What Roy Moore hoped to do inside Magnolia Springs Baptist Church, as the Associated Press saw it, was put the drama behind him.
He wanted to get away from the accusations that have entangled his Senate campaign — that he preyed on teen girls as a younger man — and get back to the Christian-infused politics that had made him a popular judge-turned-candidate in Alabama. And he wanted to do it with a half-hour speech, written especially for an intimate crowd of worshipers at a small-town church outside Mobile on a Wednesday night.
Alas, Jimmy Kimmel had other plans.
No fan of Moore, the late-night ABC host had dispatched a sort of weaponized comedian to the church — a performer who had been infiltrating political rallies for years, impersonating an aging die-hard Republican with the manic energy of a cheerleader.
The comedian’s name is Tony Barbieri, but he told people at the church he was “Jake Byrd” — who worked at the Thrifty Lizard up the highway and had come to church that night because he was, as his baseball cap proclaimed, Moore’s No. 1 fan.
A stickered backpack and “GIMME MOORE!” T-shirt completed Byrd’s ensemble, which clashed with the buttoned-down parishioners as he claimed a seat in the front pew.
He sat quietly through the beginning of the service, as the pastor prayed and the choir sang “A Few Good Men” by way of introducing the candidate.
Then Moore walked up to the lectern with a stack of notes under one arm, and Byrd screamed “Roy!” and reached out to grab his sleeve.
As with everything he would do that night, he made sure to do it in front of the TV news cameras.
Moore began his speech with a quote from Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” He blamed his political troubles on his opponents — “They’re the lesbian, gay, bisexual transgenders. They want to change our culture.”
Byrd squealed “Yeeeees!” but remained in his seat, hands folded on his shorts.
Turns out tonight's Roy Moore superfan is a comedian named Tony Barbieri, part of Jimmy Kimmel's gang. pic.twitter.com/ykeGKVDdkS
— Ben H. Raines (@BenHRaines) November 30, 2017
Midway through the speech, a heckler called out from the back of the church and Byrd stopped trying to restrain himself.
“The whole town says you did it,” the heckler said. “Are all the girls lying?”
Byrd leapt up from his seat, his hat obscuring Moore’s face in the central camera, and shouted: “Get out of here! We’re here for the judge! We’re here for the judge!”
A police officer tried to calm him down, but it was no good. Byrd wheeled to face the lectern, pointed a finger at a weary-looking Moore, and said:
“You got this, judge. This is a man’s man! Does that look like the face of a molester?”
Moore grimaced, but Byrd’s antics were at that point still meshing with other the churchgoers, who clapped and cheered as the heckler was evicted.
“He’s not fit to shine your shoes,” a man told Moore.
“No more sissies,” Byrd agreed, and the speech resumed.
Moore managed to speak for another 10 minutes or so before Byrd’s final commotion.
The candidate was listing differences between himself and his Democratic opponent. “He opposes Trump’s ban on transgender troops,” Moore said, then stopped and looked to his right, where two men were leaning over Byrd and trying to coax him out of the pew.
“They’re kicking out your No. 1 fan, judge!” Byrd protested.
Moore was now fumbling with his notes, and dropped them to the floor as one of the men took Byrd by an arm.
He stooped to pick his speech up as Byrd was led the back of the church, to scattered applause and many stares.
“That’s a man’s man!” Byrd kept yelling. “That’s an American, right there. Thank you, judge.”
There was a pause.
“Thank you,” Moore said.
The candidate reassembled his notes and returned to his speech — immigration and abortion. But when the local news stations aired their broadcasts that night, Byrd’s antics were all over the footage. Even before the service had started, he had been interrupting Moore’s supporters in their interviews with reporters.
The following night, Jimmy Kimmel aired his own segment, using footage his anonymous camera crew had recorded inside the church.
Barbieri-as-Byrd joined him on the stage, still clutching a Roy Moore campaign sign. Kimmel noted that the comedian has been crashing events since long before the Alabama race.
Barbieri’s antics date back at least to 2004, when he tricked the New York Times into quoting Jake Byrd in a story about Michael Jackson’s child abuse trial, according to AL.com.
Here he is wearing a “LINNOCENT!” shirt during a news conference about Lindsay Lohan’s legal troubles in 2010.
These days, Jake Byrd may be best known as the man who sat directly behind Donald Trump at a rally in Dallas in 2015, wearing a “DTF” cowboy hat, which he insisted stood for “Donald Trump Fan.” He reprised the role at a presidential debate and the Republican National Convention, where he tricked news photographers into listing him as a California GOP delegate in a caption.
True to form, Byrd landed directly in the middle of a press gaggle after getting kicked out of Magnolia Springs Baptist Church on Wednesday night, and held forth on his love of church and Roy Moore.
“He’s being railroaded by the lying liberal media,” Byrd said. “He knows that the union between a man, in the Bible, should be between a middle-aged man and, like, a smoking hot tween.”
Inside, Moore finish his speech to applause. But the candidate remained so tangled in scandal that he used decoy cars to distract reporters while he fled the church in secret, AL.com reported.
Byrd made a clandestine exit too, insisting to reporters that Kimmel’s film crew had simply offered him a ride back home as he departed the church — in character to the very end.