The Podcast That Best Captured the Chaos of the Internet in 2019

Photo: Courtesy of Harry James Hanson

The troubled brainchild of musicians Theda Hammel and Macy Rodman, Nymphowars is an alt-comedy podcast that sifts through the chaos of the internet with each unpredictable episode. “We’re really interested in cultural sludge,” Rodman tells me as I’m speaking to the pair, both trans women living in New York City. By cultural sludge, she means the ubiquitous entities those of us who exist online are “begrudingly exposed to,” from beauty influencers to rehashed gay culture. The show’s topics can take shape from both obsession and annoyance, or neither — “It’s just in our consciousness,” Rodman explains.

Nymphowars began in summer 2018, when the pair was planning a project to cover the worst songs from popular musicians’ catalogues. Instead, the two decided to take their natural dynamic and put it into audio form. The show exists in two parts: the main episodes and a weekly YouTube stream called The Blow Jobin’ Experience. These nods to Infowars and The Joe Rogan Experience reflect the show’s unpretentious relationship to its own medium. “It’s not that we’re making a commentary on it; it’s just that it’s funny to gesture toward it,” Hammel says. The two jokingly workshopped the concept for a third show during our interview, which Rodman titled Trans-po Crap House. I had become, according to Hammel, part of their “continuous imaginative unfoldment,” through which the two develop the ever-changing world of the show.

It’s an apt way to describe the podcast, which intersects with sketch and improv but neatly fits into neither, nor into any one consistent form. Hammel explains that “our modern vision of hell is Jimmy Fallon” — in other words, being constrained to a format that never changes with mood or circumstance. A somewhat undergound hit, the show is popular with queer listeners who might be looking for an alternative to conventional audio shows or even to the conventional formats of popular LGBT-fronted podcasts like Food 4 Thot or Las Culturistas. As a listener, that kind of creative freedom means you never know what might be waiting when you hit “play” on the next episode.

Take the season-two opener, for example: Rodman spurts out “okurrrr,” “work, hunty!” and “yasss, bitch” in a deranged stream, unable to speak in anything other than gay-culture catchphrases, which leads Hammel to discover that Rodman’s mind has been broken by a binge-watch of RuPaul’s Drag Race. To find out how to free her from the curse, Hammel has to go on a quest to kill Drag Race. “If we just said RuPaul is bad for not casting trans women, that wouldn’t be the whole story,” Rodman says. “The current moment is so fucking warped that it begs for a more dimensional portrayal.” Rather than try to articulate an opinion in a traditional sense, the show often flexes a different muscle, taking a controversial moment and stretching it to its most absurd extreme — Hammel pretending to be a cis gay man, for example — to make a point.

Much like the way “Kill Drag Race” made use of the prefab world of the reality series to build a narrative, Hammel tells me ideas for the show often “start with the space.” One example is their parody of the famed web series Gourmet Makes — one of the season’s best episodes, especially for fans who’ll pick up on its treasure trove of references. “We really wanted to do [Bon Appétit] because that kitchen [is] like a stage. It’s such a self-contained space, and people flow in and out of the room and there’s something really dynamic and radiophonic about it.” In their version, Hammel portrays Claire Saffitz as she’s forced to make a gourmet version of Pure for Men — a fiber supplement marketed to gay men who bottom. The show follows the basic structure of a Gourmet Makes episode but takes it to its most absurd and comedic potential.

Hammel often acts as the protagonist in these more high-concept narrative episodes, and we follow along as she navigates unhinged situations orchestrated by the cast of characters and impressions Rodman seems to effortlessly conjure. One recurring character is Caitlyn Jenner, whom Rodman hilariously — and lovingly — lampoons. “I don’t think our show is being mean to these people necessarily; it’s finding compassion in the caricature of them,” she explains. The show is often able to find humor in queer cultural figures, like James Charles and Jeffree Star, that mainstream comedy might be too hesitant, or simply too confused, to tackle.

When it’s not launching a Serial-style investigation on a YouTube drama or restaging Murder on the Orient Express with Jenner as the conductor, the show can also adopt a more traditionally conversational format. But even then, it rarely feels like other podcasts. “We want there to be an element of surprise. But also we are sometimes not in the headspace to do a complete somersault,” Rodman says. In one pair of episodes, the two interview each other about their lives and artistic pasts. In another, they visit their real-life laser-hair-removal tech, Tracy, who delivers an endless stream of conspiracy theories in a deep rasp as she works. These moments, which may sound more mundane, are delightful in a way that podcasting — an increasingly dull, oversaturated space — rarely is.

This is because Nymphowars’ genius isn’t just that it’s funny or intelligent or innovative. It’s that the show taps into the warmth that exists between the hosts and extends it to the worlds they create. Season two’s finale, for example, was the culmination of a running story line in which Hammel’s Twitter was suspended for impersonating pop star Dua Lipa, and in order to get it back, she has to be fisted live on-air. The episode spares us explicit access to the act, and listeners instead spend time with Rodman and a group of other trans women to cheer Hammel on while she checks in via walkie-talkie from another room.

If it sounds a little ridiculous, that’s because it is — but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be moving and profound. “It was actually one of the most endearing and touching experiences I’ve ever had,” Hammel says. “For basically five people, who I love very dearly, just patiently waiting for me to accomplish this absurd and extremely vulgar act … it was bizarrely sweet.”

The episode encapsulates what the show is built around: presenting high-concept chaos that gives way to the love between two people who relate to each other in ways others often don’t. And though the hosts naturally create worlds that reflect their experiences as trans women, Hammel says she’s less interested in identity and more in simply working with a friend she has a lot in common with.

“Not me,” Rodman added. “I’m more interested in trans. And that’s really what makes our show compelling.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of like Crossfire. Macy and I — it’s just a clash of the titans, man.”

The Podcast That Captured the Chaos of the Internet in 2019