I have no idea where to start with the cult podcast Chapo Trap House. The bare facts are these: three minor Twitter celebrities who straddle the worlds of Left Twitter and Weird Twitter, after years of collaborating on the Internet, got together to mock a movie, 13 Hours, on a friend’s show. They carved the beast well, and got such a response that they decided to record their own podcast. They did so, and named it “Chapo Trap House,” because they wanted the title to sound like a mix tape.
In all other realities this show died after its second episode, but in our single world, Chapo has become an underground cult hit for up-all-night weirdos, MMA aficionados, Twitter fetishists, and most of all the irreverent left. It’s unlike any comedy or political podcast I’ve ever listened to, and I’ve heard ‘em all. To say Chapo is in “poor taste” is to mistake taste for clear-thinking. Chapo is not depraved — it sees clearly – it is not deliberately offensive, but unapologetically honest, which explains the exhilaration of listening to it. Our editor Shane Ryan turned me onto the podcast — this highly irreverent, profane show, which is so hilarious and delightfully vulgar I can barely stand it.
As for the hosts themselves: Will Menaker (@WillMenaker), Matt Christman (@Cushbomb), Felix Biederman (@ByYourLogic), and their producer Brendan James (@deep_beige). You know your wickedly smart high school friend with a sharp tongue who drank way too early? Imagine if that guy grew to manhood, read Marx and Hunter Thompson, began to publicly speculate about the sexual pathologies of various Beltway pundits, and you have Chapo. One episode features Menaker reading the passage from Ross Douthat’s book where William F. Buckley shows up naked. In another installment, the hosts read fan letters, and a listener asks them how to be successful with ladies. To a man, the hosts, without batting an eye, advise their correspondent to stay volcel – voluntary celibate – and conserve his vital masculine energy for the revolution. It’s that kind of show.
Despite its growing popularity, Chapo has the markings of a splinter religion or conspiracy subculture: the references are so many and so interwoven, each with its own shade of meaning, that they form a shorthand of tensile nuance. In any particular show, there will be numerous references to Chapo’s abiding obsessions: the weird anti-Armenian propaganda of the Turkish deep state, the craven goofiness of centrist pundits, the awfulness of Sandler’s “Reign Over Me,” or the heart-stopping gluttonies of Antonin Scalia: “The ability of millions of Americans to collectively bargain came down to whether one fat old man decided to do some sit-ups or not.”
More than praising one particular world view, Chapo spends most of their time mocking the pundits that have made our politics the incestuous, back-slapping affair it is. Their favorite target is the Very Serious People: writers and thinkers who call themselves liberals but are thoroughly part of the status quo.
I suspect the secret of Chapo’s appeal is their heart; they genuinely want the world to be a better place. I always think of their great dissection of Zack Snyder’s directorial douchiness in Batman v. Superman: “The tone of the movie was set a little bit later, when, after that scene, we’re introduced to Lois Lane for the first time, when she watches an Al-Shabaab militia execute Jimmy Olsen, who is also in the CIA. And this tells you a lot about Zack Snyder, that he thought that was a funny joke that Jimmy Olsen gets ruthlessly executed by a bullet to the head, without ever having his name spoken. Zack Snyder thought that was a really funny little Easter Egg.”
I interviewed the Woke Zoo Crew over email with Shane Ryan. None of this happened in person, but I’d like to imagine we’re all friends already, just like I tell people I’m friends with the Two Broke Girls. “They go away when I press this button,” I remind doubters, holding up a brick I will throw through the TV screen. “If that isn’t friendship, what is?”
The responses below are as the members of Chapo sent them to me, edited only for repetition. Where I have broken blocks of text up, it is to make the Chapo narrative more clear, and myself seem much classier.
In my twenty years of practicing journalism, this was the funniest interview I’ve done. Being turned down for a Q-and-A by Summer Glau’s handler at Wizard World Dallas doesn’t seem so bad now. Happy is he who says “I am a Chapo!”
JASON: First off, since we are all CIA plants, can you tell me the name of your handlers?
WILL: I can’t divulge operational details about an ongoing Op, but suffice to say our handlers are the same as Michael Weiss’s.
