."

Gethard had dealt with trolls before, but he says he realized there was something special about Randy. "This kid's bored, but he's actually pretty funny," he says. "At the end of the day, I remember what it was like to be a teenage kid who knew I wanted to be an actor or an artist or get on stages, and just felt like that wasn't OK, people would roll their eyes at that or kind of judge you. It's just, I remember what it felt like to be a creative kid who felt trapped. And I think some of these trolls are sociopaths, but some trolls are probably, underneath it all, creative kids who have never been told that that might actually be an asset. These might be creative kids who haven't been encouraged, and I would love to be someone who encourages them."

So Gethard invited Randy onto his show. Randy was a little tight-lipped in the spotlight, but, Gethard says, he was happy with the appearance. "If I was 18 and a person I didn't really know that well got me in the situation I got him in, I would not have done as well as Randy did, that's for sure."

"I'm the first person to wonder, like, am I actually doing something nice for this kid? Or is this just exploitative in an emotional sense?" Gethard says. "The answer is, you know, I don't know."

Randy Pate lives with his parents in Virginia. He didn't finish high school, but he's working hard on his GED.

"The tweet that I had seen — the one where he said that he was starting a new comedy show about suicide and depression — that rubbed me the wrong way because I have family and friends that struggle with depression, and I didn't think that that was funny at all," he says. So he fired off a Twitter expletive.

Randy says he didn't feel exploited when Gethard brought him on the show — and that the experience has given him some fresh perspective. "Now that I know who Chris is, and that he wasn't meaning that suicide and depression are funny things, but he was trying to look at it in a comedic way, to lighten it up so he wasn't so down, because he'd suffered depression for a while, I think he told me. So, yeah, definitely I'm not just gonna jump on somebody when they say something I don't like. I'm gonna ask them why they think what they think."

Gethard says their three-day-long Twitter exchange got pretty heated. "I'm like, 'Randy, I'm 35 years old, don't talk to me like that,' " he recalls, "and he's like, 'You're five years away from being a 40-year-old virgin.' And I'm like, 'Actually I'm happily married, so you look really dumb right now, homie,' and he's like, 'I feel bad for your wife, she's married to a guy who looks like a gremlin.' And I just got in a fight with a teenager whose Twitter name is 'Future Rich Guy.' "

No one expected anything profound to happen from all this, but it did. Two people pushed past their impulse to just yell at each other, and they actually connected.

"By the end of it, I was like, 'Randy, I tell you, man, I really needed this. I've been really stressed out and you came at me, and when I went back at you it was a real tension relief, and I hope you got the same out of it,' " Gethard says. "He was like, 'I tell you dude, I really did, you're actually a pretty nice dude. Sorry I came at you, but I'm glad we've gotten to know each other,' and I was like, 'Randy, I really hope you direct your powers to something more positive next time,' and he was like, 'I don't have any powers, LOL,' and I was like, 'Randy, you gotta believe in yourself, man — you got something to offer. So bring it.' "

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David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.