ON THE SIXTH FLOOR of an unremarkable slate-colored building in New York City’s SoHo, a small television studio is tucked away in a corner behind a large black curtain. If not for the hive of activity around both sides of the curtain during a Wednesday evening in early December, the studio might be mistaken for a closet. But this space is not keeping someone contained. Here, at Embassy Row, something remarkable is happening. Katie Nolan is breaking out.
Nolan, a 29-year-old Framingham native, is the host of Fox Sports 1’s Garbage Time With Katie Nolan as well as a popular podcast of the same name. If Garbage Time, airing at midnight on Wednesdays on the fledgling network, receives fractions of a Nielsen ratings point, it’s a successful week. Nearing the end of its second season, the show has nevertheless generated consistent buzz and corresponding hope almost exclusively because of Nolan, a charismatic, irreverent former bartender with an affinity for venting hard truths and making her audience buckle in laughter within the same half-hour.
“If she wanted, she could resonate just by taking advantage of the fact that she’s the cute girl who likes sports that every guy wants to be friends with,’’ says HBO’s Bill Simmons, a friend of Nolan’s who once tried to hire her himself. “Lord knows others have tried to do this. But she’s way more talented than that and way more thoughtful than that, and she knows it, and that’s what makes her so unique. She also doesn’t give a [expletive], which I like. She’ll just let it fly.”
That Nolan so easily combines comedy and candor is proof of her skill and versatility. Rarely have sports and humor intersected on television with anything resembling sustained and satisfying entertainment; shows like the late-and-never-lamented Best Damn Sports Show Period on Fox Sports Net often seemed to be competitions to determine which host could insincerely guffaw the loudest. Nolan makes sure Garbage Time is a good time with her stream of keen observations wrapped in wisecracks. But she also delivers serious moments, reminiscent of the tone Jon Stewart brought to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
“Are we a sports show that’s funny, or are we a funny show about sports?’’ asks Nolan rhetorically. “Those two worlds notoriously don’t play well together in television. So I think the way we’ve found to make it work is to not always try to be funny and not always be about sports. When we feel a way, we go that way. That’s what happened with the Greg Hardy thing.”
Ah, the Greg Hardy thing. When the Dallas Cowboys defensive end returned last October from a four-game suspension that had resulted from 2014 allegations of abusing his girlfriend — including throwing her down on a pile of assault rifles and shotguns — he showed little remorse or tact in his first comments to reporters. Instead, he came across as defiant, saying he hoped Tom Brady’s supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen, and her sister would be attending that Sunday’s Cowboys-Patriots game and noting that he intended to come out with “guns blazing.” His tone-deafness was staggering, given the football star’s repulsive personal history — and yet not a single reporter who was in the vicinity at the time called him on it. When Nolan took to the air, she was livid. It made for powerful television in an unexpected place.
It was not the first time Nolan had spoken up when she felt there was a void in the discourse. In July 2014, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended for two games by the NFL for punching his then fiancee in a casino hotel elevator. It was only after video of the brutal incident surfaced — video that was acquired by the gossip website TMZ rather than the league, stoking suspicion that the NFL had more interest in making the matter evaporate than in finding the truth — that commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely.
“My goal before the opportunity at Fox [Sports 1] came along was to do comedy, not necessarily stand-up comedy and straight joke-delivering, but to be fun and funny and engaging,’’ Nolan says. “And then we started to have a year like last year [with the Hardy and Rice incidents], where it just seemed like one thing or another all the time. There’s not a lot of comedy in that, and I’m looking around and saying to myself, ‘You know, there aren’t a lot of women here. Someone’s got to say something, but it shouldn’t be me, because I’m the funny one. So I’ll just not say something.’
