And that brings us to Fitzy, a professional know-it-all.
Most young Internet-savvy Sox and Pats fans know Paul "Fitzy" Fitzgerald. His short webcasts from TownieNews.com have been passed online throughout New England. He's the unruly voice of the obnoxious Boston sports fan who previews Red Sox and Patriots' games from his mother's basement in Billerica, Mass., with plenty of hometown bias, crass language and juvenile male idiocy
Fitzy's popularity brought him to a larger stage last fall, when ESPN signed him to create similar pieces for MondayNightMania.com . In stadium parking lots outside the NFL's Monday Night broadcasts, Fitzy has mixed it up with fans from around the country as the "man on the street," joking with tailgaters, mixing in obscure movie references and sports trivia, singing the odd ditty and scalding his mouth by eating meat right off the grill.
But Fitzy doesn't really exist.
Fitzy is a character, the creation of Nick Stevens, a 33-year old comedian who grew up in Braintree and lives in New York. That's something that many are unwilling or unable to accept, and his story involves sports, technology, ingenuity and marketing as much as comedy.
A film grad of NYU, Stevens struggled for years to find a way to make his mark in showbiz. "I spent my 20s wondering, should I move to Los Angeles and work in TV production? Direct? Or try to write and act?" says Stevens. "I was fumbling through temp work ... begging and borrowing for beer money all the time. It was bad."
Stevens performed in small clubs in sketch groups, first with Utah Arm, then with playwright Gabe McKinley in 2000. They formed The Shark Show, a cornerstone of the downtown New York comedy scene. "Every week, it gave me a spot to work on my chops," Stevens says. "I always had a place to perform. I was responsible for writing a bit, maybe a couple for myself. The guys depended on me to produce because we were all in it. I didn't want to let them down. I had to be ready for the audience."
In a setting where sketch groups are formed and broken over happy hour, The Shark Show with Stevens, McKinley, Dan Gaba and Ari Voukydis built a solid following. While the traditional practice is to play wherever you can across the country, these guys hardly ever traveled above 14th street in Manhattan.
What did Stevens earn financially from his years of work in New York clubs? An impressive bar tab.
Stage time in New York for aspiring comedic actors, whether improv, sketch or stand-up, is hard to come by. Performers do shows for no pay — it's a trade-off for exposure. In New York or Los Angeles, there is the possibility of networking and media attention.
Typically, comedians start at the lowest rung — open-mike shows for a handful of people at comedy clubs, coffeehouses or talent shows. If they prove their mettle, they move up to open or host for weekend feature acts in local clubs, working up from five to 20 minutes. With success comes money, with the option of private or college gigs, work as road comics, writing for television or acting roles. Many succeed only because they create their own niches.
"Fitzy was a character. The first time he appeared was December 2001," Stevens says. "I did the holiday movie preview from The Shark Show as Paul "Fitzy" Fitzgerald. He, for the first five years, was a movie critic, on stage only. When I go back to Massachusetts and head out to bars or Fenway — anyplace — I would hear that crass, filthy, borderline get-you- thrown-out-of-anyplace-but- Boston language; there was always something astute and charming. So I thought if I took that filthy character from Boston, and provided truthful movie reviews — I combined my two favorite things, movies and sports."
Stevens landed roles that brought him much-needed exposure. In 2003, he was cast on "Dream Job" on ESPN. "I was the funny guy, and they ran my face into the ground on promos," Stevens says. "I became the poster child of why you should hate the show."
He has also appeared as a pop-culture pundit on VH1. "I work for VH1 All Access. It's so much fun doing it. I'm a pop-culture nerd, who's into movies and TV. They send you tapes, DVDs, maybe 500 hyperlinks you should look at."
What did Stevens earn from his work on VH1's "Forty Worst Love Songs of All Time"? The chance to appear on the VH1's "Forty Best Videos of 2007."
One night at Mickey's Blue Room, a casting agent wanted to speak to Nick. "All I could hear was, 'How would you like to stop being broke, hanging out on your couch like a loser like you have for the last 10 years?' Yes, I'm in."
On his second voice-over audition, he landed a job with Miller Lite. Within two months, he was out of debt and quit temp jobs.
His announcer voice and the Fitzy character began to make its way into radio. Stevens worked at KROCK 92.3 FM out of New York for a year. He won a contest to be the smartass sports guy for the afternoon rock show. Within six months, he went from phoning in two-minute WEEI/WFAN parody segments to co-hosting a nighttime rock show.
Stevens started doing the Fitzy webcast a couple of years ago. The irreverent character reviewed movies for a couple of months.
