On a recent episode of the Current Affairs podcast, Pete Davis spoke with cohost of Chapo Trap House, Virgil Texas. A transcript follows. It has been lightly edited for grammar and readability.
Virgil Texas: Hang on, I’ve got to get in the right headspace, here. I didn’t sleep very well last night, and I’ve been up for a while, so I don’t know if I should drink a coffee, when it’s 7:00 PM here. I’m afraid if I drink one, I’ll be up all night.
Pete Davis: Whatever you want, Virgil. Whatever makes you feel better about this.
VT: My idea is that there needs to be a night time coffee. I need a stimulant at night that isn’t alcohol. Like, I don’t want to be drunk, but I don’t want to be up for a long time.
PD: This is probably something that the Silicon Valley guys are working on. The people who make Soylent are probably testing, “How can I be focused?”
VT: Well, it’s my idea.
PD: Patent pending, as they say.
VT: I’d be a little bit upset if they were working on my idea.
PD: Are you down to begin?
VT: I thought we already began, honestly.
PD: Oh no, I was going to — I have a little intro for you, but I might use some of this. Is that okay?
VT: Yeah, sure. Let’s do it.
PD: Hello Current Affairs listeners. It’s your host, Pete Davis, here. And I am here with a very special crossover episode, in the lefty podcast world, because my guest tonight is Virgil Texas. Hello, Virgil.
VT: Hey, whoa. Where did the hot couch go? I’m in a different podcast, now. Hi, how are you?
PD: Yes, it’s more ornate. Virgil, here, is the host of Chapo Trap House, the leading podcast on Patreon. We are in the low 100s, here at Current Affairs, but you are number one. You co-wrote one of the bestselling books, The Chapo Guide To Revolution. Chapo, for those who don’t know, is perhaps one of the most talked about, and controversial cultural creations on the young left today. What do you think of that intro, Virgil?
VT: Five stars.
PD: Oh, thank you. I had one more thing to say in it, that’s a little more fluffy. I was going to say that when the history of the millennial left is written, Chapo Trap House is assuredly going to be mentioned. It is at the crossroads of various present day trends: the rise of podcasting, the rise of Twitter-driven subcultures, the rise of the Patreon economy, and of course, the rise of the loud and proud young left.
VT: I like this idea of being in a book, that’s fun. Yeah, I don’t get quoted as much in books as like, Matt or Amber do.
PD: No, I don’t know if they’ll break out the names, but they’ll definitely say the name of the program, possibly, on a list of names.
VT: It is a lot of names. I agree, five. And then six if you add our producer, Chris, that’s a sixth name. And then seven if you want to add Brendan. And then if you’re Brendan, you have to explain that you have a tenure that was limited.
PD: Yes, the longer we live, the more complicated everything becomes.
VT: You did leave one thing out, and that was my appearance in the recent New York magazine cover story.
PD: You were in that one, and one of our own, Briahna Joy Gray, was in it, and Current Affairs was mentioned, as well. How did you feel about your appearance? What did it say about you?
VT: I felt very flattered by it. I think I came out really well in the article. And what the writer did was bring this scene to life with very painterly affection. That’s what I needed. He did, for me, what Renoir did for the Moulin de la Galette.
PD: That’s wonderful to hear that you’re happy. You know, many of us felt it was a little Brooklyn-centric. You seemed to benefit from that.
VT: I mean, it took place in Brooklyn. That’s why news stories have the name of the place, usually, in the first paragraph.
PD: And Virgil, you’ve been tweeting at us, saying you wanted to come on the program. I’m curious as to why you’ve been interested in wanting to come on the Current Affairs podcast.
VT: I don’t recall.
PD: You’ve tweeted over 12 times, “May I come on the podcast.”
VT: Well, yeah, right. I just don’t remember why I did that.
PD: Maybe it was different each time.
VT: I guess I’m familiar with Current Affairs. I’ve got a copy right over here, you can’t see it — this is not a visual medium, but I enjoy Current Affairs. I enjoy the writing, the design, so on. I don’t know how it stays in business. And I assume there’s some kind of mafia thing happening there. I don’t know what Nathan is up to, but, just, the amount of stuff you get with an issue — it just doesn’t add up to me, based on what I know about the print media industry.
PD: It’s a front for international bird dealing.
VT: That makes a lot of sense, having met Nathan.
PD: It’s a very lucrative industry.
VT: So, you know, I like Current Affairs, and I like the writing in it, and I thought, this is interesting, this is a podcast that’s kind of where I am, because I don’t really write regularly. This is something I can get into. Oh, now I remember. I was doing this media push for the book.
PD: Oh, so that was where you wanted to leave your media platform, and you wanted to go to others to let them know about the book.
PD: It seemed like you were the one pushing the book the most, of all the hosts of Chapo.
VT: I definitely was, yes.
PD: And it seems like you were successful. You are a New York Times bestseller. How does that feel?
