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The Culture-Shifting Year of Bowen Yang, Matt Rogers, and ‘Las Culturistas’

Yang and Rogers once merely commented on culture on their podcast. Now, the ‘SNL’ star and the singer-actor-writer are shaping the culture via their wide-ranging artistic pursuits. But their podcast is still an outlet for their comedy to shine—and for their listeners to feel like a part of the joke.

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A few weeks after Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang first started a pop culture podcast—or honestly, “maybe even a few months,” Rogers tells me—“I looked on the website where you can see how many people were listening. And it was like, 65 people. And I was like, oh my God! I was like, wow!

Sixty-five people listening—that used to mean something. In this case, it meant that more than just Rogers’s and Yang’s immediate friends were paying attention. The year was 2016, and the two then-20-something entertainers who had become besties as students at NYU were now the creators and cohosts of Las Culturistas. Cultural consultants, they called themselves. “From the beginning,” reflects Yang, “it was sort of frivolous in a beautiful way.”

“We had no expectations and therefore we could kind of just be ourselves,” Rogers adds. “And I think ultimately that was good because I think that’s why it caught on. People seemed to gravitate towards the honesty of our friendship.”

Nearly eight years and over 400 episodes later, that is unabashedly and aggressively still the case. Rogers and Yang, who are now 33 and who refer to one another as sisters, are chatting with me over Zoom on a Monday afternoon in between performances. Rogers is in a hotel room in Texas, in the middle of a 12-stop tour celebrating Have You Heard of Christmas?, his fresh (and fresh) take on the celebrity Christmas album. Yang is in New York, where 36 hours prior he’d been performing as a Saturday Night Live cast member. He is wearing a shirt that says INTERNET PRINCESS, merch from a Substack he enjoys.

Even through a computer screen, the two have a magnetic force—which has helped Las Culturistas draw fans into what feels like a close orbit. Just ask me how I know. I may not have been one of those original 65 listeners, but ever since my first foray into the show a couple of years back, I’ve been mesmerized by its blend of gossip and friendship and silly passions and comedic ambitions.

Since its first episode, Las Culturistas has routinely posed a guiding North Star of a question: What was the culture that made you say that culture was for you? And the show’s success and appeal has proved that the pursuit of that answer can and should be a lifetime sport. (Complete with a forever-evolving list of the Rules of Culture, of course.) There will always be new acts to review, new episodes to discuss, and new conflicts to unpack, because the world is full of creative and twisted minds doing their thing the best way they know how. To live in the Las Culturistas universe is to both celebrate and say I don’t think so, honey to all those minds in equal measure, and to seek the wisdom to know the difference.

And there are a lot of seekers. This summer, the sisters returned to Lincoln Center for the second annual Las Culturistas Culture Awards, their chaotic, insightful take on (to self-consciously borrow their parlance) awards show culture. (Sample categories: “Melanie Lynskey Award for Most Sweetest Person,” “Most Amazing Impact in Film,” and “Christina Aguilera Award for ‘It’s just good!’” Sample category winners: “Can’t remember her name but the girl from the other night,” M3GAN, and a tie between Oreos and Sara Bareilles.) The line outside looped around the block; The New York Times estimated that there were 2,600 attendees. Then there’s their list of podcast guests, which this year alone included regulars like Sudi Green and D’Arcy Carden, as well as first-timers Keke Palmer, Kelly Clarkson, Seth Meyers, and Andy Cohen.

Even beyond the friendly confines of the podcast, both Rogers and Yang have been professionally buzzing, too, as seen on The Today Show and Late Night and The View and Watch What Happens Live. This fall, Rogers emceed Real Housewives panels at BravoCon and released music videos for his album; Yang helped write and wrangle SNL sketches for the likes of Pedro Pascal and Adam Driver (and starred in a number of them himself). This coming New Year’s Eve, Rogers and Yang will be two of the featured guests on Anderson Cooper and Cohen’s “New Years Eve Live” show. Which is a fitting way to close out the past year, because they both collectively and individually have spent 2023 in constant demand.