"I was shooting the videos in the living room of my wife's old apartment in Manhattan between Irving and Third. The backdrop was a blanket. I put on a costume, usually a cap and a Sox jersey." His buddy, Oscar Creech, now producer on the ESPN videos, said everybody was doing viral videos, so why not make viral webcasts out of Fitzy? They did nine episodes over two months, three minutes each, talking about movies. It had a very tiny fan base. Nothing special. "We shot them through December," Stevens says. "Nothing was happening, but it was fun doing them."
In January 2007, Stevens, a huge Pats fan, decided to forgo the movie reviews and preview the NFL playoffs. The hits for the website went from a few hundred to 10,000 a day. People began spreading his website link in e-mails and instant messages. Stevens' brother would take the videos and post them to YouTube, SuperDeluxe, FunnyOrDie and MySpace. It tapped into the rabid world of Boston sports fans. "It hit a nerve and took off," Stevens says. "The character I spent five years working on, as a sports-obsessed movie critic with a foul mouth, has become the Internet mouthpiece for what all Sox and Pats fans are thinking."
Right after creating a webcast after the Pats' playoff loss to the Colts, Nick got an e-mail from a producer at WHDH, Channel 7, in Boston who wanted to send a news crew to film Fitzy and tell the story of the local boy from Billerica. Stevens told them he'd love to do it, but that there was no Fitzy. WHDH canceled the story. "Everyone is so disappointed that Fitzy isn't some drunk jackass making films in his mom's basement," Stevens says. Braden Moriarty, producer for Karlson & MacKenzie on WZLX-FM (100.7) in Boston, found Fitzy online and made him a regular contributor to the show. "I checked out townienews.com, said Moriarty, "and its 'Wicked Pissah Webcast' over the summer. It's all the worst stuff from Boston sports wannabes, all the worst qualities, and one of the funniest things I ever saw. Everybody knows someone like that from their local bar, a Fitzy or Sully or Ol' Mac. We brought him on the show for no pay, except for a ZLX T-shirt."
Even Moriarty has trouble separating Nick from Fitzy. "The first time I saw him on VH1," says Moriarty, "without the beer and the hat, I didn't know who it was." Besides phoning in reports for ZLX, Fitzy made his way onto WBCN out of Boston, and every other week he does a bit on Big Sports 590 in Omaha, Neb.
Then came ESPN. "One of our younger news guys was visiting the Fitzy website," says John Zehr, Senior Vice President of Digital Operations at ESPN. "It got passed around. I caught it looking over his shoulder over the summer but didn't think anything of it. I asked Anthony [Mormile, of ESPN] to reach out to Fitzy. He wasn't exactly the easiest guy to find."
"In late July," Zehr says, "Fitzy did a pilot piece for us, covering the NBA draft. I was a little concerned about his edgier material. ... We haven't promoted it heavily; we've been letting it grow organically. ... People can watch his videos through their mobile TVs through VCAST."
ESPN had to do quite a bit of cutting and censoring of Stevens' material, which sits fine with him. "They're protecting their property," Stevens says. "My boss said: 'We work with a lot of different people. We don't tell them what to do on their own. Just don't trot out that ... colorful language on 'Monday Night Football.'" Fitzy followed "Monday Night Football," flying to every city where it appeared and made YouTube-style videos. Then, once the Patriots' story became the dominant story, Fitzy followed them instead. Many of the episodes are sponsored by Toyota Trucks, which he deftly drives onto the lot in an appropriate product placement. Fitzy joshes with fans of opposing teams and revels in his worship of the Pats, which includes a self-proclaimed man-crush on Tom Brady.
In Cincinnati, not everyone enjoyed Fitzy. "We built a fake jail cell and ran around," in reference to all of the legal trouble that has followed Bengal players, says Stevens. "The footage you saw, people were saying, 'Hey that's funny!' You didn't see four guys crushing their beer cans saying, 'Thanks for ruining our tailgate. Get out of here before we kick your ass.' Tough crowd."
Stevens still appears in those small New York clubs for crowds of 30 or 40. His website has become a franchise, selling T-shirts with his favorite quips. WBZ, Channel 4, in Boston discovered him online, just as ESPN did, and brought his antics to their morning show for the week leading up to the Super Bowl.
"He nails it so well and is believable," says radio producer Moriarty. "Nick deserves all the success he gets. Right now is the golden age for short films on the Internet. He's one of the first guys to do it really well."
Ken Carlson is an editor and writer for The Comedians Magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See some of "Fitzy's Wicked Pissah Webcasts" at www.courant.com/fitzy.
Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant