“This is the first dual Jeff Bezos we’ve had,” Bryan Quinby said excitedly in his round, gravelly voice as the crowd in front of him chanted “kill Jeff Bezos” for the second time in 10 or so minutes. Getting the audience to all band together and (half) jokingly call for the founder and CEO of Amazon to be executed is something he often does when performing live, and this time the crowd didn’t need any cajoling to get into the rhythm.
“It’s the South, baby!” a woman from the audience shouted back.
I was at Nightlight, a small bar and venue with a grimy punk-rock vibe in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to see Quinby record a live episode of Street Fight, an “anarcho-comedy radio show” that he co-hosts along with his friend and fellow class warrior Brett Payne. While the two are based out of Columbus, Ohio, they stopped by Chapel Hill this week as part of the “Hellfire Congregation of Radical Egalitarianism Southern Tour” they’re making across the south with the Washington, D.C.-based District Sentinel Radio and the Trillbilly Workers Party from Whitesburg, Kentucky, two other leftist comedy podcasts that are also having an insurgent moment.
I had been waiting to see if “kill Jeff Bezos” was going to happen at the show, having been told of it fondly by my brother, who is the level of Street Fight fan who has previously traveled multiple hours to see Quinby and Payne perform. I used to think his devotion was really weird — he insists that he “made a weekend of it” that was “totally worth it” — but after seeing the two of them and the rest of the “Hellfire Congregation of Radical Egalitarianism,” as the three podcasts are referring to themselves for the tour, I can definitely see the appeal.
Podcasts often thrive on the close parasocial relationship they establish with their listeners, and Street Fight is very good at inviting emotional bonds with its audience. This is due in no small part to how disarmingly shameless Quinby and Payne are as they drill into what they call “broke dude stuff” in all its gory detail. A big chunk of their live set (actually having one laid out ahead of time is a relatively new development for them, they told me) was devoted to both of their complicated relationships with payday loans.
Quinby and Payne’s friendly, corralling spirit is a big part of why they’ve been able to stop doing the odd, often menial jobs they talk about so often Street Fight and instead focus on the show full-time since 2016. Before that, they way they tell it, were a whole lot of unglamorous gigs working on roofs, in fast food chains, and at one point Chuck E. Cheese. They started making Street Fight into 2011, after Quinby came to the realization that he identified as an anarchist and both of them resolved to stop doing stand-up and instead focus their efforts on recording something together.
At another point in the Chapel Hill show, they invited members of the audience to come up and share own stories about work. One young man took a microphone and said he drove 90 minutes to get to the show, despite having his annual performance review with his boss first thing the next morning.
“I’m probably going to get a two out of five,” he said, laughing nervously.
“I’ve have so many two out of fives,” Quinby replied. “You just roll with the punches.” The audience cheered.
The tangible, cathartic release for many people in the audience was clear at moments like these. Street Fight hosts a call-in show every Sunday when they aren’t doing something like touring, and people often call in with these same kind of work-induced microtraumas. Or much bigger ones. Each time the two hosts listen and offer their empathy much in the same way, celebrating their perceived mediocrity to the employer class that sits above them, sharing in the caller’s anger towards their usually very crummy-sounding boss, or insurance company, or leering or obnoxious coworker. It’s a communal healing process in its own way, which really comes across seeing it unfold a few feet in front of you in a bar that’s incredibly sweaty and stubbornly crowded despite the heat.
District Sentinel, hosted by “the two Sams,” Sam Sacks and Sam Knight, both D.C.-based journalists and comedians, had the crowd play a game they called “Guilty or Innocent.” It was simple: they called out a name, and people shouted back if they were guilty or innocent. The answers bounced between sincere and ironic. Landlords were guilty, as was nearby Duke University, the fellow “dirtbag left” podcast Red Scare, the pundits and politicians who were outraged by the recent attack on Andy Ngo at an anti-fascist rally in Portland, and Beto O’Rourke. Innocent were Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, Marriane Williamson, sort of Bernie Sanders (some people shouted guilty as well), and definitely whoever punched Andy Ngo. More than anything else, it was just fun for everyone to shout.
“We’re from this flyover country, where people think we’re just these pop-drinking idiots having babies on accident.”
Seeing moments of ceremony where people are allowed to loudly wish death on tech billionaires, declare Washington, D.C. “guilty,” or just to vent about crummy job stuff, reminded me of a moment the night before when I naively asked if Street Fight had ever considered working with sponsors.
“I think we’re just way too messed up,” Bryan said. Someone wondered briefly if advertisers would be ok with a version of Street Fight that didn’t talk about killing Jeff Bezos.
Maybe, but the question is: is that really Street Fight? A big part of the emotional release of the live show that I saw on display there was being able to share in the pleasure of transgressing polite liberal boundaries. And crossing those boundaries certainly seems to enable another part of the whole Street Fight ethos, which is befriending like-mindedly off-beat people.
