Theo Von You Dumbass

Behold a useful idiot.

Theo Von You Dumbass
Theo Von/YouTube.

You will not find a more perfect example of comedy’s utility to the far-right than Tucker Carlson’s recent appearance on Theo Von’s podcast This Past Weekend. Carlson, you will recall, is out in the wilderness after Fox canceled Tucker Carlson Tonight for unstated reasons possibly related to any of the following: his long history of misogyny; the sexist and anti-Semitic workplace described in a lawsuit by a former producer; text messages that emerged during Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against Fox News, including texts disparaging Donald Trump; his embrace of conspiracy theories about the Capitol riot; and his extreme white nationalism, which reportedly reached a breaking point for Fox’s advertisers and executives. Since leaving the network, he’s brought a slimmed down version of his talk show to X, née Twitter, the production value lower but the nationalism no less white:

Von, a popular but somewhat lesser-known member of the Joe Rogan school of podcasting, does not ask Carlson about any of this. He doesn’t seem to know very much about Carlson at all, other than that he’s a famous guy from television. “We never met,” he says at the beginning of the episode. “I want to get to know you.” Carlson claims to know of Von’s work through one of his children, whom he describes as Von’s “biggest fan.” Over the course of the 150-minute episode, they shoot the shit about their sobriety journeys; the fentanyl epidemic; the problems with mainstream media; how Von used to go to the gym and lift weights with his onetime neighbor, former KKK leader David Duke (“I’ll say this: nice guy… There was never any racial things or whatever, but you know, he was a very fit man"); Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s presidential prospects; and where they’d take refuge if society breaks down. They have great chemistry and seem to genuinely like each other. They crack jokes. As these sorts of podcasts go, it’s a good time.

“If they get me sick or I get them sick, fuck ’em.”
Comedy’s back! We’re fucked.

And yet Carlson is unmistakably there with an agenda. It seeps out in some places, bursts through in others. When the conversation winds its way towards vaccines, he argues (in defense of RFK Jr.) that there’s a “recognition” now that people "get hurt all the time" by vaccines, including flu vaccines. “It’s bad to lie, and it’s especially bad to lie at scale,” he says of Anthony Fauci. “If I’m lying to 350 million people, that’s a crime.” Later, bemoaning America’s involvement in foreign wars, he yearns for a more… how do I say this… domestic focus. “I feel deep resentment about that—that the concerns of this country are of no concern,” he says, lamenting that one of Mike Johnson’s first acts as Speaker of the House was to make a statement in support of Israel:

It doesn't have to be this way. You know, there are people, there are hundreds of millions of people whose ancestors are buried here. And they want to stay here. They don't have another passport. And it wouldn't be hard to rally them and just say like, “You're a Democrat, you're a Republican, you're this, you're that, but we're all American, and let's have a conversation about what's best for our country.”

Just a few minutes later, he complains that American architecture has gone down the tubes since World War II:

You've got a lot of great public architecture in Louisiana. None of it has been built since Huey Long was murdered. Okay, so why is that? And it’s been replaced by disposable garbage. And the Dollar Store—I’m sorry to single them out but they are a symbol of it. It's so intentionally ugly. Box stores are so ugly. You're like, there's got to be a purpose behind, you know—architecture exists for a reason. You're sending a message when you build a building. When you build anything. And the message of box stores and dollar stores and of public—the DMV—is, “You mean nothing. We're not going to spend any time or any energy trying to elevate you or please your senses or build anything beautiful.” It's ugly on purpose to let you know that you mean nothing. You do not count. Shut up and obey. You're an animal, actually. And I just feel like there's something very profound about that. The message that it sends. And everyone receives the message whether they know it or not.

A few minutes after that, he extols the late British empire’s architectural achievements in colonial India—achievements that he feels Indian governments have failed to preserve—before this happens:

VON: You know where there’s great architecture that blew my mind? Milwaukee.
CARLSON: The best! Down by the river?
VON: Dude. Milwaukee is such a beautiful city.
CARLSON: I totally agree with you. Have you tried Cleveland?
VON: Uh… yeah?
CARLSON: I mean, Cleveland obviously is famously screwed up. Mistake by the Lake. [Looking at images of Milwaukee:] Look at that right there. So the Germans built it. Milwaukee was a German city, obviously.
VON: It was?
CARLSON: Oh yeah. That’s why the beer was brewed there.
VON: Oh, yeah, yeah.
CARLSON: Very German city. They recreated Europe. The best of Europe. 

Do you see what I’m getting at?

