As a performer, I know how hard comedy is, and I also know how difficult it is to be in a band, since I managed a few in my 20s. So I acknowledge with affection that not a day goes by in which one of my musician friends doesn’t share a Hard Times article that hits us right in the heart.
The lyrics from Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”—“And you feel the eyes upon you as you’re shakin’ off the cold. You pretend it doesn’t bother you, but you just want to explode”—aren’t about being punk, but every single person I know in a punk band can relate. These are hard rows to hoe. Which is part of why I’m equally envious and confused about how Hard Times co-founders Matt Saincome and Bill Conway managed to forge a popular, on-point, and wildly entertaining satirical site where punk and hardcore meet humor.
The genesis: After Saincome wrote an article about a guy who was promoting a book about him having sex with a dolphin went viral, he realized the measley $35 he was paid wasn’t enough. Then he launched his own website to reap all the financial windfall of future viral writings. Bill, a friend he met through podcasting, responded to Matt’s request for writers early on. Five years later, not only do they have a successful operation, but they’re releasing a new book, The Hard Times: The First 40 Years.
I asked them about everything.
What satirical influences did you have growing up, or influences for your type of humor?
BC: Growing up in Massachusetts, whenever I had a friend go to New York, I would demand that they bring a hard copy of the Onion back home, because they were only on newsstands back then. Early Simpsons seasons are the most important comedic thing in my life. I just did the Herculean task of finishing every season of The Simpsons, which is not a fun thing to do.
MS: My influences are more like a Brace Belden, the front man of Warkrime. He did a whole bunch of satirical stuff on stage. Hoagie from Omega, a hardcore band from Canada, who did satirical deconstruction of live performances. It’s kind of a generic to say, but Andy Kaufman. I liked characters who I thought were doing funny stuff, but I never really got too deep into the written satirical before.
What makes for a good satirical article?
BC: I definitely think it has to have a point of view. I think the best headlines we have done were a reference people can relate to. You’re supposed to understand satire on a couple of different levels. It can’t just be a joke about pit beef and being vegan. No, we’re not going to run a vegan pit beef article. Nobody cares about vegan pit beef, and I’m sick of it. So I would say as long as it’s not vegan pit beef, it’s probably pretty good.
MS: The thing that makes a good satirical article in my mind is that it’s an original take, and that’s kind of hard to do. The internet is just millions of people making the same joke. Anytime any news event happens, 10,000 people make the same joke, and they all think that they invented it. The hard thing nowadays is trying to get a really original take that’s still powerful. Which is why the Borowitz Report sucks so bad, ’cause he just goes with the most obvious take every single time.
Other than vegan pit beef, what other repetitive submissions have you guys received?
BC: The other most popular one is ska band van accident kills 37, because ska bands have a lot of members.
When it comes to pitches, have there been any in a different music genre that you end up having to reject because it’s not your brand?
BC: Yeah, there’s been some hip-hop articles that have headlines we’ve been pitched. We’ve done a couple, but we don’t really dive too deep into that world all that much.
MS: I’d certainly like to do more genres. It’s just punk and punk hardcore and that subculture stuff is kind of just who we are. That’s what’s on our mind, and that’s what we’re pitching. But we do a lot of rock stuff. I’d like to branch out even more. I think that people are not as confined as they used to be. I think that people have diverse interests, and that headlines from other music genres would do well on our platform.
Is there anything in mainstream media, other than [the 2016 slasher punk thriller] Green Room, that is a true, relatable look at what it’s like being a punk band on the road?
BC: You would think SLC Punk, but that’s all cheesy as hell when you’ve looked back on it. The closest thing I’ve come to is an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia where they talked about the Richmond hardcore scene, and it wasn’t terrible. They didn’t approach it like, Look at these meatheads that are just punching each other. So it was an interesting listen. Boston Beat Down and Boston Beat Down Part Two—that was my lived experience. I did not get beat up. I know where everything happened. I know where they were swinging around buckets on Lansdowne Street, like a bunch of meatballs.
MS: God Fathers Of Hardcore on Showtime. American Hardcore was my favorite documentary.
What is something mainstream media has gotten absolutely, completely wrong about punk?
MS: There’s a Chips Ahoy! commercial with a bunch of animated chocolate chip cookies with puppies, but they have punk clothes and Mohawks, and they go, “Punky chips ahoy oi, oi, oi!” The thing I see is a punk band playing at, like, the pleasure warehouse, and it’s a punk show/BDSM-thing in the sewers. And there’s just thousands of BDSM girls there and people in cages, stripping and stuffing. Places like this don’t exist.