VT: You know, it feels good. And that’s another book that my name is going to be in, when they write the book, New York Times Best Sellers, which ironically would probably not be a bestseller.
PD: Right, a history of popular books. I don’t know if that is going to work.
Virgil, I wanted to start with — I have all these theories about Chapo Trap House, and I wanted to run them by you. But before I got to that, since I had you here, many of our listeners listen to you as well, and they’re just curious about some nuts and bolts, about the show that they might now know from listening to the show. So, I’d like to start just by asking: What is your origin story, of the show? Where are you from? Who are you, Virgil Texas?
VT: Right, my version of that. Well, I’m from New York, originally, and then I grew up in the south most of my childhood, then returned to New York, went to college here, and have been here, basically ever since.
PD: And were you always a leftist, or were you like me, went to college, and became a lefty?
VT: I don’t really think people have ideas until they’re 30. I think everyone, it’s sort of a mishmash of hormones, and just random things you pick up, from reading magazines. My sympathies have always been on the left, that’s usually how I like to frame that. And I didn’t necessarily have a leftist conception of history until I went to college. Things didn’t really click for me until I graduated and entered the job market in the midst of the financial collapse. So I would say, like a lot of people, my views are heavily affected by the financial collapse and the repugnance of the Iraq War, and everything that followed that.
PD: Yeah, Chris Hayes calls it “The Fail Decades,” and I think that’s how most of us woke up. You know, when you have the Bush administration, and the Iraq War, and the financial crisis, and kind of, Occupy.
VT: I remember thinking through the early days of online media, like the 2000s, that was just not a good time. That was just not good at all. A lot of what we do on the show is actually just kind of a reaction to reading these fucking bloggers throughout the 2000s, and still being mad at how stupid they all are.
PD: It’s like, Andrew Sullivan writes all of these erudite blog posts about meaning, and deep thought, and how he analyzes things, and yet he doesn’t see how the Iraq War is bad. Or Ezra Klein writes all these models of how to see policy, but he doesn’t see that Paul Ryan is lying to him.
VT: I mean, those are the big names, but you know, Will is a real head for that kind of stuff. And I’ve just seen him just start screaming incoherently, and ranting about, like, some random fucking rightwing Blogspot guy he might have been reading in 2004. I respect that, very much so.
PD: So you get turned on to that, you wake up to that, and then does it start on Twitter, do you start being part of Weird Twitter, Left Twitter, before it was named that?
VT: Well, I originally joined Twitter so that I could harass people, and to this day, I have no idea why else you would join, unless maybe you’re running some kind of scam. Because I don’t see what else you’re kind of getting at with this.
PD: It’s kind of a phenomenal thing in history that we created this ultimate ur-comments board that lets you directly respond to someone saying something, and they’ll take you more seriously than the comments. We all learned don’t read the comments, but somehow we didn’t learn don’t read the mentions, and thus, you’re really able to truly respond to people, and have them see it.
VT: I understand the need to post, of course, but your need to post could take place in a group chat, or Slack, or something, or just a message board consisting of mostly like-minded people. Twitter, it’s everyone from every part of the spectrum.
PD: Right, and they all see you doing it. So the ones who like you become closer to you, and the ones who don’t like you jump in and yell at you, and then you yell at them.
VT: Right. But based on how it’s designed, you can’t silo each other off, unless people try using a blacklist, or something, but for the most part, you can see pretty much everything going on. You will inevitably be exposed to, just a lot of fucking dumb shit from dumb people.
PD: And the first person you met was Felix, of the group?
VT: Yeah, I met Felix in, I think he visited the city in 2014 or something. And he’s definitely a world-class poster, no question about that. And then he moved to the city after college, and then we ended up writing together, and then we ended up working together.
PD: When you were writing together, were you imagining yourself as comedians, or were you imagining yourself as political take writers?
VT: “What’s the difference?” is kind of my answer to that.
PD: Well, you know, but people move to New York, and they start writing, and they’re hoping they get a sitcom job, or they’re doing standup, and they’re kind of, like, in that world. And then there’s another group of people who are hoping that they get a piece in the Atlantic, or something. So how did you self-conceive yourself at the time?
VT: I would say probably closer to the former. But here’s a key thing about me that most people don’t understand, because I am fastidious and meticulous, but at the root of all of this, is that I don’t really care to do things, and I think if I did, I would create something very frightening that no one would enjoy. I would say I just sort of let things happen for the most part.
PD: In some ways, you got very lucky that you got a job that allows you to do that professionally.
VT: Isn’t that the best example of what I’m talking about? I mean, that’s all luck. That’s all luck. That’s all just good fortune.
PD: But in some ways, that’s kind of the secret to Chapo. Because there is this kind of structural bias in takes, which is that most of the people that — let’s say we still lived in a world where the only takes were written by op-ed writers, and newspapers. One of the structural biases of op-ed writers, and newspapers, is they are all, quote-on-quote, “successful people” who are very productive. And so, their way that they viewed the world was as someone who, like, type A, who climbed the ladder. And y’all were able to have a different take on the world, because some of you are not type A, and had no interest in climbing the ladder. And thus, you were able to have a view on the world that was aligned with many people who had never been represented in a kind of large audience medium before.
