When Matt Saincome was an adolescent punk rocker, he sculpted his hair into a foot-tall red mohawk. He was proud of his spiky gesture of defiance, but he quickly had to find a sense of humor about it when he needed transportation.
"I'd have to tilt my head so it wouldn't hit the roof of my parents' car," he said.
For a young punk, it was a little undignified. But it taught him that "if you're going to take extreme stances, if you can't release the pressure valve once in a while, it becomes unbearable."
Years later, that wry harrumphing about his favorite music gave him the idea for the Hard Times. It's a satire site of rapier-pointed, punk-scene in-jokes that has nonetheless attracted a much wider audience. Today the site — in the spirit of the early Onion, with the knowing smirk of Saincome's favorite punk zines — averages close to 6 million page views per month.
In an era when "fake news" and political trolling masquerades as satire, the Hard Times is a rare bit of sweetly savage humor in our increasingly hard to satirize age.
Saincome, 26, a music journalist and former editor at SF Weekly, has punk lifer bona fides. He's straight edge — meaning he doesn't drink or do drugs — and has been repeatedly banned and reinstated at the Berkeley punk club 924 Gilman (attracting the ire of its baroquely progressive co-op board is a rite of passage; just ask Green Day).
"It's so funny, someone who works there will tell you you're banned and then six months later they'll just forget about it," he said. His band's lyrics at the time were deemed too provocative. "They thought Hard Times was secretly owned by Vice Media for a while."
The sanctimoniousness of punk scene mores, coupled with the indignities and clueless egos accompanying band life, proved to be prime fodder for parody.
When he founded the site two years ago, with his brother Ed Saincome and the comedian Bill Conway, they didn't expect it to resonate beyond music fans who got the barbed undertones of a story such as "Band Girlfriends Set to Create Uneasy Friendship out of Obligation."
But within weeks, the site was attracting over a million page views a month. Though the Hard Times is still far from Vice or the Onion in traffic, its fans' Facebook engagement often beats its much bigger rivals.
There was more of an audience for jabs like "Pretentious Friend Only Listens to Podcasts On Vinyl" or absurdities such as"Crowd Surfer Attacked by Crowd Shark" than they expected.
They were surprised "at first, yes, but the more you think about it, no," Ed Saincome said. "Millions of people listen to Rancid, Minor Threat and Terror. The Internet has made anything youth culture into one thing. That probably helps us, because people are more aware of niche things that they might not have been 15 years ago."
Even in its brief run, the site has already done long-term character-building: of President Obama as a put-upon hardcore scene veteran who hosts basement shows in the White House, and Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye as the inscrutable scene-monk ("Unlucky Dischord Records Intern Draws Ian MacKaye for Office Secret Santa").
It's also been a well of sharp writing by young women in the punk scene, whose experiences of being harassed, condescended to or ignored by male peers have turned into some of the site funniest bits.
"A lot of the best things in satire come from tiny moments that we notice but never think to talk about," said Hana Michels, an L.A. writer and comedian who has penned some of the site's drollest posts, like "Graffiti in Venue Ladies' Room Surprisingly Supportive" and "Outspoken Male Feminist Definitely Hiding Something."
"When I wrote the post about the man who magically transforms into a music historian when talking to women, I got so many emails from dudes saying 'Oh God, that's me.'"
It's a tricky time for satire in America – some contemporary sites like Clickhole and the feminist parody blog Reductress have mined the inanity of social media to great effect. But others, like the New Yorker's Borowitz Report, have had to add "this is satire" notices because the jokes rarely exceed plausible daily life in America now. And that's not even mentioning the morass of relatively anonymous sites who claim the mantle of satire while simply spreading falsehoods.
The Hard Times' specificity and insider appeal are precisely what makes its humor pointed — something true in any subculture.
"There's a great site called Duffel Blog that's kind of like Hard Times for the military, and it's so bleak, like jokes about corpses," Matt Saincome said. "But it's cracking jokes in the foxhole."
Saincome knows that feeds are flooded with unfunny garbage, from bad satire to straight-ahead disinformation campaigns.
“All comedians right now are struggling with the question of ‘How do you satirize
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