“I felt like that for a while. But then I got to the point where I said, ‘I’m going to say something. Someone has to.’ So that’s when we realized what happens in sports or what happens around sports can dictate what our show does. It was an interesting lesson. Because before that I kept thinking I had to fit in a box: ‘This is your role, don’t step outside of your role, do what you are supposed to do.’ Then I saw this opportunity that — I just felt irresponsible going to sleep at night as a woman working in sports who wouldn’t speak to an issue that needed to be addressed.”
That attitude has won her admirers among her peers. “She’s a unique voice in this landscape, male or female,’’ says Michelle Beadle, an ESPN host and anchor who has offered advice and encouragement from time to time. “She comes along and she’s funny and she’s not afraid and she has a different perspective — I love people who don’t have fear and are comfortable in their own skin.”
It is Nolan who makes Garbage Time work, the silly and the serious, the hilarious and the heartfelt. But she does not make it work alone. She sits behind the desk in the small corner of the set, her softball letter from Framingham High, Boston Bruins hockey gloves (her family has season tickets), and a framed picture of her with hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg serving as part of the backdrop. That is her perch for bantering with her crew while the “live-to-tape” broadcast — meaning a program recorded in real time but aired later— is recorded. Her eye for detail during the give-and-take is unrelenting. “Nice new shirt,’’ she says to a director, her smile curling to a grin at the delivery of the punch line. “It was discontinued as soon as you bought it.”
Because Garbage Time is produced in New York, it is a satellite for the Fox Sports base in Los Angeles. That can be good and bad. Nolan has the freedom — or at least the distance — to try new things without the corporate parents wagging fingers. But her crew barely reaches double digits, and she knows her program’s resources aren’t what they might be if the show were located in LA. The makeshift control room is a barely disguised conference room, and chaos is the norm. On this Wednesday, the wireless signal is down and the teleprompter is not working. Nolan, who writes most of her own material, is aware of all of this. She is not rattled.
“I don’t even need a prompter,’’ she says with faux cockiness. “I have all of this memorized.” The wireless remains sporadically uncooperative, but the teleprompter decides to sputter into action, and as the countdown to the show commences, Nolan supplies her own words of inspiration: “Gonna crush it, gonna crush it, gonna crush it.”
She crushes it. The show is an amalgam of commentary, produced video segments, and interviews, but the funniest moment comes within the opening monologue when Nolan addresses the news of the week: Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant announced that this would be his final season by posting a mawkish poem online titled “Dear Basketball.” Nolan has an announcement to make. “Basketball has written back, Kobe.” She then plays a clip of a counter-poem.
Roses are red, violets are blue
You shoot too much and should have retired two years ago.
“There are people on TV obviously who are completely a character, right?’’ says Nolan’s older brother, Kevin, who moonlights as a member of the comedy show House Teams at Improv Asylum in Boston. “Her persona on TV is exactly who she is in the real world. Anything you see her say on TV, that’s exactly what she would say sitting around the kitchen table. You’re seeing something rare on television these days. The authentic person.”
EARLY AFTERNOON THE NEXT DAY, a Thursday in December, Katie Nolan has just finished recording her Garbage Time podcast at Embassy Row and heads a few blocks north for lunch at a restaurant called The Clam. By the end of the month, her podcast would be ranked No. 1 in downloads in the sports and recreation category on iTunes, even briefly topping the juggernaut The Bill Simmons Podcast. But on this day, that particular success is still to come, and Nolan has more pressing, mollusk-centric matters to deal with. “Is this real clam chowder or the tomato-y kind they like here that is an insult to real clam chowder and all we New Englanders stand for?’’ she muses to her lunch companions. “It had better be the real thing.”
She orders it, and it is the right stuff. The Clam is near her place of employment but many miles from her Framingham roots and her New England sensibilities. “I miss Boston so much and want to get back there someday,’’ she says, noting offhandedly and with a hint of lament that there is not a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner in New York City. Her fame burgeoning, she says she’s recognized in public occasionally, but wearing black-rimmed glasses and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt beneath a muted button-down shirt, she’s effortlessly incognito as she rattles off her personal he’s-cool, he’s-a-bum lists of Boston athletes through the years.
