Stand-Up Comedian Tony Hinchcliffe on Defending Matt Rife, the ‘Kill Tony’ Podcast and ‘Never Apologizing’ After Using Racial Slur in 2021

Is there a rule book for comedy? It’s a question igniting fiery debates, especially in today’s era of “cancel culture” dictating the dos and don’ts of stand-up. But for Tony Hinchcliffe, the idea of conforming to these restrictions is as likely as finding a unicorn at a rodeo.

“There’s no room for victim mentality here,” Hinchcliffe tells Variety. “When you step into a dark, dingy comedy club, what do you want to see? Think about it like a strip club. Do you want to see girls in a dress? Or do you want to see nasty fucking shit? You want ping-pong balls flying at your head.”

More from Variety

Hinchcliffe sits back in a golden chair for his Zoom interview, rocking a plain white T-shirt and basketball shorts, reminiscing about his days as the class clown. He was born and raised on the rough and tumble streets of Youngstown, Ohio. His comedy was shaped in large part by Jim Carrey’s goofy antics, and an ability to bounce back from tough responses to his own early attempts at humor — such as the fellow student who punched him in the face after Hinchcliffe teased him for being walked to the bus stop by his mother. The two went on to become best friends.

Moving to Los Angeles in 2007, he made a name for himself at clubs for insulting both the audience and other comics and being willing to broach any topic, no matter how sensitive. He began opening for comics like Joe Rogan and Jeff Ross; the latter helped Hinchcliffe land writing gigs on “Comedy Central Roast,” where he penned Martha Stewart’s raunchy zingers for Justin Bieber, among others. In 2013, he launched his podcast “Kill Tony” with co-host Brian Redban. The podcast is famed for its “Bucket of Destiny,” giving aspiring and seasoned comedians a shot at performing a stand-up set for 60 seconds and receiving feedback from judges — and getting roasted. In 2020, Hinchcliffe moved himself and the podcast to Austin, Texas, where he continues to put out weekly episodes.

His manager, Alex Murray of Brillstein Entertainment Partners, notes of his appeal, “Tony has an unapologetic original voice that he has been carefully crafting for over 20 years. He takes the art of stand-up comedy seriously and it shows. He’s one of the best joke writers in the business.” He says he is particularly proud of how the comic has helped to elevate new voices. “In today’s business there are very few opportunities for a young comedian to be seen,” Murray notes. “With the popularity of ‘Kill Tony,’ he can make a star in 60 seconds. When it happens, its magic.”

Tony Hinchcliff Credit: Troy Conrad
Tony Hinchcliffe is flanked by Michael Gonzales, left, D-Madness, John Deas and Brian Redban.

But Hinchcliffe is not without controversy. In May 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, Hinchcliffe found his way into the eye of the cancel culture storm. A racial slur hurled at fellow comedian and Asian American Peng Dang during a gig in Austin catapulted him into a whirlwind of backlash. The incident, caught on video and circulated widely on Twitter (now X) resulted in Hinchcliffe being dropped by his talent agency, WME, and several of his scheduled performances were canceled. 

Despite these setbacks, Hinchcliffe secured representation with Nick Nuciforo at United Talent Agency, whose clientele includes notable figures like Will Ferrell and Sarah Silverman. Hinchcliffe also continues to headline major events, such as the Netflix Is a Joke festival in Los Angeles, alongside Redban.

Unlike others, Hinchcliffe hasn’t apologized since the 2021 controversy. In fact, his No. 1 rule is “never apologize,” and he has leaned into it even more. In October 2023, Hinchcliffe continued to stir the pot, this time appearing on the controversial far-right YouTube show “TRIGGERnometry.” On the episode, conspiracy theories flew around and accusations from the comedian painted Dang as “a Chinese spy,” further describing the incident as “an orchestrated attack by the Chinese media.”

Dang, for his part, says he remains detached from Hinchcliffe’s narratives since the incident, but still receives ongoing racial and hateful messages regularly. Regarding Hinchcliffe’s accusations, he questions the logic behind sending a spy to gather intelligence under the guise of a stand-up comedian. “I thought most spies gather classified information related to science, technology or government affairs,” Dang tells Variety. “Why would any country send a spy to be a stand-up comedian? What kind of intelligence would I get from doing comedy? At that moment in time, there was a rise in Asian hate. It was backed by statistics. I know people personally who were injured in Texas.”

Variety spoke to Hinchcliffe in a sprawling conversation about everything from the state of cancel culture, appearing at Netflix Is a Joke and drawing inspiration from “The Golden Girls.”

What inspired you to get into comedy? 

I had a crazy childhood in a rough, tough neighborhood. At the time, it was the crime capital of America; Youngstown, Ohio, averaging about a murder a day with a population of about 40,000 people. By the time I was in school, I was already just trying to entertain myself beyond being a class clown. Back then, Jim Carrey, his goofy faces and everything mixed with my mom’s love for “The Golden Girls.” Comedy was my only escape. Anytime my father, who would visit sometimes, would come around, my goal was to make him laugh because I thought that would make him visit more. The rest is history.

Who’s your favorite Golden Girl? 

