Editor’s Note: On September 14, 2021, an anonymous writer published an essay on Medium claiming to have tricked this article’s author into believing that a forum user known as ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat was comedy club owner Cris Italia. Given the writer’s anonymity, The New Republic is unable to definitively confirm or refute these claims. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the “mole” referenced as a source in the latter half of this article can no longer be trusted, nor can the suggested links between Italia and the forum user. We regret the error.
In the dark recesses of the internet lurks a man who goes by ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat. He makes his home on onaforums.net, a community named after the shock jock duo Opie & Anthony—a safe space to say what cannot be said offline. He’s posted in threads like “N----r hate thread #1,” “The K-ke Hate Thread,” “Juno comes out as a tranny,” and “OFFICIAL Post-Election Voter Fraud THREAD,” where he called Joe Biden “a pedophile retard who’s about to die in the oval office.” Elsewhere he’s derided the Covid-19 vaccine, which he calls “gook juice” and “chinky jew sauce.” Last year he revealed his Twitter account, @ApevonTarskin. The username matches a commenter on Thought Catalog, which ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat has said he trolled after it retracted a transphobic essay by Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. His contributions there were more of the same. Under a 2015 post titled “When You Love ‘The Chase,’” he once commented, “There is not a more despicable human on this earth than a fat white n----r fucker. Get an AIDS test. You have it.”
The internet can sometimes seem like one big rabbit hole, and if you make it down to the bottom, waiting for you is a person. At the bottom of mine was ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat.
I’ve spent the last five years writing about the comedy industry, the last three or so covering inequality and extremism within it. This work has periodically brought me in contact with some of the leading lights in the scene’s transgressive edge—the place where popular, mainstream comedy bleeds into the kind of right-wing politics that animated the Capitol riot last month. It’s a place hostile to prying eyes, and the blowback can be furious. I have been harassed and trolled on social media. I have been doxxed, as have members of my family. And eventually, I found my way to a message board where ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat—who I have reason to believe, though I cannot definitively prove, is a person at the heart of the New York City club comedy scene—and others participated in the Gamergate-style campaign that had been conducted against me.
This online forum—just one node in a constellation of similar forums, subreddits, and Discord groups—is not some outlier in the industry. Before I take you down my particular rabbit hole, it’s worth establishing the many ways in which the worlds of comedy and the racist right overlap and reinforce each other.
The recent comedy boom is popularly understood as an era in which new forms of media, like podcasts and streaming video, created massive new audiences for comedy, which in turn created massive new revenue streams for comedians. At the same time, the artificial intimacy of these platforms allowed fans to feel a level of connection with their favorite performers—and with each other—that could verge on the cultish. This was not simply an era of glorious bounty, in which little-known comedians could land massive Netflix paydays or leapfrog from UCB Comedy to College Humor to lucrative sitcom writing gigs. It was also the era of walled-off subcultures, like onaforums.net, which could transform into real, violent political factions, especially at a time when comedy was increasingly pitted against the forces of political correctness—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.
The mobs that descended on Washington, D.C., last month have intellectual roots in many places, going back to the bloody beginnings of this country. But they also have roots in specific areas of modern culture, including Facebook, BuzzFeed, and the increasingly online world of comedy. All the forces that incubated the rioters are still there, unchanged, chugging along as normal. The rot goes much deeper than you might expect.
If the far right’s origins in comedy are ill-appreciated, they were never particularly secret. By his own account, Gavin McInnes created the Proud Boys on Compound Media, a subscriber-based digital network where he hosted a talk show from 2015 to 2017. Originally called the Anthony Cumia Network, Compound Media was created in 2014 by Cumia—the “Anthony” half of Opie & Anthony—after his firing from SiriusXM over a series of racist tweets.
The Gavin McInnes Show, like many other programs on the self-styled “free speech network,” was not shy about its politics. Over the show’s 407 episodes, McInnes spoke glowingly of right-wing violence, proudly declared himself a racist, and regularly used the n-word, among other slurs. When a caller questioned his interracial marriage in 2016, McInnes responded that he had children with a woman of color because he’s “cleaning up the races.” The pretense of irony hung over everything he said, but pretense is all it ever was. Compound Media was where telling jokes gave way to saying what you meant, jokingly.
When McInnes founded the Proud Boys in 2016, he used TGMS as a recruitment tool. In his monologue and call-in segments, he laid out the organization’s principles and customs, chief among which was its ideology of Western chauvinism: a belief in the superiority of Western civilization and the white people supposedly responsible for it. “White males are a big part of what made the West great,” he told a caller with questions about joining. “The Black contingent [of the Proud Boys] is pro-white male, the same you would be if you were an expat living in Japan—you’d be pro-Japanese and you’d take your shoes off.”