FELIX: Our former unit “FOXHOUND” was disbanded after a particularly volatile No Fap November that most black ops units take part in as a key tenet of the Gorilla Mindset. Our handlers have disavowed us, and we’re essentially ronin at this point.
MATT: As an independent contractor, I answer only to God and the Constitution of the United States.
BRENDAN: As their producer, I interface with the government. Relatedly, the title of the book about those DEA patches we use for our show art is called, “I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me.”
JASON: Most of the people who will read this interview will have no idea what Weird Twitter and Left Twitter are and how they inform your show. Can you explain?
BRENDAN: This corner of Twitter is like if Andy Kaufman and Hunter S. Thompson put on a trivia night every single day. Also they’re both amped on crank.
WILL: Before the show even started, I think all three of us occupied that strange overlap between “weird” and “left” twitter, a niche that might seem odd at first, but upon closer inspection makes perfect sense. “Left Twitter” should be obvious, but as best I can describe to someone who has a doesn’t share my specific form of mental illness, “Weird Twitter” describes the loosely defined Dadaist comedic style that grew out of this social network. The crossover reveals itself in the fact that both are in their own way a response to the meaninglessness and absurdity of neoliberal capitalism. However, I think both inform and need each other. Pure Left Twitter is too esoteric and humorless and Pure Weird Twitter is … cop starts breakdancing
MATT: Weird Twitter is a disparate group of frustrated comedians whose manifest life failures have left them with the time and inclination to seek approval from strangers from the internet in the form of digital treats. Left Twitter is basically anyone on Twitter who uses the platform to express their left political views. This could be anyone from Chris Hayes to @WokeBeria. We reside in shaded spot of the Venn Diagram between the two, which is mostly people who don’t have jobs in media or politics, but still have enough of a political viewpoint for it to shape their epic memes and dong jokes.
FELIX: Weird Twitter is a collection of married guys who desperately want the younger women who fav their tweets to start a new life with them, their desperation becoming more apparent with each joke. Left Twitter is a collection of grad students who desperately want the young women who fav their tweets to send them feet pics, their desperation becoming more apparent with each platitude. In the center of these two sexual psychoses, we find the “id” of Chapo Trap House.
JASON: Chapo Trap House has been described as being without “good taste, professionalism, or restraint, and it has no qualms whatsoever with imagining the gory, shameful deaths of op-ed luminaries,” and repeatedly described as “not for everyone,” and these were by people who liked the show. Is this the response you had in mind?
FELIX: When we first started, I don’t think we imagined more than 200 people from Twitter listening, so anything past that is a pleasant surprise. As far as those descriptions, at first I was kind of confused by what people said. The big thing that everyone seemed to take away was that we are particularly vulgar and irreverent. Maybe it’s spending too much time on the parts of the internet where you can say nearly anything you want, but I didn’t think that of us. That was until I listened to our competitors in News and Politics on iTunes and witnessed what bootlickers most other shows are by comparison.
WILL: I think we aspire to be dirtbag vulgarians and unprofessional, but our real secret is that we actually care a lot about the show and want it to be as sharp and polished as possible while still threatening to put Speech Boy in a diaper.
FELIX: We didn’t set out to shock and disgust people in some shock jock sense. We’ve been very much ourselves, and very representative of the people we’ve known in political spaces over the years. However, that just isn’t a viewpoint many are used to hearing on podcasts.
WILL: The show is the product of our world view and senses of humor which is only possible to do in a venue that is 100% independent and outside of any career path in media and politics, and I think to a large degree that’s what people have responded to.
MATT: I think Chapo blew up in large part because the traditional rhetoric of leftist political and media critique that people are used to is either the smug above-it-all snark of The Daily Show or the quaver-voiced earnestness of, like Chris Hedges or something. Neither of those models offer the visceral thrill of listening to people who actually give a shit (as opposed to the wan liberalism of people who are mostly interested in showing how much smarter they are then Republicans) but who don’t believe that having a sense of humor is counter-revolutionary.
BRENDAN: I consider myself the first psycho fan. I came on the show as a guest for Episode 3, the Ross Douthat episode. Up until then, the guys were recording the show as a raw feed – I offered to fine tune it. Without sounding like Dirtbag Brian Epstein, I felt early on that the show had a real bite, doing something you cannot find anywhere else, so I loved the idea of helping to shape it and grow it. Twenty-four episodes later and we record like we’re cheating on each other WITH each other.
