For an art scene to exist, for artists within it to make the leap into greatness, hubs need to exist. Like-minded people need a space where their ideas can commingle and become better, where they can borrow, hook up, network, steal, and stab each other in the back. In the past, this meant a physical locale. New York’s advertising scene had Madison Avenue, the hippies had the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, punk rock had CBGB, glam metal had the Sunset Strip, grunge had Seattle. With the Internet, people no longer needed to share the same physical space within the same hours of the day. If their computer was plugged in, they were there.
One such incubator for one such scene was ASpecialThing.com.
Search the Internet Wayback Machine, and AST’s posters are among the biggest names in comedy. There’s Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K., holding extensive Q&As. There’s young upstarts Aziz Ansari and Anthony Jeselnik, trying to convince people to see their shows. There’s Marc Maron and Jimmy Pardo, uploading first attempts of this new thing called “podcasting.” There’s Scott Aukerman, hyping the earliest incarnation of Comedy Bang! Bang!. There’s Tom Scharpling, lurking in the chat. And there are the dozens of prospective comedians, writers, and directors virtually participating in this Comedy Master class.
This is the story of a message board, sure. But more than that, it’s the story of a scene incubator that happened to be online.
I. ‘A Chronicling of Our Rise to Power!’
June 2001. The Internet is no longer a newborn, but still not out of its stumbling toddlerhood. America Online is hooking up the nation, one CD-ROM at a time. The closest thing to YouTube is a GIF. Slow download speeds make viewing porno quite the nerve-wracking experience. “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” is the hot meme, whatever that means. And into this realm, online users began to splinter into groups. Listservs begat chat rooms begat message boards. As the Web expanded, online scenes coalesced in the form of these virtual communities. Most topics were covered. Most.
Matt Belknap (screen name: Sasquatch): I’d written and directed a microbudget feature I was supposed to be editing, but I was really disappointed and didn’t want to deal with it. I was scared to look at the footage. So, in my procrastination, I started doing two different things. I got way into Tenacious D, and I discovered message boards.
Scott Aukerman (Mr. Show, Comedy Bang! Bang!): There was just very little [Internet] activity regarding alt comedy at the time.
Michelle Biloon (Walking With Michelle, You Can Be an Asshole): There used to be a Listserv, this alt standup group that people used.
Luke Maxwell (screen name: Jixby Phillips): I was in Redding, California, where there’s basically nothing. The one open mic I ever went to wound up being mostly anti-war poetry. It became clear that Redding didn’t share my interests, so I had to flee to the Internet. It was before Mr. Show was even on DVD, so I bought a VHS set from eBay.
Pat Healy (The Innkeepers, Compliance): It’s hard to remember that [Mr. Show] was not a wildly successful, popular show. It was a niche, cult thing.
Mark Kiely (screen name: itslikeimsayin): A lot of people had seen the HBO shows, and loved Tenacious D, and you wanted more. People sought that out online.
Matt Belknap: Sony Music [Tenacious D’s label] had their own message board, and it was the worst, from a technical perspective. It was so clunky. So, I just figured, I’ll make my own.
Mark Kiely: I was posting on [comedy website] Fugitive Alien, and someone mentioned AST. I remember I started posting as a guest, and Matt encouraged me to sign up. I want to say I was member 29.
Matt Belknap: The [Tenacious D] album came out, and it kind of flopped. It was released two weeks after 9/11, probably not the time to put out a comedy music album with Satanic overtones. So, the conversation organically shifted towards comedy in general.
Sean Ingram (screen name: Jouster): Bob and David had a website, but there wasn’t much going on. Through Googling, I found AST, where there was a subforum called “Mr. Show and Other Comedy.” A lot of posts were quotes, favorite jokes, lines.
Matt Belknap: When Tenacious D was active and I went to their shows, I would write up detailed recaps of their concerts for people who weren’t able to see them. But, with Tenacious D basically on hiatus, Jack Black a movie star, I had nothing better to do. Then I heard there was this live comedy show at the M Bar that had all the guys I loved from Mr. Show, so I started going…
II. In search of Sasquatch
September 2002. B.J. Porter, a former Mr. Show writer, convinces the owner of newly opened, often-empty restaurant M Bar to let him start a weekly live Tuesday night comedy show there. He enlists the help of another former Mr. Show writer, Scott Aukerman. They call it Comedy Death-Ray.
Scott Gairdner (Conan, Moonbeam City): The shows were so odd and experimental, all over the map. Sometimes it would be traditional standup, sometimes characters. It’s insane when you look at those lineups that you took for granted. Like, a show with Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., David Cross, and it cost $5.
Scott Aukerman: Matt went to one of the first shows, I believe because he saw Bob Odenkirk was going to be there.
Matt Belknap: I was writing screenplays, trying to get an agent, trying to get noticed with no community and no structure. When I started going to those shows it was like, here’s a community who shares my sense of humor.
Jesse Thorn (Bullseye): Matt did professional coverage for screenplays; his job was to do exhaustive recaps of things. So, his [Comedy Death-Ray] recaps were so vivid.
Scott Gairdner: I remember being jealous if I read a recap that sounded amazing and I’d missed it. Those recaps really prompted people to go to the shows.
Jonah Ray (The Meltdown, Mystery Science Theater 3000): All of a sudden, there’s a guy going to the shows and revealing them? It made us feel like mini-celebrities. It was like, this is crazy; this is like Entertainment Tonight!
Marcia Neumeier (screen name: sparkiepop): That became the chatter amongst the scene. The comedians would start going to the message boards on Wednesday to see what Sasquatch had to say.
Michelle Biloon: Everybody was like, “Where are the recaps?”
Jonah Ray: The first time I did the show, I was waiting all day Wednesday, refreshing the page, waiting for the recap. And Sasquatch comes on and goes, “Sorry, there’s no recap, I wasn’t able to make it to the show.” And I was like “Noooooo!”
Todd Glass (The Todd Glass Show): I’d look at it. I don’t know what they wrote about everybody, because I’m selfish. For me, they were always very positive, very supportive. If they were negative, it might’ve inhibited me, which might have fucked me up in the head.
Scott Aukerman: In the early days, [Matt] was not afraid to be brutal about what he didn’t like.
Matt Belknap: Some were tickled by it. Some, like Jimmy [Pardo], were clearly a bit rankled by it.
Jimmy Pardo (Conan, Never Not Funny): I’d hear this Sasquatch was in the room, and all of a sudden every comic seemed to be rolling out their best, as opposed to the spirit of what those rooms were. It used to make me mad. Why is this one guy putting all this pressure on us? Why is this one person able to have this power?
Jonah Ray: People didn’t like the idea of their material being written out of context. I remember Andy Kindler being pretty upset.
Sean Ingram: It was basically a precursor to what happens now with cellphone cameras and people posting it on YouTube.
Todd Glass: Some people thought, “Hey, we’re trying new stuff; we don’t want to be reviewed.”
Matt Belknap: I didn’t understand how comedy worked back then, how comedians would go to local rooms to work out material specifically because it wasn’t being seen by the outside world.
Scott Aukerman: There were quite a few shows where Matt would review them in these lengthy posts where we were like, he’s got to be here. But no one knew who he was. I remember people making jokes like, “Is Sasquatch here?”
Jonah Ray: Even before anyone knew who [Sasquatch] was, people started referencing A Special Thing in their sets. “You’ll hear about that one tomorrow on A Special Thing. We’ll see what Sasquatch thinks about this set!” There would be guys in the back of the room, like Neil Mahoney, Joe Wagner, Andy Kindler, trying to see who it might be. Everyone had theories.
Scott Aukerman: There was a guy I thought it was, because I saw him at events with his girlfriend or wife. I was like, I bet that’s Sasquatch.
Doug made mention that Sasquatch is here with Mrs. Sasquatch, and I was like, “Oh, is that son of a bitch here!”
Jimmy Pardo: Doug Benson met Matt early on, maybe a month after these reviews started popping up. And one night, Doug made mention that Sasquatch is here with Mrs. Sasquatch, and I was like, “Oh, is that son of a bitch here!”
Scott Aukerman: [One Death-Ray] someone said, “Is Sasquatch here?” And Matt said, “Yup!” in his deep voice. We were all like, “Where is he, where is he?” At the time I remember going, that guy’s face does not match his voice.
Jonah Ray: I think it was B.J. Porter who tapped me on the shoulder and was like, “Hey, that’s that Sasquatch guy.” And of course, like any vain comic, everyone started trying to be friends with him.
Jimmy Pardo: It was easy for me to be mad at the entity on the Internet, but once I met him it was like, oh, he’s a dude who loves comedy and loves talking about it.
Scott Aukerman: When everyone got to know him, he started scaling back.
Jonah Ray: As he became part of the scene, the reviews weren’t reviews anymore, just recaps.
Scott Gairdner: I feel like Jouster [Sean Ingram] was a big presence on AST. I don’t know why, but I feel like Jouster was a bigger presence than anyone else. The name jumps out for some reason.
Sean Ingram: Matt was the big recapper, he’d write these epic posts. But a bunch of people wrote. I wrote a bunch of recaps. I never took notes; it was just memory.
Megan Berru (screen name: megalope): [Sean] has a really great mind for remembering jokes and getting that across. I called one of Ron Lynch’s characters Mezmerizo, but it was actually The Amazing Ronaldo, so Sean corrected me and said, “Sorry, you’re stupid. This is not the right character.” Then we started dating.
Sean Ingram: I wasn’t charitable or too forgiving. If I didn’t like a particular comic, I just had one or two sentences [in my recap]. That was the giveaway I wasn’t into it.
Megan Berru: He believes in being very candid with his opinions about art and comedy. He was just a lot more direct than people were used to, and that was challenging for some.
Jason Woliner (Eagleheart, The Last Man on Earth): I was working in upstate New York making educational videos, directing these 12-hour series where “directing” was just pressing record. So I’d spend hundreds of hours sitting at the computer. [AST] would have these detailed recaps, and document the scene as it was happening.
Jesse Thorn: We were booking guests on The Sound of Young America on the basis of [AST].
Matt Belknap: Eventually, people accepted it. “This is a website where people give a shit about what we’re doing.”
Scott Aukerman: We put a lot of trouble into the show every week, so to have someone who acknowledged it felt great. It was great having someone pay attention and saying, this is an important thing that happened.
Matt Belknap: One of the first weird things that happened was [Tenacious D guitarist] Kyle Gass’s mom started posting. Nobody knew if it was real or just some fan pretending. But then some fan met her in person and confirmed it was really her, so people started asking her questions about Kyle’s childhood. That was the first indication [AST] could be more than just fans talking to each other.
