The Dirtbag Left at Harvard: An Interview with Chapo Trap House
Note: This interview was originally supposed to appear in The Harvard Crimson following Chapo Trap House’s live show at Harvard on April 14. My editors cited my own use of phrases such as “a campus as capitalist as Harvard” as evidence that I was advocating for a particular viewpoint on behalf of the paper, rather than, you know, stating a well-documented fact — and that was somehow reason to delay its release for two weeks, ignore my emails, and then decide not to publish it. But they made one crucial mistake — only God can keep me from posting.
Who’s the most evil person Harvard has ever produced? This past Friday, the hosts of the leftist comedy podcast Chapo Trap House held a tournament in the Science Center to find out. The winner? Henry A. Kissinger, Class of 1950. His prize? Being pushed out of an airplane into an active volcano. T̶h̶e̶ ̶H̶a̶r̶v̶a̶r̶d̶ ̶C̶r̶i̶m̶s̶o̶n̶ I caught up with the whole crew minus Amber A’Lee Frost — hosts Will Menaker, Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, and Virgil Texas, and producer Brendan James — to talk about the Ivy League, the rising tide of leftist outrage, and the eternal wisdom of Eminem.
What did you think of Harvard’s campus?
Will Menaker: I licked John Harvard’s feet because that’s what I’m into.
Virgil Texas: Mediocre. I’ve seen three other Ivy campuses and they all blew Harvard Yard out of the park.
Felix Biederman: When I was walking around, I was like, all this stuff is very nice, you can get very good Vietnamese iced coffee, the buildings look cool and interesting, but also, oh, this is what it’s like when billionaires use you as a tax shelter.
Matt Christman: Every one of those buildings, those weird little cottages, they’re doing weird shit in there they don’t want anyone else to know about. Even if it’s fucking ping pong, there has to be an air of mystery.
Brendan James: Comet Ping-Pong.
How have y’all liked Boston so far?
WM: I’m almost disappointed in how nice it’s been. We’ve talked so much shit about Boston in the past, but honestly, it’s nice. I’m enjoying myself.
VT: You all are very serious about Easter here.
BJ: Last night after we left the show, we went to three different bars around Harvard Square, and every time we tried to get into one there was a gaggle of giggling dipshits with bunny ears on. It was like Eyes Wide Shut.
WM: There was one guy who had the full Donnie Darko Frank costume.
BJ: There was? Dear God.
FB: Every club at Harvard is Pizzagate.
In Friday’s show, and on the podcast in general, the main people you target are politicians and pundits who advocate for neoliberal positions. Could you offer your definition of neoliberalism?
MC: Neoliberalism was the ideology that arose in the ’70s that saw government as no longer something that would exist to control the economy, or shape it, or have it do things on behalf of a social order, but a thing to help markets do what they were gonna do. That’s what governments exist to do — to allow markets to flourish. The idea is that in doing so the market will provide for people’s needs. But that’s just, like, a happy accident. It’s not a necessary component of it. A necessary component of it is that the market must be allowed to fulfill its historical destiny.
WM: I think it’s the idea that the markets are a medium of democratic consent and governance.
MC: And government only really exists to facilitate it. The traditional classical liberals would say something like, you must not interfere with the economy. You could do it, but you shouldn’t, ’cause it’s bad. But I think the neoliberal idea is, you can’t interfere with the economy. Like, it’s not possible, it’s a thing outside of human control. All we can do is basically sacrifice in its name.
BJ: I think one last component that’s important is that all of this is compatible with relative progressivism on social issues, in that a lot of time these things are presented by warm and friendly faces, and people speaking as progressive. Because they’re pro-gay rights, they are ostensibly pro-women’s rights, and things like that. Which is good, but not good enough, and lets them get away with all other types of horrible theft and corruption and sabotage of the social order, as Matt said.
How do you see Harvard and institutions like it as implicated in neoliberalism?
MC: I mean, the entire Ivy League exists as a perpetuator of privilege, obviously, but also as a perpetuator of the fantasy of meritocracy, which is what justifies the privilege. All of these kids who are so brilliant just happened to be children of people who are in a similar social situation, but they went to Harvard — like Jared Kushner, for example! He’s not just some dickhead son, he’s a dickhead son who went to Harvard. For three million dollars. It’s basically laundering privilege.
WM: Even stronger than privilege, I would say that it’s a means by which the ruling class replicates itself and its own ideology, in a way that seems necessary, and sensible, and defines the limits of what is considered those things. One of the things that was interesting creating these brackets [for the live show] was how we kept coming back to things. We started with Kissinger and his role in prolonging the Vietnam war, and the secret bombings of Laos and Cambodia. Then you get to people like Niall Ferguson and Samantha Power a generation later who come back to reify all of the awful shit these people have done before. If you’re Samantha Power and you take seriously the problem of genocide and human rights violations in geopolitics, and you think it’s the role of the United States to fight that, to make the world a better place — why are you being photographed with Henry Kissinger? Why are you smiling with him? Why is your kid in a photograph with him? Doesn’t that make you sick?