JASON: Chapo Trap House began with the three of you doing a review of Zero Dark Thirty on the podcast Street Fight Radio. Why you three?
WILL: CORRECTION: we came together to do a review of Michael Bay’s 13 HOURS, NOT Zero Dark Thirty, on the Street Fight Podcast. I have written a 3,000 word email to the publisher of Splitsider about this grievous error and hopefully the individual/s responsible will be swiftly dismissed.
(RHODE Note: In my defense I meant to type in “13 Hours,” as Will so correctly schools me on above.)
MATT: We all knew Brian and Brett of Street Fight from the small circle of Weird Left Twitter and had all appeared on guests of their show independently of each other and had all produced good shows that received good feedback.
WILL: Each one of us had previously appeared on Street Fight as a guests, my first big podcast spot was when I went on to discuss SONS OF ANARCHY, which was a big hit, Felix and I had done a couple episodes on Kurt Sutter’s next project, THE BASTARD EXECUTIONER, and I had done another episode with Matt.
MATT: When Bryan had the idea of reviewing 13 Hours we all had a pretty good idea, just from listening to the shows we’d done and having been friends on Twitter for so long, that it made sense for us to do it together.
WILL: 13 HOURS was the first time all three of us had done a show together and the chemistry between us really worked, people loved the show and we thought, ‘why not do some more of this?’
FELIX: It turned out we worked really well together.
JASON: When did you decide this had to be a regular thing? To what do you attribute your rapport?
MATT: Will, Felix and I had been kicking around the idea of a podcast for a while but the technical aspect and, mostly, fear of no one on earth giving a shit, had discouraged me from really pursuing it.
WILL: As I said, the public demanded more of us, and we had to oblige them. I think the rapport comes from years of being Twitter friends and colleagues, I think one of the best things twitter allows is for one person to start a joke, that other people can riff off of and create a kind of living, real-time bit, and we had all volleyed with each other many times before enough to know that we had similar sensibilities and were basically fans of one another, but I had met them both before as well, Matt when he visited the city a couple times, and Felix when he moved here. So we tested it out online for a while, but consummated our triad-poly-marriage by becoming “real life bros.”
MATT: The response to the 13 Hours episode was so overwhelming that it motivated Will, thankfully, to figure out how to record and release a podcast. The first episode was almost entirely unplanned and consisted of a ripped YouTube audio track. Something that dared you not to listen to it. But we saw an immediate swell of interest and resolved among ourselves to do it regularly and, eventually, make it sound better.
FELIX: If you listen to our first episode, it’s pretty terrible. We’re disjointed, don’t know what kind of show we are, or even what jokes we want to do. Tons of dead air and zero organization. It took us more than 10 days to record our second episode, which is when we first started getting a really big response. That’s when we decided it had to be weekly. Right after recording that one, I think Matt said, “Holy shit, that was GREAT!” I’ll always remember that moment in particular because it seems like that’s where we realized exactly how our show worked, who did what, and how to actually put these things together.
MATT: As for rapport, I think it boils down to the fact that we all share a basic comedic sensibility and a similar degree of emotional and intellectual engagement with politics, but our specific reactions to the stories and readings we cover diverge sufficiently to make for a dynamic listening experience. adjusts top hat
FELIX: You can hear why it works in the second episode; all three of us have vastly different experiences in life, so that causes our similar senses of humor and politics to meld in a way that’s fun to hear, but not so in lock step that you’re hearing three iterations of the same voice.
JASON: How would you describe your format? Can you walk us through the process of putting together a show: basically, how you plan it, how much of the discussion you plan, individually and as a group?
MATT: There’s a pasta, and then a meat or a fish. Paulie does the prep work. He’s got this great system for doing the garlic where he slices it so thin that it liquefies in the pan with a little bit of oil. It’s a very good system.
