On any given Monday night in Austin, Texas, raucous laughter can be heard booming from Vulcan Gas Company, a popular two-story night club on 6th Street. Take a peek in and you’ll find a rowdy jam-packed crowd, most in standing room only behind steel barriers, all to see (and possibly participate in) the #1 live podcast in the world: “Kill Tony.”
But then again, how many ‘live podcasts’ are there? The show is a unique blend of two complementary mediums that are usually treated separately: Podcasting and stand-up comedy. On “Kill Tony,” the rules are simple — put your name in the hat and win the chance to perform one minute of uninterrupted stand-up comedy for comics and musicians like Tom Segura and Freddie Gibbs.
After the minute is over, the panel of celebrity guests and comedians talk to the contestant about their performance, their hobbies, and their life all while prying for more details that could add to their set. Some contestants are seasoned comics just waiting for the chance to blow up, while others are touching a mic for the very first time. Either way, the unpredictability leaves the audience on their toes and is what makes it so much fun (and so cringey) to watch.
Tony: The Man Behind the Madness
Tony Hinchliffe, the host and producer of the show, got his start in comedy in Hollywood, and started putting it on at the Belly Room of the Comedy Store in 2013. After solidifying his style as an insult comic, Hinchcliffe garnered attention from roast veteran Jeff Ross, eventually opening for him on tour and becoming a staple on Comedy Central roasts for years, most famously the roast of Snoop Dogg.
But on the show, Tony’s approach isn’t all name calling and heckling. His pointed questions are designed to surface the key traits that make the contestant special, or at least provide inspiration for material. In practice, it’s somewhere in between a public roast and a brainstorming session.
Hinchecliff said on Kill Tony’s pilot episode that he “wanted to see how we could use the natural resources of the [Comedy Store] to our advantage,” given the Comedy Store already had 50-60 comedians showing up every Monday at 7pm.
“So many comedians wanna do so much and when you don’t get a spot downstairs, it’s just a mindf–k. ’Cause you wait for an hour, you pay for parking and it’s a random lottery,” Hinchcliffe said, reflecting on the state of the Comedy Store at the time. “And so it’s going through that ridiculous grind. Once you do a spot, you do good, you want more, it’s crazy, it’s an addiction.
“So there were tons of people and I figured why not give everybody a smaller forum than the three minutes they’re trying to get. So I said, what if we gave everybody one minute and see how it goes.”
When asked why the show relocated from Hollywood to Austin in 2020, Hinchcliffe explained what occurred when the pandemic struck and shuttered thousands of clubs all across the country but Texan rules allowed for live shows.
“Redban and I hit the road because we had to do a live podcast,” he said. “Everybody else got to go to their studio and keep doing their show … but because it’s in front of a live audience we were dying the hottest death. I mean it was horrible.”
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What Kill Tony Does Right
The secret sauce behind Kill Tony is much more than just the pandemic relocation that allowed the show to continue. The reason the show has ballooned to its size (its YouTube channel currently has 411,000 subscribers) is two-fold: The element of surprise and audience participation. No celebrity guest is announced before the show, so you don’t know who you are going to see when you buy the ticket. What’s more important, however, is that hundreds of members of the audience are potentially on deck.
Audience participation in shows like this are rare. In today’s risk-averse culture, most cable networks wouldn’t dare swallow the potential mishaps associated with having complete strangers do amateur comedy live on air. At The Vulcan, the talent is non-union and the studio audience is, well, wasted.
Trying to find comparisons to Kill Tony is difficult. Improvisational live shows like “Whose Line is it Anyway” and Nick Cannon’s “Wild’n Out” both have spontaneous live performances, as well as lively crowds, but lack the audience participation at the level of Kill Tony, where anyone is invited to participate.
And the 60-second spot is just the start. Contestants that do well have gone on to become regulars on the show, writing and working on a brand-new minute each week. One such comedian, Hans Kim, went from being homeless in a van in Austin to becoming a regular on the show. Now, in addition to the weekly spot, Kim regularly opens for Joe Rogan and Tony himself on their arena tour. No wonder Tony aptly refers to it as the “Hat of Destiny.”
Case Study for Future Content
Kill Tony is one of many cross-media programs that is setting an example for the rest of the crowd. Just as in video games and short-form video, audience participation is exploding and changing the way we see entertainment and media.
Technology innovations have put the right tools in front of the masses, which allow for the proliferation of content that is not produced by means of traditional studios, labels or institutions. This has allowed for the audiences of the past to become the creators of today. When it comes to the future of multimedia, expect to see pre-packaged material moved to the back burner in favor of programs that allow audience participation and expansion of community-created content.