III. The line blurs
The solipsistic nature of our human psyche makes us all, at the very least, somewhat narcissistic. So, if one becomes aware that an entire community exists, and they’re spending a good amount of time talking about them, only the most selfless could keep themselves from taking a peek. And then, only the most disciplined could hold back from participating. Comedians are not known for either trait.
Scott Gairdner: I was a freshman in film school with a lot of time to kill, and I’d just discovered Mr. Show and was soaking up any nerdy dissection of it I could find. I found AST because [Mr. Show writer] Dino Stamatopoulos had been posting.
Luke Maxwell: Someone had started a thread like, “Hey, does anybody know what Dino has been up to?” Then he showed up and dished.
Matt Belknap: Dino’s might’ve been the first Q&A thread. His thread was ridiculous, because he didn’t give a shit at all about saying things he probably shouldn’t be saying.
Jesse Thorn: Dino, a well-known oversharer and a man of extreme lifestyle tastes, shared this story about a show he was working on, and a cast party for that show, and the story involved the most specific and alarming prank and/or dare involving a very famous person.
Luke Maxwell: I don’t know how much we should protect Dino, but he told this one story about drinking someone’s breast milk. A famous person’s breast milk.
Jesse Thorn: I think Dino realized he shouldn’t post that on the Internet, and Matt deleted it, but it was just truly, truly magical and lived on in the hearts of those of us who read it before it got deleted.
Luke Maxwell: Those stories were so special because it really did seem like no one else was watching. It seemed like someone should be stepping in and stopping this from happening, which eventually did, because he had to delete those. But that was where it got started as far as comics interacting with fans.
Mark Kiely: At one point something somewhat controversial happened, and Matt told me Patton [Oswalt] had gotten wind of it, and he wanted to reply. That was a big moment, like, wow, comics are aware of this and reading and participating?
Sean Ingram: Once other comedians started posting, the gates were opened. I remember a very young Aziz Ansari posting early on. A lot of us were talking about how he reminded us, at the time, of Mitch Hedberg.
Heather Mcgowan (screen name: heatherm): Doug Benson was on there. I know [Chris] Hardwick was on there pretty frequently.
Jonah Ray: Andy Kindler started doing a lot [of Q&As]. Odenkirk did a bunch.
Jimmy Pardo: Before I knew who Brian Stack was, he would do these posts about the Conan show. Those were unbelievable. We got to see behind the scenes of Conan through the eyes of this writer.
Scott Gairdner: Oh my god, Brian Stack is on here! He’s Frankenstein, and the Traveling Salesman, and all these great characters on Conan!
Marcia Neumeier: Everybody was coming to the board. Everybody was talking. All the comedians knew AST and were all checking it. Except Zach [Galifianakis]. Zach never did.
Matt Belknap: Louis C.K. was another guy that was brutally honest and open. I definitely remember having to remove a couple things he posted.
Rob Delaney (Catastrophe, @robdelaney): Louis C.K. had a thread where you could ask him questions and he would answer and then insult you.
Scott Aukerman: Certain comedians were like, “Why would I post on a message board? That removes the barrier between audience and comedian.”
Jimmy Pardo: I made a rule that I wasn’t going to interact. I still wanted to be in “show business.” We’re the performers; we’re performing the show. If they see too much of us, will they still put us up on stage?
Scott Aukerman: I was like, well, I don’t really care. [laughs]
Jesse Thorn: They would share things that were in the world of the working comic goofing around with other working comics, but it would be in this context that was totally public.
Matt Belknap: It was public, but it also felt one-on-one, because you’re literally writing out a question and they’re directly responding to it.
Mark Kiely: I was never quite certain if it was a good thing or not that comics started participating. It put a filter on what people said. It definitely changed the dynamic.
Ameen Belbahri (screen name: Meen Bellpeppers): There was such a potential of famous comedians coming on, people wanted to mind their manners. You wouldn’t, like, trash some comic where it turns up they were actually reading that thread.
Scott Gairdner: There was less Internet, less comedy nerd-dom in general. That’s one of the strangest things in thinking about being on that message board in 2004, compared to 2015, when comedy nerd-dom is the No. 2 interest behind sports. At the time, I felt like a weirdo for being on a comedy nerd message board.
Rob Delaney: Twitter didn’t exist, Tumblr didn’t exist, MySpace was gross and weird. AST was just a really fun online comedy “Old West.” Plus it was purple text on a black background, which is sexy and mysterious.
Matt Belknap: People would be talking about the issues of the day in comedy. Like, “Carlos Mencia stole this joke.” I think we spent years railing on Dane Cook because he was considered hacky and mainstream. There was always some sort of drama that people were up in arms about.
Jimmy Pardo: Facebook wasn’t around. MySpace wasn’t big. Twitter certainly wasn’t around. If you wanted to read about comedy, you had to go to AST.
Darryl Duffy (screen name: darrylduffy): I was Googling Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross] and one of the first things that came up was AST.
John Duff (screen name: Archstanton): I think Patton [Oswalt] mentioned it in one of his “Spews” on his very early website. He mentioned this cool, comedy like-minded nerd site.
Matt Belknap: Patton’s always been a great champion of people who give a shit about comedy. “Hey, if you love comedy the way I do, this is the place you should go to.”
Andy Wood (screen name: Embiggen): I was over in Japan and was like, “I gotta find something to kill time.” Somehow I found AST, and I was like, holy shit. This thing is a legitimate community, and they’re talking about the thing I’m obsessed with.
