We are having a bad time.
I know it’s an understatement. 2018 seems to be plumbing the depths of the possibilities for redefining the concept of “bad.” It’s easy for me to think of this daily in the macro sense, in that the crimes against humanity are only coming from the top. But this isn’t just the proverbial crap rolling down hill. We’re experience Peak Monsterperson in the micro level as well. So many of the people I consider friends are currently engaged in some form of bitter, destructive battle with another party that used to be close to them. In a number of cases, this includes actual legal battles. As I’m typing, I want this to be farcical. I want to admit that it’s a joke about the extent to which we’re crumbling as a society. But then I’d show you my receipts from donating to GoFundMes for assorted legal defenses and we’d have to silently acknowledge that, yes, we might be in The Bad Place.
Which brings me to the curious case of Asterios Kokkinos. Kokkinos is a comedian known for his eccentric character work and the unpredictable breadth of formats he seemingly mastered at a young age. He found what was seemingly the biggest break of his career by becoming a regular guest on a hit podcast.
Until the host of that podcast sued Kokkinos. Over a “comedy beef.” For twenty million dollars.
Yes, that’s a real number. Not a bad Doctor Evil reference.
Maddox (the pen name of George Ouzounian) is probably best known for creating the website The Best Page in the Universe. In 2014, he started a podcast called The Biggest Problem in the Universe, which featured a co-host named Dick Masterson and began to feature Kokkinos. The show ended in 2016 as the result of interpersonal fallout, and in 2017 Maddox came back at Kokkinos, Masterson, and a list of other people (including a customer service worker at Patreon) in a harassment lawsuit that totaled up to $372 million in claims. Along the way, Maddox pretended to be a female journalist to harass Kokkinos’s employer, and the case was finally presented to a judge who tossed out the complaint on the grounds that it was too poorly written to even understand the allegations. There’s also a Christmas parody album and some crass billboards in the mix too. Exceptionally in depth writing on this, including screencaps and legal sourcing, can be found here and here.
Kokkinos has spent the last year embroiled in a legal battle that has ruined his life and placed him in tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt, just for legal fees. He lost his job, but has somehow used his talents to create a semi-living wage from making this entire circus into genuine entertainment for his fans. It’s a confused, hellish situation that equally breaks my heart but also reminds me of the inherent power comedy has to overcome the worst situations. It’s just bizarre when that situation, itself, begins in comedy.
This is a carnival of low brow comedy meeting the highest imaginable legal stakes, and there’s a lot of fallout on all sides. Understanding that this the canary in the coalmine for what will certainly be a new wave of online entertainment lawsuits among co-creators, I sat down with Kokkinos to try to understand just what the hell happened here… and maybe how we might avoid this kind of thing moving forward. This is a great deal of weird, Extremely Online nonsense, but that will also be the source of the next lawsuit in this style, and when notoriously spiteful teen streamers/Youtubers figure this out, it’s gonna get real bad.
Paste: I guess lemme just start here: Are you okay?
Asterios Kokkinos: Hell yes, Brock! I’m on the craziest ride of my life. A famous comedian sued me for twenty million dollars for making fun of him, and now the whole internet thinks he’s a weiner. I had to appear in front of the New York State Supreme Court and defend our rights to call a famous guy a weiner on the internet.
Paste: This lawsuit represents the first of what already appears to be the next big internet drama trend: the impossible defamation lawsuit. Is it somehow fitting that you’re a pioneer in this field by going up against the internet’s very first troll?
Kokkinos: Yeah, I’ve also noticed this! People are super into internet drama, and e-celebs are all taking it to the next level by suing each other. It’s like Taylor Swift vs. Katy Perry, only everyone is uglier. Especially Maddox. And Maddox – he’s the guy who kinda invented internet trolling. People would send him hate mail, and he’s publish their full names so people could fuck with them. He’d send tampons to people he didn’t like, then tweet their names and addresses so his fans could do the same. So you’d think if there was anyone who could take a joke, it’d be Maddox. But I record one little comedy album where I call him a cuck, hundreds of times, to the tunes of various royalty free christmas carols. One little comedy album that unexpectedly debuts at #6 on the Billboard Comedy Charts, #1 on the iTunes Comedy Charts, and outsells Adele in The Netherlands…one little album, and the dude loses it. And he sues me for “defamation” because I made fun of him.
Paste: Those sales numbers for a barely produced set of Cuckmas Carols is… I guess there’s a lot about this series of events that I just will not understand. Before we get into the weeds of the case, I’d like to know how you summarize your comedy career?