FELIX: Will does most of the planning. I have always been really bad at any type of planning and have just stopped trying to do it at all. We’ll talk with Will about what the show should be about that week, put it in a doc, and look it over, but stuff like the readings is almost always Will. But we really don’t plan what we’re going to actually say, beyond some of the cold opens that we write. It’s really fun to talk with Matt and Will and we’ve cumulatively done so many hours of it that we know how it’s going to work, so we’re quite free form in execution.
MATT: We usually do a cold open, which is usually written ahead of time by one of us if we have a specific idea (like my RNC Juggalo intro or Will’s Woke Zoo Crew stuff), then an interview if we have one that week, and then we react to specific things that happened or were written during the week. We all contribute ideas over DM during the course of the week, but Will is the showrunner in the sense that he keeps track of what we’ve all suggested as well as ordering the material for the show and leading us through the discussion during it.
WILL: I keep a running tab throughout the week of news items or stories that I think are funny and would be good to talk about on the show and we also have a loose schedule of people who we’d like to have on for a given subject. The “cold opens” we do are usually something we’ve thought of beforehand and done a little bit of writing for, people love those, but I think most of our funniest material and a lot of what people enjoy about the podcast or talk radio format is the chemistry between us talking our interviewing a guest, and the spontaneity, where we are reacting to something that’s funny as it happens, much like a listener would. However, I view my role as facilitating that loose improvisational quality that allows for digressions and the unexpected by imposing a loose blueprint our foundation for each show. If we impose a little bit of structure then I find we have a much greater level of freedom to riff when we’re recording.
BRENDAN: After Will, Matt and Felix have recorded, I download their audio tracks and go through the whole tape to trim the fat and add songs and audio of anything they reference.
I try my best to let the music and clips to serve as a fourth character on the show. Sometimes the guys have really specific requests, like the cold open sketches, or when Will recently wanted to recreate the Blade Runner “Tears in the Rain” monologue as a dejected and broken Ross Douthat. I look up the music and tweak their voices to enhance those jokes. Other times I get to play around on my own. I’ll throw in callbacks to past shows and try to develop a theme that gives each episode its own flavor.
JASON: The idea of slaughtering “sacred cows,” and generally being Jared Leto’s Joker has been a goal for wannabe-edgelords since Bart looked at Mad Magazine’s Lighter Side of Hippies and declared “They don’t care whose toes they step on!” Why are so many people bad at being cleverly irreverent, much less genuinely irreverent? And how have you done it so well, you saucy wags?
WILL: Very carefully… This is actually true, I think it works because we’re self-aware about how awful people who self-describe as “having a dark, twisted sense of humor” really are. Obviously, we do have a dark sense of humor, and if one is going to address American politics in the 21st century, I don’t see how you avoid this, but one thing I’ve always wanted to avoid was getting pegged as the “the guys who say what assholes are thinking!”
FELIX: If you seek out to appear as irreverent, I think that you’re very consciously looking for the line so you can shout “everyone look at me!” before you daintily step over it. If you generally don’t pay attention to that sort of thing and just talk as you would with you friends, but with special attention paid to your discussion being listenable, it shows.
MATT: I think the big difference between boring edgelords and us is that we actually give a shit. So much of the online edginess is so transparently contrived for attention. Just look at Milo Yabbabababpolus. He wouldn’t piss on his legion of dullard virgin worshipers if they were on fire, but he knows exactly what buttons to push to guarantee an outraged response from the dang PC libs and an orgasmic one from his sad gamer fanbase. Our hate, as Alexander Cockburn said, is pure.
FELIX: Most people who fail at shocking humor do so because they’re like a kid going on the high dive, shouting at his friends that he’s going to do it, he’s going to jump off and land the dive. They spend so much time psyching themselves out and trying to concoct the most insanely twisted joke that they’ve forgotten why they’re even doing it. It’s something that if you seek out, you’ll forget the very reason you wanted to do it.
JASON: You mentioned re-establishing the consistent presence of the “Dirtbag left.” Please explain.
WILL: If you sleep on a mattress on the floor and fuck in a sleeping bag, then you just might be the dirtbag left! If you’re the only dude at a function not wearing a pocket square in a linen blazer and adulting like a boss, then you’re in the dirtbag left!
MATT: If you are bearded and have no headboard, you are the Dirtbag Left. The Dirtbag Left is anyone who isn’t afraid to lose their job by insulting careerist hacks or to offend the sensibilities of “leftist” language police whose only goal is sabotaging social solidarity in order to maintain their brands as arbiters of good taste and acceptable speech.