Ben Kharakh (screen name: KeithWhitener): It was like finding a gold mine no one else knew was around.
Scott Gairdner: Not to be too dramatic, but it did feel akin to finding a message board of an obscure fetish only you have, and then being, “Oh my god, there’s tons of people!”
Rob Delaney: It was just the most comprehensive, fun place for comedians and comedy fans to hang out online. It went very deep, and everyone from Natasha Leggero to Louis C.K. to Josh Fadem to Maria Bamford to Brody Stevens to Scott Aukerman were on there, either promoting shows, or doing interviews, or talking to fans.
Matt Belknap: If you Googled, like, Maria Bamford in 2004, AST was probably the first thing that’d come up, other than her own website. Where else would that be? We’re talking pages and pages of conversation about a comedian where their name is being mentioned hundreds of times. That’s going to bump your Google Score.
Scott Aukerman: I remember Matt telling me the website was way more popular than anyone would have been led to believe.
Marcia Neumeier: I remember it was one rank above a porn site, so at one point AST was more popular than porn.
Matt Belknap: The weird thing about a message board is one person can generate hundreds of page views just by clicking around. It was less than 1,000 active posters, but there were a fair amount of lurkers who would just read and follow along.
Ameen Belbahri: I mentioned [to comedian Todd Barry] that I was on AST, and he was like, “So, what comics do you hate?” His sense of the board was people complaining about his peers and being negative. From a performer’s stance, it wasn’t always a friendly relationship with the fans.
John Duff: I know that Henry Owings from Chunklet couldn’t stand the site. He thought we were all a bunch of self-entitled little nerds.
Sean Ingram: I definitely remember arguments. Mostly comics coming to the defense of other comics.
Marcia Neumeier: Aziz [Ansari] used to go on and overhype his shows in New York. Every single post was like, “Oh man, it’s going to be so great! Gonna be an awesome show!” I collected these quotes from him to use for a show, and he got pissed. He emailed me like, “Hey, man, that’s not cool. I need to generate some hype because this isn’t L.A., this is New York, and no one ever comes to our shows.”
Matt Belknap: L.A. always had this weird reputation. “New York is cooler and more is happening there.” But L.A. is where everybody ends up when they’re trying to make a living in show business. So, there are all these people struggling, or not struggling, but with a lot of free time.
Pat Healy: You can never lay it on one thing, but this whole sort of scene can’t happen without some meeting point for people. It was fans, established comedians, and aspiring comedians getting a foothold. It was a great place for people to connect.
Matt Belknap: There were definitely sincere threads, like, “I’m going to go to my first open mic.” People just talking about starting out and trading open mic stuff. It was kind of like comedy boot camp.
Heather Mcgowan: I remember there was a guy who would ask things like, “How do you hold the microphone?” It seemed ridiculous to me. Like, just go find a microphone and put it in your hand!
John Duff: As far as I’m concerned, what ruined the site is when someone started a thread called “The Stand-Up Thread.” And then it just turned into nonstop asking questions about how do you do it, how do you get good at it, blah blah blah.
Matt Belknap: It was great it was there, but it was like, I don’t want to see this. For their own good, I felt they needed their privacy. It made me cringe to think, “You guys, this is going to be on the Internet forever.”
Darryl Duffy: When Mitch Hedberg died [on March 30, 2005], everyone was kind of like, “Is this a setup for an April Fools’ Day joke? Or is this real?” I remember being in the chat room when Brian Posehn came in and said, “No, this actually happened, it’s not a joke. Mitch is gone.”
Scott Aukerman: I heard about it through a manager, but no one was reporting it. There was nothing online. Then someone [posted] they heard it happened, and everyone said, “You’re a liar, you’re a liar.” Trying to clear it up, I posted, “I did hear it was true.” And because I had just changed my screen name, and I had like three posts, no one believed me. But that shows you how little people cared about comedy at the time. No reputable source would even report on Mitch Hedberg’s death for days. But on AST you had people talking about shows they saw in a theater that seats 100 people in rapturous length. It was a haven for people who liked that kind of comedy.
Marcia Neumeier: There were so many things going on every night, I just started gathering all the shows I knew and posted them in one giant post. It was a huge task, really time-consuming, but it made things easy. And then I started doing an actual comedy calendar.
Darryl Duffy: You’d see show listings and be like, why do I have that name in my… oh! Somebody from AST vouched for them, I should probably go check them out.
Megan Berru: [When I’d write a recap], I’d just jot down with paper and pen. If it was a Tomorrow Show show, which started at midnight, I’d get home at like three and would write it that night while it was still fresh.
Mark Kiely: There was such an abundance of talent, and it felt like none of these people were really getting their due.
Marcia Neumeier: It was a springboard for a lot of people. Anthony Jeselnik was nobody, he posted on there, word spread. I’d never heard of Demetri Martin, and I discovered him through AST. We were sharing different comics to check out, it was a portal into the alt comedy world.
Scott Gairdner: It was a big comedy education. You’d talk about a mid-level standup doing interesting stuff in alternative venues, but also you’d see a discussion of The Simpsons or South Park and why are those shows better than Family Guy. It gave me a chance to think about my comedy opinions.
Rob Delaney: I learned that anyone can participate in comedy, as a maker or a consumer or, like me and many others, both. And they enjoy themselves and that the Internet doesn’t have to be 100% a sewer.