Despite his concerns that the openly Nazi elements of the far right were bad for his brand, McInnes didn’t hesitate to associate with them. His guests were a who’s who of the contemporary far right: Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Unite the Right rally organizer Jason Kessler, “Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell, Mike Cernovich, Sal Cipolla, Faith Goldy, Roosh V, even former KKK leader David Duke.
The Gavin McInnes Show was more than the white power hour, however. In the years before and during his show on Compound Media, McInnes tried his hand at live comedy, performing in New York City venues like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and The Creek and The Cave. He recorded a podcast, “Free Speech,” at the club Stand Up NY; in 2016, McInnes said he was banned from a club called The Stand after he exposed himself onstage. (He later recalled the manager telling him, “I have to turn my back on you now.”) He used his platform on Compound Media to mingle with a revolving door of respected, even mainstream comics: people like Big Jay Oakerson, Tim Dillon, Justy Dodge, Mike Lawrence, Larry the Cable Guy, Joe Matarese, Tom Shillue, Dave Hill, Alonzo Bodden, Luis Gomez, and Dave Smith, none of whom were deterred by McInnes’s friendliness with white supremacists.
Some stopped by for a one-off appearance. Others were repeats, like Gomez and Smith, who hosted their own Compound Media show, Legion of Skanks, with Oakerson. Gomez laid out McInnes’s influence quite explicitly in 2016. “The reason I love Gavin is because he has said n----r and faggot so much that that’s not even a big deal,” he said. “When you come to watch the Legion of Skanks show, you should be hearing racist, sexist, offensive shit. If you’re upset about that, don’t watch the show.”
In retrospect, The Gavin McInnes Show’s function was not just to introduce the comedy world to the Nazi world but to let one legitimize the other. At this, McInnes was wildly successful, his influence long outlasting his own tenure in the New York comedy scene. In 2017, Dave Smith used a TGMS guest-hosting spot to interview Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell, giving both a friendly platform to lay out their vision for a white ethnostate. By then, he and the other two Legion of Skanks members had left Compound Media for a network co-founded by Gomez, GaS Digital, where they carried on the TGMS tradition: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and flirtation with the far right.
Today Legion of Skanks holds considerable sway in comedy, with a massive platform it’s lent everyone who’s anyone in the New York club scene—while remaining true to its far-right roots. In 2019, it hosted Milo Yiannopoulos after his fall from grace. In 2018, Gomez angrily chased a fan out of a recording when the man pointed out a Proud Boy in the audience. Smith, a Nazi sympathizer who believes Jews run “forces that are killing the society,” has become a powerful voice in the right flank of the Libertarian Party. He’s used his own podcast on GaS Digital to pal around with white supremacists like Cantwell, Spencer, and Nick Fuentes. “If I can use the government to do horrific things to [the left], I will, because they’ve been doing horrific things to us for centuries,” Cantwell told him after the Unite the Right rally in 2017. Smith agreed: “It’s almost like you’re having a conversation with somebody, and they punch you in the face … the only logical response is to get up and fight.”
Would extremism have found such a loving home in comedy without McInnes? Maybe. Much of the blame also goes to the man who gave him a platform during the alt-right’s formative years: Anthony Cumia. A racist Trump supporter who pleaded guilty to domestic abuse charges in 2016, Cumia certainly shares much of McInnes’s ideology. He’s spent six years mingling with reactionaries like Ann Coulter, Alex Jones, and Donald Trump Jr. on Compound Media’s marquee program, The Anthony Cumia Show with Dave Landau. The network as a whole straddles the same worlds as TGMS: On one side, it is a breeding ground for far-right ideology, on the other a regular old gig for pretty much every club comic in New York City.
In some cases, the line is completely blurred. Compound host Chrissie Mayr has lately delved deep into QAnon conspiracy theories—believing and spreading them, that is—and attended the protests at Capitol Hill on January 6. Aaron Berg and Geno Bisconte host In Hot Water, a show whose recurring segments include “Black Guy of the Day,” “ISIS Faggot,” and “Rape of the Day.” These comics are all regulars at New York City clubs like The Stand, Gotham Comedy Club, and New York Comedy Club, and at venues around the country. It’s unlikely many bookers know they built their followings on a network that caters to the far right.
But some do.