Someone asked me that at a Q&A in front of 3,000 people [one] night, and I could not answer. It’s whichever one spoke last. It’s like a Tarantino movie. Whichever one you have yet to see is your least favorite until you rewatch it. And then you realize that’s his best movie. And then it’s the same exact thing with “The Golden Girls.”

How do you feel about being part of Netflix Is a Joke, the Coachella of stand-up comedy festivals? 

I’m looking forward to being the Netflix outlier. We surprised the industry when we put our tickets on sale for the YouTube theater, and they sold out in a couple of hours. The Kia Forum is an added show. I’m excited to return to where this started. I’ve spent the last three years in Austin, but I built everything, loved everything and knew everything about Los Angeles.

We’re the comedy show. Comedians are watching comedians do comedy on “Kill Tony.” I’m using a pro wrestling model. Anything can happen and it’s ridiculously exciting. You could watch someone’s entire life change in front of your eyes. Everybody that we pull out of that bucket has a chance.

When it comes to the next generation, we’re seeing TikTok creators transitioning from funny videos to stand-up comedy, which isn’t always an easy bridge to cross. 

A Baltimore bridge.

What would your nugget of inspiration be for them? 

It’s a very dark, lonely road. It is the opposite of TikTok, where your content is immediately seen by a ton of people. You must be able to be present in a room and change your timing. Not to be taken lightly. Someone going from TikTok and expecting to be a natural stand-up comedian is the equivalent in my mind of someone being good at Pop-a-Shot basketball, making as many as you can in 30 seconds, to being in the NBA. How many people from TikTok or Instagram reels are even making it as a stand-up comedian? People get Matt Rife confused and blocked in with those people. But my take on Matt Rife is I knew him 11 years ago, opening for Ralphie May. And he was a little star. I bust all my comedian friends’ balls when they bring him up and speak negatively about him in the green room. He did the work. He did those things. And he started young; he’s built for it.  

Do you feel your move from L.A. to Austin has hindered any opportunities or can people pretty much have a comedy career from anywhere now?

It has hindered nothing. On the contrary, it’s freeing to know that we are focused on our standup comedy and podcasts instead of being focused on L.A. or New York City cliches like auditions, pitch meetings, voiceover gigs, writing jobs and other distractions that, at best, leave you with a boss, a lack of creative control and probably wanting more money. By having our priorities be our own podcasts and doing live shows regularly we get better at those two things regularly and can all relate to one another and do each others’ shows to promote the projects we care about. Our favorite comedians from L.A. and New York come to us now — we only go there when we have to do big shows. People can have a career from anywhere now but I still think it’s important to be around people that you respect and have fun with. It’s great for mental health. There is no victim mentality whatsoever in Texas. In Austin we are hyper aware of the existing freedom of American stand-up comedy and the audiences here and the people that travel here for shows know exactly what they are getting into and love it. Everyone wins.

What have you learned since the Peng Dang situation occurred? 

I just never stopped. What happened in May of 2021 was that I was playing a joke on stage with someone who knew me and knew my style. And it was a time in which I think being a victim was looked at — as a — I don’t want to say a good thing, but it was something that people were utilizing to get their own names out there.

I knew that what I had done was not wrong. It wasn’t even the worst thing I did that week. I couldn’t believe it when that video came out, and it was one of my former openers doing it. It was so dumbfounding to me because it was a joke, and my stance is that comedians should never apologize for a joke, should never stop working if everyone comes after them and should never slow down. In fact, they should utilize anything that happens to them for more material. Real comedy fans see through it. They want that line. They know that line. And they love that line. That line is exactly where I love to exist, and I push that to the limits. I did P. Diddy jokes this past weekend. I told Nickelodeon jokes, a Baltimore bridge reference. People say, “But what if someone’s family that was on the bridge sees that?” It’s a different little island that we’ve created. It existed in Texas, obviously a staple of free speech, but while L.A. and New York have virtue signaled their way into what’s right and what’s wrong. We go forward here.

So, to be clear, are you saying people use “being offended” as a crutch to advance in the business? 

One hundred percent. It’s virtue signaling. I don’t want to make it political or anything like that, but I look at it like wearing a mask at the airport. I’ve been on the road all these weekends, and I still see people wearing masks, and I get it. Maybe people are fighting cancer or something like that. But the reality is, are you really? Are you really trying to not get sick? Are you afraid to get somebody sick? The whole thing is nonexistent. Now, a doctor will tell you, you don’t have to do that, and you shouldn’t. There are more negative repercussions. The mask is virtue signaling. It’s like, “Look at me, I care.”  

What’s your take on people being too sensitive nowadays? 

Nobody who knows me is not sensitive at all. If you look at the profiles of people who are upset, angry or retweeting in a “canceled” situation, you will see that they’re constantly complaining about things. In May 2021, mainstream media had a tight grip on fear and controlling people. But I don’t see any sensitivity; on the contrary, in my shows, I see people who say, “That’s the moment.”  

I have a George Floyd joke that I do. That’s entirely on me, but if someone didn’t know comedy and wasn’t a high-level stand-up fan, they would go, “Oh, you cannot do that. You cannot bring up that kind of subject matter.” I think people must realize that we are professionals. And yes, sure, we deal with the repercussions of what happens.

Netflix is a Joke Festival runs May 1-12.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.