Feb 9, 2022 9 min read

The Grift of Gab

The Grift of Gab

Far-right Comic and “Holistic Coach” JP Sears Left a Wake of Concerns After His November Shows at Spokane Comedy Club.

When JP Sears performed a string of nine sold-out shows at Spokane Comedy Club from November 26th to 28th, 2021, Alexis G Tonasket Hoyt — a club employee at the time — grew disturbed by what she heard and saw on stage, as well as what she observed from the combined crowd of what she estimated to be 2700.

In the three years she worked at the club — and in a lifetime of enjoying comedy — Tonasket Hoyt said she’s heard plenty of edgy content. “I’ve heard all of the offensive jokes,” she said, and “all kinds of styles of offense.” She has watched comics “punch down” — a term for when anyone ridicules groups of people who are already marginalized or oppressed.

“But this, for me, crossed a line,” she said. JP Sears’ sets were different, and his audiences were responding differently.

Behind a microphone, Sears — the red-headed creator of that viral 2015 YouTube video “How to Be Gluten Intolerant", who has since re-invented (or revealed) himself to be a Trumpy embodiment of conspirituality — discussed the possible combatants in a modern civil war:

“It’s a war. Don’t you wanna be on the side with all the guns?,” he asked his audience during one set. In another set, he said: “One side has guns, the other side has pronouns. It’s your life. Pick your side. One side has actual military training; the other side has ‘woke’ military training. Look at that very diverse-looking group of them/theirs that I’m about to easily kill. Too easy!”

The crowd laughed and clapped.

Sears segued to his Big Lie material: “I’m curious, make a little noise if you think there was any election fraud.” The audience cheered. “Well that doesn’t sound like a no. I think there was too.”

What no one realized is that Tonasket Hoyt had taken out her phone and pressed record.

Soon after Sears’ weekend residency, she called in to The Majority Report with Sam Seder to sound the alarm about the content of Sears’ shows. She also contacted Eoin Higgins, who had previously written about Sears’ severe “rightward turn” in his Substack newsletter The Flashpoint.

Tonasket Hoyt documented Sears joking about Biden using his presidential power to nuke U.S. cities. Sears suggested that Seattle be first to go, presumably due to its left-leaning reputation. The audience cheered in approval; one person requested “Portland!” too.

Tonasket Hoyt contacted Range in December, and I met with her at a cafe.

She told me Sears’ shows were supposed to be her final shifts at the club. She had already given her two weeks’ notice, but intended to return occasionally to help with sold-out shows. After dealing with Sears and his audiences, though, she instead decided to walk away for good.

“I know how dog whistles work; this was like taking a layer off of that,” Tonasket Hoyt said, “Trans people get hate-crimed all the time in this country. That’s reality. That’s not a joke.”

Kate Bitz, program manager of the Western States Center, says that while Sears may have initially gained attention with comedy videos, today she believes he’s clearly “more of an agitator.”

“There’s no reason to give a platform to someone who spews dehumanizing rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community,” Bitz said, “especially the transgender community who frequently experience violence. Just a few months before Sears’ visit to Spokane, in which he treated transphobic violence like a laugh line, a middle school student here in town was called slurs and beaten by fellow students.”

“That’s a horrifying reminder of just how common this rhetoric is and the very real effect it can have on people’s lives,” said Bitz. “We have also seen anti-trans attacks on inclusion in core community spaces, like libraries”

Both on and offline, JP Sears creates content critical of transgender individuals, like this YouTube video published Dec. 14, 2021.

Sears promotes a vague “freedom movement,” yet he does not seem to grant that same “freedom” to transgender people, frequently making jokes that equate a person’s journey of becoming one’s authentic self to frivolous choices like an adult wanting to play youth sports.

“What I wanna start doing is identifying as a kid and start playing Pee Wee football, breaking collarbones every play,” he told one Spokane crowd.

