SXSW EXCLUSIVE: Chapo Trap House on Podcasting, Propaganda, and Parasocial Relationships

Chapo Trap House Cole Mitchell

For those of us attending SXSW, we’re used to being surrounded by crypto and tech bros. But this week, there was an event with a different audience: Chapo bros. 

A welcome escape from blockchain chatter, the venue was roaring with laughter as the popular podcast Chapo Trap House live-recorded an episode at the Work In Progress: Powered by Patreon activation for SXSW this week.

The Chapo crew—co-hosts Will Menaker, Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, Amber Frost (who was absent from the event), and producer Chris Wade—is known online for its long-time support of the Bernie Sanders campaign, commentary on movies and historical events, and its use of “dirtbag” vulgar humor to promote leftist politics.

“Does anyone here in the audience work in crypto or NFT?” Will said at the event. A few people cheered. “Alright, good. Please kill yourself. By rope, by bridge, by knife, by gun. End your wretched life before it’s too late. Stop poisoning our lives with your demonic influence.” 

“Obviously nobody here today is going to heaven, we’re all going to hell. But the NFT crypto people are going to extra-hell,” Matt responded. 

While suicide-jokes might not be your ethical cup of tea, it’s clear this brand of humor serves as a coping mechanism for a world that is at times unbearable.

The Chapo guys spoke about, for example, the recent order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott which stated that anyone providing gender-affirming medical care for children are abusers and will be prosecuted as criminals. 

“There’s this demonic evil right now, this idea that anyone here at this state who would seek to educate children about sex or affirm their gender is doing grooming,” Matt said, “This is what happens when you turn over all state services to essentially evangelical Christian mafias.” 

The Chapo guys hit on other topics, including how the White House is briefing TikTokers on the war in Ukraine. TikTok also announced that it would start labeling ‘some’ state-controlled media on its platform. 

Matt shouted in response: “You are creating a whole thing of state-controlled media but that is not going to fall under the umbrella of state-controlled media?!…Can you not say both state-funded regimes of information are by definition misinformation?” 

Apparently, the Chapo team members love to watch Shark Tank while on tour, and they did their own “Pod Tank” for “podtrepreneurs” at the event. Three podcasts were pitched, and each pitcher ended up receiving a $300 Zoom recorder to start their project off. 

Finally, Chapo Trap House closed off the event by asking everyone in the audience to join a summoning circle to hex the stomach or pancreas of Greg Abbott. 

Afterward, they went backstage and three members of Chapo Trap House–Will, Matt, and Chris–sat down with me to talk about the medium of podcasting, propaganda, parasocial relationships, and more.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Do you do a lot of interviews with journalists?

Matt: Not really. We are no longer relevant, which is good. Suddenly we get to just do what we want and we don’t have to feel like, responsibility.

In 2020, it was kind of a bummer. We were worried, when we said something, was it going to reflect badly on the Bernie campaign? But now that we know that politics is over and we’re just entertainers again. It’s very freeing.

So you had a political project before with the Bernie campaign?

Matt: We didn’t, it was a fantasy that we were all collectively part of, but I mean, it felt real at the time. It was a thing we genuinely believed in and pursued with all our hearts. And we did what we did, it bound all of us together in a way that’s gonna never be breakable. And I think most importantly, given what happened, it has allowed us all now in the aftermath to figure out what to do together and to trust one another.

Will: I wouldn’t say we have any regrets about that. Because you know, it remains probably one of the things I’m most proud of in my life. It may have been a fantasy, but if you didn’t have that fantasy, fuck you honestly.

Would you recommend people to get into podcasting?

Matt: This must be stressed, my one reservation I had about doing this is that I don’t want to be like a Pied Piper like, telling inner city kids to play basketball because you’re gonna be in the NBA. The podcast window is very small now relative to where it was when we started. People should be aware of the fact that if you’re doing a podcast, it should be ancillary to other other things you’re doing. It should absolutely not be where you put all your fucking eggs because the statistical probability is shrinking everyday that it’s gonna be anything other than a hobby.

Will: We were a combination of the right time, right place, and I’d like to think the right amount of talent. But the thing is like, we had no hope whatsoever that we’d ever make money doing podcasts. And we just did it cuz we thought maybe a few dozen people that we were friends with on the internet might enjoy it. 

