There's something surreal about sitting in a rock venue packed with fans eagerly waiting for a group of five friends to start roasting political pundits. And yet, in Trump's Washington, the leftist political comedy podcast Chapo Trap House came onstage at the 9:30 Club to hoots and hollers and left to a standing ovation.
The podcast — in D.C. on Wednesday to support their new book, The Chapo Guide to Revolution — performed to a raucous crowd that was about 25 percent Georgetown bar and 75 percent Adams Morgan bar. More facial hair and fewer chinos than you'd find at, say, a Pod Save America show.
If going to the 9:30 Club to see a podcast was weird, it got weirder once the hosts got on stage. The words commonly used to describe Chapo — "irreverent," "vulgar" — are insufficient to explain how different the show is from the political comedy of The Daily Show or SNL.
Early in the show, in a segment about the milquetoast musical comedy troupe Capitol Steps, host Felix Biederman mumbled a song about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the tune of Chief Keef's "Love Sosa." Later, Matt Christman performed an impression of the Marxist intellectual Slavoj Žižek selling reverse mortgages. To wrap up a segment on D.C. punditry, the hosts read CNN commentator Ana Navarro's many tweets featuring the words "epic" or "bacon."
My favorite part of last night’s DC show was the sustained minutelong ovation at the mention of John McCain’s death ❤️
— Virgil Texas (@virgiltexas) September 7, 2018
Part of Chapo's charm is slowly understanding its massive web of inside jokes and frequent cultural references. And for all the times I've found a comment on the show to be gross or cruel, Chapo remains the only political comedy that still makes me laugh.
You guys really want people to buy the book. Do you think there's a political value to the book being a New York Times bestseller, or does it just help people feel less shitty about the world?
MC: Well, it makes bad people feel worse!
FB: Yeah, that's pretty cool!
WM: I'd say that's the political value of the book.
You guys have shit on the Pod Save America guys for having really intense self-regard for the role a podcast can have in the world.
VT: You want to talk about ridiculous self-regard, it's right there in [Pod Save America host] Dan Pfeiffer's book, where he says, "We need a million more Crooked Medias. We need more podcasting*."
MC: "You need to have all your facts in order so you can win Facebook arguments with your uncle."
AF: They think media is the motor of politics, and that's a real problem.
VT: So much of the criticism of our book was, "OK, you do a good job of describing of how we got here and what the current state of affairs is, but you don't give us a blueprint for how to get out of it." Well, if you want a huckster who's going to sell you some bullshit "Fix Your Country Quick" scheme, read the Dan Pfeiffer book! "@Jack and complain about the trolls. Start a fucking podcast." We're not selling easy solutions because — guess what — no one has them.
WM: We agreed on that title for the book thinking this is a joke, like, "How could anyone think a podcast could start a revolution or give you a blueprint for how to overthrow the U.S. government?" But, surprise, surprise, a lot of people took it really literally.
MC: The only thing people can do is post — and consume things. And so they get very, very anxious about what they're consuming, because it basically determines whether they're a good person or not. So every consumption choice has become super fraught with this anxious, neurotic self-criticism — is this the right thing to watch? Is this the right thing to read? Is this the right thing to post? And it cripples people's ability to see something on its own merits and enjoy it or not enjoy it.
Why do you think people imbue so much political meaning into their consumption choices?
WM: For liberals, at least, I think it's because the standard order of things that they've come to take for granted, especially with Obama and the White House in particular — they took it for granted and now it's gone. And they lost. The right wing controls all three branches of our government, and nobody knows what to do about it. There are no real solutions to get us out of this mess, and because of that, people are retreating more into themselves and more into entertainment as a contested space for political contest, because they've lost the actual political contest.
When I listen to the podcast, a lot of what I regularly feel are anger and rage. When do you think anger and rage is politically useful, and when do you think it's destructive or counterproductive?
AF: It really is just about action. If you do the right thing, if you do it when you're angry or if you do it with a cool head — it doesn't matter, the result is the same. The big thing is, I think people should have a healthy emotional response to things, which includes having a sense of humor, which includes being angry sometimes, and also letting things go. But that's, like, maintenance. That's how you take care of yourself. The idea that we're trying to prescribe the appropriate emotional response to things is kind of silly.
WM: But I am angry at the assholes who run this country and the world, and anger is an appropriate response at times. As Johnny Rotten said, "Anger is an energy." And I strive to keep my hate pure, like a diamond.
