Chapo Trap House is an American political and humor podcast founded in March 2016 and hosted by Will Menaker, Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, Amber A'Lee Frost, and Virgil Texas. The podcast became known for its left-wing commentary in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The show is closely identified with the "dirtbag left", a term coined by Frost to refer to a style of left-wing politics that eschews civility-for-its-own-sake in favor of subversive, populist vulgarity. The show's hosts also authored a book about socialism, The Chapo Guide to Revolution, published in August 2018.
Background and format
The three founding hosts met online through discussions on Twitter years prior to starting the podcast. Under the usernames @willmenaker (Menaker); @cushbomb (Christman); and @ByYourLogic (Biederman, also formerly @swarthyvillain), they developed followings for their political commentary and have been called "minor Twitter celebrities." The hosts are associated with Twitter communities called "Left Twitter" and "Weird Twitter," a name used to describe a loose group of Twitter users known for absurdist humor. All had been politically motivated for several years.
The three first recorded together as guests on an episode of the podcast Street Fight Radio to mock the film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. They had already discussed hosting a show together for some time, and, encouraged by positive reception to their Street Fight appearances, they created Chapo Trap House. They chose the name "Chapo Trap House" in the first episode as a joking reference to the Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán and a slang term for a drug house, intending the title to sound like the title of a rap mixtape.
The team behind the podcast has since expanded from the original three hosts. Brendan James joined as producer after appearing as a guest, and journalists Virgil Texas and Amber A'Lee Frost joined the show as alternating co-hosts after the 2016 American presidential election. Texas is Biederman's collaborator in creating the fictional, parodical pundit Carl Diggler (also the subject of his own podcast, The DigCast, on which Biederman voices Diggler and Texas portrays his intern). James left the show in November 2017. He was officially replaced by Chris Wade.
An episode of Chapo Trap House is typically between 60 and 80 minutes. Episodes are usually structured with a prepared "cold open," an interview with a guest, and commentary on current events. In post-production, relevant audio samples are interspersed into the episode's discussion. The theme song — and inspiration for the show's title — is "SALUTE 2 EL CHAPO PART 1" by DJ Smokey.
Weekly free episodes of the show are available via SoundCloud, Spotify, and iTunes, among other services. Subscribers who contribute at least $5 per month via Patreon gain access to additional weekly premium bonus episodes. By May 2017, the show generated over $60,000 a month from subscribers, and is as of May 2019 the highest-grossing user on Patreon, earning over $130,000 per month. Geek.com cited the show's premium content as an example of a viable revenue model for new podcasters.
Menaker, Christman, and Biederman identify with left-wing politics and frequently deride conservative, neoliberal, moderate, and liberal pundits. Writing for The New York Times, Nikil Saval called Chapo Trap House and its hosts "prime originators of the left’s liberal-bashing.” The Pacific Standard noted that:
Contemporary conservatism is the butt of many jokes on Chapo, but the harshest critiques are often saved for the Democratic Party (and for contemporary liberalism more generally). Chapo has managed to strip away the layers standard of political discourse to highlight the brutality behind policies like "triple-tap" airstrikes and for-profit health care.
Biederman has said the show's intended audience are those seeking alternatives to existing leftist media, which he characterizes as "the dominion of either upper-middle-class smugness when it's even the least bit funny and insufferable self-righteousness when it's even the least bit conscious." Similarly, Christman said that leftist perspectives in media tend toward either the "smug above-it-all snark of The Daily Show or the quaver-voiced earnestness of, like, Chris Hedges or something. Neither of those models offer the visceral thrill of listening to people who actually give a shit (as opposed to the wan liberalism of people who are mostly interested in showing how much smarter they are than Republicans)." Menaker has said that their perspective is meant to be in "marked contrast to the utterly humorless and bloodless path that leads many people with liberal or leftist proclivities into the trap of living in constant fear of offending some group that you're not a part of, up to and including the ruling class."
Chapo Trap House is dense with inside jokes and hyper-specific references to ongoing political discussion on Twitter. The show has a reading series which usually features texts by conservative writers, who have so far included Ross Douthat, Steven Seagal, Ben Shapiro, Dennis Prager, and Rod Dreher.