VT: That’s very much so that case. You are right that I can’t be too blasé about these things, because there is something serious going on here. There is an actual structure, and what our show is is an actual reflection of large groups of people — of real phenomena in society and the world at large. But I’m just trying to answer the question on the terms, that we’re talking about me. It’s all my whole thing.
PD: No, that wasn’t a critique at all. I was just addressing it as you were saying it. And so, Felix and you start writing, you make Carl Diggler, you predict all these primaries, I remember. That was the first time I heard about this, was I think I heard about Carl Diggler before Chapo, and then found Chapo through oh, they have a podcast. So your first big hit was you were able to predict the outcome of the Republican primary, I think, in like Iowa and New Hampshire, not through the methods that, say, Nate Silver was predicting primaries. Was that the first breakout? Am I right to say that?
VT: I mean, that’s what the Dig was best known for, but every once in a while, I meet a real Dig Head, someone who just really gets it. Because I would say, the act of writing this — we wrote basically five articles a week, and often they were quite long. Like, some of them were about 10 pages long. The act of writing it consumed us. And my intention was that the act of reading it destroys your brain. That’s what I was hoping for, with this. I wasn’t thinking, “oh, I’m going to get rich and famous off this, or this is going to be a massive cultural phenomenon, it’ll be a movie or something.” I just thought, this is going to destroy some minds. If I could go back, and just pick, like, what I consider to be the best columns out of all that, the ones that weren’t phoned in because we had to do one, and if I sat you down, and you read all of them at once, you would just be killed.
PD: Is that nihilistic of you, or is it for the lols, or was it just something to do?
VT: I don’t think that’s a nihilistic impulse, at all. I’m not saying that is a qualitatively bad thing. I kind of think, you know, maybe if you had spent a few years actively trying to destroy your mind in the run-up to 2016, then maybe Election Day wouldn’t have been such a psychic shock.
PD: That is an interesting thing. It’s right-sizing the way that we think about the world.
VT: Think about the people who have been made the most mad from the election, and are still actually just mad men, just a Lovecraft hero at the end of his story, just totally had their minds warped by seeing an alien entity…or something like that. Those are all people who, at least before 2016, or probably still do, believe that the world is governed by some sort of rational order, you know, that there’s some sort of fundamental justice that we’re aspiring towards.
PD: Yeah, it’s like, what you were trying to do was kind of the anti-West Wing, because the people who were the most true believers in the West Wing view of the world were the ones who were the most shocked by 2016, and kind of have like, created different cults around trying to incorporate that information about reality into their prior models, whereas you were less shocked by it, because you’ve kind of gotten yourself out of West Wing mindset. One of the most shocking, more popular culture phenomenons, after the election, was Dave Chappelle hosts SNL after the election, and everyone is expected him to give some dramatic, Donald Trump, sir, stand-up monologue. And instead he says, “Ah, you know, I kind of expected something like this. This is how America works.” And you can see that in some communities that believed a little less in kind of the hunky dory dream about the country.
VT: Yeah, you really do. And that especially goes for the left. I think that, for the most part, the people who had a right-headed view of the country, you know, they were not continuing to be catatonic well into 2017, they thought, alright, well, now we have to do something. Now all of the fissures have been exposed, and this order is kind of falling apart, and now is the time to strike.
PD: Yeah, because once you clear away the false reality — and you might clear that away through irony, but you might start having an earnest thing underneath of what truly needs to be done.
VT: Well, not just irony. Also: drugs.
PD: That too, yes.
One of the interesting things about the rise of Chapo, I remember in the 2000s, this was one of the 2000s obsessions on the left, which was right wing talk radio. So, there were all these articles that were like, “Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity, they have everyone through right-wing talk radio, and only if we could re-establish the fairness doctrine, or if we could find a way that the left could break into radio, we will win back the country.” And then they actually believed this so much, they funded this whole station called Air America Radio, which didn’t work. And then everyone gave up on this project, that we’d never win radio. But then, out of nowhere, technology changed, and radio changed, and now, in the newest medium of audio, there’s all these new podcasts, ranging from center-left, like the Johns, to y’all. Have you ever thought about your role in being the thing that fulfilled this project of being the thing that people listen to on their commute? Which the left has been trying to break into for 20 years. You finally did it.
VT: I was thinking about this earlier today: right-wing talk radio really was the kind of canary in the coal mine for Trumpism. A massive cultural force that you just didn’t know anything about, unless you were already a right-wing guy. Like, imagine talking to a stranger about Rush Limbaugh, or Mark Levin, or Neal Boortz, or one of these assholes. They’re not going to know what the fuck you’re talking about. It’s kind of like talking to someone about podcasts, right?