Ameen Belbahri: I went to see Dave Attell, and saw him a couple more times, and was surprised it would be basically the same jokes. As you get more into comedy, you realize that’s standard. But I [wrote something about it] and remember either Doug Benson or Patton Oswalt sarcastically replying, “God forbid someone reuse a joke…” I remember feeling like an asshole, but it was also, “Oh my god, why is Patton Oswalt commenting on this?”
Jason Woliner: I recorded this dumb audio sketch about how I imagined this morning radio shock jock trying to be serious when introducing this beheading video, so he was going against his instincts to use dumb sound effects and fart jokes. It was a stupid sketch. But I posted a link to it, and Patton, who I didn’t know, wrote a nice thing about it. That was really the first time someone I really admired in comedy had responded to something I did.
Scott Gairdner: I remember thinking, I’m going to make a short film that’s good enough for AST, to see if it holds up next to professional stuff they like. I posted it, like six people said vaguely nice things, and it really meant a lot. That was such a big confidence boost.
Mary Van Note (The Mary Van Note Show): I remember Patton asking people for help putting up posters, and I emailed him and he was like, “I know you, you can open for me.” I don’t think he knew my standup at all; he just liked seeing me on AST.
Jesse Thorn: Probably the highlight of my young life was, one year, Patton was headlining the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and he knew me from AST, and invited me and [co-producer Jordan Morris] out to dinner with them on New Year’s Eve. I remember Patton being like, “These guys have this radio show. It’s like, what if somebody had an interview show but really loved comedy.” Which now seems like the most normal thing in the world.
Ameen Belbahri: I remember being at SketchFest one year, and having Paul F. Tompkins come up to me and be like, “Are you Meen Bellpeppers?” I was like “Yeeeeeeah?” It was this weird thing where this person who was the celebrity knew me, but knew me by some weird name.
“It wasn’t just famous comics; it was people who would describe themselves as a fan of comedy, but over the years you’d see that person grow into a famous performer.”
John Duff: When they did the last Comedians of Comedy tour, I contacted Patton through AST and said, “Hey man, I’m going to be in New York at the Irving Plaza,” and he threw me four comps, just because he recognized me from AST.
Ameen Belbahri: It wasn’t just famous comics; it was people who would describe themselves as a fan of comedy, but over the years you’d see that person grow into a famous performer.
Luke Maxwell: Jason Woliner invited me to the pilot of Eagleheart. I was sitting at the table, definitely the odd man out. Jason liked me because I was his message board pal, but everyone else kind of scrunched up their face trying to figure out who I was. I remember getting into a conversation with Paul Rust [who was in the non-airing pilot] and telling him I do a comic called “Early Conan,” and he goes, “I love Early Conan.” Jason had been showing my comic off to his friends, and all of a sudden, I was slightly more legit at the table.
Matt Belknap: The thing that never occurred to me [before the board] was that this was not some impenetrable fortress. Anyone who cared can show up week to week. Then, by definition, you are a part of the scene.
Jimmy Pardo: Jouster [Sean Ingram] had a show for awhile. He’d book the best of the best. Eventually, it went the other way where you could get back to experimenting and even bombing, and the audience would stay with you and support you.
Matt Belknap: I was producing a show at UCB called See You Next Tuesday. In 2008, Never Not Funny went to the pay format, and we started the AST record label. From my perspective, I felt like I had crossed over.
Pat Healy: Probably in early 2005, Robin Williams was filming in town, and it emerged he was hanging around the scene. I think he was a drop-in at See You Next Tuesday, and someone recorded it and put it up on AST, and it was bad. There was no one laughing. It was certainly mean and cruel that we were sitting around making fun of him, but I remember it being funny, we were all making each other laugh. People were calling him RV instead of RW, because he had a shitty comedy where he played a dad going on an RV trip. It was this alt-comedy teamup against what was, at that time, very much an establishment “square” comedian trying to break his way into what was “cool.” It speaks to the power of the scene at that time for someone like him, this giant star, to want to be around it.
Jonah Ray: The scene wasn’t too big at the time. You knew all the comics, everyone was at the same parties and shows. There would be people like sparkiepop, who’d be like, “Someone from the boards is coming to hang out in L.A.” It brought the rest of the country to L.A. They came for socializing in the comedy scene.
Mary Van Note: I coordinated a trip from the Bay, and it was my first time doing standup in L.A., and I did all these shows because the bookers knew me from AST. Even Paul F. Tompkins saw me in the UCB green room, and he recognized me from my avatar.
John Duff: You could mention AST at shows, and it was almost like a secret handshake.
Pat Healy: I was a little adrift here, even though I had friends, but I never really felt part of a community. And suddenly, I was.
Matt Belknap: I did feel vaguely embarrassed about it. There was a stretch where I was leading a double life. I was running a message board under a pseudonym and nobody in my real life knew about it. Then, I asked [a few comedians] to book a show for my 30th birthday, and all the comedians were talking about me on stage. My friends were like, “What the fuck is going on? Who are you?” I sort of had to say to my friends, “OK, there’s this thing called a message board…”
IV. The medium is the message board
Besides AST’s 24/7 back-and-forth between onstage comics and their buddies in the virtual green room, certain elements that made the message board, and its citizens, an entity all its own.
Matt Belknap: There were almost recurring sketch characters on the board. Jixby Phillips [Luke Maxwell] was hilarious.