Kokkinos: I’m kinda a random guy, and I’ve got a show called “The Asterios Kokkinos Podcast Factory” that I try to make as random as possible. Every Thursday, you’ll get a brand new show beamed to your phone, but you’ll have no idea what it’s called or what it’s about. It could be about wrestling, or Star Trek, or Porgs. It’s kinda like Loot Crate or Birch Box, but for podcasts. Please listen to it, I’m deep in legal debt, so you kinda owe it to me.
Paste: A few years back, you did my podcast right after guesting on a episode of Maddox’s show, and I asked you back then if you could explain what the heck you were doing working with someone whose politics seems so toxic, at least to me. And I know that you defend working with Dick Masterson because he’s always been a friend, even though his politics are perhaps even more shocking to me. Where do you see yourself in this spectrum? Do you think that comedy would be better if more people were willing to engage with the other side like you are, or does this just make for a lot of nonsense shouting that’s actually detrimental?
Kokkinos: Oh, honestly, it’s just way simpler than that. Maddox and Dick – I didn’t know them as these online firebrands – I just knew them as George and Dax, two guys I would eat tacos with and have beers with after shows. And so when people started telling me George was a dirtbag, I was like, “What? That super nice quiet guy I get tacos with and play videogames with? He seems so nice!” And then cut to five years later and he’s suing me, and my employer, for twenty million dollars because I called him names. And that’s when I realize: Hey, he’s not very nice after all!
Paste: Returning to the events of this lawsuit: how much do you have to hate someone to record an entire album of parody Christmas carols about them?
Kokkinos: Interestingly, the album was my girlfriend’s idea! She pitched it to me on our first date. She was like, “What about an album making fun of Maddox with songs like, ‘Rudolph the Red Pilled Reindeer?’” And I kinda fell in love with her in that moment and we’ve been dating for three years. So I thought the album was just a gag, like a way to call a guy I think is a goober a goober. And then months later, George’s lawyer is reading lyrics from the album verbatim to a New York State Supreme Court judge, calling it “defamation.” Thank God the judge found it funny.
Paste: What are the feelings, in order that they hit, with being served with a $20 million lawsuit for, perhaps, the dumbest internet jokes I’ve ever heard?
Kokkinos: Oh man. So I worked at this advertising agency for five years. And I still love those guys, they’re a publicly traded company who got dealt a shitty hand and have nothing to do with this. So anyway, we have a free coffee bar. A super nice woman named Irene makes literally any coffee drink you can think of, for free. So I go down there to get coffee and a terrifying looking bald man who I’d never met before yells, “Hey, I need to talk to you!” I literally do that thing where I point to myself like, “Who, me?” And he goes, “Yeah, you. Asterios.” And the guy brings me to the biggest, fanciest office I’ve ever seen at the company. The kind of office that has a giant globe in it just in case you forget you’re in America. And he says something like, “You, the company, and I personally just got sued for twenty million dollars. Who is ‘Maddox?’” Uh-oh! And that was pretty much the beginning of the end for my career in advertising.
Paste: Part of the case that intrigues me is how you’re held accountable for inciting online trolls. Obviously, there are some people at the heart of actual harassment campaigns that I can point to and say “Yeah, that guy should have responsibility for what he set into motion.” But here, your fans managed to track down the guy behind these threats and sign a confession that he did it maliciously and of his own free will and that it had nothing to do with you. This case does involve violent threats, but you seem self-aware enough to own up to a situation if you’d actually caused something? Did you you have to do some processing regarding all of this or have you always known what level of responsibility you have here?
Kokkinos: Oh, I beg people not to bother anyone. It’s not funny. My only job is to be funny on the internet, and people swarming people isn’t funny. Like the other day, some LA asshole started coming at me on Facebook about how I was a whiner who deserved to be sued. And my first thought was, “Well, that’s not very nice. I’m gonna tweet a screencap of the shit this guy said and make fun of it!” But then I thought: Oh, I have a lot more followers than I did ten years ago. I don’t want people swarming this guy. So I just had to let it go. I think some people kinda get off on their ability to turn a flood of followers on someone, but I don’t think it’s funny. Having one thousand people scream at someone on Twitter doesn’t convince them they’re wrong. If one thousand people tell you to cut the blue wire, you cut the red one out of spite. I’d rather persuade someone than annoy them. After all, I need them to buy my books.
Paste: I watched from a distance for a couple years while your life crumbled around you. But my general perception was that almost everyone on the internet seemed capable of seeing how cartoonishly ridiculous this was, and that so many folks turned out in droves to support you. And you turned that support into a form of entertainment by giving updates and making content out of how absurd your situation had become. What is it like to monetize the absolute worst thing to ever happen in your life for the entertainment of strangers? What did you learn from this and what kind of events/help/stories from this time helped get you through.
