Monday, May 27, 2024

Dana Jay Bein’s comedy went viral in mid-March 2020. Two months later came a prank that might have undone his reputation. (Photo: Dana Jay Bein)

Allegations against comic Dana Jay Bein last spring might have done serious damage to his reputation if not for one thing: He was part of a live Zoom comedy show at the same time he was supposedly gaslighting a woman into a fake rendezvous and texting her toxic messages.

Now Bein is talking about the incident, identifying who he believes was behind the prank: A group of five comedians he says themselves have been gaslighting the local comedy community for several years by impersonating people to stir up similar dramas – booking shows and contests in the name of comics who will miss them, for instance, or typing racial slurs from the spoofed account of a person who wouldn’t say them.

In a Facebook post Thursday, Bein said five comics in a group chat known as “the Circus Animals” were behind the allegations against him. The group includes Anjan Biswas; Sam Ike; Eric Taylor; Luke Touma; and Tyler Swain. All but Taylor were contacted directly Thursday for comment, and Swain said he had forwarded a request to him. Only Swain replied.

As hosts and bookers for comedy nights at the Cityside Tavern in Brighton and The Hideout in Faneuil Hall, and with connections at clubs as far as Worcester and Springfield, Biswas and Ike have a reach and power that Bein now finds unsettling. “I’m not comfortable with a booker who pays people, who has access to phone numbers, addresses and Social Security numbers and is also part and parcel to this group of people who impersonate people on the routine,” Bein said.

A “grudge” against him

Biswas devoted much of his podcast “Midlife Isis” to Bein on May 30, a week after the allegations emerged and were debated hotly on social media. In the episode he acknowledged that he was a troll and a prankster with a hatred of Bein, and that he was “really bugged” by Bein’s nationwide viral success with his tweeted “Coronavirus Rhapsody” parody lyrics March 18.

“As somebody who did not like Dana, this really hurt me,” Biswas said, though in addition he found Bein’s positivity annoying – he has “always” referred to him as “the youth pastor of Boston comedy” – and his comedy unfunny. “I don’t know why, maybe because I’m a Grinch, but [his] videos make me so fucking angry,” Biswas said.

After episode guest Katlin McFee refers to his“grudge” against Bein and a caller suggests he should teach “a class on how to antagonize people,” Biswas said people shouldn’t have reacted so strongly and quickly to the Bein situation because it wasn’t clear whether he was guilty, and that his own reputation was widespread enough in the community that “several people were [saying], ‘I think this was Anjan.’”

“For the record,” Biswas said, “it’s not.”

On-screen during incident

A detail from a May 23 event called “Comics Who Showered” show Bein, lower left, on the Zoom.

What did happen with Bein depends on who is asked, but there is evidence on his side: On May 23, a Saturday, Bein was the featured comic on an 8 p.m. Zoom show, “Comics Who Showered,” hosted by Peter Liu. The show lasted around an hour and 15 minutes, with Bein on-screen and visible to the audience from around 8:55 p.m. to the end of the show. But because it was the first “Comics Who Showered,” the comics were on early as they prepared to go live, Liu said. Zoom logs from the show confirm Bein was on starting at 7:30 p.m., then off-screen for about a minute to switch Zoom accounts. The log shows he was then on from 7:33 to 9:12 p.m., and during the crucial early minutes, interacting with other people on the call. “I don’t remember Dana being on his phone while talking to us,” according to one screen-capped account from the time written by someone Liu identified as helping with the show. Speaking Thursday, Liu agreed that was how he remembered it.

The same night, according to screen captures of text conversations shared online in May, someone identifying himself as Bein gave the woman an address where they could meet. There was no one there when she arrived, which is passed off as a bizarre prank – out of character with Bein’s public persona and his previous conversations with the woman (some of which she shared on social media after the incident), and written in a style unlike how he typically texts. “I hope you knocked on the door or rang the bell you dumb slut. That aint even my house! Youre fucking garbage and I hope you had your hopes up for this.”

Time stamps on the text conversation show it taking place during the time Bein was on-screen with Liu and others for “Comics Who Showered.”

Social media firestorm

The woman posted about the incident on Facebook to call out hypocrisy from someone who “preaches positivity, unconditional empathy, and ‘using the power of comedy for good,’ [in] their words.” She asked in her post whether that person should be mentoring comedians, or whether audiences would want to give that person their money.

A social media firestorm ensued, with Bein attacked and defended and the screen captures puzzled over for clues as to whether they’d been faked.

A complaint against Bein was made to managers at ImprovBoston, a comedy club where he has performed and taught for several years. (It has been closed for the duration of the coronavirus lockdown and is now on full hiatus, without a performance space of its own.) Managing director Josh Garneau said the claim was investigated, but he couldn’t say much more beyond its conclusion: “We have no concerns about him. And if we were to open up again, he would be perfectly valid as a teacher or comic.”