The show's hosts and fans popularized the "Baseball Crank" meme, which appropriated the Twitter avatar of anti-Donald Trump conservative writer Dan McLaughlin (also known by his Twitter handle @baseballcrank). The avatar is a baseball with a face, or a "bespectacled baseball with a get-off-my-lawn facial expression," which was "digitally inserted countless times into famous scenes of pain and madness." Its proliferation online was a left-wing celebration of schadenfreude at Trump's success in the 2016 Republican primary, and the Baseball Crank avatar became a mocking caricature of the outrage of anti-Trump conservatives. On the show, Christman described the avatar as representing to him the "anguished rictus of the Republican anti-Trump people. Whenever I see anybody bitching and moaning on the right about Trump's ascendancy, I just imagine their face taking on that horrified Boschian nightmare agony of the Baseball Crank." McLaughlin himself declined to comment to Law360 about Chapo expropriating his avatar, though he said, "They can do whatever they want. I just don't see the value of tweeting this stuff at me. I've got more important things to worry about."
Chapo Trap House has garnered a cult following. Committed fans are called Grey Wolves, an ironic reference to the neo-fascist-nationalist Turkish movement of the same name. Many fans credit the show for introducing them to political organizing.
A review of the second episode in The A.V. Club called the show "tremendously funny" and said "it feels like an absolutely essential listen." The reviewer cautioned prospective listeners that the show's left political perspective and amateur audio quality are "not for everyone," but said the hosts' "energy and desire to improve the political landscape of this country is not only unparalleled, but also contagious: if listening to this podcast doesn't make you want to become more a more [sic] politically engaged person, it's hard to imagine what will." A subsequent A.V. Club review of the seventh episode noted the show's marked improvements in audio quality and the hosts' newfound confidence and flow in discussion, while retaining the "raw energy and urgency that has fueled the show from the get-go." The publication eventually named the episode of the show following the election of Donald Trump one of the best individual podcast episodes of the year 2016.
Mediaite called the show "consistently, absurdly funny and impressively literate on the diverse subjects it tackles," citing the hosts' "breadth of awareness about (seemingly) everything that's been published in every media outlet for the past few decades, and a depth of knowledge on various, arcane subjects." Paste described the show as "not deliberately offensive, but unapologetically honest ... so hilarious and delightfully vulgar I can barely stand it." Pacific Standard noted, "Whether you think Chapo Trap House and its fans are bullies or righteously hilarious seems to come down to whether you think calling a Washington Post reporter 'smooth brain' is an acceptable move within the political discourse." The Irish Times commended its "more bracing and venomous approach to politics" than other podcasts and named the show one of the best podcasts of 2016.
The Advocate praised the show for its "scathing, hilarious, erudite analysis on politics and media from a far-left perspective," and favorably analogized the thrill of listening to how Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh make their right-wing fans feel. Comedy website Splitsider recommended the episode featuring video editor Vic Berger, who did an in-depth interview about his surreal Vine and YouTube shorts covering the 2016 presidential election season.
In a column, Robby Soave of libertarian magazine Reason criticized the show as "apparently a group therapy session for Bernie bros." Soave wrote in reaction to host Will Menaker commenting on one of his tweets, saying that he believed Menaker had a hypocritical view of free speech rights, and said the hosts "would gleefully applaud the silencing of everyone to their right." Soave later appeared as a guest on a premium episode of the podcast, "17 — The Road to Soavedom,” in which he debated the hosts on freedom of speech in the media and the viability of public education.
In a review for Politico, Bill Scher asked if the 2018 book The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts and Reason was the "stupidest book ever written about socialism.” Scher wrote that the Chapo Trap House hosts "have no idea what they’re talking about, and their glib new book proves it."
In March 2019, it was revealed former U.S. Senator from Alaska Mike Gravel filed for an exploratory committee regarding a possible 2020 presidential campaign after being convinced to run by students David Oks, Henry Williams, and Elijah Emery, who learned about Gravel from Chapo Trap House. Gravel's formerly dormant Twitter account soon went viral after being used by the students to attack various politicians, including Democrats Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris, in an effort to move discussion of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates leftward. The Mike Gravel campaign performed an AMA on the r/Chapotraphouse subreddit on April 8, the day the campaign officially launched.
Also in March, Italian weekly news magazine L'espresso attributed Chapo Trap House viewership with rising membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, saying the podcast is "[a] real and physical program, which is bringing thousands of young Americans to subscribing themselves to the DSA: the young Democratic Socialists of America."