PD: It showed up in weird indicators. You would never, like hear about this person, but then they would sell a book, and a million people would buy it, and you’d be like why is that at the top of the bestsellers list? And it was because it was an underneath the surface community that no-one ever knew about. Or why are these kind of Republican candidates doing these weird things, or saying these weird things? It’s because they knew, because they knew that’s where the real power lay. The Bushes called Rush Limbaugh on his birthday, from the Oval Office, or something, to keep him happy.
VT: They made Rush an honorary member of the freshman class of ’95. So, the thing is, the left believes the snooty kind of liberal way of viewing things. You know, we’ve got Fox, and we’ve got talk radio, and they’ve just kind of brainwashed all these people. They have this hypnotic effect on people. They also say the same thing about Trump. It’s a bit more complicated than that. You know, they’re actually giving people what they want. They didn’t trick people into becoming racist, or something like that. A guy like Limbaugh is just going to say something like that. A guy like Limbaugh is just going to say something that, before the internet, you could not really see articulated anywhere else, except, like, a racist pamphlet, or something like that. And this is before we got Facebook comments, and you know, local news comments sections when people will just say the most fucking racist thing that they actually believe. So that is why I think Air America — you know, I don’t really know the whole history of Air America, but one of the questions I have, and maybe you know the answer to this, because I really don’t, is why was talk radio so popular just among the right? Is there something to it as a medium? I mean, people on the left like being talked to.
PD: I have a theory, but the theory that’s been written before is it’s something to do with sprawl, and people in their cars. But I don’t buy it. They think, oh, right wing people are driving more, and thus, they’re listening to the radio more, because they’re living in exurbia, or they’re kind of driving long distances in rural America, whereas urban people ride the subway, or something. That’s something that’s been written in like the academic studies on this. But my theory is actually, and this is connected to Chapo’s success, is that it has something to do with comedy, because it hit me one day that like, oh, that was weird, Glenn Beck used to be a standup comedian. He wasn’t a political thinker or writer. And then I just watched, I asked someone who was a Rush Limbaugh fan, and I said, “What do you like about him?” And they’re like, oh, he’s very funny. And we can’t notice that he’s funny, because he’s not funny to us, because we think it’s disgusting, but he invented these words, like “feminazi,” which, if you’ve never heard of that before, and all you had heard was, like feminists are this new thing that you have to follow, the new way to be, which I agree with of course, but if you thought that was a bad thing, someone invented this funny word , and so they were able to break in, because they weren’t sanctimonious about it, and there are interesting counters to Rush Limbaugh. It’s not Al Franken, and it’s not Air America — it was Jon Stewart who was able to do that for liberalism, because he was able to be funny for this kind of, like, Obama centrism, and the real person. If we wanted to look for a comparison to Rush Limbaugh, it was, like, Howard Stern, because he was funny to people who might have been more kind of culturally liberal, who, maybe if Howard Stern got some economics…
VT: Right, because he’s not a leftist, by any means, but he’s outré, he doesn’t pander to the moral majority bullshit, which, I think a lot of liberalism was just obsessed with combatting that in the ‘90s and 2000s. That was the kind of center thing everyone was against.
PD: That’s why the boomer liberals of the time were like, stern, and Bill Maher, or Michael Moore, the people who like, said, “All these Bible thumpers, what if I put the Bible in the trashcan?” Or something.
VT: Or like, the West Wing fantasy, that oh, this woman’s a Christian, and she hates gays, I’ll quote the Bible at her.
PD: So, economic lefties were not knowing how to make fun of Reagan.
VT: So here’s the other point of that. And again, I can’t speak to why Air America was a failure. I mean, it had talented people on it. It wasn’t, like, that good, I don’t think. Limbaugh, is an extremely talented guy, is the thing. He doesn’t just get by on his opinions, as you pointed out, because he’s funny and theatrical. So I can’t speak to why Air America failed. But I completely spaced here — what was the question?
PD: I guess the what question is stemming from is: Y’all figured it all out. You did it. You’re the number one podcasting.
VT: So, I think part of this is there wasn’t a left anymore. You’re something like Air America, and you are against what, the Iraq War, maybe you say you’re against spying, maybe you don’t really believe that. That’s something like in the middle of what the 2000s Democratic Caucus was, right? That’s not that interesting. I mean, you’re against the war, you don’t have to listen to Air America. You can watch Jon Stewart, and you can read, like, any number of these books that came out in that era, against the war.
PD: Even the strongest lefties at the time, though, like the people that were out and proud lefties, like Michael Moore, or something, they were still talking in the language of the right. Like they were living in their terrain. Because they would say, like, “The Iraq War is a waste of money!” Or, “I don’t mind all wars, I just mind dumb wars.” And that would be like, a strong lefty.
VT: Because how many of them supported intervention in the Balkans, for instance? And this is where Moore is good on — is outside of him, there is no mass culture, real economic left, right?
PD: Yeah, he carried the flame for like, 10 years, as the only person.