BC: There’s a Taco Bell commercial that’s a punk band singing about [how] they want tacos, and it’s like the worst thing in the history of television. Whenever there’s a punk show in a movie or television show, it’s always very well attended, there’s like 400 people there. When in reality it would be 16 people.
Are there any satirical outlets that you think are just doing bad satire or just getting it wrong?
MS: Empire News is horrible. Bill gave the explanation: They’re like, Happy birthday Hillary Clinton, but it’s not her birthday. What is this? There’s no subtext, there’s no exaggeration, there’s no role reversals. There’s none of the tools that you normally use. It’s just junk. “Donald Trump adopted a dog today,” but he didn’t.
How do you toe the line between satire, fake news, and libel/slander?
BC: We actually got a message from somebody on Facebook demanding that we take a picture of them down, or they’re going to try to sue us for libel and slander, even though the headline was kind of complimenting what they were doing. Also, we got the photo rights free from Wikimedia Commons. So that’s the way we skirt getting in trouble, by doing things legally and not stealing.
MS: We do it right, and we’ve told all of our people we don’t apologize and we don’t back down. We just do whatever the fuck we want. I like it. You don’t start an independent punk website to follow rules. There is no adult in the room. It’s only me.
You guys started Hard Times shortly after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. When something like that happens, does that have an effect on you as somebody who’s in that same genre?
MS: It’s definitely insane, crazy, and heartbreaking to see someone be killed over a cartoon. I would also say, though, it’s not really the same art form between us and Charlie Hebdo. Like if you look at their other stuff, it’s much different. I didn’t really even connect the dots when that happened. I’m a big free speech guy, and I think killing anyone over the idea of a cartoon drawing is moronic and stupid, and anybody who has any religion who thinks that you should kill someone because they drew a picture of your God is a moron.
Do you have any opinions towards the current climate of “PC comedy or cancelled culture”? Is that something that you’re seeing?
BC: I think with us, the PC culture has kind of had its roots in punk forever. We’ve always just kind of done articles pointing out how silly that can be sometimes. A lot of our best headlines have been making fun of those people doing that sort of thing, because we grew up around those people. A lot of times I might agree with what they’re saying, but then a lot of times it’s just like, All right, pump the brakes there. I don’t think that’s the biggest cause for concern right now. Let’s look at the bigger issue.
MS: I think it’s funny when people talk about “PC people killing comedy.” How weak do you have to be to let someone who complains on Twitter kill your art? The people who are the most annoying to me are people who don’t read the subtext properly. We have a writer who used to be a heroin addict and has been in recovery for 10 years. She wrote this article about visiting her hometown that’s ravaged by the opioid epidemic, and how her friends are now tombstones. She has to visit a couple of graveyards to get back in touch with the gang. These jokes are literally about her experience, about her life, about the tragic thing that’s happened in her community. You get these people who are like, This is not funny. This is serious cause for concern. It’s like, What are you doing? Who are you concerned for? The person who wrote this joke clearly is on your side.
BC: There was a similar headline that a lot of people in the comments section just didn’t get. It was, “Girl Wearing NASA Shirt Has Never Been To Space,” and it was people like, Leave her alone! Let her wear what she wants! That’s not what this is about. It’s about the people that are gatekeepers that say you don’t wear Thrasher if you can’t skate sort of a shit. It’s insane how easily people miss these things.
What can people expect from the new book, from you guys?
BC: There’s going to be a map to the walking tour of all the fights I got in while living in Allston. This book chronicles our existence of the past 40 years, as if we were a zine that started in 1976. It shows our maturation as a media empire. We created new articles from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. And then we have articles from the website as the back half of the book. So there’s a lot of new material. There’s a narrative that runs throughout the book that explains our backstory. There’s a lot of good things that are completely original to the book that you cannot find anywhere else.
MS: It’s all the best articles from the website and then new ones that could become your new favorites. There’s also illustrations and interstitials and there’s actually a narrative arc between Bill and I and all the other co-founders and editors and how the company rises and falls.
I’m really proud of it. It’s really cool.
Meet Bill and Matt on 11.6 at Brookline Booksmith and get a signed copy of The Hard Times: The First 40 Years. More info at brooklinebooksmith.com, and listen to our full and uncut conversation at deadairdennis.com/podcast.