Why Truth-Tellers Lie

Comedians like Tim Dillon like to pretend they're men of the people, but they're not our allies.

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One thing to keep your eye on is when right-wing commentators use leftish language to mask their sympathy for extremists. I’ll give you an example. In an episode of his podcast released last night, Tim Dillon, a comedian who used to sell subprime mortgages, pondered whether the fascist rioters who carried out a putsch on Wednesday shouldn’t face any consequences, because they’re just poor idiots with shitty jobs.

In a long segment arguing against “ratting” on the insurrectionists who flew to Washington, DC during a pandemic to storm the Capitol, Dillon said: “These people's lives are not great. That's why they're there with a helmet on. Nobody who has a really good life is in the Congress with a helmet on.” While people who destroy property certainly deserve legal consequences, he continued—using Black Lives Matter protestors as an example—he’s not so sure about those who are “just being an idiot”:

What's the punishment for that? You're probably not doing that great… I don't know what happened when everybody's like, “We gotta, we gotta get rid of all these, everybody we disagree with. They can't, they can't have shitty jobs.” People aren't really raking it in here, you know. These people aren't doing well, for the most part. They're living off money they've inherited. They have some type of stipend, they're living in some type of communal house—I don't know what the they're doing. But I mean, I'm sure that—I deal professionally with people I disagree with all the time about many different things. All the time. About many, many different things.

Elsewhere he characterized the putschists much as he characterized alleged murderer Kyle Rittenhouse earlier this year: as well-meaning people caught up in a movement that landed them in unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.

These people don't have high level jobs, they work at like call centers. It's some poor guy, some schmuck who's gotten sucked into a QAnon cult because he can't afford any other type of cult. He's fuckin', you know, spent six months thinking he's hunting pedophiles on 4chan. Then he goes to meet up with his friends, all of a sudden he gets caught up in the moment and he's in the chamber of Congress. Yeah. I mean, it's a bad choice. Probably gonna fuck him from doing certain things. Let that schmuck—if he's charged with a crime, he's charged with a crime, whatever. You know, if you got caught, you got caught. But don't you go and—I mean, let the guy go back to the call center job. This isn't the CFO of Goldman Sachs running around there.

It’s important that this characterization—made, again, in service of an argument not to identify people who turned to violent insurrection to keep Donald Trump in power—is incomplete. By ignoring the actual class makeup of the rioters, Dillon is able to downplay the seriousness of the riot, which he says was “closer to a high school theater group” than a coup. In reality, the mob included middle-class professionals and business owners, law enforcement officers, armed services veterans, committed neo-Nazis, even a West Virginia state legislator. They brought explosives and assault rifles. They planted pipe bombs. They bashed a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher. That they might be unwell is not a reason to let them reenter society until the police catch up, but a reason to do what it takes to stop them from trying again.

Dillon’s rhetorical gambit here is a familiar one. For the last five years, pundits and propagandists have attributed Trump’s power to poor misunderstood rural workers deluded into acting against their own interests. This narrative erases (and therefore empowers) Trump’s base of well-off suburbanites acting entirely in their interests. It also downplays the rising tides of white supremacy by fashioning white supremacists as sympathetic, powerless victims of society rather than willful actors using what power they have to enact harm. There are a great many poor people with shitty jobs in this country who don’t turn to fascism. As the writer Lyta Gold explained a few days ago, it’s more often the bourgeoisie who choose that path:

I will acknowledge here that Tim Dillon is neither a wise man nor a particularly critical thinker. He probably doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s sort of the point, though. He exemplifies a class of comedian-commentators who fashion themselves vox populi with deeper insight into the American psyche than you could ever find in traditional media. Their fans consider them brilliant, refreshing truth-tellers, and their periodic gestures to working class populism earn them credibility among left-leaning audiences as well as the right. If you listen closely, you’ll notice they actually have no idea what they’re talking about. Their ostensible sympathy for the common man is marred by disgust. They’re completely incapable of analyzing the social structures they claim to understand better than anyone else, and their analyses more often serve power than critique it. Note the common impulse in Dillon’s commentaries on Kyle Rittenhouse and on the Capitol Hill putsch: to make violent white supremacist extremists the victims, actually. He has no anger for the rioters, only the people ratting them out.

On the one hand it’s embarrassing (if pretty funny) that people like Dillon have no idea they’re pro-establishment figures. On the other, it’s rather frightening. If your function is to continually downplay the threat of white supremacist violence, then your function is to uphold white supremacy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve criticized racist comedy only to get some response to the effect of, “It’s the only thing that makes me feel good about my shitty life. What’s the harm in that?” Permission to be racist, of course, is what Donald Trump offered too. I hope the harm is now plenty apparent.

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What I Liked

2020 edition.