“My dad likes to tease me over this. We weren’t there at Fenway, and it wasn’t a consequential game, but Trot Nixon let a ball go through his legs, and from that moment on I hated Trot Nixon. Really irrational. Based in nothing. But did not like him.” Manny Ramirez? No such scorn. “I loved Manny for a while there. We got sweet seats next to the dugout one game, and I brought a sign that said something stupid about how much I love Manny and gave it to a batboy after the game, who said he’d bring it to Manny. There’s no way in hell that happened but, boy, did I believe him.”
Pretension is not in Nolan’s repertoire, but colorful language is, and it’s part of her charm. She can curse like she has a master’s degree in expletives and is working toward her doctorate. “She learned a long time ago how to hold her own with anyone in any situation,’’ says her dad, Mike Nolan, who coached her in softball. “You’ve got to be quick at our house.”
The sarcasm he attributes to Nolan’s mother, Cammie. “She’s her mother’s daughter. Oh, was she headstrong. When she was pitching and it would be time for her to come out of the game for whatever reason, I’d tell one of the other coaches, ‘You’re gonna have to go out to the mound, because she’s not gonna listen to a word I say.’ ’’ He laughs.
Nolan moved to New York in 2009 upon graduating from Hofstra University with a major in public relations and a minor in dance. “Just like most people,” she deadpans. She struggled to find a job, eventually selling gym memberships at a high-end chain. “I hated it so much,’’ she says. “My first sales assessment, they tell you your strong points, and they told me I was the emotional salesman, the one who could really connect with people by making them feel comfortable. Once someone told me that, I couldn’t get past how manipulative it made me feel.”
After six months in New York City, she had burned through her savings. In 2010, she moved home, winding up in Allston, tending bar at the White Horse Tavern and slinging Miller High Lifes to Boston University students at $2 a pop. Lizzie Havoc, a semipro wrestler and bartender who worked with Nolan and still tends bar at the tavern, remains a good friend. “It’s a heavy college area, so we got a lot of the [expletive] guys and a lot of [expletive] girls as well, so it helps to be quick with a comeback,’’ says Havoc. “You know, you’ve got three guys ordering drinks, and then there’s the guy leaning with one elbow on the bar being like, ‘Hey, girl, what are you doing later?’ And she’s like, ‘Absolutely nothing with you. Ever.’ ”
Simmons — whose pioneering ascent from Boston-based online blogger/columnist in the late ’90s to national multimedia Midas at ESPN before his contentious departure from the network last summer — was an inspiration to Nolan. So, too, was the sophomoric but often hilarious humor of the popular website Barstool Sports. Soon, she began writing about pop culture six to eight times a day on a blog. “It’s where I would write to keep my brain functioning,’’ she says. “I had maybe three readers outside of my friends and family.” But she caught the attention of the now-defunct bro-lifestyle site Guyism. Management asked her to write, produce, and host a series of funny Web videos each day.
“I’d get home at 3:30 a.m. from the bar after my shift ended at 1. I’d write jokes, film it, and then sleep,’’ she says. “So I did that for two years. Sometimes I’d get to a point where I wasn’t feeling well or something was going on in my life and the last thing I wanted to do was make funny videos. But I did. I did it. I knew if I was going to have a chance, I had to be reliable, keep doing it, get those reps.” Says her brother Kevin: “People will say, ‘Oh, she was an overnight success.’ Yeah, except she didn’t sleep any of those overnights.”
NOLAN’S DEDICATION AND DISCIPLINE PAID OFF. Guyism asked her to move back to New York, offering her a full-time position. She accepted, building her profile to the point that she was on Fox Sports 1’s radar before it launched as a de facto challenger to ESPN in August 2013. The network hired her for the Regis Philbin-helmed mishmashed sports/pop culture show Crowd Goes Wild. “He was a wonderful man,” Nolan says. “He’d show up at 4:30 p.m. to tape a shot at 5, and he was out at 6:15, but he’s earned that.”
