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The Radical Cheek of 'Chapo Trap House'

Inside the strangest, silliest, most principled podcast you probably haven't heard of yet.
Left to right: Matt Christman, Felix Biederman and Will Menaker of Chapo Trap House.

Left to right: Matt Christman, Felix Biederman and Will Menaker of Chapo Trap House.

It’s late afternoon on a Sunday, and I’m sitting among four bearded leftists. We’re in Will Menaker’s narrow, book-lined apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The four men of Chapo Trap House are all here: Will, Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, and Brendan James. They’re recording a podcast episode called “A Problem From Heck,” focused on the peace resolution that voters in Colombia recently rejected. Yesterday, they recorded an interview about the issue with human rights journalist Chase Madar. Right now, they’re trading jokes about Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” video, which has just come out.

“You know, sometimes when you’re a well-known podcaster, you can just walk up to a woman and you can amplify her voice,” Matt says. “You don’t even have to ask.”

He’s hunched forward in a chair wearing black shorts, a black T-shirt, old athletic socks, and Clubmaster-style eyeglasses. His blond hair is rumpled. He’s just flown in from Cincinnati, where he lives with his wife. He normally manages this geographical disparity via Google Hangout, recording the audio separately and having Brendan mix it in during post-production. But today he’s couchsurfing in New York ahead of a live performance of the show at the comedy club Caroline’s on Broadway.

The simplest way to describe Chapo Trap House is that it is a podcast. Its guests have included Princeton University historian Matt Karp (who discussed slavery and American foreign policy), New York Times sports journalist Greg Howard (who talked about Colin Kaepernick and the history of sports protest), and investigative journalist Maria Hengveld (who looked at exploitation of women in Nike’s sweatshops under the company’s “Girl Effect” initiative).

The show also turns a profit. There are two Chapo shows released per week: one free for public consumption on SoundCloud, another available only to people who pay $5 per month through the Chapo Trap House Patreon. Nearly 4,000 people currently do this (including me), netting the show $17,328 a month from subscriptions alone. The show is the 69th most popular News & Politics podcast in iTunes, beating both Katie Couric’s interview show and the podcast version of NPR’s Morning Edition. For any podcast — let alone a self-produced one — statistics like this are truly impressive.

Chapo Trap House is perhaps the most concentrated manifestation of a sensibility that has emerged this election season on the left of the American political spectrum: an eloquent (if often crude) anger that has no patience for milquetoast old-guard liberalism. To the untrained eye, the word “leftist” might seem like a synonym for “liberal,” but, in fact, leftists, like the men behind Chapo Trap House, usually orient themselves in oppositionto liberalism. American liberalism, in this account, is a failed attempt to appropriate identitarian language and concerns in order to dodge structural questions about the redistribution of resources (the inequity of which, of course, disproportionately affects marginalized groups). This sensibility is perhaps most visible on Twitter, where liberal pundits like Jonathan Chait and policymakers like Neera Tanden have found themselves assailed with storms of angry, often rude, sometimes funny tweets.

In addition to being a politics podcast, Chapo Trap House is also a comedy show. Though politics podcasts often incorporate humor, the type of humor on Chapo — obscure jokes about Turkish politics; mockery of charter-school proponents who are overly fond of the broadway musical Hamilton; inquiries into the psychosexual pathologies of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat — is almost certainly absent from, say, the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast.

Initially, the show’s humor can be somewhat impenetrable, relying largely on an elaborate web of references, inside jokes, meta-jokes, and recurring characters. Most of these characters are fictionalized versions of real-life personalities: Democratic Party activist Peter Daou, conservative blogger The Baseball Crank, Turkish opposition leader Fethullah Gülen, the late William F. Buckley.

But listen to an episode or two, and you begin to pick up on the jokes and the references. You become familiar with the characters and their backstories. If you’ve ever wondered why, say, the United States is the only developed country without universal health care, you start to feel as if you’re sharing your political exasperation with friends. Perhaps this sense of camaraderie inspires you to subscribe to the Chapo Trap House Patreon page for $5 a month. You are now a “Grey Wolf” — a moniker that is itself an inside joke referring to the Turkish deep state.

In the world of Chapo, jokes segue quickly into genuine opinion, and vice versa. Will, relaxing on his couch in moccasin slippers and a black sweatshirt with a wolf on it, starts to riff on the Trump video. “The thing I hate about it is it gives all these assholes an excuse to be like, ‘No, no more, this is beneath the dignity of the White House,’” he says. “Well what the fuck did you think this guy was about before?”

“It’s been like a merry-go-round of hilarious reactions to this,” he continues. “The first and most nauseating are people like Condoleezza Rice — who personally oversaw the torture of POWs — being like, ‘No, I cannot countenance this.’”