Kokkinos: Oh, it’s easy because this whole situation is inherently funny. A guy who made a career out of mocking people online sued me for recording an album where I called him a cuck to the tunes of various royalty free christmas carols I downloaded off a Christian website. The album charted for three weeks and is now archived within the Library of Congress. If that’s not funny, I have no idea what is. I clowned a guy so hard that it charted, Brock! Even though it cost me my job, my reputation, and $30,000 in legal fees that I don’t have… uh. It’s worth it?
Paste: So your case finally comes to trial. You’re nearly $30k in the hole already with 20% interest on the credit card you’ve used to fund this. At the end of all this, you share with the internet the court transcripts of the most oppressively hilarious courtroom dialogue I’ve ever seen. What was it like, in person, to watch this go down? Did you feel like your heart was going to explode? Were you doing some weird nervous laughter? Was this exactly what you expected.
Kokkinos: Hearing New York Supreme Court Judge Charles A. Ramos laugh at the lyrics to an album called Cuckmas Carols is maybe the best reaction I’ve ever gotten from an audience. I’m caught up in this weird Lenny Bruce style free speech courtroom drama, only it’s about a manchild suing another manchild for calling him names. How’s that not hilarious? And the irony: Maddox made his entire reputation on being a “big manly man.” His New York Times bestselling book was literally called The Alphabet of Manliness. And now he’s suing me because his feelings got hurt. It’s incredible. I always tell people: I have front row seats to an internet legend throwing his entire career away. They are the most expensive seats in the house. But boy, what a view!
Paste: After the case, there’s this long period of waiting to see if there will be a follow-up case or to figure out if you can sue back for costs. Along the way, because it’s Extremely Online Fighting, people are sending you screengrabs of DMs with your attacker and constantly asking you to make statements. What kind of headspace does this create? To feel like you may be finished with all of this but to know that it could begin again at any moment?
Kokkinos: The one thing this entire case has taught me: anyone can be sued at any time for any reason. You don’t need probable cause, or to be morally correct, or even basic logic your side. You just need money, and a lawyer. And at the end of it, even if you win, you lose. Your name can be ruined, you can be bankrupted, and nobody will fix it. In America, you only get the justice you can afford. I’m sorry I don’t have a punchline for that, because I guess I’m the punchline.
Paste: Where is the case now? What do you think happens next? How can people help you?
Kokkinos: The next step is bringing a “sanctions” motion against the plaintiffs and their attorney. It’s an extremely rare legal maneuver where you tell the courts: the opposition committed so much fraud, abused the system to such an absurd degree, that they should be financially “sanctioned” for their behavior. I hope the bench sees things my way, but after all I’ve been through, I kinda can’t count on anything.
Update: that motion was just filed.
Paste: At what is hopefully the final act of this living nightmare, what have you learned that you wish you could tell yourself a few years ago? What do you have that you can share with other performers and Internet Folks and such that only someone with your experience could share?
Kokkinos: You’re gonna hate this answer but…Brock, I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing. People keep wanting me to learn a lesson from this, but I clowned a guy so hard that he sued me for $20 million dollars. And he can never, ever take that back. For the rest of his life, he’s the comedian who sued another comedian for calling him names. He threw his career and reputation away due to butthurt. It’s a privilege to live a life that’s this cartoonishly insane, and I hope it stays this way forever.
Paste: I am constantly in awe of the sense of humor you’ve brought to this hell scenario since the beginning. I know some of the jokes are probably through gritted teeth, but your affable, bouncy personality has never gone under. I never understood how. Last year, I didn’t get out of bed for a month over something much, much less awful than this. How do you do it and how did you keep going each day instead of putting a gun in your mouth?
Kokkinos: That I know for a fact this is funny! A 40 year old man pretended to be a badass internet pirate for decades. He parlayed this persona into a three book deal with Simon & Schuster. And in one move – one arrogant, wrongheaded move – he threw it all away. He sued me, a complete nobody, for twenty million dollars for calling him names. The case was thrown out in less than forty-five minutes, because of course it was.
Paste: Will your life ever be the same?
Kokkinos: Nope! But if I ever want to get back into advertising, I (and this is not a joke) will have to legally change my name. This Maddox guy toasted my reputation pretty damn good. But as Simpsons lawyer Lionel Hutz once said: “Say hello to Miguel Sanchez!”
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.