In the Trump era, a comedy podcast about conspiracy theories finds a home in the mainstream
The hosts of “Last Podcast on the Left” do not feel especially vindicated that they were right about an alleged pedophile conspiracy that has ensnared top government and media figures.
“It’s sad that so many conspiracy theories have become true, but it’s good that the rocks are being overturned and we’re seeing all the bugs,” said co-host Ben Kissel.
“No one knows where Jeffrey Epstein’s money comes from, and the president has no interest in seeing him going down,” co-host Henry Zebrowski added.
For close to a decade, Kissel, Zebrowski and Marcus Parks, all in their mid-30s, have covered conspiracy-theory culture on their show, a pioneer of true-crime and horror-comedy podcasting. Subjects have run the gamut from the very plausible (intelligence failures around 9/11) to gleefully nutty (the moon is secretly hollow) to the sad and sordid (Jeffrey Epstein and the history of pedophiles in government). With Epstein and R. Kelly now looking at serious prison time for allegedly running organized sex cults, and with a president who embraces (and stars in) far-reaching conspiracy theories, the fringe culture the podcast has documented for years is more salient than ever.
“It’s interesting to see society catch up with what we’ve been talking about for a decade now,” Kissel said. “If people spoke about these things before, it was with a book they’d self-published.”
“Last Podcast’s” flagship show pulls over a million downloads per episode, with the back catalog drawing 11 million downloads a month. The show is a mix of long-form episodes, shorter clips covering current true-crime stories and news of the weird, and interviews with authors and paranormal-research figures. (Dan Aykroyd, a lifelong UFO enthusiast, recently came on to talk about the wave of mainstream UFO news stories.) The trio is playing a live show outdoors at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Sunday, a venue that more typically hosts arena-level rock acts.
As true-crime podcasts like “My Favorite Murder” and shows like “Mindhunter” have boomed, they’ve matured into something that often feels more like journalism or history. “Last Podcast on the Left” is a comedy show that, while frequently NC-17 in its humor and morbidity, still treats its subjects with a fundamental credulousness and respect. The tone is something like overnight radio host Art Bell as a self-aware Los Feliz stand-up, or if “Documentary Now” actually tried to do reporting. Zebrowski is an actor who has appeared on HBO’s “Crashing” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Kissel is a former television and radio commentator who (unsuccessfully) ran for Brooklyn borough president in 2017. Parks is the primary author of their forthcoming book on serial killers for publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Comedy has lately grown more consequential in exposing real-life malevolence. Hannibal Buress’ stand-up arguably reignited investigations into Bill Cosby; Seth MacFarlane joked about Harvey Weinstein’s lecherousness at the 2013 Oscars, and just a few years later Weinstein was found to be using ex-Mossad agents to silence his alleged sexual-assault victims.
“Comedians have been at the foreground of telling the truth about what’s going on,” Kissel said. “You’re seeing all of these jokes become serious, and no one listened to us.”
There are vast differences between the alleged predations of R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein and the daffier stuff around Bigfoot and real-life Men in Black, which the hosts treat with a much lighter touch.
But then there are things like Q Anon and YouTube radicalization cults that, while transparently false and strange, still exert influence over American life and politics.
Pizzagate sent a man with a gun on a mission to hunt phantoms in a restaurant. Incel and dark-web culture has led to multiple murders, most recently of a young teen, Bianca Devins, which “Last Podcast” covered with appropriate solemnity. Believers in Q Anon (an inscrutable conspiracy starring Trump as a pedophile hunter as well as a secretly-still-alive John F. Kennedy Jr.) are showing up at Trump rallies, where his fans chant to deport U.S. congresswomen of color.
“Things have become so normalized, especially because the president is in their dream world,” Zebrowski said. “If you go back to Ruby Ridge and Waco, those types used to go to gun shows and listen to shortwave radio, but you had to go seek that stuff out,” Parks added, citing the escalation of conspiracy-theory shows from “Coast to Coast AM Radio” and Bill Cooper to Alex Jones and YouTube rabbit holes. “Now it’s in your pocket. And they have a president who subscribes to their same worldview. They’re ecstatic.”
Not all of their newly validated conspiracy research is quite so dark. The mainstreaming of UFO culture, including major stories in the New York Times and Washington Post about a push within the military to acknowledge unexplained phenomena, is a major shift in how the government and public treat such theories.
“Navy pilots moved to change the forms for filling out UFO sightings because they were seeing too much [stuff] and were sick of being made fun of,” Zebrowski said. “Now we’re getting to a gray area where it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know,’ and those things lead toward research.”
Despite making a career in it, the “Last Podcast” hosts are not encouraged by the scale of conspiracy culture. As the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders approaches, the hosts see some uncomfortable similarities between the culture on Spahn Ranch and the dark corners of YouTube and 8Chan today.
“When the Logan Paul thing was heating up, I wouldn’t have put it beneath him to murder somebody. Money and attention can twist you,” Zebrowski joked (and Paul did, in fact, face backlash for posing with a dead body). “But an Instagram influencer just got murdered and her corpse was put on the internet. These [Manson] people would already be on the internet, and they’d be low-level celebrities.”
“Lots of people believe in conspiracies,” Parks said, “because it’s easier than believing the fact that life is chaos and nobody’s in charge.”
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