VT: The language of anti-capitalism just obliterated from public discourse, outside of, you know, just a handful of thinkers, writers, academics, and activists.
PD: If you had done Chapo in 2004, it wouldn’t have worked.
VT: I’m not that certain. I mean, I don’t really know what most people were thinking in 2004, I was younger then. I don’t know how popular or feasible that would have been, but you know, the big reason that there has been a left resurgence, and that it uses the language that it uses, it’s not just Twitter, or the Bernie Sanders campaign, or Occupy, or anything like that, it’s austerity. You could also point to the rise of a coming into its own, new, and very large generation, and the sort of new ideas and the radicalism that that tends to entail.
PD: It’s a group of people who haven’t lived playing defense against the ascendant right, which every other generation has had to do. So they feel that they can play offense, and kind of start a new thing. And that was my experience of listening to y’all, because, and this is one of my questions, because y’all are very edgy. I am of two minds on this. On one side, I am kind of a hunky dory person, who has a deep commitment to nonviolence because you should be attacking the system and not attacking people, but on the other hand, edginess has been a part of the start of every political wave. You have to redefine the terms of the debate. You have to say, “We’re going to stop playing defense. We’re going to start playing offense.” And you have to carve out a space where it’s safe to think up an alternative, and that involves kicking out of everyone’s head what I would like to call the conservative gaze. Obama lives under the conservative gaze, because every time he says anything, or did anything, he thought, “What would David Brooks think of this?” And when Chuck Schumer has explicitly said that every time he drafts a bill, he is thinking of what a Reagan Democrat man on Long Island would think. And so, under liberalism, in the 2000s, you had to say, “Immigration is good, because we don’t want those jobs.” Or “Prison reform will save money.” Or “I don’t believe in all wars, I only don’t believe in dumb wars.” And what y’all did — my experience of listening to y’all, and the experience of all my friends listening to y’all, is you kicked those voices out of our head, and you said, “Hey, stop. Stop thinking what David Brooks thinks. Think about what you think.” I wanted to know if that’s how you think about what you were doing, or if it just so happened that way. I don’t know. Has anybody else told you that?
VT: That we evicted the conservative gaze?
PD: Yes, maybe not in those words.
VT: Not necessarily in those terms, but I would say this, and this comes from my experience, writing online, and something Felix and I would talk about, is today we were satirizing these pundits. Obviously we do not live in a time where the media is a totally top-down thing. You want to be informed? You want to read the news? Okay, here’s your newspaper, and here’s the fucking opinion columnist, and you don’t really get a choice in the matter. When actually, put to a vote, when it becomes a matter of analytics, and clinics, most of these people, who are dog shit writers with bad opinions, are not being read at all. You don’t have to live in fear of these people if they don’t matter. Like, one thing that doesn’t matter, and has never mattered, is fucking newspaper endorsements, and elections. And yet, campaigns are still obsessed with them. Donald Trump proved that they were fucking bullshit. So, yeah, I would say that not living in fear of the conservative gaze, and also just not living in fear of the media apparatus, generally. Maybe you want to say these are one in the same things.
PD: That’s interesting, because I was saying like, “Oh, maybe they’re not actually there, and you just shouldn’t be scared, and we’ll be a proud minority.” But you’re saying that actually, they might not even be that powerful anyway.
VT: They’re not! The average person does not know who the fuck David Brooks is. That’s true. That is true. I could commission a poll, and it would give me that result. And it doesn’t matter, and it’s ludicrous that he speaks to conventional wisdom. He speaks to decision makers. That’s really the only argument that he matters, in an existential sense, is that the fucking president would read his columns? That’s it. But by that token, the president fucking listened to Jay-Z.
PD: I mean, it’s interesting, because there are two side of this coin: The secret AM radio people have more power than we think they do, and the people that are on the New York Times op-ed board have less power than we think they do.
VT: I don’t even think the AM radio people have that much power. I mean, they were—pretty much all of them were Trump skeptics, and kind of had to—they figured that it would be Cruz, or Rubio, or something, and they eventually had to walk that back. So guys like Beck are still pretending to be Never Trump.
PD: I’ve read some article that, and heard some stories that they knew about the right-wing, anti-immigrant fervor before anyone else did, so they were the ones that hated Eric Cantor — they were like onto that before everyone else way, even before Fox News. Because they were the ones who took callers. A big thing in controversy around Chapo— you know, you’re a divisive cultural phenomenon. Maybe all kinds of meteoric rise things are divisive. But possibly the biggest one is that the accusation that Chapo has a very male fanbase. And again, I’m of two minds on this. I think it’s probably true, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on if that’s true, that you do have a very male fanbase, disproportionately. And in one mind, we on the left, should always try to diversify our communities, and speak to every type of person, and not re-center men, or white men, heterosexual men, and the like. And then another part of me says there are a lot of different cultural creations, and maybe this is one that can recruit men to the left, and another can recruit different people to the left, and another can recruit different people to the left, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to punish yourself over the fact that a group has it. But I really feel both sides of that. So, you must feel that question as well, because you’re the one who has to live with it.