VT: You’re buying what the name Harvard connotes. You’re not actually getting a greater education than at any comparable place. It means you get to consort with wealthy people. You have access to capital. You can be a failed businessman for the rest of your life.
WM: And it’s not just Harvard. This applies to elite institutions that are not Ivy League schools. I don’t mean to make this only a problem of the Ivy League.
You’ve said that you don’t do the work of politics on the show, but for a lot of people, the show has been a huge reason that they’ve gotten more involved with politics, because there’s something in the show that was speaking to them in a way nothing else did. Do you think that sort of awakening is the first step?
MC: When we say that, it’s really more a disclaimer to the audience that they do not mistake listening to it for politics. I think it’s one thing that leads to people feeling like they need to get more involved. People were talking about joining groups like the Democratic Socialists of America long before we’d even discussed it on the show, because we were making them feel like they needed to do something. It’s certainly not that the show isn’t political. It’s that listening to the show isn’t politics.
FB: We have a very clear ideology, but we’re not causing a mass movement. Media isn’t about convincing anyone, it’s about maximizing the amount of people you reach that are amenable to what you think — and at its highest, either inspiring them to go into action, or to go deeper into those views and make them feel less alone.
BJ: If that were a criticism of the show that people thought they were landing, that would be fair enough — the idea that, oh, a bunch of these millennials think that by listening to their favorite show they’re fucking up the system, or whatever. That’s not at all what we think is going on. It’s entertainment.
One of the most powerful things about the show is that you don’t apologize for your rage. Do you think the left has forgotten how to use rage?
MC: Oh, yeah. There’s this idea that getting upset is bad. It’s a sign that you’re not being reasonable anymore, you’re not being rational, and the real political operators are the ones who are above that kind of thing. “No-Drama Obama” — that’s the model.
FB: Here’s a great Eminem quote: “People hate you? Good. You stood for something.” If you have any emotional involvement, you’re standing for something. There’s nothing fucking cool about only talking about matters of life and death, matters of insane wealth, and warfare, and having this clinical disconnect. You don’t give a shit. Not giving a shit isn’t cool if that’s all you talk about. If you didn’t give a shit you’d be doing something cooler than politics. You’d be jet skiing.
WM: Chapo Trap House says: it’s cool to care.
MC: Being angry is part of the libidinal draw of politics. That’s a thing that’s always drawn people to politics and been an engine for political engagement — that libidinal animal spirit. It was largely hogged, before this election, by the right, because their rage got channeled. And because they were so angry, the liberal wants to be the opposite of that. But if you insist that your side can’t have any emotion to it, it’s not going to draw people, because that’s a legitimate reason people want to be in politics, so they can channel emotions and libidinal energies. This has to be something that’s part of your politics if you want to get people to mobilize on its behalf.
VT: Vote for us, we have the most logical opinions!
FB: That’s one reason we had the stance on the Women’s March that we did. It’s a great sign that something center-left actually had some passion in it, finally, again.
How do you see your rage relating to your humor? What’s the danger of a humorless politics?
WM: I think it gets back to the question of a politics without anger. Humor, at least to me, comes from rage and disgust with the world, the absurdity, the darkness of human existence. A politics without anger is also a politics that’s not funny.
FB: That’s why I hate the critique of our humor, and irony in general, where people are like, oh, it’s so cool you don’t care about anything. No! It’s the fucking opposite, because this is the only way that people would listen to these grievances — through irony. You can’t be plugged into it all the time, or else — it’d be like one of those reading groups with 5 people who protest in support of the DPRK. I probably agree with those people about 99 percent of things—
MC: Mostly about how awesome North Korea is.
FB: Yeah, exactly. I’m just pro-North Korea, that’s my only politics. It’s more solipsistic to be completely serious all the time. That’s only gonna reach a certain type of person. You can’t expect any type of political action or mass movement without normal people. You can’t attract normal people if you’re just deathly fucking serious all the time. If you really gave a shit, you couldn’t look straight at the horrors 24 hours a day.
VT: I would love if we as a civilization were capable of having a boring, bloodless politics where all we debated was whether Elm Street needs a stop sign. But we don’t, not in this stage of civilization, where politics is a street fight over resources, a fight against militant nationalism. You can’t go to war without having something to keep your spirits up.
BJ: If there’s one spirit we’re raging against, it’s the Aaron Sorkin mindset, that politics is about rationality, and debate, and decorum. Any anger that’s in that type of art or metaphor is a false anger, an anger out of people not being nice enough or rational enough. It’s not anger that actually comes from your gut, that’s concerned with humanity.
There’s also something new and different about your humor that goes beyond who you target or your politics — the references, the particular breed of irony you use. Could you talk about your biggest influences as humorists?
MC: Obviously, Weird Twitter, specifically dril. Big up to dril — comic mind of the twenty-first century. But then, I’d say The Simpsons and Mr. Show.
