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What keeps comedian Tim Dillon's fans loyal? (Hint: It might not be the jokes)

On a recent Friday night in downtown Phoenix, the line outside Stand Up Live snaked all the way from the front door of the club, down a flight of stairs and on to the sidewalk.

It was almost time for the fourth show in a sold-out run by comedian Tim Dillon.

"He makes me feel a little bit more sane in an insane world," said one person in line. (Several of the fans I talked to didn't want to give their names.)

"He’s not necessarily afraid to not be politically correct. Which I think is important in today’s day and age with cancel culture. I think freedom of speech is really important, and being able to say what everyone’s already thinking," said another.

You hear this kind of thing a lot when you talk to Tim Dillon fans.

"He says kinda what we’re all thinking — I think that’s what kinda comedy is, to say the unspoken. So I’m a huge fan of that," one show attendee said.

As I made my way through the line, this idea kept coming up: "Cancel culture has gone too far. People are too scared to say what they’re really thinking."

Less clear, however, was what exactly these unspeakable sentiments everyone supposedly shares might be.

"Can you give me an example of something you’ve heard him say that feels like the kind of thing people are thinking, but that feels like the kind of thing other people aren’t willing to say?" I asked on fan.

"Well, I don’t know if it’s stuff that maybe I’m thinking, but it’s just, you know, it’s stuff that maybe has come up in your head throughout the day, and then he just comes up with something that’s similar enough to where you connect to it," said the fan.

"He speaks in a way that isn’t really acceptable anymore, and I find it to be wildly entertaining, hilarious and refreshing. And I like it a lot," said another audience member.

"When you say a way that’s not acceptable anymore — what do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, just specifically things that are politically incorrect. You know, and we all know those things that you’re not supposed to say, that you can’t say, and that’s all well and good and that’s how it’s supposed to be, but there’s a huge vacuum for that in today’s modern life and times in society," the audience member said.

One group of Dillon fans told me I was asking the wrong questions.

"If people are taking what he’s saying as super political, I think they’re missing it. Like, deeply missing the point. Especially if you’re taking a comedian for his political views, you’re probably too dumb to understand comedy," said a fan.

Now I will admit, this certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve missed the point. But the fact is: When I asked people what they liked about Tim Dillon, they kept talking about politics!

"And can you give me any example of something like that that he has said that really resonated with you?" I asked.

"I think his political views in general speak for themselves …" said a fan.

At this point, I was starting to notice that almost nobody I talked to told me they were there because they liked Tim Dillon’s comedy. When I asked them about their favorite Tim Dillon bits, they might reference a rant from Dillon’s podcast.

"This is why boomers are traveling all over the country, is to go to where their children have been forced to live and laugh at them," Dillon said. "This is what boomers like to do — they go, 'You pay this for that?' That’s the whole point."

And they talled about one of their favorite moment from one of his 13 appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience.

"We desperately live in a time of intellectuals, and we need to live in a time of business people. Who cut deals. This is again, an argument, maybe, for Trump. What we need is people who realize the limitations of their own intellect," Dillon said.

Call me dumb, KJZZ fans, but that second one sounds a little political to me! Anyway — I guess the reason I found this all so confusing is that I first discovered Tim Dillon on Netflix. He was a featured performer in the "Comedy Line-Up" in 2018, and released a full-length special in 2022 called "Tim Dillon: A Real Hero."

I found Dillon to be a somewhat quirky presence on stage — a heavy-set guy from Long Island who occasionally dyes his hair, and likes to wear ill-fitting T-shirts and baggy jeans. He’s gay, but says he’d happily let the British monarchy call him homophobic slurs all day if they let him live in one of their castles.

Part of the reason I’d come out to the club tonight was because I’d noticed Dillon has become a mainstay of the fratty, aggressively masculine circuit of comedy podcasts like Rogan’s — and it seemed like an odd match to me.

But those podcast appearances — and Dillon’s own podcast, which has about a million weekly listeners — seem to have created a unique bond with his fans. The more of them I talked to, the more I started to think they weren’t necessarily there because they love Tim Dillon’s jokes, or his politics (whatever they may be). They just love Tim Dillon. And for at least some of them, I got the sense they see a little bit of themselves in him.

"He’s personable — I mean, he grew up in blue-collar Long Island, and so he’s just relatable," said a fan.

"I’ve been listening to his podcast for about two years now. Every day — every day! Every time I do cardio — you know, I know he’s a big guy, and I’m a big guy myself, so I like to take his inspiration, his political advice, whenever it comes to current events. I love his position on everything," said a show attendee.

"Just a cool, kinda like everyday kinda dude, just amped up about what’s goin’ on," said an audience member.

The lights in the club started to dim, and I hurried over to my table.

"Are you guys ready to see the man you came to see? You know him from his podcast! Ladies and gentlemen, Tim Dillon!" said the show host as the crowd applauded.

"Hey, Arizona, how are we?!" said Dillon.

Dillon went into his act, and I gotta be honest, I don’t remember most of it. But that’s not because it was bad. It’s because at the very end, something happened that I’ve never seen at a comedy show. I’ve probably been to several hundred comedy shows. They always end the same way — the comic hits their final punchline, or they don’t, they put the mic back in the stand, they say something like, “I’ve been so and so, thank you, good night!,” and they vanish backstage.

That’s not what Tim Dillon did. He’d been on stage for about an hour, and as he built his last riff to a furious crescendo, the crowd was roaring. And then, right at the moment I imagine every comic dreams of all day long — he didn’t leave the stage. Dillon stood there for a moment, letting the laughter subside. And then he started doing some crowd work — that  familiar trope of asking people in the audience what they do for work. After some gentle ribbing of a geologist and a pharmaceutical rep, he turned to a guy sitting just to the right of the stage.

"How are you doin’ — things are good? Working, you finding work?" Dillon asked the guy.

The guy, Nick Hartley, said he was actually unemployed — his last job had been playing pro rugby.

"What do you wanna do outside of rugby?" Dillon asked.

"Honestly, I wanna be a comedian," said Hartley.

"You wanna be a comedian? Do you wanna get up? Do you really wanna get up?" Dillon asked as the crowd cheered.

And with that, Tim Dillon — internationally touring stand-up comedian, host of a podcast with a million listeners, at the peak of a sold-out show in a major city — handed the mic to a random guy from the audience.

"What’s your name? " Dillon asked. "Nick what? Ladies and gentlemen — Nick Hartley!"

"All right, hey, how we doin’ guys?! ... I was born with an eating disorder, called poverty," said Nick, as the crowd cheered and laughed.

Hartley did about 10 minutes. The crowd stayed with him. And why wouldn’t they? Tim Dillon’s their guy, and that makes Nick Hartley their guy, too. I kept thinking Dillon was gonna come back up at the end — but he didn’t. Hartley hit his last punchline, handed the mic back to Dillon, and Dillon said good night.

After the show, I found Hartley outside the club, practically levitating.

"I have to ask you that — you had no idea that was going to happen?" I said.

"I had zero idea. I was literally sittin’ there in the front, and he’s lookin in my direction, he’s askin’ about my job. And I was like, I don’t wanna tell him I wanna do comedy," said Hartley. "'Cuz that’s like so cliche —  but I really am unemployed, like I don’t have anything else. So I was like, 'I wanna be a comedian!' And then they just put me on stage! And I was like, that was the best night of my life — that was so awesome."

I still don’t fully understand what the Tim Dillon fans who came out that night were looking for. But all of us got more than what we were expecting. Not just Tim Dillon — but Nick Hartley. Two cool, kinda everyday dudes, just amped up about what’s goin’ on.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Sam was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.