Being your own boss means it’s okay to post your 2020 year-end list more than a week into 2021. Well, here it is, an incomplete recounting of what got me through last year. Under the arcane and inscrutable bylaws of this newsletter, I’m allowed to include things released before last year so long as I consumed them last year. Okay:

-Raisin Man Arena, a podcast and weekly Twitch show

-Women Talking, a novel by Miriam Toews

-The Jakarta Method, a history of US-backed anticommunist violence by Vincent Bevins

-The comedic stylings of Simple Town:

-Relaxing Old Footage with Joe Pera

-The Brooklyn Comedy Collective

-The Greek island of Aegina, known for its pistachios and pistachio-based products (not pictured):

-Here We Have Idaho, by Matt Barats

-Reveries: Going Deeper, by Matt Barats and Anthony Oberbeck

-The Jeselnik and Rosenthal Vanity Project

-Hollywood Handbook

-“My Mommies and Me,” an essay by Alexandra Tanner

-Leonard Cohen’s posthumous final album Thanks for the Dance

-The Unreality of Memory, a book of essays by Elisa Gabbert

-The comedic stylings of Sarah Squirm

-The poetry of Carl Phillips

-“Molly,” an essay by Blake Butler

-The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanDerMeer

-”The End of Poetry,” a poem by Ada Limón

-“It Came to Me,” a poem by Sara Miller

-In the Distance, a novel by Hernan Diaz

-Exclusive Content, a newsletter by the comedian and writer Megan Koester

-Perspectives, a newsletter by the historian and writer Patrick Wyman

-Going Downs, a newsletter by the journalist and writer Claire Downs

-The comedic stylings of Grace Freud:

-The Others, a novel in verse by Matthew Rohrer

-Raised by Wolves

-The Third Day

-First Cow

-The Last of Us II

-Ghost of Tsushima

-“Conner O’Malley: The Weird and the Normal,” an essay by Chloe Lizotte

-The Palouse region of northern Idaho:

-Donald Trump catching the novel coronavirus

-Uncanny Valley, a memoir by Anna Wiener

-This Is Branchburg

-The comedic stylings of Sam Saulsbury:

-The writing of political commentators Osita Nwanevu, Alex Pareene, Sarah Jones, Tom Scocca, Libby Watson, Samer Kalaf, Ryan Cooper, Lyta Gold, & many others

-The writing of cultural critics Jo Livingstone, Maria Bustillos, Kim Kelly, Lauren Oyler, David Sims, Alison Herman, Caroline Framke, Alexander Chee, Zach Schonfeld, Angelica Jade Bastién, Rosa Lyster, & many others

-The musical stylings of Radical Face

-The musical stylings of Mal Blum

-“Flex,” a short film written by Charles Gould and directed by Matt Porter

-When Bernie turned into a monster

-My freakin’ THERAPIST

-My wonderful friends and readers :)

"UCB is very much alive."

Some sobering thoughts.

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Last week Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre announced the sale of its Sunset Boulevard location. As I reported in September, the company’s owners put the property on the market over the summer, apparently unable to keep up with their mortgage payments. In one of their classic sprawling, apologetic letters to the UCB community, they said they’re “working to maintain” their Franklin Avenue locating and “continuing the process” of converting the theatre and school into a nonprofit. While they reiterated their commitment to transparency, they notably did not say who bought Sunset, for how much, or what they will do with any proceeds from the sale.

This latest milestone in UCB’s interminable demise sparked the usual round of nostalgia and tea. I’ll admit I cringed a bit at the all-too-common “fuck COVID” reactions. The pandemic has destroyed many good businesses, but it’s also revealed the fundamental failings of many others, like UCB, Second City, and iO—all arts incubators structured to funnel money to their landlords first and their workers second (or third, or fourth, or not at all). When the comedy world eventually sets out to rebuild, I hope it does so with clear eyes about which losses were tragic and which were tragic but necessary.

Then again, it’s not gone yet. Here’s an interesting take I received from a member of the UCB community who requested I keep them anonymous:

just seeing all the memorializing of UCB every cut from a thousand death they announce in poorly formatted press releases i think obscures a very real thing-- ucb is very much alive. i remember a few months after the project rethink stuff being blown away by the sheer number of classes they are running, pretty much at the same price as in person, now without the overhead of needing physical space. laying off the staff, the ppp loan, i have no idea whether they qualified for the broken lease forgiveness NY instituted during COVID but I suspect they did or would. And now they sold sunset. I have no idea what a deep hole they were in financially and would be overreaching to suggest anything definitive about the state of things now, but i keep returning today to whatever in a dozen of all hands meetings where the UCB4 scolded and were reflexively dismissive of criticism and took the bare minimum of responsibility. I don't remember if it was Walsh or Roberts or the exact quote but they made it abundantly clear that they would be much more profitable running as a school and not having performances, and at the time it felt like an empty threat, but now that's exactly what they have, i would love to be proven wrong about it, too cynical or too dumb of a take, but i get the distinct impression that covid was the best thing that could happen to them because it gave them cover to enact brutal austerity without ever needing to take real accountability for what caused the demise of five spaces in such a short amount of time.