“Every 45 seconds there’s another kid running to the sideline with a clavicle sticking through his fuckin’ neck. Fuck off! It’s who I really am. I need a safe space to be dangerous. I’ll see you in your restroom.”

‘THE VIBRATION OF FREEDOM’

Tonasket Hoyt said some co-workers whose political views skew conservative also expressed concern about the content of Sears’ sets. “Even someone who wouldn’t normally be the one who speaks up for trans people was like, that’s too much even for me.” Other employees declined to go on the record for this story.

Jessica Norwest, president of Seattle-based Bark Entertainment LLC — the company that owns Spokane Comedy Club as well as five other clubs across the U.S. — agreed to answer questions by email. When asked about staff responses, Norwest wrote, “We had a couple staff members bring up specific concerns about this show,” but added that staff had voiced concerns about other shows in the past too.

For Tonasket Hoyt — a biracial, two-spirit Indigenous descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes — the feelings went beyond concern. She was scared. “I felt that if it became obvious that a lot of my cultural positioning goes against theirs, I was worried about a kind of mob mentality taking over. I was worried that I would somehow be punished.”

Even after the shows ended, Tonasket Hoyt said, “My brain and body had all these fear hormones and I felt like it was stuck like that.”

“We had various conversations with staff members at the end of the weekend,” Norwest wrote to RANGE, “We do our best to reassure our staff of their safety, and that if they feel uncomfortable working, they are welcome to take leave or leave a show early without any repercussions to their job.”

Tonasket Hoyt said that she’d already noticed a cultural change at the club, as far as what sort of comedians get booked and the aggressive audiences they draw. She also said the out-of-town owners felt disconnected and the workload became increasingly overwhelming to keep up with.

But those Sears shows were the final straws for her: “It just doesn’t feel like a safe environment.” That included Sears’ fans’ disregard for Covid: “There was no possible way that we could have made that audience wear masks.”

JP Sears’ stance on mask-wearing extends beyond his live shows to his online platforms. From @awakenwithjp (Instagram) Oct. 29, 2020.

During a Q&A session in Spokane, when asked how fans can support Sears and “the freedom movement,” Sears answered that — besides buying tickets to his shows and “freedom merch” from his website — “You being a free person, it’s literally a vibration, the vibration of freedom. It uplevels the world we live in,” he said. “That means you walk into the store with no mask. … The masks, I look at them as a fear symbol. … That’s a little microscopic thing you can do.”

While the majority of Sears’ audience seemed to know what they were getting into, Tonasket Hoyt said she saw four or five tables of people walk out mid-set. After they complained, she encouraged them to contact the owners, via the club’s website.

SMOOTHIES FULL OF RED PILLS

Jonathan Jarry, science communicator with the McGill University Office for Science and Society, covered Sears’ transformation from wellness industry satirist into Alex-Jonesy territory in Nov. 2020, writing:

“It may come as a shock to find out that not only has he become the very thing that he once ridiculed, JP Sears is now using his massive online platforms to discredit public health measures against COVID-19 and to open the door to grand conspiracy theories.”

This is becoming a familiar playbook, Kate Bitz says, “We’ve seen figures like this capitalize on the fear, uncertainty and disruptions inherent to a global pandemic over and over again – misleading their followers into both a dangerous ideology and a personally risky set of health choices.”

On stage in Spokane, Sears spread conspiracies about the “Plandemic” and Dr. Anthony Fauci, calling Covid a “leftist bioweapon.”

He had filler bits about a knee injury, his infant son, and peeing into a smoothie cup. But audiences responded most enthusiastically to material like: “I live in Texas. We don’t need vaccines. We have guns … to protect us from the people trying to vaccinate us.”

As a proclaimed Emotional Healing Coach and Holistic Coach Advanced Practitioner, Sears has spent years “building up medical and spiritual authority,” says Tonasket Hoyt. What really bothers her is that Sears “has not taken away that title of wellness coach, so he still is in that position of giving [health] advice to people.”