Luke Maxwell: I used to get accused of being characters all the time. Mysterious accounts would show up and they’d start stirring stuff up, and people would accuse me. For the most part, that wasn’t true. I was like one-and-a-half characters.
Heather Mcgowan: There was this thing when [comedian] Barbara Gray hosted a show, and Patton dropped in, and he got in a fight with an audience member, and she posted that she was disappointed, and he had some angry retort. It turned into a 50- or 60-page thread. It was ridiculous. And in the middle of it, Luke made up some thing where he compared everyone to wrestlers.
Luke Maxwell: There was this user named PunditFight who had this bizarre website where he took political pundits and cartoon avatars of them, and had a fantasy league where they fought each other.
Heather Mcgowan: I swear, all of this is real.
Luke Maxwell: So I used images from his website, said one was Barbara and one was Patton, and basically did a parody making fun of the whole thing. I remember it getting 50 “likes” and being like, “that’s a lot of likes.”
Heather Mcgowan: Luke essentially shut the thread down. I think it was mostly him saying, “Hey, look at all this stupid bullshit we’re doing.”
Luke Maxwell: In general, I was a big fan of going on message boards and being stupid. That describes my behavior on message boards: stupid.
Mary Van Note: I was always proud my avatar won contests. I remember that being a source of pride.
Matt Belknap: There was this guy with the screen name LorenzoInTheBenzo, and he was a relentless troll. He only existed to fuck with other people, tried to pick fights, tear everything down. And we just kind of let him do it, and I think eventually, he just punched himself out. He was like, “what the fuck is the point of this?”
Ameen Belbahri: About a dozen of us or so would hang out in the chat room for hours. Tom Scharpling used to come in a lot. It seems so quaint now, the whole chat thing.
Michelle Biloon: We used to do freestyle rap on the chat. Matt [Belknap] and I were really into that.
John Duff: We were in the AST chat and Andy [Wood] was like, “Hey guys, should I do this festival?”
Darryl Duffy: Andy had come up with the idea of [doing a festival in Portland], and he told everyone in the chat. And people would go, “I’ll get myself there if you can put me up.” Or, “Get me a room or let me stay at your place and I’ll perform.”
Andy Wood: I started a thread asking for advice. I think I called it “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Comedy Festival.” Patton saw that thread, asked somebody for my info, and I got a cold call from Patton basically volunteering to do this thing because he liked the idea. He flew himself up, took care of his own hotel, and was like “I just wanna do it. As a favor!” That’s the only reason the first year broke even.
John Duff: I’m actually the person who put out the name “Bridgetown” that Andy went with.
Andy Wood: I remember how much fun we had that first year of Bridgetown. I had a bunch of friends crashing at my house. John Duff was in the midst of cancer treatments, going through chemo, taking a bunch of horse pills. He’s a chef, and was cooking at the house, and everyone was crashing on my floor, like a giant slumber party. It was all these people I would’ve never met in regular life.
Luke Maxwell: Comedy has been my whole life. I mean, I met [Heather] at a Tim and Eric convention. How else do I prove my stripes as far as being a hardcore comedy fan?
Heather Mcgowan: I had A Special Thing T-shirt on [when Luke and I met]! I won it at one of the Death-Ray [anniversary shows], the fourth one. I got married in that shirt. I literally got married in that shirt.
Andy Wood: When I went to that Comedy Death-Ray [all-night anniversary show], it was like, who did we trick into having this happen? How do we deserve this? It was $20 a ticket, and you got a 14-hour show where they brought you booze and food all night. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Heather Mcgowan: That show was the most AST thing that ever happened.
“I was just blown away that it had actually become an actual community. That was really the thing where I was like, ‘This is the greatest website, these are the coolest people, I love comedy forever.'”
John Duff: We had a comedy club in Winnipeg called Rumors, and I would go see comics there. But the type of comedy we were getting wasn’t in this sort of alternative bent, you know? But when I saw that lineup, it just sounded once-in-a-lifetime. We drove from Winnipeg to Hollywood for that show.
Heather Mcgowan: I was just blown away that it had actually become an actual community. That was really the thing where I was like, “This is the greatest website, these are the coolest people, I love comedy forever.”
John Duff: It was almost utopian before, sort of like everything on the Internet, it gets ruined.
Ben Kharakh: They used to do a poll of who was everyone’s favorite comedian.
Marcia Neumeier: They’d rank the comedians one through 20. People would put submissions to Mark [Kiely], and he would compile them and post it.
Mark Kiely: I’ve always been a sports fan, and there was something exciting to me about. “We all have the same collective tastes, but who is everyone’s favorite?” At the peak there were like 150 people voting, at most. I tabulated it by hand on paper.
Marcia Neumeier: Everybody was really into that poll, where they placed. I was dating Anthony Jeselnik at the time, and he was sweating the results to see where he landed, if he made it. I think he made it once because I made everyone vote for him.
Jimmy Pardo: Oh, those results are coming out at midnight? So, instead of going to bed at 11:30, I’m going to wait until midnight to see what happened.
Ben Kharakh: I remember some standups used to make videos trying to get the audience to vote for them.
Darryl Duffy: Tim and Eric had a response video. Todd Barry had a response video. I think Scharpling and Wurster had one.
Ben Kharakh: Paul F. Tompkins just started winning every year.
Sean Ingram: It got contentious a little bit.