Credit where due: Von is Carlson’s perfect interlocutor. To be blunt, the guy makes Rogan look like Nietzsche. He simply never has a clue what’s going on around him. Offered any bit of information, he accepts it uncritically. You may remember a This Past Weekend clip that made the rounds back in June, ostensibly of Roseanne Barr saying the Holocaust never happened. Von and Barr were correct to respond that it was taken out of context: she wasn’t seriously denying the Holocaust, she was ironically performing Holocaust denial to make the case that “the Holocaust never happened” and “the 2020 election wasn’t rigged” are equally ridiculous claims. (Much better, I know.) The thing is, if you watch the episode starting around 1:12:00, you can tell that Von doesn't actually clock the bit while it's happening:

BARR: Comics, I think we're the last free speech art form. And as long as we're performing, things ain't as bad as they could be. You know? I think that's true. 
VON: As long as we're performing, things aren't as bad as they could be.
BARR: Yeah.
VON: And that's always been the case throughout time. Like with jesters or with people that was trying to speak up and share. There's always been a ceiling on speech, hasn't there, in a way. 
BARR: Of course. Nobody wants to hear the real truth. They're horrified of it. They'd rather go with bullshit. It's easier. Like for the real truth that, you know, and I'm glad that they did set up all these guidelines so that we only are allowed to speak the truth. And the truth is that Biden got 81 million votes by winning 36 counties. And that is just incredible. It really, really is. And that of these 81 million supporters who gave him more votes than any president has ever gotten before, he came with a mandate from these 81 million voters. And, you know, I'm just glad that they were very careful to make sure that nobody could detract from that proven truth. You know what I mean? 
VON: Like, what do you mean? Like that nobody—
BARR: That they mandated that that was the truth and that nobody could say, "Well, what about—" No. 
VON: Oh, it was made a mandate. 
BARR: Yeah. 
VON: Oh, I didn't know that. 
BARR: Mm-hmm.
VON: So the government made it a mandate? 
BARR: Yeah. Because you know, YouTube did and so did—
VON: Oh, so you can't even speak on that in those platforms.
BARR: No, you can't say, you know—
VON: That it wasn't.
BARR: You can't say that like the election—
VON: The election was rigged.
BARR: Yeah, that's all a lie. The election was not rigged. Thirty-six counties can give you 81 million votes.
VON: Right.
BARR: That's a fact.
VON: So it wasn't rigged?
BARR: Of course not! Thirty-six counties have 81 million people in them.
VON: [Laughing:] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BARR: See? That's the truth. And don't you dare say anything against it or you'll be off YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other ones. Because there's such a thing as the truth and facts, and we have to stick to it.
VON: It's scary.
BARR: And that is the truth. And nobody died in the Holocaust, either.
VON: Nope.
BARR: That's the truth.

I'm open to arguments that Von has an even better deadpan than Barr here, but I've also been doing this long enough to know that things are usually what they look like. And what this looks like is that he's taking everything she says at face value, possibly because he's only barely following along. If that's not the case, however, the alternative is that he's agreeing with her subtextual claims about the election—not much of a comfort. Either way, you can see what makes comedians like him such useful vectors for propaganda: in barely a minute, he goes from echoing anodyne platitudes to blankly co-signing conspiracy theories. Once the bit is over, he asks Barr if it was weird as a Jew to get kicked out of a Jewish industry.

The Carlson episode is no different. It’s kind of wild. At one point Carlson uses the word “partisan” and Von interjects, “And what does partisan mean? Just so everybody knows.” (After Carlson answers, he asks what “non-partisan” means.) When Carlson says vaccines hurt people all the time, Von agrees, then adds that when the Tulane National Primate Research Center, in his hometown, tested the polio vaccine on primates, researchers found that it “gave cervical cancer to tons of women, and they knew it when they put it out, but they’d already ordered it, so they were like ‘Fuck it, we already paid for it.’” This does not appear to correspond with any documented historical event. When Carlson praises Twitter’s embrace of free speech, Von worries that someone might try to assassinate Elon Musk. When they get into the Israel-Palestine conflict, Von offers up: “This is the Celtics and the Lakers from the Bible.” The guy’s just a total cipher, which makes him the ideal partner in Carlson’s effort to present himself as a normal fun guy while spreading white nationalist propaganda.

There's nothing wrong with not being particularly bright, but with great reach comes a basic duty not to fuck up things that matter. As with Joe Rogan, the qualities that make Von a successful podcaster—his charm, his ease as a conversationalist, his total lack of background knowledge and willingness to go with whatever—also make him useful to extremists like Carlson and RFK Jr., who appeared on This Past Weekend in September. And to be clear, I do think this is a calculated move on Carlson’s part. “You’ve obviously got some sort of weird magic power over younger people,” he tells Von at the end of the episode, an odd compliment that I think betrays his strategy. (Von misreads this and gets defensive: “They came after our industry a couple years ago… The New York Times hunted down half our industry.”) He’s on a charm offensive, and he evidently recognizes Von's power to lend him credibility on his path back to mainstream media. It’s both a testament to comedy’s cultural influence and an indictment of its chattering class that a disgraced white nationalist demagogue would come here in search of an audience.

What Else?

-If you're in New York City, check out Humorism friend Gabe Mollica's funny and moving show Solo at Connelly Theatre Upstairs before the run ends on November 18th.

-I loved Harmony Holiday's poem "Grief" in The Drift.

-The thing about comedy's friendliness with the far right is that the figures it's friendly with now are much, much more powerful than the ones it was friendly with ten years ago:

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