WILL: I think “The Dirtbag Left” is a nice way of describing a kind of scurrilous and funny approach to left-wing politics that is in marked contrast to the utterly humorless and bloodless path that leads many people with liberal or leftist proclivities into the trap of living in constant fear of offending some group that you’re not a part of, up to and including the ruling class. It is a disdain for career ambition and a neutered and self-referential, academic discourse that alienates anyone whose heart doesn’t pump Kool-Aid. The Dirtbag Left stands athwart both Lanyard-Liberalism and Woke Leftists and yells “Cum.”
FELIX: There is a very large group of people that’s amenable to ideas like socialized medicine, less foreign intervention, and other things we’ve long been told don’t have popular support. There’s certainly more people into those ideas than concepts like balanced budgets and Social Security means testing. However, left media has been the dominion of either upper middle class smugness when it’s even the least bit funny and insufferable self-righteousness when it’s even the least bit conscious. The Dirtbag Left is for people that don’t think we should reign fire down on Yemeni children, but neither wish to lecture or to act smugly just because they hold these beliefs. It’s for people that see politics as more than just a linguistic group. For too long, they’ve been told that they can’t support both a strong welfare state and laugh at smegma jokes. Now they get to say, “why the fuck not?”
JASON: Have you been contacted by either the Turkish Deep State and/or El Chapo? How do you feel about being probably marked for death?
MATT: Things are little hectic in Turkey, so I haven’t heard anything from them, but I do have an offer on the table to join the team at The Zetas Fun Hour podcast. We’ll see how things go in the next round of contract negotiations with Will and Felix.
WILL: A man who values his life dies a dog’s death.
FELIX: A coward dies 1,000 deaths. A real podcaster dies but once.
BRENDAN: All I’ll say here is I still laugh audibly when someone wants to look the show up and asks me what it’s called.
JASON: Are there any pundits or politicians that you genuinely think are trolling?
WILL: Eli Lake and people like him. They have utter contempt for the world in general and their readers specifically and genuinely don’t give a fuck what comes out their mouths as long as they get paid.
MATT: Trump is a classic troll. He has no real beliefs. He’s running for his ego. And he knows exactly what to say to garner an outraged response from the mainstream media that serves as further proof to his supporters that he’s on their side.
FELIX: I think Matt Yglesias often concocts the most irritating possible thing he could say at a given moment, usually a bunch of people dying in a country that isn’t European enough to offend his readers. He genuinely believes weird, stupid things, but he also relishes in irritating his critics.
JASON: You’ve read some pretty horrific pieces of writing during your show: Dennis Prager’s comes to mind. What’s the worst piece of political writing you’ve read so far — is there any thought piece so objectively, existentially godawful you can’t bring yourself to read it on the show?
WILL: The Dennis Prager “women owe me sex” was the single most disgusting thing we’ve ever read on the show. My favorite is still the classic Ross Douthat/William F. Buckley sailboat story though. The only things I’ve chosen not to read on the show were some awful pro-Hillary stuff that was both not very funny and by nobodies so I didn’t think it was worthwhile.
MATT: The Prager thing is pretty awful, but as far as something too bad to read on the show I immediately think of the Atlantic piece “How American Politics Went Insane” by Jonathan Rauch. For someone to observe the manifest, generation-long failure of the American political and economic elite to address the basic needs of their citizens result in a collapse of public confidence in those elites and decide that the problem lies with the citizens! I doubt we’d be able to wring any laughs out of it. I imagine we’d just all start yelling at Rauch as if he were in the room.
FELIX: I am going to have to agree with you and Will and say Prager’s marital rape guide was outright horrifying to read.
BRENDAN: Rod Dreher’s material has been the most hateful, Dennis Prager’s the most depraved, and Ross Douthat’s the most life-enriching.
(RHODE Note: Matt is correct. Rauch’s essay is the worst think-piece since Mein Kampf.)