Mark Kiely: The poll become somewhat controversial. The whole asterisk thing with Scharpling/Wurster kind of fucked the whole thing up. There was some post on the Friends of Tom message board [for fans of The Best Show on WFMU] that said “Hey, go to AST, register, and vote for Tom and Jon.” In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have [added an asterisk], but I felt I had the duty to say, this was influenced by their fans flocking over here.
Marcia Neumeier: What started the demise of AST was the poll. People were a little offended, and I remember all hell breaking loose, saying like, “Who are you to judge comedy?” It became not fun. So, Mark dropped it. And when Mark scrapped it, that’s when comedians started dropping off the board.
Andy Wood: Then one of the crashes happened, and everything was lost.
V. The fall
If you haven’t contemplated your own Internet usage recently, do so for a moment now, and consider how often you visit message boards anymore. The medium has, for the most part, moved into the same virtual dump as Geocities and AIM. But each has its own specific tale of how, and why, it died.
Pat Healy: I remember the exact moment I left. There was this famous video store in L.A. called Cinephile, and it had a section called “Shade Tipping” where all the covers had characters tipping a pair of shades. I started it as a thread, and it was just crazy. There were hundreds and hundreds of examples, and people would riff on it. Shades on Orson Welles on the Citizen Kane poster, one on the Schindler’s List poster. Everyone was contributing. Every once in awhile, someone put up something that wasn’t an example, and everyone would break down how it wasn’t a true example of Shade Tipping. But then the site crashed. The entire thread was lost. It felt like my Sistine Chapel had collapsed.
Marcia Neumeier: The whole boards were scrapped!
Ameen Belbahri: The boards felt like we were crafting some group project, almost like we were writing a book. And when that stuff gets lost, it’s like, oh shit.
Sean Ingram: A message board isn’t meant to be an archive. But when that stuff was lost, it was a big bummer. Matt and I spent a ton of time trying to get the old stuff back, but nothing really worked.
Pat Healy: I was so depressed about it. That you could make something, and it could be gone in a flash. It bummed me out so hard. It kind of speaks to how important that kind of outlet was for me at the time, you know?
Ameen Belbahri: At a certain point, the chat no longer worked. We kept complaining about it, but it was something where it would slow down the rest of the site.
John Duff: When the chat feature died, I think that really was the downfall for a lot of us. Having that element gone, the immediacy of contact, when that was negated, a lot of the shine fell off.
Matt Belknap: It had crashed a couple of times, actually. At the time, it was devastating. I hate the idea of losing things that maybe you want to look back on some day. Then I was like, I don’t even care, because I realized even though those old threads existed, I personally never went back and looked at them.
Pat Healy: I also remember having the thought at the time of, that was cool, like a comedy show or play. This thing existed for awhile, and you can’t see it again. It’s great to have movies and books, and things recorded for posterity. But it’s nice being there for something other people can’t see, where they’re like, “Wow, what was that like?” You had to be there. We were all a part of it, and other people will never really know.
“Why did I stop posting? I wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s like asking, when did you stop going on Friendster, or MySpace?”
Heather Mcgowan: I remember it was less fun as time went on. The good-naturedness of it disappeared. It almost got too big.
John Duff: It used to be a secret handshake, then it became a dirty word.
Andy Wood: A community, whether it’s online or in the real world, can only thrive if it’s a certain size.
Ben Kharakh: It happens a lot. Something is new, there’s a core group, then it becomes popular, and it starts to feel over time like less of a community.
John Duff: Doug Benson made a joke on Chelsea Lately about the Canadian military, and it was taken the wrong way by a bunch of moronic conservatives from Alberta. Alberta is like Canada’s Texas. They love their oil, their cowboys, their racism. But they started flooding the board, so many new accounts just to shit on Doug.
Megan Berru: The work was a thankless job. I would come home and edit photos for hours, put up the best ones. That was a great feeling, but it was like, I have to have a life; I can’t do this forever. You get burned out.
Heather Mcgowan: Maybe people got different jobs where they weren’t in front of the computer so much. It seemed like a lot of comedians stopped posting, and once they stopped, the fans were less drawn to it.
Ben Kharakh: The line was dropped from sort of a fandom to, like, antagonistic, as if the community was owed the participation of the comedians. We were asking so many questions, at some point the comedian was just like, “All right, I was doing this for fun, it’s not fun anymore.”
Scott Aukerman: A lot of comedians that AST was founded on, their career took off partly because of AST, and they became too busy. Louis C.K. used to post all the time, then he exploded, and why would he go on a website anymore?
Scott Gairdner: There was a kind of MySpace effect, where you were getting advertised to all the time [with show listings]. It probably got too infested with promotion.
Jimmy Pardo: You could see the return rate wasn’t happening anymore. You always felt bad for the guys that are still on. Like, why are you still promoting on this thing? This thing is dead!
Jonah Ray: Why did I stop posting? I wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s like asking, when did you stop going on Friendster, or MySpace?
Jesse Thorn: People didn’t have to go there for news anymore. Matt wasn’t posting recaps, nobody was posting recaps. So, you weren’t getting the inside dope on the live thing. It just hit that kind of message board slowdown.
Sean Ingram: There was a hunger for comedy. I read about The Office U.K. back when it was really hard to get your hands on it. But, now you can use torrents and get it right away.
Darryl Duffy: When I started being able to follow people individually on Twitter, it was like, I don’t need to log into a website and sift through posts.