Crowd Goes Wild was canceled after nine months, but Nolan had made an impression. “I watched the first Regis show and it was a mess except for her,” Bill Simmons says. “She jumped off the TV. At the time, we had been looking for someone to be the face of our Grantland video channel, so I was immediately upset that we didn’t know about her. Then I Googled her, saw some of her old Guyism videos, found out she was from Boston, and almost had a conniption.” Simmons tried to bring her to Grantland, the superb but now defunct boutique website he built at ESPN, but Fox picked up her contract option. Her bosses knew what they had. They just had to figure out how to deploy her.
“Leading up to the launch of FS1, I was really focused on finding a small number of digital-native personalities who had the potential to cross over to television,’’ says Pete Vlastelica, Fox Sports executive vice president of digital, who hired Nolan. “Katie was at the top of my wish list based on what I’d seen her do online, though we truthfully had no idea how that would translate to TV. But very soon into working with her, we knew she was special. She didn’t just figure out TV, she figured live TV right away. She has a way of instantly getting the audience on her side and then keeping them there.”
For a few months, Nolan was in a sort of limbo, producing those online videos for Fox but little else. But the network had plans for her, even if she didn’t know what they were. She found out soon enough, and in March 2015 Garbage Time premiered. It’s gradually gained traction. The October 14 program attracted its highest average television audience of the season, with 473,000 viewers tuning in. Through the first 18 weeks of the season, Garbage Time video clips have accumulated more than 5.3 million views across all platforms. Now Nolan and the staff are waiting for official word they’ll be picked up for a third season. It’d be a surprise if it doesn’t happen — she’s the biggest breakout among Fox Sports 1 talent — but regardless, her star is unlikely to dim any time soon. Vlastelica says she’s the prototype for the compelling, multi-platform personalities the network wants to hire.
“I’m not worried about Katie’s future. She’s not even 30 yet — she’s way ahead of the curve,” says Simmons. “She’s in a great spot now, because she can still take big swings, and it’s OK if some of them don’t work out.”
If there’s a downside to taking big swings, it can be the detractors who swing back. Social media, especially Twitter, often feel like the ultimate sports bar, which can be a delight and a curse. Social media enhance the fun of watching a big game but also provide a platform for loudmouths who can hide behind anonymity and distance. That culture can be particularly cruel and crude for women.
As a foray into Nolan’s Twitter mentions will confirm, this especially holds true for successful women who have strong opinions about sports. They’re magnets for misogyny, and it’s to the point with Nolan that she can practically predict the crudeness of fans’ correspondence demographically. “NFL fans are the worst,’’ she says, “but if you get a message that says” — and she rattles off a string of expletives that might make Joe Pesci blush — “then chances are that’s from a [Dallas] Cowboys fan. They’re the worst of the worst.”
ESPN’s Michelle Beadle has advised her to read the comments only if she’s “1,000 percent aware” of what her critics will say. “If you’re having a bad day or feeling any insecurity whatsoever, do not read the comments, ever. I don’t want it to get to a point where maybe people get her down and she starts thinking that what she’s doing isn’t important or valuable.”
Simmons, too, advises her not to get caught up in the backlash. She cannot resist. “Bill’s told me that a few times, and I know he’s right, and I’ll try to ignore the worst of them unless I have a really good comeback,’’ she says. “Then I’ll use it on ’em.”
Her moxie is the same as it was on the ball fields in Framingham, the same as it was in the barroom in Allston, the same as it was before she ever spit out Greg Hardy’s name. “She’s definitely kept that same spark, that same smile, even the way she does her hair and makeup,’’ says bartender pal Lizzie Havoc. “Everything is so her. Having a national show with her name in the title, that’s just insanity. Except if you know her. Then it makes all the sense in the world.”
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Chad Finn is a Boston Globe sports media columnist. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.