SHANE: The question requires a bit of a ramble—I came to the podcast (and stay with it) for how funny and smart it is, but beneath that it holds a lot of value to me as a sort of blueprint for how to carry a progressive argument forward in the face of the massive amounts of clever bullshit the rest of the “left” uses to muddy the waters. It’s so easy to be on the defensive, or even apologetic, when confronted by liberals who try to reduce arguments to social issues, or neoliberals who sort of smirk and hide behind experience or pragmatism, and their tactics can be pretty effective.
But to me, you guys cut through it all and manage to expose the distractions for what they are without getting caught in the usual traps, and to present the progressive ideology as robust and even hardened by cynicism. And I think as a guidepost, that’s an incredible service to provide for a political movement that’s still finding its voice and can’t afford to be seen as weak or naive.
So, the question—beyond the entertainment and the smart analysis, would you say that’s an intentional goal of the podcast? And if what I wrote makes any sense, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the importance of how progressives get their message across, what that should look like, and especially how it all plays into what Chapo is doing now.
MATT: You’ve hit on exactly what most drives me every time we record. I spend the week watching the grinding awfulness of the political discourse play out, seeing crimes great and small get immediately smothered in an obfuscatory avalanche of sanctimony, linguistic gymnastics and prevarication, and by the end of it my main goal on the podcast is to just point out, as lucidly and (ideally) humorously as I can, what the hell is actually going on.
Too many people in whatever the hell the progressive movement is are primarily interested in maintaining a brand or position within it. That explains both the smug neoliberalism of so many media figures and members of the Democratic policy apparatus, but it also explains the people who insist on turning every issue and dispute into a language game in which they are the ones who hold the rule book. If the Left is going to capitalize on the momentum of the Sanders campaign and the broader turn among young people away from the failure of late capitalism, it’s going to require people to speak without fear. Not fear of the PC Police or any other right-wing boogeyman, but fear of being misconstrued. That’s going to happen. Language is a prison. But if you really care, and you really want a better, more equitable world for all, you should take your strength from that desire and speak.
FELIX: I can only speak for what the goals I like to see fulfilled, but chief among those is that it just makes people’s days easier. I got a lot of messages about the show, and the most common thing is either “I thought I was the only person who felt this way, thank you for saying all this shit,” or “this keeps me from intentionally smashing my car into a divider on the way to work.”
For something we started because we thought it would just be a fun thing we did that maybe 200 people tuned into, that means a lot.
When I lived in Minnesota for school, I felt horribly isolated and lonely all the time, and listening to stuff like the Street Fight and Desus Vs. Mero kept me from wanting to be struck down by a sniper’s bullet while walking to my shitty job at the bar or trudging to class when it was -20 outside. The idea of us having any kind of effect as far as the messaging of the left is difficult for me to process, because I am still trying to process the enormity of this making so many people’s worst moments bearable.
Making people feel that they’re not as alone as they thought they were is a big thing, too. Believing certain things, be they about the brutality of our foreign policy or inefficacy of liberalism’s current form, can be very isolating. Maybe it isn’t politics. Maybe it’s just being such a strange person that you want to get deeply immersed in ironically cosplaying as a Turkish deep state operative, or read The Federalist for laughs. Whatever it is, we’ve tuned into a lot of people who share our sensibility and felt singular and dislocated in their beliefs and sensibilities, and now realize they’re far from the only ones. That’s pretty cool, too.
WILL: I co-sign everything Matt and Felix have said, but would only add that for me personally, my only real goal is make the kind of show that I would want to listen to. I don’t consider myself a journalist or an activist. I want each show to be funny and entertaining to my friends and if you treat your broader audience with the same respect, I think people feel that. I have no illusions about changing the world, but it is heartening to hear from people in person or online who say that our show got them into politics or changed their perspective on something. Just to underscore what Felix said, to me the best compliment we can get is when someone says, “I really look forward to getting a new episode on Monday, it really helps get me through the week, it makes my job and/or commute easier.” That’s really gratifying to hear because I know exactly what that feels like.
JASON: It seems to me that a lot of the manufacturing of consent in modern journalism is created by questions which have loaded, unargued premises. That said: How does it feel to be America’s sweethearts, guys?
WILL: America is our pay pig.
MATT: Pretty, pretty good.
Chapo Trap House (@CHAPOTRAPHOUSE) is available here.