“Another thing did happen this weekend,” Felix says. He looks as if he has just come from the gym, in grey sweatpants, a black T-shirt, and athletic socks with holes in them, with a White Sox cap pulled down over his curly black hair. “Not as big as the Access Hollywood tape, or anything else, but the Saudi Coalition to Restore Democracy to Yemen did hit a triple-tap airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, meaning that they hit one target, hit the clean-up for the target, and then hit the mass funeral, killing probably an excess of 500, with planes that we sold them, and we refueled them.”

“That shit’s boring!” Will says. “Let’s talk about Trump again.”

The three hosts — Will, Felix, and Matt — met on Twitter. The genesis of the show was the trio’s one-off guest appearance on the podcast Street Fight Radio, in which they mocked 13 Hours, Michael Bay’s action movie about Benghazi. In the wake of that episode’s success, they started their own podcast, calling it Chapo Trap House in the hopes that it would sound like a mixtape. The audio for the first episode was recorded on YouTube. Later, they linked up with Brendan, who brought in professional recording equipment.

Recently, Chapo has transformed itself into a live-comedy venture. They have played sold-out shows at the Genius headquarters in Gowanus and Caroline’s on Broadway in Times Square. There are also a number of satellites in Chapo’s orbit. There’s Carl Diggler, the satirical pundit created by Felix and Virgil Texas (a frequent Chapo guest). There’s Frost/Christman, a spinoff podcast in which Matt and the writer Amber A’Lee Frost analyze movies. Will tells me he hopes to expand the Chapo project into a multimedia website featuring podcasts, blogs, and videos.

“What the basis of their comedy or their analysis is, is not just that people suck, and that the media and politics is gross, but that it doesn’t have to be this way,” Brendan says of his collaborators. “If it was just, ‘Well, this is how it is, let’s just go down laughing,’ then they would just be The Daily Show.” Brendan is the only one who looks like he’d be welcome in any kind of traditional office setting. (Today he’s wearing a slim button-down shirt and a pair of wool slacks.) In addition to being the producer for Chapo, he is an investigative journalist who works for Vice, among other places.

“What we hear from listeners is that they’re turned on about reading and laughing but also investing time and getting involved in political thought, action, whatever, in a way that stuff like Comedy Central or Andy Borowitz just does not give them,” he says over soppressata pizza.

The vulgarity and absurdity of Chapo Trap House belies a sophisticated political outlook. Unlike The Daily Show, Chapo does more than smugly mock Fox News and the Republican Party. Contemporary conservatism is the butt of many jokes on Chapo, but the harshest critiques are often saved for the Democratic Party (and for contemporary liberalism more generally). Chapo has managed to strip away the layers standard of political discourse to highlight the brutality behind policies like triple-tap airstrikes and for-profit health care.

I ask Felix how he got into politics and history, and what books were important to him. Growing up, he tells me, he read obsessively — first about Napoleon, then about Ottoman history, then about Saudi Arabian history. He describes Richard Wright’s Native Son as “one of the best American books ever.”

“Richard Wright was so ahead of his time, as far as the way he crafted the narrative, the way he wrote the book,” he says. “It also dispels a lot of your illusions growing up as a white liberal in Chicago. It puts race in America and in Chicago in very unavoidable, uncomfortable terms.”

His other favorite book is Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate.

“I read all of Robert Caro’s [Lyndon B.] Johnson books, but that was my favorite one. It doesn’t flinch from showing you what a piece of shit Johnson is. You lose a lot of your illusions about the Senate as this great deliberative, necessary body, and you see it for what it is, which is this aristocratic anachronism that retards the necessary processes.”

Matt tells me that he considers Karl Marx’s essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” and the first volume of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy to be essential reading. “Brumaire analyzes dynamics within capital in a really sophisticated and subtle way,” he says. Marxism, he tells me, is “thought of as doctrinaire. And a lot of people want it to be that way. Knowing XYZ to every power of every doctrinaire point is much less important than having a heuristic for analyzing things. Shit like superstructure and base.”

In Marxist theory, base is the political economic structure on which everything rests. It is, essentially, the distribution of power and resources, of money and land, and, most importantly, the system by which goods and services are produced for money. Superstructure is the culture that exists on top of it — art, music, politics, philosophy, media, science, religion.

“Every time there’s a fucking Beyoncé argument that consumes the culture, just knowing what base and superstructure is simplifies things so much in terms of understanding what’s going on and not getting caught up in an argument about how revolutionary Lemonade is or whatever,” he says.

This type of sneering comment — whether deployed toward Beyoncé, toward other liberal cultural pastimes like Hamilton or the oeuvre of Aaron Sorkin, or toward specific pundits, policymakers, or Twitter users — has led to the show’s reputation, in some circles, as a rowdy brofest. This is likely not helped by the fact that all three hosts are straight white men who frequently talk over each other, make jokes about genitalia, and use a Gucci Mane song for their theme music.

Their reputation seems related, too, to the three hosts’ behavior online. An example: In April, when Washington Post journalist Dave Weigel tweeted, “Sanders will literally never be hit by a GOP attack; supporters will claim, forever, he was more electable than Hillary,” Felix replied: “You have a perfect smooth brain. How do you remember to breathe.”