“They used to talk about culture, and now in many ways they are the culture,” their friend and collaborator Joel Kim Booster tells me in an email. And oh, what that culture hath wrought!

Once upon a time, the culturistas watched over every listener. Now, they’re the ones being perceived: on Twitter, in tabloids, on a loving subreddit that sometimes squeezes a little too hard. “As the years have gone by,” Rogers says, “it becomes more and more apparent that the nature of the relationship between the listener and the person doing the podcast—it’s an intimate one! But it can’t be an intimate one on our end.” The result, he says, is “it becomes this interesting thing where we want to be as honest as possible, and as real as possible. And I really, genuinely think that we are. But then there’s a certain, like—”

“—consideration,” says Bowen, finishing his best friend’s sentence in a way that sounds just like the podcast I know and totally, parasocially love.

You may have noticed that I’ve referred to Las Culturistas “listeners” several times so far in this piece, which any Las Culturistas fan knows is a rudely imprecise term. This is a podcast with a specific language, OK? And that language features a taxonomy of fandom that is at once stringent but also ever-shifting.

Some listeners are known as Readers, because, as the hosts have remarked before, “a podcast is a visual medium.” (Every time I think of this quote, I imagine Phyllis Nefler in Troop Beverly Hills describing fall fashions to the blind.) Some listeners are Kayteighs, the provenance of which can be traced back to an episode with Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby in which they identified their collective median fan: A 28-year-old woman named Kayteigh who lives outside of Chicago and majored in communications. Some listeners are Publicists (many, though not all, of whom are also, IRL, publicists). More recently, Rogers and Yang have also added Finalist to the mix, which is simultaneously a nod of approval and a wink toward the Las Culturistas Culture Awards.

One Reddit user, crusoe0716, has provided a helpful review of the relevant lore. “According to the official LC Dream Dictionary,” they wrote:

Kayteighs dream about being friends with Matt and/or Bowen, but mostly Matt.

Readers dream about teeth falling out, falling (general), being late, being chased, driving (with and without accidents). General anxieties, really.

Publicists dream about arriving and arriving naked, which isn’t always a bad thing. Lots of people. Galas. Most likely to be able to control dreams.

Finalists dream about flying, racing, reality competition shows and contestants (Survivor challenges, Project Runway, Top Chef quickfires, ANTM—WANNA BE ON TOP?).

By this rubric, my real-world self is a Reader through and through. But what I love most about Las Culturistas is that it feels like a world of its own. And in that world, my name is Katie, I’m a Kayteigh, and I think in terminology that gets refreshed and reinforced with each new episode on Wednesday mornings. “I don’t think so, honey,” for example, triples as the name of a recurring minute-long segment, a series of live shows, and a whole lifestyle. “Jejune” is an essential vocab word, and Titanic is monoculture. “Third graders” is a term best used to describe the writers of The Morning Show. “Jester flop in the clown square”—you don’t want to do/be that. In your “Charizard era,” though? Now we’re talking!

In his book, Comedy Book: How Comedy Conquered Culture—and the Magic That Makes It Work, critic Jesse David Fox recalls stumbling into a live “I DON’T THINK SO, HONEY” show at Littlefield in Gowanus in 2017. He didn’t know either sister, but he left the show entranced. “Their mix of reverence and irreverence, stupidity and intellect, and an overall fluency in culture—I was in love with whoever these two humans were.” And he was struck by the crowd, too. “I saw more queer comedians that night than I had in my thirty-two years prior,” he wrote.

Over the years, the Las Culturistas guestsphere has been an intriguing snapshot of a generation of comedic talent, featuring a diverse cast of friend-of-the-pod characters, many of whom are also rising (or already well-established) contemporaries in the standup and improv and sketch and comedy-writing scenes. One February 2022 piece in T Magazine featured Rogers and Yang in a group described as “The Queer Young Comics Redefining American Humor,” and many of the other performers covered in the story—including Booster, Los Espookys creator Julio Torres, and writer-performer Cole Escola—have been on Las Culturistas more than once.

