City Journal: Funny Business

Booted from Boston for an intolerable joke about the mayor, shock jocks Opie and Anthony are redeeming themselves by boosting a few local careers.

When Gregg “Opie” Hughes and Anthony Cumia hit the airwaves in Boston in 1995, premiering Opie & Anthony on WAAF, the rambunctious duo was given about five minutes an hour to chat. Forced to squeeze their goofball antics in between schlocky alt-rock, the pair nonetheless found time to cause trouble. You might remember a certain April Fool’s Day joke in 1998 that whipped Bostonians into a frenzy when the guys announced that Mayor Menino had met his death in a fiery car crash down in Florida. Funny stuff. They were canned within a week.

Fast-forward a few years. Opie and Anthony resurfaced in New York in 1998, skirted another rash of trouble (brought on by an alleged sex act they staged in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral), and have now solidified themselves as the kings of cringe radio. Last year they orchestrated an innovative deal that put The Opie & Anthony Show on both XM Satellite Radio and terrestrial radio stations across the country, including WBCN in these parts.

“Boston was like our beaches of Normandy,” says Anthony, referring to the show’s early days and the struggle to gain a footing in the biz. “It was the first time we had to make a name for ourselves.”

Now, they’re in the business of helping some others along. Despite their persona non grata status around here, the two have emerged as comic impresarios, pumping up the careers of some of the Hub’s hottest standups. Roxbury’s Patrice O’Neal, Canton’s Bill Burr, and Medford’s Bob Kelly have all become fixtures on the morning show. “We’ve tried out so many other comedians,” says Opie, “and for some reason these Boston guys have risen to the top.”

The format has O’Neal, Burr, and Kelly leaving their standup routines at the studio door, and getting conversational instead—something at which the three are well practiced, going back to their days on the Boston club scene in the 1990s. “I saw them every night, Sunday through Thursday,” says Burr of his two cohorts. “We’d go from the Comedy Connection to Nick’s Comedy Stop, and then to Dominic’s Restaurant and talk shit till 1 in the morning.”

“Doing O&A is like doing what we did back then,” says Kelly. “We bust balls like buddies hanging out at the bar.”

The exposure is helping them take their acts to bigger audiences: Kelly’s got a new CD and DVD, Not You, out this month; Burr’s got a role in the upcoming film Twisted Fortune; and O’Neal now hosts a relationship-advice show on XM Radio.

Last summer, when Opie and Anthony organized their Traveling Virus Comedy Tour, they asked their Boston friends to headline it. The plan called for a homecoming kickoff here in town, but it was forced out to Worcester because of a snag in securing a downtown permit. What caused the holdup? Tough to say for sure, but Opie and Anthony are convinced a certain mayor was happy to offer a reminder of how very much alive he remains.