And what about nihilism? Because a lot of the criticism of Chapo is that that it just spirals into nihilism and hopelessness.
AF: I'm a Marxist. You can't be a Marxist and a nihilist at the same time.
MC: And more than anything, we, I think, have a pretty consistent, articulate prescription for an alternative that, in our opinions, is the only thing that's going to prevent us from descending into absolute barbarism and horror. And that makes us the opposite of nihilists! Because people say, "No, just tinkering with this doomed machinery is all we can ever hope for until the seas rise to claim us." That's a fucking nihilist point of view.
VT: This criticism is always leveled by people who have never listened to the show. But to take seriously the proposition, we are not nihilists because we diagnose and we identity, frankly, who should be the enemies of all good and decent people. And quite a lot of the time, the people who would call us nihilists are those people! They're the people who prosper and profit under our current state of affairs.
About the current state of the left — do you worry that [Democratic Socialists of America]-endorsed people in electoral politics like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] don't talk enough about social ownership?
FB: American elected officials will comprehensively let you down every single time.
AF: I think it's unrealistic to assume that we're going to get ideal candidates because there's a renewed interest in anti-capitalism. And, I gotta say, good social democrats, they are capable of alleviating the suffering of the working class, which, once the boot is off their neck a little bit, they can theoretically become more active.
MC: I mean, I have reservations, but they're always in the context of knowing the fundamental fact about the left in America, that has to be the basis of your analysis, is how weak and unorganized and nascent it is. And the idea of, "Well, we don't have full communists in Congress yet" — how would you think that would happen in this country?
Just because all your friends on Twitter have hammers and sickles next to their name, that doesn't mean you have any kind of critical mass for a radical left movement in this country. It's not there yet, even if it looks like it is from the echo chambers of online. It's a hugely prolonged struggle that's in its very first stages, and so broadening the aperture of what's acceptable is really the only work happening right now because that's what's going to get more people involved. Because numbers are the name of the game, and right now, there aren't enough of them.
Have you guys been following the Maryland gubernatorial race with Ben Jealous at all?
FB: My opinion on Jealous is the same opinion as a lot of the Our Revolution candidates, which is that essentially a lot of them are just New Deal Democrats, or get the socialist branding —
AF: — I would kill for a New Deal Democrat.
FB: Yeah. You know, to get really nihilistic, being a New Deal Democrat would be incredibly more useful in 2008. That would have changed the course of this country in this very crucial matter. It's probably not enough now, but it would make things significantly better than any shitty Democrat.
[Jealous] might just eat shit, you know? For Obama, it's like he didn't even know there was a governor's race. He doesn't give a shit.
VT: I read that Hogan has a positive approval rating among a majority of likely Democratic voters.
FB: Well, you talk about these Raytheon Hills states. Maryland's part working class black and other part everyone who "did computers" for the CIA.
Chevy Chase Dems…
FB: When I say the East Coast should be wiped off the map…
VT: That is not the opinion shared by —
FB: The East Coast is an abomination.
I think most of the criticisms of you guys ends up being that you're being mean. Do you have informal heuristics as to who deserves to be torn apart, whether that's how powerful someone has to be or how evil someone has to be?
WM: Not so much this punching up, punching down dichotomy, but for the reading series aspect of the show, when I'm trying to find pieces for that, I'll come across something and I'm like, "Oh God, this is just begging to get torn apart," but then I think about it for a second, and I'm like, "The person who wrote this doesn't really believe in anything"…
Like Sonny Bunch.
WM: Yeah, I mentioned Sonny on the show, and I think he's a perfect example of that. I think for something to be funny, it has to have a certain amount of sincerity and a lack of self-awareness.
AF: I don't know, we talk about cynicism a lot…
MC: Well, you have to have an agenda other than just your personal brand.
WM: There has to be a nice combination of a lack of self-awareness, genuine pathology — not just sort of contrived trying to be as mean or edgy as possible. Even if what's coming across on face is a totally cynical way of looking at the world, I need something from the person who's writing it. The best comedy comes from an asshole who doesn't know what a fucking asshole they are. It's that lack of self-awareness, combined with a weird and bizarre way of looking at the world.
*Editor's note: While not verbatim, this off-the-cuff quote accurately reflects a sentiment in Pfeiffer's book. See 46:25 here.
Max Foley-Keene, opinion editor, is a junior government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.