Note: I presented this paper virtually at the Southwest Popular/American Culture conference on February 24, 2021. This is the largest national conference for this organization, drawing people from across the world. The paper was for the category of Fandom and Stardom.
Foil Arms and Hog: The Pandemic, Patreon and a Women’s Community
The coronavirus pandemic has radically changed the way people live, communicate, and connect to one another. Social media, always a way for people to reach out to each other has taken pride of place now, in a way that we both rejoice and worry about for all sorts of reasons. However, in the realm of fandoms, social media has been a boon to some communities, especially to many women who have used these avenues of connection to bring them out of social isolation and the emotional and even psychological suffering that they have experienced during the time of lockdowns across the world. In some of these women focused fandoms, talking about and engaging with their favorite performers when they are unable to see them live is a lifeline. It is also a way for them to explore their own creative endeavors as they find ways to communicate with like-minded women and artists. In turn, the pandemic has forced some performers to relate to their fans differently and has created, in certain instances, more intimacy and sometimes even generated larger, more devoted fan communities via social media.
One such group to have benefitted greatly in terms of widening their international fan base and creating a highly devoted and supportive community of mostly women within the constraints of the pandemic is the Irish sketch comedy trio, Foil Arms and Hog. Up until March 2020, Foil (Seán Finegan), Arms (Conor McKenna) and Hog (Seán Flanagan) were in the middle of a massive tour around Ireland, the UK, the U.S. and they were also heading to Europe. Based in Dublin, Ireland, FAH, as they are collectively known, made their living and kept up their popularity with fahns (the name used for their devotees) exclusively through their live shows and putting up their weekly Thursday videos on their YouTube channel and Instagram and Facebook pages.
FAH have been in the sketch comedy scene for almost 13 years now and have described their humor as “a sort of weird hybrid of sketch and messing with the crowd” (Chortle 2019). They are incredibly prolific in the amount of material they create and write, putting together a brand-new show every year for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival since they began the group in 2008, as well as writing an original comedy sketch every single week for their YouTube channel. They’ve been on the Irish and UK comedy circuit for years. They’ve appeared on television in various comedy sketch shows and they’ve all dabbled in small acting roles, including television commercials and voiceovers.
FAH’s sketches come at viewers from all angles of interest. They are often very complex and sophisticated. However, a lot of their material is also silly or strange and weird; these kinds of sketches have drawn significant numbers of views on their social media pages, especially YouTube and Facebook. Topics and subjects of sketches run the gamut from life hacks, to talking to objects, to gay marriage to single fatherhood to issues of immigration, climate change and even oppressive, authoritarian violence, yet all from a very humorous vantage point. They also do a lot of wordplay sketches and anthropomorphic sketches in the form of rooms, medicines, or days of the week throw a party. Their range is vast, and their comedy accessible; this is a real strength of their work. Even their Irish specific comedy is understood across the world because they often deal with universal themes: cultural misunderstandings, relationships between parents and children, or family gatherings gone awry. For example, one of their most popular and watched sketches is “When Irish People Can’t Speak Irish.” The plot of which focuses on a police detective, played by Foil, who claims to be able to speak Gaelic but when tapped by his superior officer, played by Arms, to do so in an interview with a suspect, played by Hog, we see through subtitles that he has no idea how to speak the language at all. This sketch resonated deeply with viewers, garnering to date [February 24, 2021] 6,319 comments (more than any other sketch of FAH’s) and has been viewed 5.2 million times since it was published on September 19, 2019 on their YouTube channel.
The sketch that we are going to watch is not their most provocative by any means, but it does show the three working together, and it brings in their popular outros, in which they plug the tickets for their shows. At the end, they sing their now famous “doomdah.” This sketch also gives a good sense of their rapport with one another, their camaraderie as friends, and their relaxed sensibility in front of the camera. The outro is especially revealing as we see that as a group of three, they stand together, even touching each other physically, exuding a feeling of warmth, friendliness, and definitely a sense of togetherness. This is partly because of the way that they must film their outros. They have to stand together to stay in frame, but the effect of this, I would argue, is that their body language says, “we are a community and we support one another”. I would even go so far as to say, their demeanor in front of the camera says “trust us and come to our shows because you too will be drawn into this safe and supportive community, one where laughter is paramount.” This is called “Killing a Houseplant” and it is from January 11, 2018.
