The Dangers of Catharsis: Chapo Trap House and Political Comedy

My plan for Fridays on the blog is to talk about media or pop culture that I’ve enjoyed during the week. Partially, I’ll be doing this because it allows me a break from more serious writing about politics, but also because I think politics and culture inform and are informed by each other and so this is a way for me to play with some ideas that have struck me while taking in cultural products. So, for my inaugural Friday post, I want to talk about a podcast I’ve come to enjoy quite a bit.

Get ready, Grey Wolves; I’m talking about Chapo Trap House.

It’s somewhat difficult to categorize Chapo. On the surface, it’s a current events podcast where three Twitter personalities, Will Menaker (@WillMenaker), Matt Christman (@cushbomb), and Felix Biederman (@ByYourLogic), talk about and glean comedy from news articles and those who write them, with an emphasis on political journalism. However, as hinted at by the name of the podcast, Menaker, Christman, and Biederman are all part of a particular corner of Twitter that thrives on absurdist comedy, leftist politics, and weapons-grade levels of irony, which makes the podcast much less straightforward but also much more interesting. A given episode can contain an extended riff on the presumed psychosexual pathology of an obscure media figure like Rod Dreher (a not-infrequent occurrence), an analysis of a blockbuster film through the eyes of the Turkish majority party, the AKP, or a relatively serious discussion of the implications of the Brexit punctuated by Christman putting on an awful British accent. For all these reasons, Chapo is a unique entrant into the saturated market of political discussion.

It really cannot be emphasized enough, though, that above anything else, Chapo Trap House is funny.

Now, the humor is in no way tailored for mass appeal (ask my girlfriend, who does not enjoy it at all). Even ignoring the often-profane nature of the podcast (an early episode involves a joke about William F. Buckley offering a young Ross Douthat a sex toy favored by Augusto Pinochet), the obscurity of their targets and the absurdity of the humor ensure that Chapo Trap House will never reach the download totals of Serial or even other comedy podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang! (though they hope to overtake Louder With Crowder, a right-wing comedy podcast that has served as a target of derision for Chapo on multiple occasions). Instead, much like the corner of Twitter where they reside, they are finding success (they have more than 2,000 subscribers on Patreon donating more than $9,000 per month) more on the intensity of their fandom and the resultant strength of their connections with their audience.

Perhaps the funniest component of Chapo is what they’ve taken to calling their Chapo Reading Series, where Menaker reads selections or whole articles by (usually conservative) writers. Much of the comedy of these bits comes simply from the actual words and ideas contained in the readings, whether it is Rod Dreher’s allegedly receiving an email from a friend who was the victim of a constantly-growing group of transgender people’s discussion about their favorite sex acts while in line for Captain America: Civil War or Kurt Schlichter’s military jargon-larded speculative fiction about a right-wing secessionist movement during a Hillary Clinton presidency. Obviously, there is an ideological undercurrent to this comedy; for a certain type of person, even the thought of a roving gang of “transgenders” (as the email writer incorrectly refers to the group) elicits not laughter but horror. For “Chapo Heads” (as the hosts have taken to half-seriously calling their fans), such an idea can only be responded to with mockery.

Having thoroughly praised the podcast in a manner that would almost certainly earn me a quick thank-you followed by a more extended suggestion that I probably want to kiss them on the mouth, I also want to note the concern that I feel occasionally while listening to the podcast. Given that it’s a clearly ideologically left podcast, there is always the fear of putting oneself in an echo chamber; while I understand that fear, it is not the major point of concern for me. Instead, the concern I have is one that I feel about political comedy writ large, a concern that might be summarized as a fear of catharsis.

In the very first episode of Chapo, Matt Christman criticizes viewers of shows like The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight for their reliance on catharsis, for the fact that watching these shows and seeing ideological opponents skewered (think of every Monday morning Slate headline about some conservative politician being “eviscerated” by John Oliver) provides a vicarious charge of having won another victory over the forces of unreason. Catharsis, Christman says flatly, is bad. Politics (especially, I would say, leftist politics) is a long, slow, difficult process that requires an incredible investment of energy. Each time a viewer sits down to another episode of one of those shows, Christman says, that energy is essentially dissipated in a righteous feeling of victory, the problem being of course that this “victory” has no material force in the world. Feeling like you’ve got the better point doesn’t actually win political change in any tangible way; it’s only through action that your ideas become reality.

I happen to agree with Christman. But where does that leave the Chapo listener? Aren’t we as susceptible to such a critique? Isn’t Chapo also helping to dissipate that energy?

To be clear, I’m not trying to accuse Christman or the other hosts of hypocrisy. I think there is a substantive difference in what Chapo is doing versus what Oliver or Trevor Noah (and especially Jon Stewart back when he was still host) do, mostly because Chapo is openly and brazenly ideological. Rarely will you hear the “well, we’re just comedians; we’re just trying to get a laugh” defense that was the hallmark of Stewart’s time at the Daily Show (even as he was organizing an enormous rally at the Mall in DC). Instead, it is clear that they support a socialist politics, they think centrism and moderation have done incredible damage to the country, and so their humor flows from that standpoint. This is one reason why I think their comedy is more natural and interesting than Oliver or Noah (as a longtime Bugler, I am a huge fan of Oliver, so don’t take me to be dismissing his ample abilities); the humor is meant to make a clear point and that sometimes means the point comes before the humor in the joke.

However, I cannot deny the fact that I feel a surge of energy when listening to Chapo Trap House that must be akin to what Christman believes is so deleterious to political action. While I rarely feel victorious, I do feel a sense of being understood, of having my viewpoint validated. Hearing smart, leftist individuals weave together cogent political criticism with profane and absurd humor gives me a charge I don’t get elsewhere. Is this not exactly what leads Christman to decry The Daily Show?

Ultimately, I’m not sure this is a pitfall that can be avoided with political comedy. Christman’s critique seems to require us to be in a constant state of agitation, always fired up and ready to make tangible the ideas in our heads and hearts. Is that possible? I have my doubts. Instead, it may be imperative on the consumer of political comedy to remember that catharsis should be earned, that to watch and share clips of professional comedians doing their job is not the same as working for political change. Political comedy can bring people of like minds together and help to craft a communal feeling of understanding. This, however, should always be an adjunct to political action.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to Chapo call Kevin Williamson “Cold Stone Steve Austin” again.

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5 thoughts on “The Dangers of Catharsis: Chapo Trap House and Political Comedy

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this; I had similar thoughts while listening to the podcast (uh oh, catharsis looms again). I could’ve sworn I found this on Twitter, but I can’t find a Twitter link on this blog of yours, so if you have one… link it?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Is it too pat to say that, in the end, it’s about compartimentalising? I don’t think catharsis itself is the problem – mistaking it for political progress is. Everyone needs to hear they’re right every now and then, to take a break from the endless fights and debates. This may sound like a somewhat feeble, domesticated role for political humour, but to me it seems more reasonable than, say, the old cliché of humour “challeging your preconceptions”, which is something political humour does very rarely. I’m skeptical about its potential to, say, sway someone’s opinion on an issue, because humour is in a way by definition arguing in bad faith – the qualities needed to make an engaging and respectful argument and the ones needed to make something funny are almost mutually exclusive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I think compartmentalizing is absolutely the right word. There is a role for troop-rallying through humor (as I tried to acknowledge) but it should always be acknowledged that that is the limit of its powers (except for maybe an allowance for the power of shame to move some people from one column to another).

      Liked by 1 person

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