Chapo Trap House is real comfort listening for me. In the same way that if I find myself at a loose end but want to be occupied I will rewatch the UK version of House of Cards, because I've seen it so many times I can just switch off and talk along with most of the dialogue, I will sometimes relisten to odd episodes of Chapo if I want to chill out and zone out. I know the episodes I like, I know the ones I want to skip, I know that their first Adam Curtis interview is one of the best things they've ever done, and I can hear his exact inflection on "Do you really want change? Do you really?" in my head whenever I think of it as clearly as the first time I heard it on the bus back from work in 2016.
I was listening through some old episodes recently and while I’m usually pretty bad at differentiating ‘eras’ of things while they’re happening, I think I've spotted some trends. Chapo is, in media terms, kind of a big deal now, so it’s easy to forget where they started. Listening to the very early episodes, the chat is freer and easier, with a bit more problematic language than in later episodes—but also (strangely) a lot more concern from the hosts about what they’re saying. They do semi-regular audience Q&As (a tradition long since abandoned) and address criticism from the audience about some of the things they say and language they use, and try to earnestly engage with them. They spend a lot of time talking about stuff that’s happening with their Twitter pals and generally seem a lot less aloof; Just Some Guys Who Struck It Lucky before they became as much of a brand. There's a lot of fans doing stuff or making stuff for them and them being surprised about it (or surprised they have fans at all)—which also leads to one of my favourite Podcast Things: when the hosts says "thanks to whoever did this—I can't remember your name", thus utterly annihilating the person who just wanted to hear their online friends say their name.
In the early days they were also far more taken aback when the media payed attention to them. It was noteworthy when they got written about, everything seemed novel and it was, as Matt says of Twitter, about having fun with your friends. It started to change, as with so many things, with the election of Trump—their post-election episode with the little self-serious speech about how Chapo was “doing important work” is particularly risible given their avowed stance against taking themselves or the podcast seriously. It definitely seemed to indicate the beginning of a turn toward their moving from being outside the bubble (the source of most of their initial juice) to being inside. In the early episodes they criticise, flippantly dismiss and take the piss out of all sorts of people, but a few of the mocked stood out to me: Slavoj Zizek, Michael Moore, Patton Oswalt—because all of them went on to guest just a few years later. When they stopped Just Being Guys Off Twitter and became “celebs” in their own right, I think that’s the real turn. The appearances stopped being as much "interviews" as just "palling around". The nadir of this is unquestionably the episode where Tim Heidecker comes on and spends the whole episode giving out about the unfair media treatment of his latest film. Too much success has put them firmly inside the media class they disdain. They even got the guy who did the music for Serial to do the theme for one of their spinoffs (which, admittedly, is a baller move).
The show itself has mostly settled into a groove as the Daily Show for leftish 20somethings radicalised on Twitter—though this isn't to say they don't have any real-world impact at all. The Chapo community seemed (possibly less so post-Bernie) to acts as a clearinghouse for a lot of a certain sort of online left activity in the US. Their real political influence is that they were able to get folk out to canvas for Bernie in their areas, to feel like they were a part of something and could get involved, and that is, I think, a genuinely good thing and not to be underrated. For me, though, it is and will probably always be just a show with some funny hosts that's enjoyable to listen to, with occasionally elevated interviews. That is fine! It's fine to just be a bit of fun .
and Will explicitly saying "can you imagine how much people would have a go at us if we took ourselves half as seriously as [whoever it was, I can't remember]" ↩︎
though, in a way that's kind of sweet, you can still tell the people they have a degree of reverence for—Curtis, John Dolan, Matt Taibbi etc. ↩︎
They're good at it, too—I think it's interesting that the Chapo formula has yet to be really successfully replicated in the UK. The people who try are either already comedians, and therefore annoying and too constructed in their humour, or the kind of people who listen to Chapo and want to copy it, and are therefore nowhere near funny or charismatic enough. ↩︎