Chris: There is something about the technology behind podcasting—as long as it stays in that realm of freely distributed RSS feeds. Increasingly, the corporatization of podcasts and these walled garden podcast companies are changing that landscape, but it still is possible to, as we were doing on stage, get a $300 zoom recorder, put something down with your friends, and upload it for free to one of various podcast distributors. That makes it a very open medium for communication.

Matt: But I think this is a crucial thing. You can do a good job and have a good podcast and still have no response. And that’s not your fault. And it doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means that it is a fucking crapshoot with worse odds every day. Have fun with your friends, but for the love of God, if it doesn’t become an exit from wage slavery, don’t blame yourself because it’s not you.

Right. But it’s really hard to work your normal job and go and make a podcast.

Matt: Yeah. If it isn’t fun, if it feels like another job, then for the love of God, it’s not worth it. At this point in the podcast ecosystem, if you’re grinding it out in addition to whatever else you’re doing to survive, the labor input is not worth the potential reward.

Chris: I really do want to stress that podcasting at its essential level is about having fun with your friends. There’s a word that’s been overblown and almost made meaningless, but it’s part of the essential pull of podcasting: The parasocial element. People want to listen to people having fun with each other, and they want to listen to people having friendships. They are feeling part of those friendships. So if it’s a joy to sit down and do the show, and you have a bare minimum of trying to advertise it or use social media, eventually you’ll find people who find it and are like, oh, these people are cool and fun.

Will: When we started doing the show, it was like, we were saying things that I thought were being unexpressed and seemed common sense to me. And like, the most common refrain among people when it took off was: I thought I was the only one who thought this way. It doesn’t have to be politics, it doesn’t have to be comedy. If you have an interest, a talent that you’re willing to explore, if you’re having fun doing it, then someone somewhere is having fun listening.

Do you think you have a real, social relationship with some of your fans or do you feel like it’s mostly parasocial?

Matt: We’re on a level, I hate to say this, where obviously it’s gonna be largely parasocial. Most people who listen to the show are people we’re not gonna know of or interact with. So it’s gonna be one way. But I have made friends with fans in the show. Like that’s a thing that happens. It’s a permeable membrane, but it’s largely a parasocial relationship.

Chris: Yeah. It’s kind of double edged. There are a lot of places where people comment on the show largely to complain about it, but then like we do these tours and stuff and everyone we meet on tour, in signing lines afterwards or who just come up, are just so incredibly lovely and all have interesting life stories about what brought them to the show.

Matt: You know, that’s the thing about parasociality. You listen and interact online, it’s gonna be one way. But if I meet somebody in real life who listens to the show, that is the beginning of an interaction that can go a million ways…That’s the thing about podcasts that’s weird in a way. You’re creating this new 21st century relationship that is determined by online interaction that is different from your day-to-day engagement with the world.

Chris: In terms of a successful media project, it’s a very interesting place to be in to be not really beholden to any outside source… We love the people who love us, but we don’t really respond to what they want from the show. It’s always just the five of us and what we want to do. And we don’t have to think about if it’s gonna be OK for advertisers…I think that that is one of the things that keeps the show fresh and unique because it’s really only what makes us happy.

Matt: It’s not algorithmic-ly driven. That’s what’s alienating about the content sphere. There’s literally unlimited content, but the vast majority that you encounter you understand as soon as you interact with it where the algorithm brought it into being. What specific attempt to ingratiate itself, what investors were thinking of when it came into being.

That makes everything kind of sterile and alienated. And things that are listener supported have that one benefit over others…That there is no office, there is no board, there is no machine telling them what to put out. It is literally what they want to say and what they think is entertaining. That, in an increasingly dehumanized spectacle is a vital human pulse.

Is there anything else you want to share to our audience before we close out?

Will: Check out Episode One, Seeking Derangements, Pod About List, TrueAnon—any other wholesome podcasts that I’m an admirer of.

Matt: Log off. Whatever you do, try to increase your attention span rather than decrease it. I know it’s a big ask, but literally the world depends on it. Because the smaller the attention span, the less power you have over your literal understanding of reality.

Chris: Start a podcast. Just give it a shot. If you’re having fun doing it, it’s really worth doing. It’s a great creative outlet. And who knows, you might just take off.

You can listen to Chapo Trap House’s SXSW episode on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify. You can also support them on Patreon.

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