While parts of the so-called dirtbag left have attracted legitimate criticism for being provocateurs, what I enjoyed about the Hellfire Congregation’s show together was how all of the brusqueness and other things that could easily slide into uncomfortable anti-political correctness territory were aimed at the right kind of targets. More than anything else — more even than the insanity of politics in 2019 — the main thing that Street Fight seems interested in critiquing is work itself, the way labor is commodified and extracted from people, often in comically unfair ways.
They are also, to their credit, trying to be inclusive, which is always a good thing to see coming from two working-class white guys who sometimes joke about very stereotypical bro-y things like starting their own fight club after the titular movie was released in 1999.
“It was like: ‘Oh we don’t just have to be mad at each other?’” Payne joked the night before the Chapel Hill show. If that felt like a warning sign the way that hearing any man say they’re really into Fight Club might, it was put to rest when I listened to an episode of the show that went live the next day, wherein they lamented other male comedians getting too locked into arguments about what jokes or slurs they’re “allowed” to say.
It really did feel like they were trying to build a space friendly towards “guys, gals, and nonbinary pals,” as one of their tour T-shirts said in large cartoon lettering.
“We get emails all the time asking, ‘How do I get into organizing?’” Quinby said at one point. “You make friends!”
“The main point of the live stuff is getting a bunch of people together,” he added. “So much of this is giving people the confidence to act.”
“I started doing this because I just wanted to be heard, I was so angry at the world for how authoritarian it is,” Payne said.
“Just talking about this stuff made me feel less weird,” said Quinby. “It only stands to reason that once you’ve lowered the barrier, more people are going to come in.”
Doing this kind of rebellious community-building feels far more vital in the South than it does in places usually associated with the dirtbag left, like New York or Los Angeles, because there aren’t as immediately apparent networks for this kind of leftist organizing as there are in large coastal cities with largely liberal populations. Even if the “organizing” is something as informal as getting a bunch of people in a room together to cast aspersions on the billionaire class, it’s still something to get left-curious folks to all show up to the same bar at the same time. Everyone in the Hellfire Congregation told me this was a big part of why they were taking their tour through the more off-beaten route that they were.
“This is who we are,” Payne said. “We’re from this flyover country, where people think we’re just these pop-drinking idiots having babies on accident.”
“There is a support system here where everybody is trying to help each other out,” Bryan said of the podcasting left. It would be easy to dismiss this as an idealistically simplistic sentiment if they hadn’t been successful doing just that.
After all, Street Fight has been a kind of proving ground for similarly raunchy leftist podcasts. The show famously helped kickstart Chapo Trap House by hosting what ended up being a pilot episode under the guise of reviewing Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie 13 Hours in 2016.
Chapo Trap House is now the most popular leftist podcast by a good margin, and also the most lucrative project on Patreon, making more than $130,000 a month from almost 30,000 patrons. Street Fight makes a little more than $10,000 from 2,400.
“There’s a big gap between first and second in this space,” said Tom Sexton, one of the hosts of the Trillbillies, which focuses on life in Appalachia and politics. It currently makes $6,125 a month from almost 1,300 patrons. Tonya Turner, Sexton’s co-host, couldn’t make it to most of the tour because she wasn’t able to get off the time off from her job in nonprofit development.
As a fan of lefty podcasts, it’s hard to not feel a tad disappointed by the inequality of this situation and wish that there wasn’t a sort of concentration of wealth happening. It feels oddly antithetical to the whole idea of leftist media to see some people making huge amounts of money while others continue to scrape by. It also means there’s a lot of promising but still very nascent talent hanging on the question of whether or not Patreon customers will decide to add another five bucks or so onto their monthly budget for snarky leftist content.
“The nightmare scenario of cord-cutting, where everyone has to individually subscribe to each different thing they want to support, is basically the state of leftist media today,” Sam Sacks of District Sentinel said the night before the Chapel Hill show. And that situation has left even established and influential actors like Street Fight as decidedly modest operations. “If we’re gonna do more things like this tour, we’re gonna need more money,” Quinby said at one point.
At the end of the show on Tuesday, Quinby and Payne brought the two Sams and the Trillbillies back to the stage for one final segment called the garbage can, pulled from District Sentinel’s playbook. Returning to the public trial vibe, they all proposed different figures who would be symbolically stuffed into, well, a garbage can by way of an effigy. Kamala Harris drew hisses from the crowd, and Jeff Bezos got his second “kill Jeff Bezos chant.” Ultimately Alan Dershowitz “won” the night.
It was exactly the kind of thing from which I could imagine some reactionary right wing person with a large Twitter following getting an afternoon or so of mileage — remarking with terror how first the baying crowd had condoned antifa’s assault of a journalist, and now THIS.
I, on the complete other side of things, found myself thinking back to something Payne had said the night before.
“After the election, I remember saying that part of the problem was that the conservatives all go to church, but we don’t,” he said. They needed to find, or make, another kind of community instead.
As an effigy of Alan Dershowitz was stuffed triumphantly into the garbage can on Tuesday night, I don’t know if I felt like a believer, exactly. But I did feel refreshed and inspired knowing that there’s a space for this kind of warm-hearted nihilism.