At The Comedy Studio in Somerville’s Union Square, where Bein was comic in residence in November 2018, owner Rick Jenkins was asked if he could offer perspective or context on the allegations. “I can only say that Dana is a very good comedian,” Jenkins said. Yet he connected Bein immediately with a question he’d recently received about fake email addresses being set up for comedian bookings – which could lead to comedians being banned for failing to show up. “I’m guessing that’s probably related to Dana’s stuff,” Jenkins said.

Circus Animals reach out

A portrait of members of the Circus Animals group chat includes comedians Sam Ike and Anjan Biswas, front row. (Photo: Taylor Swain via Instagram)

Screen captures shared with Cambridge Day show Bein being contacted by members of the Circus Animals after the allegations became public. (Not all the screen captures could be independently verified.) There’s a brief contact from Swain saying simply, “Cmon man” as the allegations emerged, though Bein said Swain had “never messaged me before”; Taylor got in touch by text the next Tuesday saying, “Oh dear, please say it aint so” with a crying emoji, telling Bein “Does not look good. Can you make me see the light again? Jesus Christ dude, hoping its a myth.” The texter identifies himself as Taylor when Bein asks, because Taylor is not in Bein’s address book. “He hadn’t texted me in years,” Bein explained later.

Ike, who is in Bein’s address book, makes contact the next morning, according to the screen captures. “I dont know what the fuck is happening. I hope you’re alright,” the texts say. “I know you. This is so bizzare … You’re a good man. Truth will come to light.” Yet in screen captures apparently from the Circus Animal group text that afternoon, a member identified by the letter “I” is asked for Bein’s number by the group and says he’ll provide it, “But i cant be the reason the guy kills himself.” The member identified by the letters “LT,” suggesting it’s Touma, responds: “Cool cool, I can.” (In his Facebook post, Bein said it was Taylor who provided his phone number.)

Before they add Bein to the group chat, Biswas asks in the provided screen capture whether Bein will be able to see the “previous shit” the group had been talking about.

Forced to Do damage control

Swain said Thursday that the Circus Animals group chat had existed for only a few weeks before the allegations, and he had not been close friends with all the members – though he had become better friends with Biswas since Bein began to direct attention toward them as trolls. But, he said, he told the group that “if it was them [behind the allegations] I would not speak to them.”

“I believe in my heart of hearts that none of them, or I, are responsible,” Swain said Thursday. “I don’t know why [Bein] mentioned me as part of this.” He was even asleep at the time Bein was invited to the group chat and found out about it only later, he said.

While Swain said he can “see where he’s putting these ‘clues’ together,” he found it striking that Bein, who was rallied around by friends and allies when unfounded allegations were made against him, is now making similarly unfounded allegations against him and the Circus Animals. There has been a rush of anger directed toward him, and “now I have to do damage control,” Swain said.

He has tried to reach out to Bein, he said, but Bein blocked him on Facebook immediately after his message the night the allegations came to light.

A new firestorm

Bein said he had reason to be wary. Biswas’ dislike of him was well known – he’d been trolling him for a couple of years already, Bein said, such as repurposing an image of Bein in a chicken suit to jokingly offer a lifetime residency at Cityside comedy nights “to whoever brings me this chicken’s head.”

There is a police investigation of the incident involving whether Bein was impersonated, but it is not complete, Bein said.

The motivation for going public Thursday, he said, was the imminent opening of live comedy that he believed would return the Circus Animals to their pre-pandemic power, and tricks. Bein wrote:

I have come to understand that these men have contributed to immeasurable harm in our communities, especially towards women and vulnerable performers. They use their group chat as a way to identify a target and then again to unapologetically laugh about the chaos and the harm they create for that victim. They take turns pulling these awful stunts and then they attempt to gaslight everyone who suspects them. It’s my contention that they deliberately switch off who targets people so that it’s easier for them to escape accountability for what they’ve done.

His post quickly drew more than 100 comments, including a few highlighting what people saw as Biswas’ strange behavior after the May incident – inviting them on his podcast to talk about the drama, and saying apparently out of nowhere that he was innocent of impersonating Bein and causing the allegations against him.

“What if they plant a burner phone”

Toward the end of the May 30 “Midlife Isis” podcast, guest Katlin McFee laughs remembering something Biswas had said when he was “first getting accused of [impersonating Bein] and you started overreacting to it.”

“You got really paranoid that someone was going to try to frame you,” McFee said. Then, referring to Biswas: “He was like, ‘What if they plant a burner phone that they used?’”

Biswas laughed along with her.

“I stand by pretty much everything I’ve done in terms of pranks, [though] not necessarily in terms of behavior,” Biswas said on the podcast. “I’ve done things where I’m like, ‘Oh, I probably shouldn’t have done that.’”

This post was updated shortly after publication March 25, 2021, to better reflect statements sent by Taylor Swain.