Anthony Cumia’s influence goes far beyond the people and ideas he platforms. It’s also in the people he inspires, like Christopher Cantwell, an Opie & Anthony fan who tested his mettle in the open mic circuit before finding his voice in neo-Nazi broadcasting. Another acolyte is a man named Patrick Milligan. In the early 2000s, Milligan launched a website honoring Opie & Anthony. He called it Cringe Humor, using it initially as a repository for news, reviews, and opinion pieces about the comedy community. As the site grew, he began producing shows around New York City with his favorite comics, like Opie & Anthony regulars Rich Vos and Jim Florentine.
In 2005, he partnered with a group of fellow comedy lovers—Cris Italia, the editor of a vaccine-skeptic magazine; his brother, Paul Italia, a real estate agent; and later Dave Kimowitz, a talent manager—to transform Cringe Humor into a production and management firm, signing club stalwart Dante Nero as their first client. Their mission was to promote the “cringe” style of comedy.
What was cringe? Milligan defined the genre early on as “comedy that would offend many close minded individuals,” and its practitioners as “comedians who aren’t afraid to tackle subjects many ‘safe’ performers won’t touch.” As Kimowitz later described it, “We were the original rape joke people.” These are euphemisms, of course. Cringe means angry and aggrieved, hateful and bigoted. Milligan’s list of “awful comedians” included the categories “Ethnic Garbage,” “Racial Garbage,” and “Female.” (Misogyny was a running theme: In a 2007 blog post titled “Here’s to you, Slutty Female Comedians!” he wrote, “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.”)
The firm’s lineups in those early days featured comics like Jim Norton, Robert Kelly, Bill Burr, Louis CK, Joe DeRosa, and Mike DeStefano, all known for their brash sensibilities and hostility to political correctness. (These are also euphemisms.) Many were Opie & Anthony regulars, fitting in with Cringe Humor’s mission to bring old-school Opie & Anthony humor into the twenty-first century.
That mission was a success. Over the course of the late 2000s and early 2010s, the firm’s live productions leveled up from bars to clubs to colleges to theaters. In 2012 they opened their own club and restaurant in Gramercy Park, The Stand, hoping to offer a more hospitable atmosphere than the traditional club. A few years later, they opened a satellite location in Long Island City, then moved the main club to a bigger space in Union Square. They signed Big Jay Oakerson and co-produced his Comedy Central special. They produced Conan writer Laurie Kilmartin’s special on streaming service Seeso. They signed Luis Gomez, Aaron Berg, Yannis Pappas, a pre–Saturday Night Live Pete Davidson, Cash Cab host Ben Bailey.
When a Queens venue called The Creek and the Cave asked the Legion of Skanks not to host Milo Yiannopoulos in 2019, the group relocated its weekly recording to The Stand. Later that year, the club booked Shane Gillis for his first performance after SNL fired him over a series of racist and homophobic statements on his podcast. (Disclosure: A tipster sent me the clip that set off this news cycle.) This past fall, the club boasted that SNL hosts Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle used it to workshop their monologues (Chappelle’s publicist confirmed that he tested his material at The Stand and other clubs). The show celebrated Chappelle’s election-week episode with an indoor afterparty at the club.
It took almost two decades, but the men behind Cringe Humor successfully grew an Opie & Anthony fan forum into a major New York City comedy club. But it was not just any comedy club. The Stand, it must be said, is the product of a concerted effort to create a space in American culture for the school of comedy embodied by Anthony Cumia. Its longtime booker is Patrick Milligan.
We have almost reached the bottom of the rabbit hole. To get there, I must return to my own story. In June, I observed on Twitter that many right-leaning comics like Dave Smith associate with The Stand. A few days later, I found myself on the receiving end of belligerent tweets from the club’s Twitter account, partly operated by Milligan and Cris Italia, calling me fake news. Italia parked himself in my mentions during the coming months to deliver the same message, eventually declaring that he was deliberately trolling me so I would spend less time bothering comedians. This struck me as unusual behavior but certainly not out of line with the belligerence I’ve come to expect from comedy industry figures unaccustomed to outside scrutiny.
In October, I emailed Italia for comment on a story. The Stand had just hosted an indoor Legion of Skanks recording, featuring Anthony Cumia and Aaron Berg, apparently in violation of New York’s Covid-19 restrictions. As is customary, I wanted to include the club’s side. Instead of answering my questions, Italia posted one of my emails on Twitter. What happened next was a familiar experience: waves of angry replies from comedy fans defending the honor of Cumia, Berg, and the Legion of Skanks.
Then something new happened. A few days later—before I published the story—I discerned from my mentions that a user on onaforums.net had doxxed me in retaliation for my reporting on Cumia. They didn’t stop with me. Over a period of weeks, the user, SpaceEdge, doxxed my entire family; harassed me, my parents, and my brother by text and phone; doxxed and harassed several of my Twitter followers; and doxxed a man they believed to be my landlord. (I’m using the singular “they” to refer to SpaceEdge both because I don’t know their gender and I cannot know whether the onslaught of texts and calls originated from one person or several.)
