It's the first day of the Democratic National Convention, and after a week of lame protests at the GOP summit in Tampa, it smells like something might erupt. Unbathed anarchists in black threads huddle in a crosswalk just blocks from the convention center, while musclebound cops toting paintball guns seal the intersection with their mountain bikes. Authorities instruct journalists to retreat from the action; delegates scream at picketers for blocking foot traffic.
Following a two-hour stand-off, at the far edge of the perimeter, Vermin Supreme strides purposefully toward a police captain. The 51-year-old Supreme (yes, his legal name) wears no shirt and four neckties, with a poof of electric white scruff exploding from underneath his signature hat, a rubber boot. Despite his appearance — or perhaps because of it — he quickly convinces the captain to let him and some cronies cross the line. He leads his squad through the scrum, and pulls out a bullhorn. "I'm here to peaceably assemble," he announces, "and to exercise my free speech." He then pockets the serious rhetoric, and tells officers that it's important to avoid chafing in their riot gear. With Supreme's comic relief in the air, the tension starts to unwind.
It's a scene that would be familiar to veterans of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary circus. A perennial presidential candidate and gadfly extraordinaire who spends part of his time in Gloucester, Supreme has been a protest staple in New England for decades. The twin pillars of his presidential platform are unvarying: a promise to give every American a pony, and a vow to enforce mandatory dental hygiene.
But this year, the Vermin Show has unexpectedly gone viral and national: since the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, he's been on location at Occupy actions nationwide, and has discovered a larger audience through a slew of videos uploaded to YouTube. (It helps that his running mate is Jimmy McMillan, of The Rent Is Too Damn High Party.)
In Charlotte, Supreme had a new arrow in his satirical quiver: Rob Potylo, a Boston comedian, musician, and former radio DJ who once recorded under the name Robby Roadsteamer and currently produces an online "reality sitcom" titled Quiet Desperation. The Eric Fehrnstrom to Supreme's Romney, Potylo traveled south to bolster the campaign's promise of toothbrushes and ponies for all Americans. Potylo is usually the frontman, but he has adapted quickly to the role of the sidekick.
"I left my house [in Allston] at 9 pm with a trash bag full of food and toiletries, drove down in my Stratus, and arrived in Charlotte at noon the next day," says Potylo. The roots of the collaboration were planted when Supreme made a guest appearance on Quiet Desperation three months ago, playing a mentor of sorts to Potylo's bipolar character. The two have been scheming ever since. "Vermin had been tinkering with what he wanted me to do at the DNC," Potylo says, "but within minutes of me getting there, he put me in a tie and made me his press secretary."