“These guys seem like huge bullies,” one editor told me when I pitched this piece.

Another editor — Reason magazine’s Robby Soave — once describedChapo Trap House (where he once appeared as a guest) as “a group-therapy session for Bernie bros.”

Whether you think Chapo Trap House and its fans are bullies or righteously hilarious seems to come down to whether you think calling a Washington Post reporter “smooth brain” is an acceptable move within the political discourse.

“For people who can’t get it because it’s too dudely, I get it,” Matt says. “I don’t have a problem with that, and I totally can understand it. But people who want to use that to delegitimize what we’re saying, that’s different.”

“[We’re] not apolitical or amoral ironists,” Brendan says; rather, the podcast’s irony “come[s] from a sincere place — there is a point of view.”

“The Grey Wolf stuff, the Erdogan stuff, that’s irony,” Matt specifies.

Matt grew up middle-class in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a declining rust belt town most famous for serving as the setting of the documentary Making a Murderer. He attended Carroll College, a small liberal arts school in the state. Later in Milwaukee he met his wife, who was finishing graduate school there. After she graduated, he followed her to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she got a job as an academic librarian. But he couldn’t manage to find a job of his own.

“I was like, ‘she’ll do that and I’ll do something,’” he says. “But I never fucking figured out what that was going to be.” He moved with her again: to New York City, Spokane, Cincinnati. “I had come to terms with the idea that I was basically unemployable and I was never going to have a job again. I was just going to be like a failguy.”

He developed a modest following on Twitter, tweeting absurd one-liners like, “I wear a Guy Fawkes mask to Arby’s and feed roast beef sandwiches slice-by-slice into the mouth slit” or “*Communist Clippie pops up* It looks like you’re complaining about appropriation. Do you mean commodification?”

“I basically took a lot of frustration and confusion and dumped it all online,” he says.

“I fuckin’ hated Hyde Park,” Felix says of the Chicago neighborhood where he grew up. “It’s a very stratified, snobbish area. It’s a lot of well-meaning liberal people that live in this city that is operated by criminals in the Democratic Party who know what should be done to ameliorate the horrors that they see all around them but don’t personally affect them. This is a city born in segregation and inequality and racist policing and murderous extralegal executions.”

After graduating high school, he drifted around. He worked in the gym at the University of Chicago, went to the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, graduated. He came to New York, where he planned to work for a waste management company, but the job fell through.

“I didn’t know how to like, fuckin’ get internships or anything like that,” he says. “I was just like, bad at feigning interest or doing shit I was supposed to do in school. I fuckin’ hated school anyway. I was fuckin’ bad at it. I’ve always been bad at that shit.”

Will grew up in a liberal family on the Upper West Side. His mother, Katherine Bouton, was an editor at the New York Times, while his father, Daniel Menaker, was an editor at The New Yorker who later worked in publishing. “We watched the West Wing together,” Will says. “I know, it’s embarrassing.”

He went on to attend Skidmore College, which is, coincidentally, the alma mater of Brendan James, though the two weren’t there at the same time.

It was the Iraq War that turned him against liberalism and toward the left. “That was the formative moment for me,” he says. “Being a liberal Democrat obviously wasn’t enough. Most of them all signed on to the same fucking disaster. All of the major media institutions and people, they all wanted to be part of it and they all wanted to seem ‘serious’ by supporting it and the war on terrorism.”

Earlier this year, after Chapo Trap House began to take off financially, Will quit his job as an assistant editor at an imprint of W.W. Norton. “If you have ambition in your life to do something other than something you would get paid for, then I think you would be amenable to left-wing politics,” he says.

“Because jobs suck and work sucks,” Matt says.

“It’s about creating a space of freedom for people in their lives that is independent of the marketplace,” Will says. “If I were to create a political party, it would be the Three-Day Weekend Party. The only political goal is to make either Friday or Monday part of the weekend, and just have a four-day workweek forever.”

“That sounds funny,” Matt adds. “But the founding of the modern American labor movement was over the eight-hour workday. And they won that, and we stuck at it over 100 years. We haven’t had 100 years worth of improved efficiency and productivity? That’s what they could get in 1920. We have the fucking lucre. We could make it so that people had to work less. And we’re gonna have to because automation is going to destroy entire sectors of the workforce in the next 10 years! Constant growth is just an insane system that no one questions.”

“We have to mine the planet to its death for them to keep doing this or it all goes to hell for some reason,” Felix says.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Chapo Trap House is that the guys say they’ve convinced at least some of their fans to mobilize politically. It is a kind of entertainment in which humor, information, and political action exist as one.

“If anyone tells us that the show helped them get through their day, then that’s better than anything we thought we would accomplish in our professional lives,” Felix says. “If somebody says — like they said the other day — that they went to see [former diplomat] Dennis Ross speak at their school and questioned him about the Saudi regime execution of Nimr al-Nimr, than that’s better than anything I ever thought I could do in my life.”