VT: First off, I absolutely do not want to go out and disregard the substantial number of female fans, and non-white fans of the show.
PD: And I don’t want to erase them. I was saying just kind of disproportionately. And maybe you can challenge that it is disproportionately. That’s the conventional wisdom, in the criticisms.
VT: You know, we’ve done these live shows, and I would be hard-pressed to admit that the preponderance of members of the audience weren’t just fucking white guys. That being said, I view our show not as a political outlet, but as a cultural product, maybe even culture is too highfalutin for what it is that we do. … We do a comic vibe, and a political vibe. And I think that, perhaps, the aggressiveness of the show, the standoffishness, the refusal to compromise on our views, and the fact that it’s just a lot of people fucking ranting, not just at the audience, not just at figures who are outside of the room, but also often at each other. Perhaps something about that is just inherently appealing to young men. The show is a certain kind of comedy — it’s a violent kind of comedy. It’s — I’m of the Michael O’Donoghue school of comedy, that comedy should be cruel, because that’s the only way it has an effect, or that makes sense, and obviously if you compare us to other people in the comic landscape, that’s not the prevailing view. It’s not that I want to listen to comedy, every single comedy is basically interchangeable to me. That’s not really the case. Which brings me to my next point: It’s also a very personal thing that we do. For the most part, the show isn’t really constructed in any kind of artistic fashion. This what I enjoy most from the show, at times we do something that requires a lot of preparation, and writing, and planning. But you know, the standard, prototypical Chapo episode is just some people sitting around a talking to each other. It’s just a conversation that others listen in on. And I hear quite frequently that the listeners feel like voyeurs. They feel like they are there, on the couch with us, next to the cat vomit, engaging in a conversation with us, or at least, they’re just sitting around us. It’s just a conversation they liked.
PD: This has been called parasocial interaction, where you make friends with people that are on your TV, or in your podcast. It’s why The Today Show has the chit-chat before they go to the new segment, so you feel like Al Roker is your buddy.
VT: But that’s also way more structured than what we do, and way more fake. Like I said, if what we’re doing isn’t art, then it’s sincere. And it’s an actual conversation that we’re having, that it’s loosely structured, based on the news, but it’s not like one that we would have at a bar or something.
PD: Yeah, it is very intimate. And at the times why it hits the deepest, it’s not just educational, telling you what you should believe about Elliot Abrams, it’s not just political, it’s not telling you to join DSA. It’s also this kind of existential salve about what it means to be someone who cares about these issues in a time that’s so ridiculous. It is interesting, that I’m saying that to you, that in some ways it’s a salve.
VT: I consider that a good depiction of how we feel making the show, to be quite frank with you. If you are a voyeur of the program, you are kind of just listening in on these people having mental breakdowns every week.
PD: Yeah, and it’s kind of genuine mental breakdowns. Because in some ways, it’s, like, watching Jon Stewart playing a clip of some Republican saying something dumb on Fox News, or something, and then going like, “What is going on!?” That was kind of like, one layer of watching someone have a mental breakdown. This is a deeper version of that.
VT: Let me go to this point, which is that the show is educational, people learn a lot from the show, which I find interesting, because the show is not intended to be didactic. We don’t view ourselves as creating propaganda. Or, at least, I don’t. I kind of think if we did, then we’d kind of want to go about it differently, do more research, learn more things, take a more ecumenical approach, when considering our appeal, and go out, and thirstily try to expand our audience, however we can, because we have a gospel, and we’ve got to spread that. That’s not what the show is at all.
PD: What is it, then? That’s very fascinating. You are the number one podcast on the left, yet you say you’re not even evangelists. And I think those might be connected.
VT: I mean, I think people learn from the show, because our audience is also, and this is very interesting, demographically — the audience is much younger than the average host of the show. I’m in my early 30s, and I think that the median listener is like 25, 26, or something like that. So, I can imagine, okay, if you’re like 22, and listening to the show, yeah, something that I’ve just always known, would be completely new to you. Because I try to think — I’ve been learning things, and trivial things, but I know like, all the weird online bullshit. I could know something that’s just completely novel. Just open someone up to a completely new field. That’s really interesting to me. That’s also, I think, a big part of the appeal of the show, is that there’s a lot of trivia in the show. And that’s kind of how I felt when I was — and I think of myself as a media consumer, when I was a kid, and I read the Onion or I watched The Simpsons, or something like that, and so much of it is very, very high brow, that it never explains to you, and that just inspires you to go out and learn more about that sort of thing.
PD: That is fascinating. I believe there’s, like, a Chapo wiki where the fans are like, “Look at the 17 references that happened.” There’s the famous ones, like baseball crank, and grey wolves, and the like. But, it’s like, the whole episode, sometimes, you only catch 80 percent of it, and then you’re Googling while listening to it. That, I think, makes people want more. There’s something interesting about that.