Matt Belknap: Someone like Rob Delaney jumped into Twitter with both feet. Five years earlier, he would’ve been all over AST. I think he actually was on AST, but once Twitter was available, it was, “I can reach hundreds of thousands instead of just 300 nerds?”
Rob Delaney: Twitter just overhauled my Internet experience. Plus my wife had three kids in just over four years, and once I started being able to pay the bills via comedy I guess I didn’t feel the urge to visit a forum type of experience as often. Greedily, as well, when I say something online now I want a million people, and hopefully more, to hear it, not just comedy fans.
Jonah Ray: There became all these other avenues to interact with fans. You didn’t need that forum anymore.
Scott Aukerman: I was trying to say to Matt, hey, you should evolve [into a comedy news site] because it’s a really valuable URL. But I don’t think Matt was interested in the work that would take. AST really started out as a hobby and it took over a lot of his life.
Matt Belknap: My own involvement [on the boards] began to taper off beginning with Never Not Funny in 2006. Obviously, that was an outgrowth of what had happened on AST. I was interviewing comedians for the site and doing these long transcripts that became so untenable. When podcasting came along, I just started recording and putting them up.
Ameen Belbahri: It felt like we had an up-close seat on the podcast revolution. People were into podcasts on AST before anyone knew what a podcast was. The very first podcast I ever heard was AST Radio [released in 2006, a precursor to Never Not Funny].
Luke Maxwell: Podcasting is a good portion of why AST went downhill. Podcast fans are a different animal from your typical AST fan. There’s something about podcasting that’s so much more personal; it’s different from this communal experience of going to a live show.
Sean Ingram: If you’re listening to their podcast, you’re not as obligated to see them live. The increase in availability of material squashed a lot of the desire for people to look for it.
Heather Mcgowan: I feel there’s still a need for the site. But maybe people’s habits have changed, maybe message boards are just so passé now.
Scott Aukerman: Can you imagine trying to look at a message board on a phone right now?
“AST was pretty tight-knit. I was excited about comedy but also, to get vaguely semi-sappy, I made a lot of really good friends on that board, people I still talk to today. I don’t think I’ve made a real-life friend on Facebook or Twitter.”
Michelle Biloon: [Facebook] certainly covers a lot more territory, but it does not have the same community feel.
Luke Maxwell: That’s a shame to me, because I think message boards are a much more elegant way to build a community than Facebook or Twitter.
Sean Ingram: The problem with Reddit is that it’s too big. It feels like a huge pit. Millions of people are on this. AST was pretty tight-knit. I was excited about comedy but also, to get vaguely semi-sappy, I made a lot of really good friends on that board, people I still talk to today. I don’t think I’ve made a real-life friend on Facebook or Twitter.
Megan Berru-Kerr: I was waiting in line for Death-Ray with Sean, and I felt a little famous. He was the junior admin of the board, so I felt like, we’re a power couple of Internet comedy nerds. Which was, like, not at all. And Sean was about to start his own show, and this guy comes up and goes, “Hey, I heard about the new show, and if it’s a Jouster-related production, I’m completely in.” And it was David Pardue. We’d never met before, and he was at my wedding. That’s the best thing I think I got out of it—this amazing friendship.
Matt Belknap: It’s not a blog, where one person is the figurehead and there are comments beneath. [A message board] is truly a democratic system where everybody has an equal voice. You can start your own topic; you can contribute to another topic. It becomes this living thing that takes on a life of its own.
Jimmy Pardo: Matt Belknap deserves a lot of credit for making this, and Jouster and itslikeimsayin for keeping it alive, and making the alt comedy scene into basically just what’s comedy now.
Jesse Thorn: Without the opportunity to find the audience I had with A Special Thing, I don’t know if I could’ve ever gotten the podcast of The Sound of Young America to take off.
Jonah Ray: If it wasn’t for that site, and the M Bar show, those two things, the landscape would be completely different from how it is now.
Scott Aukerman: AST legitimized this comedy for a lot of people. Without it, I don’t know that Death-Ray would’ve lasted 10 years. Without the encouragement early on of someone writing about the show… you feel like you’re doing it for nothing. That’s what AST did for alternative comedy, especially in L.A. It gave everyone a reason to keep going.
Sean Ingram: In the largest sense, we won. Alternative comedy won. AST won. Because all those guys we were seeing at Comedy Death-Ray are pretty much all big stars now.
Matt Belknap: I don’t look at it as this sad thing. “Boo hoo, AST isn’t active anymore.” It had a great run, it was a great time in my life, and I think everybody who was a part of it feels that way. You know what? It was a special thing! It lived up to its name, didn’t it?
Michelle Biloon: I met somebody when I was in L.A. the last time, a friend-of-a-friend, and she was like, “Oh, I was on AST,” and I was like, “What was your handle?” and I knew who they were! I’m very wistful about AST. And now it’s really nothing, right?
Marcia Neumeier: I’m a little determined to get AST going again, but it’s hard. If you look, you’ll see me and a couple other posters on there, but it’s mostly just to make fun because nobody posts. I’m still a moderator. I still go and clean up spam, keep it tidy.
Matt Belknap: I always say AST will never really die, because there’s always going to be two nerds who want to be the person to make the last post.
Rick Paulas (screen name: Rick Paulas) spent 2004 to 2008 working eight hours a day at a menial job that offered a computer with Internet access. He posted a lot.
Illustrations by J. Longo.