The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

PFT Commenter rose from an Internet ‘cesspool’ to podcasting glory. And no one knows who he is.

Sports podcast host PFT Commenter’s show, “Pardon My Take,” has more than 1 million listeners per episode. The man behind the character is is largely a mystery. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)
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NEW YORK — Wearing dark sunglasses with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, the most unlikely sports media personality on the planet stepped through the glass doors and onto 27th Street to wait for his Uber. Within 30 seconds, he was spotted.

“Can I get your picture really quick, man? I’m your biggest fan,” said a passerby, pulling out his ear buds. “I was just listening to the show.”

PFT Commenter is used to it by now. With hair that hangs past his shoulders and ever-present dark sunglasses, he’s hardly inconspicuous. (“Like a short Kid Rock,” he jokes.) But as often as this same sidewalk scene unfolds, the context remains bizarre. PFT is commonly recognized. He’s also almost completely unknown.

What started as a parody Twitter account ballooned into something no one could have predicted: one-half of the most popular sports podcast in the country, with a loyal following of fans who are desperate to laugh, in a sports world that seems to grow ever more serious.

“There’s a space for what we offer,” PFT said of his popular show, “Pardon My Take,” the only sports program to crack the most recent top-20 list from Podtrac, the leading podcast measurement company. “Sports journalism has become self-important in the last 5-10 years. It’s kind of refreshing, I think, for people to see what these clowns are doing. We don’t mind being the court jesters.”

To PFT, nothing, in fact, is serious. His entire persona is satire, aimed at poking fun at traditional sports media, players and coaches who traffic in clichés, and of loudmouth fans raised in a smoldering universe of hot takes. He plays that character both on Twitter, where he has more than 500,000 followers, and on “Pardon My Take,” which registers upwards of 1 million listeners per episode.

The podcast produces three episodes a week; each one could be generating $50,000 in advertising revenue, according to a recent estimate in Sports Business Journal. That’s made PFT a cornerstone of the burgeoning Barstool Sports empire, a striking perch for someone who not long ago was stuck in an office job, amusing himself by assuming the identity on social media of half-literate, know-it-all Internet commenters like the ones he encountered on the NFL news site Pro Football Talk.

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He’s so much bigger than a Twitter account now. PFT writes columns for Barstool, the controversial and thriving sports media company that many deride as misogynistic. He records online videos, co-hosts “Pardon My Take” and will be the executive producer of a pair of other podcasts, all while finding new outlets for his online persona — including a parody rock band and spoofs of Alex Jones, the conservative conspiracy theorist.

With his misspelled missives and preposterously hot takes, PFT has somehow transcended Internet fame while maintaining his anonymity; he actually takes his sunglasses off in public when he doesn’t want to be recognized. The 33-year old man behind the character is fully aware that the more exposure PFT gets, the more his true identity is at risk of being exposed. Already, he has been quietly outed on a handful of Internet forums. (At his request, The Post agreed not to reveal his name and many biographical details in reporting this story.)

As his profile has risen, PFT finds himself in character for a bigger chunk of the day, at the same time seeing his real-life personality — easy-going and educated, nuanced and self-deprecating — bleed into the character during podcasts and videos.

On a recent afternoon, the “Pardon My Take” crew was gathered in the studio, located on the third-floor of the Barstool offices on the southern edge of Midtown, to plot its next episode.

Two weeks earlier, in an attempt to parody a Cleveland sportscaster who’d made a similar promise, PFT said he’d consume horse manure if his favorite team, the star-crossed Washington Capitals, could somehow beat the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The podcast got some cheap laughs out of it while mocking the local sportscaster. But the Caps won, and PFT was suddenly mired in an unexpected excrement predicament. His co-host and producer both insisted he follow through on his promise.

“I said it offhand as a joke. And it became something real,” he complained to them. “Now there’s real consequence. Sure, I’m satirically eating horse poop, but it’s real horse poop.”

The line between satire and reality continues to blur, and PFT, the most famous nameless guy in sports, was again facing that reality head-on.

“Pardon My Take” is a comedy show disguised as a sports show, a spoof on the debate programming that fills the daytime broadcast schedule at ESPN and Fox Sports 1.