For years, FAH have used the outro of their weekly YouTube videos as a way to draw audiences to their shows, pitching in an often-humorous way the places that they were going to be performing. That is, until the pandemic hit last year and they were suddenly faced with not being able to travel or gig anymore. Like many performers who faced a sudden drop off in their earnings and an inability to connect with fans at gigs, FAH turned to Patreon to survive financially and to keep their relationships with their fans alive.
Seán Finegan (Foil) explained to me in an interview that I conducted via Patreon messaging, “We used to make our weekly Thursday sketches as a way to get people to come to our live shows. When we weren't able to gig due to Covid the reason for making the videos was gone but we didn't want to stop. We really enjoy making them and a regular audience was out there enjoying them. We were quite nervous about asking for money for something we had provided for free for so long but it turns out we had nothing to be nervous about. Lots of people who wouldn't have had the opportunity to see us live but had been enjoying the videos were more than happy to contribute. We were really taken aback” (Interview January 18, 2021).
Since May of 2020 when FAH joined Patreon, they have continued to up their production on their account and to gather support from fahns for this new medium for their comedy. One of the benefits of joining FAH’s Patreon page is being able to message them and receive direct replies from the artists. It was always possible to reach out and message FAH via their social media sites (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook), but because of the number of fahns on these sites, it was nearly impossible for FAH to respond to everyone individually. Patreon has changed this for FAH, as Finegan explains: “Most definitely, there's a lot more communication going on now. Before fans were commenting on YouTube, Facebook etc. and messaging through various social media [sites] but when you combine them all there are just waaaayy too many to reply to, thousands each week. The messaging through Patreon has been far more manageable, although as the platform has grown for us it's starting to become very difficult to keep up” (Patreon Interview, January 18, 2021).
What FAH have managed to do throughout their careers in comedy is use social media to their advantage to create a devoted community of fans who consistently watch their sketches on their YouTube channel and comment on their work. And in order to engage with fans and drive their numbers of followers up, they have worked hard to reply to fans on their social media accounts. Yet, there was a limitation to that and one that kept their more personal interactions with fans almost exclusively based in their meet and greets after live performances. In the pandemic and with the creation of their Patreon page, this has, of course, changed exponentially. Patreon, as a platform for communication with fahns, is inherently a tighter and closer community and one in which FAH, themselves, use as a way to have lengthier and more emotionally close conversations with individual fahns. When I asked Finegan whether he felt that FAH are closer to fahns now with the creation of their Patreon account, he replied that “[we] definitely feel closer to fans” (Interview, January 18, 2021).
This closeness to fahns is clearly about the kind of communication they are able to create, but it is also about the size of the community on Patreon. I asked Finegan whether he would be willing to disclose their patron numbers, and he declined, citing privacy concerns about money matters, but I have estimated at least 659 members [February 2021] given a recent poll that they took on their page for which this number of fahns replied. To put this extraordinarily tiny number into perspective it is important to look at FAH’s other social media numbers.
In February 2021, they have approximately 531,000 YouTube subscribers and 1,162,723 followers on Facebook. FAH have 152K followers on Instagram. They’ve recently joined TikTok to spread the word, presumably to an even younger audience, and have 129K followers on that site. They have an even tinier number on Twitter with 38K followers. These numbers from their social media sites show just how intimate the community is on Patreon with a mere estimated 659 members. Yet, even this number can be divided further into smaller categories of those fahns who participate actively. According to Finegan (Foil), the number of patrons who usually log on to watch a live stream and, therefore, interact with one another in the comment section of these events, for example, are between 100 – 250. As Conor McKenna (Arms) recently pointed out in an interview with the Irish comedian, Tommy Tiernan, the community of fahns who actually engage with FAH is small enough that they “get to know the names and people who contribute”. Finegan, in the same interview, clarified that the people who they recognize come “from all over the world” (Foil Arms and Hog Interview, Vision at Vicar St. YouTube January 13, 2021). [This video is courtesy of Heleen Evers, who has published FAH's performance and interview on her YouTube channel. The complete interview between Tiernan and FAH has since been posted on their Patreon page, February 4, 2022.]