I went searching through my transcripts of some of the winter 2018/2019 UCB meetings to see if any of them contained the quote in question here. I couldn’t find it (not surprising—there were many more meetings than I received recordings of), but I did come across another moment that I think is worth revisiting. In a January 2019 town hall in Los Angeles, a few weeks after UCB announced the closure of its East Village location, Matt Besser explained to the community that he and his co-owners were conscious of their bad business decisions as they were making them:

I would say more decisions than not have been based more on what the theater would want than what is what you'd call a smart business decision. The most, the biggest of that is having two venues in a city, two cities. Is there any other comedy club that has that? It's really expensive. And when we made those decisions of expanding to two theaters, we knew it wasn't a "you will now make twice as much money." It was more of a "you'll have twice as much costs." So when we make—and there's a lot of decisions through the years like that. Like DCM [the Del Close Marathon, UCB’s annual improv festival]. Like the last five DCMs, we were aware we were losing money. We're aware we're losing more and more money every year, but we just looked at it as a party rewarding the theater.

So we knew, okay, we see this as losing money. A business would say this is a bad business decision to keep doing it, but us treating you like stakeholders—well, this is our way of rewarding. So Hell's Kitchen was the same. I could go through almost—I think every decision we make—UCB Comedy [the theatre’s digital production arm], we had no intention of making money on that. We were just going to make videos and let people make videos. There was no, there was no intent. There was no, we didn't have advertising on UCB Comedy until we started working with corporations hiring us. They were just videos going up. So we called it the third stage. 'Cause I believe it was only two stages at that point. So we did that saying, "These are our stakeholders. People are making videos right now, so let's use some of this money that's sitting in the bank to let them do that."

So that was us going “You guys are stakeholders. This is for your sake. We're going to do it even though it's not smart business decision." In other words, it's not going to make money. Hell's Kitchen, same thing.

Here is the only prediction about the coming year I can make with absolute certainty: it will be full of UCB postmortems. My wish for 2021 is that we finally shift the popular narrative of the theatre from “it made comedy what it is today (good)” to “it made comedy what it is today (incredibly inequitable and homogenous).” The UCB 4 stole from a generation of comedy workers and made it acceptable for the rest of their industry to follow suit. They knew for years they were digging UCB’s grave; when they had money in the bank, they used it to dig deeper. As that UCBer aptly pointed out above, there’s no reason left to assume they’re the unlucky parties here, tragically losing their beloved small business to a global crisis. No, they’re lucky for the opportunity to finally strip it bare.


I very much enjoyed this short film by Kelly Cooper:


I’ve spent a good chunk of the last few weeks researching the origins of what I’ve been describing as standup’s reactionary elements—the Compound Media/Legion of Skanks/Tim Dillon faction we focus on a lot here in Humorism’s Boise office. Theoretically this research will manifest in a feature sometime next month, so I won’t spoil too much of it now. But I will say I’ve been surprised to discover how deeply our friends at The Stand are involved in this scene’s history. Well, not that surprised.

I knew vaguely that the club’s owners—Cris and Paul Italia, Patrick Milligan, and the late David Kimowitz—are managers as well, and that they represent (or have represented) many of the club’s marquee talent: Aaron Berg, (former Proud Boys leader) Dante Nero, Rich Vos, Big Jay Oakerson, Luis Gomez, Yannis Pappas, Andrew Schulz. What I did not fully grasp was that they founded their management shop almost a decade before the club, with the explicit goal of popularizing the sort of comedy it now embodies. For almost 20 years, their mission has been to put these people on the map.

Their management shop is called CH Entertainment, “CH” standing for “Cringe Humor.” The firm traces its origins to the early oughts, when Milligan produced shows around New York City (and the country) under the CH banner, with comics like Nero, Jim Norton, Colin Quinn, and the late Mike DeStefano, whose image graces The Stand’s logo (and who you can hear dropping a hard “r” in this 2008 Cringe Humor promo video, if you need any more insight into their style). In a 2016 interview tracing the firm’s history, Kimowitz said, “We were the original rape joke people.”

Cringe Humor doesn’t have a web presence anymore, but from 2003 until around 2015 (as best I can tell from the Internet Archive) it had a lively website populated with comedy news, reviews, and blogs. Here’s what it looked like in November 2003:

BOYCOTT THE COMMIES

CringeHumor.net is sick & tired of CC neglecting new stand-up comedy, and focusing more on awful cartoons like Kid Notorious and hideous original movies like Windy City Heat. The only outlet stand up comedians have on a regular basis is the great Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn show, but many of the guests are out of their element.