VT: Right, and this is all very voyeur focused. To answer your question, I’m not trying to avoid the question, but it’s one that I think about a lot, and I don’t have a great answer for what the show actually is. It’s not propaganda. The best argument is that well, the show is art. It’s a kind of performance art. And I’m inclined to kind of agree with that, except it’s kind of missing the artifice part of that — you know? I feel like art kind of needs to be directed in some fashion. It’s a sort of improvised spoken word, is what we do. I mean, we manufacture — and this is a general episode, not including, like, we do go out and do more serious interviews, and so on, which I can talk about in a bit. But we manufacture a conversation, among friends, for your listening enjoyment. If there’s a category for that, I’m interested to hear it.
PD: Well, it’s like, what is The Late Show With David Letterman? Is it propaganda, is it entertainment?
VT: That’s a very structured thing. Okay, Letterman does a monologue, or he did. But I mean, Letterman did a monologue, and that would be written, and that’s written, actually, by a lot of people, a lot of stringers, facts, and jokes, and hope that one of them gets in the monologue, and they get, like, 50 bucks or something. Then there’s skits, which are written by professional writers, enacted by professional actors, and then there’s musical performance, and interviews, maybe a standup set. This is all quite prepared. This isn’t an improvisational thing any more than, like, Saturday Night Live is.
PD: You think yours is strange because it’s not scripted.
VT: Right, because of the improvisational aspect of it.
PD: And it can go off in one direction, and take the rest of the episode in that way, and you’re happy with it, and you just release it. You don’t say, oh we need to do that again.
VT: The honest to god answer is: The show is something that I do. That’s the best way I can describe it. Like, what does Rush Limbaugh do? He’s not a political propagandist. He’s an entertainer who makes money.
PD: This is kind of another way to ask this question. Who is your precedent? Are you Rush Limbaugh?
VT: I don’t know.
PD: His show is unscripted. It’s just three hours of him talking, and he has a producer who says, maybe, hour two: You can talk about this news story or whatever.
VT: Presumably, he has producers, researchers. He gets clips, right? Somebody has to put that together. I mean, that’s essentially Will’s primary role on the show. So, I’m kind of odd in this, because I wasn’t there at the beginning of the show. That was Will, Matt, and Felix, and then Amber and I joined shortly after the election, and the show has been going, up until that point, for about eight months, something like that, seven, eight months. I had, up to that point, been writing this satirical column that I was very, very invested in. And, the thing is, and that kind of ties back to that discussion about Carl Diggler, is I didn’t view that as propaganda. I didn’t view that as polemic, or something didactic. So, you could certainly learn things from it, and it certainly expresses a political point of view. I viewed it as humor writing, you know? Not, as like, I’m really going to take these fuckers down. Just as, I’m trying to write something funny. And I’m trying to explore a character. And the medium is politics. But it’s not necessarily making a political argument. Like, my favorite Diggler columns were these long reads — dispatches from the campaign trail. And these would be written in the voice of, oh, you know, that fucking Beto profile in Vanity Fair, like, “Oh, I spent a day with John Kasich in New Hampshire.” And at the root of this is just trying to tell an amusing story, where one of the main characters happens to be the governor of Ohio. Does that make sense?
PD: I think I understand this, because I don’t particularly like political art. I just file that under politics.
VT: It’s an oxymoron, isn’t it?
PD: Yeah, because art is non-political, and it resists being political so that it can be art. And a great example of this is The Simpsons. The Simpsons would do an episode about, like, Reverend Lovejoy, and I bet the Bill Maher listener of the world would be like oh yeah, like, you’re taking down the Church! Or something. But The Simpsons would never think about it that way. They would say, well I’m just exploring the Church, and I’m making an entertaining, humorous thing about it, in the case of the Lovejoy episode.
VT: And it’s character.
PD: And in some ways, it might say the good things about it. And in some ways, it might say the bad things about it, because that’s what art can do, is it can have you see something more clearly, and it’s enemy is an agenda.
VT: There is a political valence to what we do, obviously. And let’s go back to the voyeur’s gaze again. I can’t ignore the fact that a lot of people reach out and say, “This show changed the way I think about everything. This show made me get together with my co-workers and start a union. The show made me join a socialist group. The show made me protest.” Someone might say, “I used to be a conservative. I used to be a Ben Shapiro fan, then I listened to your show, and I realized, oh, god, who I was was garbage, and all that shit is awful.” I can’t ignore any of that, but it’s not intentional. It’s not, I ring the sales bell and ooo we got another one. You know what I mean? And again, it’s incredibly personal. It’s who we are as the hosts, are fucking people who scream about politics all the time, who have political views, who are just rowdy jerks. And I think just by being that, it in some way inspires those changes.
PD: This is where the parasocial interaction comes in, because it’s — the way that people change, their friends, they kind of imbibe their social network. And so, if a friend was propagandizing to you, they’re not friends anymore. Friendship is like art. It can’t be propaganda.