FB: Howard Stern, I think, was a similar irony to what we do. Sometimes the humor is just flat-out stating what the situation is, with a little bit of disconnect, to make the audience realize how self-evident the absurdity is. At his best, he would never overextend himself in that way, and I think that’s something we do a lot.
VT: As a satirist, my two biggest influences are the old masters, Jonathan Swift and Voltaire, who pioneered the technique of writing something and saying, “See this? This is you, dude. That’s what you sound like.”
BJ: I think Mystery Science Theater 3000 is among all of us a formative thing. Certainly parts of the show are a lot like a literary or political version of a bunch of assholes making you watch or read something really horrible with them and making jokes about it.
FB: Also, Tim Heidecker.
VT: Also, pretend I said Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski —
FB: — Gary Glitter, Jared Fogle —
BJ: The great comics.
What is it about your different senses of humor that makes the group dynamic work so well? I was listening to the old episodes, and even then the chemistry is still very much there.
BJ: Maybe it’s easier for me to say, because for a long time I was mute. The way I’ve always thought of it is — Will is clearly, if not the straight man, the emcee, the guiding voice of everything. They’re all equally funny, but his job is to keep things moving, do these quick sharp jolts as he’s going along. Felix and Virgil are the goofiest element, where they drop in a rolling comic routine that are these spikes in the middle of the maybe more serious stuff we’re talking about. Matt and Amber in particular are able to combine their funniness with these wildly effortless treatises that they bust out.
WM: Both Matt and Amber bring not just the humor but a real grounding in history and politics that the show wouldn’t work without.
FB: The show wouldn’t work without Will. He has an ability to create a skeleton for the show that’s loose enough that everyone can do their shit in, but it’s also defined enough that it’s not just an hour of pointlessness.
BJ: Will’s shit is very loose.
WM: No, that’s Virgil.
FB: I think what makes the show special to me is that everyone’s not confined to their role. Will will always have something that’ll be like what Matt and Amber do, where he’ll have this background knowledge, or Matt will have a really quick one-liner, Virgil will have a historical or very earnest thing, like on the post-election show.
WM: Or like, you will say something intelligent.
FB: I do it like I have sex — once every three months.
What about when y’all disagree?
FB: We disagree a lot, actually.
WM: We lost the half of the episode about Rogue One that was the worst thing we’ve ever recorded.
MC: We were arguing about whether Rogue One is about Al-Qaeda, and he disagreed — wrongly — but —
VT: Okay, okay —
WM: Let’s not get into this.
MC: Our best energy comes from building off one another. It’s sort of like political improv, you wanna do yes-and, you don’t wanna go no-but. I dunno, we’ve never really put all our cards on the table. I have no idea where specifically we disagree. We all have a broad consensus on where we want politics to go, on tactics —
WM: And more importantly, who we hate. That’s probably the most important thing. To quote Alexander Cockburn — is your hate pure? All six of us — our hate is pure, and that’s the most important thing.
Last semester, even on a campus as capitalist as Harvard, there was broad student support for the dining hall workers’ strike. What would you say to young people who understand that there’s something fundamentally wrong in American society but are still on the fence about socialism as a solution?
MC: Google Karl Marx.
VT: I would say examine your premises, and what you’ve been raised to believe. I would surmise that everyone on this show went through a similar phase. None of us was a red-diaper baby. We had to figure these things out for ourselves with very little guidance.
BJ: I know I’ve said I was pessimistic before, but seeing that, thinking of the kids at Harvard sympathizing with the strikers — those are the moments you wait for.
MC: I think that the emotion that’s brought up by something like a strike is the native solidarity we all feel towards one another that gets mystified by these institutions and ideologies. I think, just, follow that — follow the train of solidarity and the native sense — you can hear if you listen to it — that everybody is basically the same, and everyone has similar aspirations. That will lead you to the conclusion that society needs to be organized in such a way as to allow that.
Assuming we’re all a sufficient distance from the blast radius, what’s next for Chapo?
WM: More money, more problems.
FB: I’ll be warlord of District Great North, the Great Lakes area, Matt will be the warlord of the rest of the Midwest. Will, the Northeast, Brendan, the southeastern seaboard, Virgil will get Florida and all other areas.
VT: Aw, come on.
WM: Amber would get the west coast. She doesn’t like it, but that’d be good. She’d be a good dictator for it. She could crack down on San Francisco the way she’s always wanted.
BJ: We have some irons in the fire.
WM: We have several projects outside of the podcast that we’re currently working on.
MC: We’re finally gonna launch a website, which is gonna be a hub for finding the pod, and other things we might wanna do. Merch, but also, videos, written stuff.
WM: A camboy network.
BJ: Self-help videos.
MC: And of course our line of liver-guard, child-guard, survival seeds —
MC: Colloidal silver.
WM: Cocaine. Heroin. We’re branching out.
Becoming an actual trap house.
FB: We have all of the seed money to buy our first 30 bricks.