“The whole premise is mocking those hot-take sports shows that basically go in circles every single day,” said co-host Dan Katz, better known as Big Cat, one of Barstool’s earliest and most recognizable personalities.

PFT starts his mornings around 10 a.m., and on days they record the podcast, he’ll be in the office past midnight. The third floor of Barstool is an open workspace with 20- and 30-somethings hunched over keyboards. Laptops are adorned with stickers and tabletops with trinkets and booze. PFT estimates that 80 percent of the company’s 100 or so employees don’t know his real name, though others there say at least half probably do. Either way, the secret is vitally important to PFT.

“It makes sense to me,” Katz said. “It’s the running joke with his followers. People have stuck with it for years now and they just want to feel like they’re part of the joke.”

“There have definitely been times I’ve just wanted to say my name, tell everyone, ‘This is me,’ ” PFT said. “It’s human nature. But I’m protective of the character. And I think a lot of people out there really don’t want to know too much about me. The character is [expletive] funny.”

And he thinks it’d be less funny if they knew the real person with a real background and real relationships, real thoughts and real feelings. It’s like knowing Hulk Hogan is actually a guy named Terry. Mystique matters.

The man who’d become PFT actually grew up in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, attending Caps, Wizards and Redskins games. (“But I hate Dan Snyder for firing the most competent manager in the history of American sports — Vinny Cerrato,” he said.)

Other details, such as family and relationships, are held close to the vest, though The Post can report PFT once won second place in a middle school geography bee. He attended college in Virginia before relocating to Austin hoping to pursue comedy writing while also playing guitar and hosting occasional open-mic nights. With bills to pay, he eventually settled into a 9-to-5 job in software sales.

“But I don’t know [much] about software,” he said.

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PFT amused himself online, mostly tracking football news, and was particularly intrigued by the comment section of Pro Football Talk, which he described as “one of the worst places on the Internet” and “a cesspool.”

“It was a beautiful little petri dish of Internet subculture,” he said. “To me, it’s just a really interesting view into the minds of what people do when they’re anonymous online.”

He started the football-obsessed account in October 2012 and has since shared thousands of absurdist sports takes. Sometimes, he’s trying to make a broader societal statement. Often, he’s just trying to make himself laugh.

“Stephen hawking was a cautionary tail of a guy who waste’s his whole life getting booksmart without ever applying a single theory to projecting WR point totals in fantasy football,” read one tweet. “As a deterrent The NFL shoud Just ban for life any player that gets paralyzed. Boom problem solved,” read another.

There are 48,000 others like this.

PFT was skewering modern sports coverage from Day 1, with a particular fondness for underdog players full of “grit,” the type so often celebrated by mainstream NFL reporters. He relentlessly parodied mindless sports debate programming; obsessively asking whether Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback became his calling card .

“I didn’t know what to make of him,” said Mike Florio, the Pro Football Talk founder, “especially I wasn’t sure whether I was in on the joke or the butt of it.”

Danny Woodhead, the former NFL running back who measures 5-foot-8 and 200-odd pounds of grit, is a PFT favorite. He was also confused. Woodhead’s Twitter mentions always seemed full, and a pseudonymous Twitter handle who couldn’t seem to grasp spelling was certain Woodhead was Hall of Fame-bound.

“I was like, is this random guy trying to mess with me? For a while, I had no idea what was going on,” Woodhead said.

PFT didn’t have a plan, really, but other websites started taking notice and giving him a place to write. He quit his office job and decided to go all-in on the character, even though he was barely making enough for beer and pizza. He wrote an e-book called “Goodell vs. Obama: The Battle for the Future of the NFL,” and began writing regularly for SB Nation.

As he made a name for himself, PFT was allowed to branch out. SB Nation assigned him to cover a Republican presidential debate in 2015, where he memorably appeared in the background of a Chris Matthews live shot on MSNBC, wearing sunglasses and holding the grammatically-challenged sign: “Is Joe Flacco a ELITE quaterback?”