As I pored over the forum trying to understand what was going on, I discovered this was a routine pastime for its members. Using tactics honed by right-wing extremists during the GamerGate movement—an online harassment campaign fueled in part by reactionary ideology—the forum’s users have targeted a science fiction author and his wife, comedians they don’t like, and even Brianna Wu, one of the original targets of GamerGate. In my case, a user who went by Anthony and had the bio @CompoundBoss stopped by at one point to cheer them on. “Those text messages you sent to that little queer really made me laugh hard,” he wrote. “If that sissy faggot kills himself, you’d make a lot of people happy including myself. Keep up the good work fellas.” Meanwhile on Twitter, Cris Italia and his co-owners openly relished the harassment campaign. “You caused this,” he tweeted. “You are to blame for your family getting doxxed.”
The harassment died down by the end of November, when I received an email from a mole within the forum. They described themselves as an Opie fan sick of the racist Anthony fans tarnishing Opie’s legacy. They sent me screenshots from private internal message boards for power users, where people occasionally let slip their offline identities. One such user went by ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat. In private chatrooms inaccessible to the general public, this user described himself as a man named Cris who was associated with a comedy club called The Stand. In two separate posts, he claimed to have written this Medium essay Cris Italia wrote about me in October, titled “Seth Simons is Not a Journalist.” In one post on the message board, he wrote, “the lockdown cumio [Cuomo] is talking about would end the stand, would end restaurants and many would never come back.” He added, “With any luck I will be able to afford a taco cart, or a shitty food truck like jon favreau in Chef.” (Interesting.) Elsewhere, he suggested I snuck into The Stand after Shane Gillis’s firing from SNL. I didn’t, but Italia implied I did.
This all seemed too neat a plot twist, so I emailed Italia asking if he’s ever used the forum. He said no and accused me of trying to smear him. The next day my mole informed me the forum’s moderators had kicked newer members out of the private boards, where ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat was questioning how I figured him out. A day later, I emailed Italia asking specifically about the username. He said he had no idea what I was talking about. Another day later, the entire website went down. When it returned, the previous three days of posts were gone.
In the private channel, users were panicking about potential legal scrutiny. One said he couldn’t afford to get extradited to Israel. Another said he would make a few calls telling friends to lay low. Then he praised ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat: “You’ve been one of the more genuine guys I’ve met and have never scumbagged a comic as so many other bookers around this dumb country have,” he wrote. “Whoever’s the snitch 100% deserves to be taken on a boat ride and shot in the face.”
“Thanks buddy,” ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat responded. “Hopefully we can get you for more spots (if we’re still in business next week).”
When I emailed Italia screenshots of these posts, he said he’d sue me if I ever connected him to them. Then, in several long paragraphs he declared off the record—a stipulation to which I did not agree—he said someone must be impersonating him. He doesn’t have time to post that much, he continued, and having grown up in pre-gentrification Bushwick he would never use the sort of language ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat uses. He advised me to let it go.
T.J. Miller, the comedian who has been thoroughly disgraced by allegations of sexual assault and transphobia but is somehow still at it, recently made an apt observation about how power works in mass culture. “Standups understand this: If you empower your audience, they’re much more likely to pay you again to support you,” he told comedian Bobby Lee. “The audience wants to be empowered.” He was critiquing Hollywood’s reliance on stale film franchises he believes audiences don’t like, but the analysis applies to comedy, too. You empower an audience by giving them what they want. The power they give you in return is their trust, their loyalty, their willingness to fight for you. The relationship between an entertainer and his audience isn’t all that different from the one between a political leader and his movement.
It’s easy to lose sight of a simple truth: Things are the way they are because people made them so. The far right did not come into being by chance. People shaped it. They went where they thought they could win people over, and they won people over. They offered permission to revel in racism and sexism, in homophobia and transphobia, and they earned devoted followings in return. They couldn’t do this alone, though. They had to be let in.
Donald Trump is out of office. Gavin McInnes officially left the Proud Boys years ago. ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat deleted his username a few weeks ago (his posts remain, albeit attributed to “Guest”), announcing his new alias, “Don Sterling,” in the private channel. The far right has splintered into factions with varying ideologies and goals, each preparing for a new era of post-Trump violence. The people who gave this movement a constituency in comedy—who masked it in the language of free speech, who hid it behind the shield of more respectable artists—are all still in charge of their little fiefdoms. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
Update: Since the publication of this article, the user account for “Don Sterling” has been deleted.