The Far-Right Has Deep Roots in New York Comedy

A story in The New Republic details how the far-right has seeped into the New York comedy scene.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
The Far-Right Has Deep Roots in New York Comedy
Photo by Ben Sklar

On February 9, The New Republic published a lengthy piece titled “The Comedy Industry Has a Big Alt-Right Problem,” by Seth Simons. The piece, which draws upon several years of Simons' reporting on the comedy industry, goes into detail about the disturbing nexus between the far right movement and a particular corner of the New York comedy scene. Simons charts the rise of a constellation of online and offline spaces catering to comics and comedy fans with an interest in "transgressive" speech in the 2000s and 2010s—spaces with a track-record of incubating hateful rhetoric, and sometimes providing a platform for the architects of the modern far-right movement itself. 


One of them is far-right political commentator Gavin McInnes’ eponymous talk show, which he hosted between 2015 and 2017 and used to launch the Proud Boys, which he left in 2018. McInnes broadcast the show on Compound Media, a media network created by Anthony Cumia, of "Opie & Anthony" fame, a right-wing shock-jock whose talk show, The Anthony Cumia Show with Dave Landau, has welcomed guests like Alex Jones and Ann Coulter. Simons also traces links between a defunct comedy website created in honor of Opie & Anthony—and filled with bigotry, such as one post that included categories like “racial garbage” and “female” on a list of "awful comedians"—with one of the most popular comedy clubs in New York City. (Disclosure: Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of VICE. He left VICE in 2008 and has had no involvement with the company since then.)

The story highlights how broad this network’s influence is, sanitized by mixing in reputable comics with the fringe: “On one side, it is a breeding ground for far-right ideology," Simons writes of Cumia's Compound Media. “[On] the other, a regular old gig for pretty much every club comic in New York City.” (Cumia previously denied allegations of racism in 2014, when he was fired from Sirius for making what the company described as "racially-charged and hate-filled remarks on social media.")


In the process of reporting the story, Simons was doxxed, along with members of his family, in a campaign he compares to the tactics used in GamerGate

The response to the article in the comedy scene and beyond has been somewhat predictable: There is shock; disappointment; some sadness without surprise. Some people have expressed a hesitation to share Simons’ work, for fear of attracting some of the harassment that Simons has received himself. One comic even shared a thread about how his attempt to call out racist behavior at a New York comedy festival ruined his life.

Meanwhile, fans of the comedians named in the story have continued to lob personal attacks on Simons, many without addressing the content of the story. High-profile comedian Anthony Jeselnik posted the story on Twitter without comment, which prompted backlash from some fans, who perhaps confused his abrasive onstage persona for his actual personality. Jeselnik has recommended Humorism, Simons’ Substack newsletter, on ‎The Jeselnik & Rosenthal Vanity Project podcast in the past.  

(Following the riot, the U.S. Defense Secretary ordered a one-day “stand-down” within the next two months to address extremism in the armed forces. Shockingly, under current regulations, you can be enlisted and hold a membership to a group like the Proud Boys—“just not an ‘active’ one,” according to NPR—which suggests that the Army may be just as tolerant of the far-right as the New York comedy scene.)

The story in The New Republic is worth a read in full, if only to understand how toxic ideas spread. As Simons points out, this backlash in the comedy world "against the forces of political correctness" is not that far off from "the very forces that also fueled the grievances of Donald Trump’s supporters and the revanchist right, whose credo of 'owning the libs' reads a lot like the traditional comedian’s defense of his right to insult and offend.” It also feels like a case study in how irony can cloak very real beliefs—or help normalize hateful ideologies. In 2019, for example, far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos claimed on the Legion of Skanks podcast (which started on Cumia’s Compound Media) that he had started a hoax that linked the “OK” symbol to white power movements. Now, right-wing figures are using it to signal their actual proximity to white power; the point that it started as a joke is moot. (In 2017, a BuzzFeed report explored Yiannopoulos’s influential role in “smuggling white nationalism into the mainstream.”)

Time can make any joke a tragedy, and any tragedy a joke. And 2021 provides ample proof of both. Looking back, one 2013 Amazon review for a Gavin McInnes video offered a creepy premonition of what was to come: “I can never tell how much of what this guy says & does is BS, but either way it's hilarious.”

Update [September 16, 2021]: Following the publication of a Medium essay by an anonymous writer claiming they tricked the writer of The New Republic story into printing certain false claims, The New Republic posted an editor's note to the article saying that "the ‘mole’ referenced as a source in the latter half of this article can no longer be trusted.”