Later that year, he made headlines by questioning Dr. Ben Carson on the campaign trail. “Mr. Carson, as perhaps the most anti-Hitler but also the most antiabortion candidate, would you be in favor of aborting baby Hitler?”

“I’m not in favor of aborting anybody,” Carson said.

“Not even Hitler? Okay, pro-Hitler,” PFT said.

It encapsulated so much of what makes PFT : Those who know the character are tickled; others are shocked. Drew Magary, the Deadspin writer who was among the first to take notice of PFT online, is one of many who liken him to Stephen Colbert’s faux conservative commentator on Comedy Central, “where the fake ignorance and bravado sort of reveals the real ignorance and bravado of others.”

“I think one of the reasons that PFTC’s stuff works is because sometimes people do not get it,” Magary said. “Like when he asks people if they think Joe Flacco is elite and they start replying earnestly, that’s when it really sings, because you have people voluntarily indulging in a sport argument that’s basically nonsense.”

By 2016, PFT was a well-known commodity online, no longer a niche character or even just an inside joke. When the media company the Chernin Group invested in Barstool in January 2016, taking over a majority stake, PFT and his distinctive voice became one of the first targets.

Here’s how he explained the move in his debut column: “I knew that as my contract with SB Nation expired, my unique perspective as one of the worlds only straight, white, male sports bloggers was more necessary then ever.”

PFT understood that the move would raise some eyebrows. He was not wholly familiar with Barstool, but knew its reputation for trafficking in content others might have considered juvenile, sexist and mean-spirited.

“All I’d heard was a lot of the negative side,” he explained. “That’s what the Internet had put out there. People that weren’t in the Barstool universe, that’s the impression they had of the company. I checked the company out, read their blogs. I think they are one of the most hilarious collective groups of people writing right now.”

So who is PFT? Let him try to explain.

“I put a lot of time thinking about PFT Commenter, his origin story. To me, it’s like Plato’s wall,” he said. “If you just put those characters in front of a screen, and instead of shadows, they watch Skip Bayless for 21 years while growing up — that’s the world they know, that’s how they communicate.”

That’s the character, though. The man behind it is the sort of unlikely success story he facetiously champions.

“Let’s be honest, he started from the bottom,” said Woodhead, the celebrated overachiever. “He was working in Austin or something, and just starts commenting on the Internet. He keeps working hard, doesn’t give up, and the next thing you know, he’s made it into a career — a really, really good career.”

PFT’s desk is not unlike a hoarder’s college dorm room. There’s unopened Busch Light and red wine. Frosted Flakes under the desk and a half-eaten wrap on top of it. Swag comes in the mail and gets added to the pile.

His Twitter followers have nearly doubled in the past year, but joining Barstool made him much more than a screen name. There are videos and live appearances. One of his new projects is playing guitar in a four-piece outfit called Pup Punk, a parody of a late-’90s pop-punk band.

PFT and Katz were also supposed to host a show on ESPN2 called “Barstool Van Talk.” They taped only one episode before ESPN executives pulled the plug after a backlash from ESPN employees over the partnership with Barstool, citing concerns over unapologetic chauvinism parading as humor.

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“While we had approval on the content of the show, I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content,” John Skipper, ESPN’s former president, said in a statement at the time.

Everyone at Barstool seems to now agree ESPN was a bad fit and they no longer think they’d benefit from a traditional mainstream platform.

“It’s actually a funny thing now,” PFT said. “I look back on it and I can sincerely laugh. The funniest thing in the world to me, that we finally got on a major network for exactly one show and it got canceled. To me, that is so perfect.”

PFT wasn’t sure it was the best thing for his character, and he knew it wasn’t the best thing for his stomach. But as a satirical hot-take sports personality, he’s a fictional man of his word. Late on a recent workday, he made his way to Central Park, where the horse-drawn carriages taxi around tourists.

He made good on his agreement, he later reported, and then promptly threw up. On the next “Pardon My Take” episode, the hosts made only a passing reference. The bit had already played itself out, they reasoned. They were ready to laugh at something else.

Any consumption of horse poop, he’d later explain, was done only satirically.

“So, you know, it was art,” PFT said.