VT: Your friend learns a new thing, and they become that weird friend who is really into Jordan Peterson, or something.
PD: Yeah, and they’re always telling you about it, and suddenly they’re not a friend anymore. But if they’re a friend, and they happen to be into Jordan Peterson, and talk about it from true passion, or they talk about the things they learn from it, then you’ll become a friend. And so the parasocial thing is, these people who listen aren’t really your friends, but they feel like you’re treating them with the respect, and kind of openness, and vulnerability that you would treat a friend with. And Jordan Peterson himself is interesting, because Jordan Peterson has so many more followers than Dennis Prager, and Jordan Peterson has this kind of roundabout way of making his arguments, whereas Dennis Prager is more of a propagandist, like Ben Shapiro, and I think that’s showing this phenomenon, too, because it’s like, when someone kind of joins an aesthetic, or a way of being, or a feeling, they’re much more happy about it than if they’re just kind of downloading an argument.
VT: Right, and I think Peterson, who is ostensibly supposed to be some kind of fucking professor, figures that out a few years ago, just how far he can go through aesthetics and bullshitting.
PD: Now Virgil, I’d like to end with this: I want to be respectful of your time. We’ve come to our end here.
VT: Oh, I’ve got time. I’m drunk now, so it’s fine.
PD: I’ve got two more questions for you. One is: Do you feel any responsibility, as Chapo grows in power, as the outsiders become insiders, and do you talk as a group about who do we platform, whose side do we have to take on things, should we be talking in this way? Oh, these people are writing to us saying they’re doing x, and maybe that’s not good, and they’re taking the wrong message from us? Or, has that not been a problem, yet? How do y’all grapple with kind of being famous now.
VT: First of all, embedded in your question, is this idea that we’re famous. Which, I guess is true in some kind of very narrow sense. I mean, the show isn’t massive. Like, Beto O’Rourke is not going to stop by and skateboard on into a fucking interview with us. If he did, I’d be very happy to interview him. I think that would be very fun. And you know, I don’t know if Beto listens to your program.
PD: Yeah, Beto, if you’re listening, you’re welcome on both Current Affairs and on Chapo.
VT: That being said, I can’t ignore that, I can’t do other than recognize it. I mean, one thing I would say to you is that if I weren’t on the show, I would probably hate it. It is a preposterous thing, right? It’s a fucking podcast, and it has this level of success. There’s no company behind it, right? We’re not like, owned by Spotify, or whatever. It’s a totally independent project. And this goes back to kind of what I said at the beginning of the beginning of this interview, that I just view that as something that happens, and the people who are critical of us, and envious of our success — which they should be, frankly, I think something that it’s just something that could end tomorrow, and alright, I’ll just go figure out something else to do. Or do nothing. You know, whatever’s easier. The answer is no, because we don’t really function like a political unit. And I think that would get in the way of what I’m trying to express about what the show is. The show can’t function if we sit down and have struggle sessions about what fucking candidate we want to endorse, or something like that. I should hope that it’s clear to the listeners that we as individual hosts have different political priorities, different political views, and different political interests. And I hope my, my best idea for the show is that it can contain all of that. Because those are all, as well, personal expressions.
PD: Have you ever had something happen on the show where you were like I wish we didn’t do that? Or, do you have any regrets?
VT: Do I have any regrets, personally? No. I’ve believe I’ve always acted properly.
PD: Maybe I’ll ask the opposite. What is your proudest moment, from the show? Have you ever had an episode, and you were like, that is the best instance of our art? In this art that you’re talking about?
VT: Honestly, outside of some of the more memorable things that we’ve done, like the Christmas episodes, or the gaming episodes, or some of the interviews that I’ve thought — the best episode, or the purest form of the show that sticks out in my mind, that I was a participant on, was the lost episode, where we had Gideon Resnick on, and we’ve always meant to make this up — have him back on.
PD: You’ve never released it? So this is something —
VT: It was lost. There’s not a thing to release, is the thing. It was a recording fuckup. You know, that’s just one of the things that happens once in a while. And that one — it felt so good. It was one of the best things, because somebody had sent me comedian Dan Nainan’s TV pilot script. And we read it. And it is one of the most baffling things. And it was so — we like, picked parts, and then we acted it out. And it was the real thing. It’s the actual script that he did. This was not somebody pulling our legs. I can’t even describe how good just the script was. But it’s the energy in the room from it. And we lost that. And we’ve always meant to do that again. Once enough time had passed, and we’ve forgotten it — so this will feel fresh again.
PD: In some ways, that is the purest art, is the art that’s lost, and never shared.
VT: Right. One day, we’ll record an episode of the show that’s so good that we have to destroy it, because it will make everything else that we or anyone else could create, it would render it obsolete.
PD: Thank you, Virgil Texas, for coming to the Current Affairs World Headquarters. We greatly appreciate it.
VT: Well thank you so much for having me. It’s been a dream come true.
Transcribed by Addison Kane.
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