Chris Shonting

Pop Culture

Laughter in the Dark: Chapo Trap House Doubles Down

The Brooklyn apartment that serves as home base for the political-satire podcast Chapo Trap House feels more like a dorm room than a recording studio. Graphic novels line the walls, attended by a drinking bird, and the coffee table is covered in mike cords, cups and rolling papers.

Around that table sit hosts Felix Biederman, Will Menaker, Matt Christman, Amber A’Lee Frost and Virgil Texas. Producer Chris Wade sprawls on a beanbag, searching for enough microphones to cover the co-hosts and a guest who has yet to arrive. The episode they’re about to tape will be beamed to 25,000 Grey Wolves, the show’s loyal listeners, named ironically and somewhat arcanely for a Turkish ultranationalist movement.

Recording hasn’t started, but the crew is already bantering about John McAfee, Prince and Eva Braun. It’s Earth Day and one of the first truly nice days of the year. There’s a fleeting mention of how beautiful it is outside. Everyone agrees, and then it’s back to examining Kanye’s most recent run of crazy tweets. When recording begins, there’s very little change in the tenor of the room.

In its purest form, podcasting is a casual conversation recorded for posterity, and few shows capture that magic in a bottle as well as Chapo Trap House. As Menaker puts it, “The social atomization that has been created by the current conditions means that we have now created a new type of artist—basically ‘professional friend.’” To the podcast’s following, which has only grown since the election, this friend moonlights as both therapist and, amid the laughs, sibling who calls you on your shit.
The show that began in March 2016 as an exchange between three Twitter friends—and that libertarian magazine Reason once called “a group therapy session for Bernie bros”—was founded for those among the left who feel their ideals aren’t addressed by either the political system or the mainstream media. It came together during a brief moment when it seemed Sanders might succeed in disrupting the DNC.

“There was basically no media saying to people who were backing Sanders in that primary, ‘You’re not crazy; this is all crazy,’ ” Christman says. “Every other piece of established media, even the most liberal stuff you could get in a mainstream context, was telling you that Bernie was crazy, his followers were a bunch of dumb-ass college students and harassing monsters, and Hillary was the progressive choice.”

Of course, things didn’t work out too well for either Democrat. As for Chapo, the night Trump won, the show’s hosts assumed it was done for. “We thought we’d be lost in the liberal blob that was going to be resistance to Trump,” says Brendan James, the show’s former producer. “We thought subscribers would just go stagnant and we’d get bored. Instead, subscriptions shot up after Trump won. And then after the inauguration they shot up again.”

Two years after its first episode, Chapo stands as one of the premier progressive podcasts, offering a jarringly funny alternative to mainstream political comedy. It regularly delves into such life-and-death topics as North Korea and America’s broken health care system, but rarely does it take itself too seriously—and when it does, there’s invariably a Simpsons reference or a Muppet-esque impression of a right-wing commentator just around the bend. In an age of social-media and cable-news overload, the show navigates political minutiae without feeling like social-studies homework. It’s a coping mechanism for a world gone mad.

Today, loyal Grey Wolves fund the show to the tune of around $99,000 a month on Patreon. In August, team Chapo will spawn its first book, The Chapo Guide to Revolution. A satirical take on A People’s History of the United States, the book skewers everything from fascist regimes to Aaron Sorkin. “It’s Howard Zinn meets Howard Stern,” Texas deadpans, sending the room into hysterics. (“Oh my God,” Christman says, “that gave me leukemia.”)

As this episode, “Comey the Clown,” kicks off, Texas launches into an over-the-top Bernie Sanders impression: “I want to thank the men for having me here today, thank the women for their reverent silence and thank the people of color for not being visible. Except for you, of course, [Cornel] West.” It’s irony folded into irony, and Texas’s co-hosts can’t contain their laughter.

“We’re actually pretty rarely educational, and usually only by accident,” says Frost. “Media people think they’re changing the world by writing their fucking Medium post about how Trump is bad. That takes real political mobilization, and we want to be very clear that’s not what we’re doing.”

The show’s hosts are modest to a fault in describing their mission, but at its best, Chapo is a biweekly reminder that there’s a world of progressive politics to the left of the Democratic Party—a world where labor unions are king and casting a vote means more than simply choosing between the lesser of two evils. At a time when late-night comedy is mostly content to focus on jabs at the commander-in-chief’s skin tone, Chapo’s long-form, freewheeling conversations attempt to make some sense of the utter insanity of contemporary politics. Over time it might even provide the pop-culture analog to the last Democratic presidential primary, which saw a deep-left candidate draw his decidedly more entrenched rival a few steps away from the center.
It’s Howard Zinn meets Howard Stern.
So how does Chapo stack up against that other, vastly more established font of political satire?
“After decades of The Daily Show, which at one point was really punchy and good but is now garbage, obviously you’re leaving so much out on the table that you’re only going to be left with hack jokes,” says Menaker. “People may not think we do it the best, but we’re trying to tap into a whole other sort of undervalued side of ways to make jokes.”

“If you can’t go further left than that,” Christman adds, “it’s you and 500 other shows trying to make the same four jokes, because that’s how much joke territory you’ve allowed yourself.”

Chapo has become a rallying point for loyal listeners who have felt disenfranchised and downright terrified by the two-party system and the rise of Trumpism. But among the show’s rapid-fire references and heaps of sarcasm, there’s a genuine sense that all is not lost. Dare we call it hope?

“Obviously it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the United States in a kind of broad, giant sense,” says Menaker. “But I’m constantly made to feel hopeful by people who say, ‘I thought I was crazy until I listened to you.’”

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