What is unusual about the community of fahns on FAH’s Patreon page is how woman heavy it is as compared to their other sites. While Finegan was unable to provide me with exact numbers of gender breakdown for Patreon (the company does not seem to provide such information), he was able to tell me, “Our audience has certainly grown through the pandemic as people look for comedy content to give them a laugh. What Patreon has done though is connect us to our fans in a much stronger way and make us aware of who they are. Certainly, in terms of 'active' fans, who create artwork, subtitles, essays, social media posts etc. the vast majority appear to be women, likewise the fans who message on Patreon seem mostly to be women” (Patreon Interview 1/18/21). Anecdotally, I know that the numbers of patron members (myself included) who contribute comments and engage on the live streams are almost all women. I would estimate that of the 659 members, at least 95% are women. To put this in perspective with other social media sites run by FAH, Finegan told me that currently, 66% of their viewers and subscribers on YouTube are men, while the number of men who follow and view their sketch material on their Facebook page is 59% (Interviews January 18 & 20, 2021).
Patreon seems, therefore, to be the nexus of the women’s fahn community itself, as it offers a very small social space for connection between and among mostly women fahns, as well as an opportunity to communicate with FAH via messaging, live streams, and in the comment section of their posts. Moreover, many of the same women who are on Patreon are also very active in the fahn community creating artwork, fahnvids, music, memes, running a fan Wiki site, running a fahn website (my own, which takes an academic, analytical approach to FAH’s work), and any number of other FAH related creative projects (including baking, knitting, crafting and the like). These projects are almost always shared with FAH and are supported by FAH themselves. FAH have even commissioned artwork from women fahns, included suggested plot lines from women fahns in their sketches, read novels and short stories written by women in the community, and shared women’s musical projects on their Patreon site.
Here are a few pieces of fahnart by women. These are posted on a fahn wiki site created by Heleen Evers and run entirely by women. On my own FAH fan site, I feature an Ode to the FAHns series, which is all about women fahns and their creative artistry. I am also going to show a clip from FAH’s Patreon page (with permission from FAH) that clearly shows Finegan supporting women musical artists and sharing the work that these musicians have transcribed and written for two of FAH’s original songs. [Because this is from FAH's Patreon page, I cannot show the video here on my own site, but it is well worth a look. It was published on August 5, 2020 and is under "Presents" on their page under "More".]
In supporting these women artists Foil is fostering community by contributing to what he says is material written by “Patreoners for patreoners” and these three patron members are, of course, women. When I asked Finegan what he thought of the fact that the most creative and supportive fahns are women, his response was: “I am surprised at how female dominated it is. The talent is really incredible. So much so that we've started working with many of the fahns and they're adding so much to the brand. It's also really nice to bring diversity like that into our business as for ten years it was basically just three men. If you were to look at all the people who are working on projects for us at the moment we're outnumbered by women. The talent and support have really been noticed and felt and it's really lovely” (Interview).
So, why are there more women Patreon supporters than men and why are there more women fahns than men who are also willing to give back to FAH in such creative ways? First, I would argue that the act of communicating through Patreon offers a way for women to connect with one another in a small, intimate and private space. Unlike on the male dominated, public FAH sites of YouTube and Facebook, where women do comment, but do not do so in a personal way, Patreon is a space of support for women to say what they feel without reprisal or judgement from others, including FAH. Women feel safe to disclose insights into their personal lives and get support and help and make connections with other women, thus creating a stronger and more vibrant fahn women’s community. Women speak about their lives, the pain and anguish that they’ve experienced in the pandemic, and how hard the world is to live in and exist. These comments are often made in the context of praising FAH and their work, yet FAH never respond back. The people who engage with these comments are almost always women, who offer support, good wishes, and kind words to each other.
Second, FAH are in a constant state of creating and writing new material, and they are actively working to generate community in their own relationships to and with their fans, particularly their women fahns who they respect and treat with dignity. As Finegan points out, “the support from women has been incredible! . . . what I can say for sure is that the engagement and creative gifts are . . . all coming from women” (Patreon Interview, January 19, 2021). FAH exude a sense of community to and with their fahns via engaging in direct communication, and in turn, women fahns find not just comedy in FAH but also a sense of coming together in a small fahn community that encourages their creative interests on a site like Patreon that is meant to celebrate and support artists. In offering women a space to be creative, engage, and to be supported by FAH themselves, women fahns are given agency and support to be visible individuals. This is happening at a time when so much of their lives are disjointed and disrupted by the pandemic; the fahndom offers creative continuity via a comedy group that has in mind always a sense of honoring not only their own creative spirits, but their women fahns as well.