ENVELOPES OF CASH

Across his multiple social media accounts and to an audience of more that two million people, Sears casts himself as a victim — or potential victim — of censorship.

Fretting about getting “deplatformed” by “big tech” for his beliefs, he urges followers to join him on Zion, a pay-to-use, Bitcoin-powered social media startup of which he claims to be a co-founder.

Sears expresses fears of being deplatformed by big tech in a tweet sent Nov. 15, 2020.

The money generated by millions of streams on YouTube is significant in its own right, and Sears has further monetized that audience with product sponsorships, a merchandise store and, of course, his live events like the ones held in Spokane.

While Norwest says she is “contracted to not discuss the [monetary] specifics of any of the acts,” visiting comics typically keep all or most of their ticket sales, while the Comedy Club makes money on food and drinks (which is why the club has a two-menu-item minimum policy). Sears’ tickets ranged from $25-30 for general admission to over $70 for VIP; about a third of his audience was VIP.  This leads Tonasket Hoyt to estimate Sears earned over $100,000 from Spokane tickets alone.

That’s not counting the envelopes of cash donations.

Tonasket Hoyt said that between sets and during the Q&A portion, people handed him what they said was money in white envelopes, as if they “seemed to already know” he would collect them.

Perhaps that’s because Sears often repeats a story about an elder woman in an airport who slipped him $70 cash in an envelope to express her gratitude and support his work. The punchline? He refers to her as a “cheap bitch.”

When asked if she knew about fans handing over envelopes of cash, Norwest said “We were not aware of this.”

What’s puzzling about the cash donations Sears collected is that he also said he’s a multimillionaire. During one Q&A he claimed to be worth five million.

In an interview leading up to his November shows, Sears told The Spokesman-Review that while he didn’t plan his hard-right political turn, “it’s turned out to be great for my career.”

In addition to monetizing millions of YouTube streams and sponsoring wellness products, JP Sears has built a cottage industry selling “freedom merch” on his website, “Awaken with JP”

And of course, money leads to influence. Sears now has access to politically powerful people (Madison Cawthorn and Trump) associated with The Big Lie, an ongoing threat to democracy. He also sponsors and promotes events like January’s Defeat the Mandates March. Tonasket Hoyt believes Sears is turning his celebrity and earnings “into political power. That’s where it gets offensive to me,” she says.

Example of JP Sears’ political involvement in an excerpt from a newsletter emailed to his subscribers Jan. 19, 2022. “Subject: Calling all freedom-fighters!” 

NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT HATE

Sears is booked for another three-day stint of shows in mid-February at a venue also owned by Norwest — Skyline Comedy Club, in Appleton, Wisconsin. (He’s booked at non-Bark-Entertainment clubs as well.) Most of those Appleton shows have already sold out, proof that Sears’ act is lucrative for both comic and club.

To Norwest, Sears simply represents a diversity of comedians: “Just like a music venue that books a variety of acts, we do not stick to just one thing,” she writes.

There’s no shortage of edgelord “comics” who bully or threaten oppressed groups of people, under the cover of “It’s just a joke!,” the Inland Northwest has seen an extreme-right comic with compound plans recently cause public safety concerns.

To Kate Bitz, “There’s nothing funny about hate. Spokane audiences deserve better.” Bitz explains that our city has “dealt with decades’ worth of bigoted agitation and threats to marginalized communities, public safety and our local democratic institutions. It’s something we should all be taking seriously.”

Tonasket Hoyt insists her coming forward isn’t an attack on the club itself. “The reason I’m speaking out about this is because of my love and respect of comedy as an art,” says Tonasket Hoyt.

“I just don’t want harm to be done to people. And I don’t think it’s necessary for comedy. That’s why I’m so angry to see this space that’s meant for humor to be co-opted and used for this,” she concludes, because “that shit was a tragedy.”

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