So, if you are a true fan of stand-up comedy, we suggest boycotting the event. It also appears that Comedy Central dropped the "Funniest Stand Up" category for the final product, as it's no longer listed on their official site. Hopefully it will produce poor ratings and disappear after a year like the XFL.

As you can see, Cringe Humor fashioned itself from the start as edgy and anti-establishment, a champion of comics too raw for Comedy Central. We won’t dig too much into the archives right now, but it’s worth briefly examining what it reveals about standup in 2020, where social norms around bigotry and hate speech are rapidly regressing (if they ever caught up to the present). Let’s look at a blog post Milligan wrote in 2007. The title is “Here's to you, Slutty Female Comedians!” I will warn you upfront that the content is extremely sexist and vile:

The following is advice from me to all of you wonderful female comedians that are climbing the ranks in New York City.

1) Who cares if you are funny? Odds are you are not. That's why the good Lord gave you breasts, an ass and a vagina, and most of all a mouth. What your mouth lacks in humorous talent, it more than makes up for when it comes to giving head.

2) People are wrong to tell you that your looks will get you ahead. ALWAYS tell those people that you don't need to rely on your tight pants or low cut tops to garner attention in the world of comedy. Your material IS that strong.

3) Be sure to make your headshots as sexy & sultry as possible. Men are more inclined to tolerate your sub-par act if you are easy on the eyes to them.

4) Remember ladies, the easiest way to get stage time is to use your oral skills on whatever show producer you're closest to. Why earn spots the old fashioned way by being original and creative? Remember this equation: for every 5 minutes of sucking you should get 5 minutes of stage time. It's that simple.

5) Male comedians REALLY do think you are funny and they are not afraid to tell you so. When that certain handsome comic flatters you, be sure to repay the favor to him on your knees. There is no better way to get yourself out there in the world of standup than by putting out.

6) You're right; Rick Shapiro is a tortured genius. What better way to show what a great artist he is by being his latest cum depository for a week or two? You are such a rebel! And if Rick isn't available, his equally zany twin brother Rob will surely take his place.

7) I'm sorry to hear the headliner you have a crush on decided to move out west to further his career. I am sure he will one day come to his senses, dump his girlfriend, and move back here just for you. You guys connect on such a mature level, and he TRULY does think you're a talented comedian. Hang in there girl!

8) Damn girl, can't believe you broke up with that comedian you've been "seeing" on the down low for years. If he even looks or talks to another female, you should have your unfunny cunt friends stalk whoever that ho is! Remember, being a comedian is like being in high school all over again. You should ALWAYS gossip and talk shit behind other women's backs, but befriend them when you're face-to-face. It always works!

9) Hooking up with all those comedians at your local club will further your career. That’s right ladies, it's soooo easy to climb to the top than by earning a wonderful reputation amongst men who would NEVER talk about their sexual exploits with you.

10) Hook up with male comedians that have potential. What easier way to get to become a household name than to have a man who is making a name for himself? If he headlines, be sure to demand a middle spot on his show. If you are really good at satisfying him, convince him to start his own show, or start an open mic, that way you will get more stage time than Larry The Cable Guy! Git-R-Done!

That's all for the advice now, chicas. Feel free to respond, and readers if you have your own advice feel free to send them to me also, it will be posted in a second installment soon.

If you're a slutty comedian who feels that this piece hit too close to home, email me and tell me how I can't get laid and/or point out how small my penis must be. I will gladly respond by calling you an unoriginal & typical cunt.

*Please note: We at Cringe Humor support many female comedians. There are some however that are not interested in being a stand-up comic, but use getting on stage as a way of getting attention for a talentless life. This column applies to them.

Milligan is The Stand’s booker. He booked comedy shows around New York City for a decade before the club opened in 2012. (I don’t know if this is still the case, but as of a few years ago he also worked as a corrections officer on the side.) If you’re entertaining the thought that maybe his attitudes have evolved since 2007, consider this June thread by the comedian Ariel Elias:

(The Standing Room is The Stand’s satellite club in Long Island City, opened in 2014.)

Last month I proposed that one way of looking at the history of comedy is as a small handful of gatekeepers deciding who gets to be famous enough to shape American culture. This was an incomplete analysis. Their power isn’t just in who they let in; it’s also in who they leave out. How different would comedy look right now if the club ownership class were not rife with angry misogyny? If it were not composed mostly of white men? If improv theaters like UCB had paid workers fairly—and had mechanisms in place to deal with sexual harassment and racism—from the start? How much art have we lost because of a few assholes running comedy as their little playground?

Just a few questions to consider as we head into the new year. See you on the other side.


Header image via Joel Tonyan.

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