You’ll also find a host of other bold-faced names on the pod, like fellow NYU alums Ayo Edebiri, Rachel Sennott, and Molly Gordon; SNL types like Aidy Bryant; theatre kings and queens like Ben Platt and Reneé Rapp; Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon; and Survivor extraordinaire Parvati Shallow. At the 2022 Culture Awards, a little-known simple country girl named Taylor Swift (“Tayla Swiff,” if you’re in your Folklore era) sent in not one but two thank-you videos, and then, Yang recalls in disbelief, texted just to make sure they were OK in content and tone.

As Yang tells the story, Rogers shakes his head at the thought of T-Swift saying his name: “I can’t watch these—like, when we get a celebrity to send in an acceptance speech for the awards? I actually often don’t watch them. Because it makes me feel so crazy that they’re playing in our dumb little sandbox.”

This summer, at the New York Mets’ Pride Night game, Rogers threw out the first pitch. “It was a great pitch,” Yang says, and it sure was: an elegant, arching ball that landed cleanly in the catcher’s mitt. Twitter commenters swooned. “Oh he ate that,” said one. “It’s giving finalist,” wrote another. “Matt is a sporto,” another pointed out. Which is true: Growing up on Long Island, Rogers was a sports kid with a sports dad, as he often puts it. He was the center fielder and the leadoff hitter on a middle school travel baseball team that won so many games they got to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. (His signature move was to bunt every time. “And get on base every single time,” he adds.) He eventually joined the track team, too, running a sub-five-minute mile.

Rogers jokes that in typical schoolkid culture, such speed represented “a key tenet of my personality.”

“Being fast was incredibly important to the social hierarchy,” Yang says.

“Yes, it really was,” Rogers agrees. “And therefore, like, I coasted on being fast.”

“Speaking of the hierarchy,” says Yang, “I was so slow that I had to—I was like, fully hampered … just like, socially. And I had to work and claw my way out of the abyss and be like, ‘I’m funny! I’m charming! I have value! I have other value in this space!’”

Yang’s parents emigrated from China to Australia, where Yang was born in 1990; soon after, they moved to Montreal and eventually relocated again to Aurora, Colorado, where Yang went to high school. As a kid, he was always “obsessed with comedy,” he says, describing flipping the channels between MADtv and Saturday Night Live and taping episodes of The Simpsons to rewatch throughout the week. He hosted a talent show and made funny videos. He was voted “most likely to be on Saturday Night Live.” (Eventually, Yang would become SNL’s first featured player of Asian descent, and the third openly gay man.)

But he was never truly out of his shell. When he was 17, his parents happened upon some explicit AOL chats he was having and sent him to see a therapist who tried to “explain the gay away with pseudoscience,” Yang told Maureen Dowd in 2020. So going to NYU for college felt like stepping into technicolor Oz. Yang and Rogers met during their freshman year. Their earliest stories about each other are endearingly frosh-coded, involving phrases like “you could post videos to Facebook walls” and “I was visiting Matt’s floor” and “they both knew all of the words to rapper Nicki Minaj’s 2010 hit single, ‘Super Bass’” and “we both did eventually get firmly out of the closet.” Yang remembers that “Our [friend] groups would just kind of put us together to be friends just because we were gay. Which we resented at first, but it kind of ended up being like, at least a little bit true.”

Yang intended to apply to medical school one day (he would eventually get up and walk out of the room mid-MCAT); Rogers briefly considered majoring in journalism. Yang immediately joined an improv group; Rogers saw him perform and felt the happy frisson of encountering a kindred spirit in the wild. “I was just too, let’s call it shy, closeted, whatever, however you want to say it, insecure to pursue my actual passions and interests until I was in college and had figured out the sexuality of it all,” Rogers says.

Following graduation, Rogers and Yang did what so many burgeoning comics do: they landed random jobs and got their talent and their work out into the world however they could, collaborating and competing with everyone else trying to make it in the city.

“Bowen and Matt and I used to do Story Pirates shows together at 7 a.m. in suburban New Jersey,” recalls the comedian and writer Anna Drezen, who was once Las Culturistas’ very first guest and who, as an SNL colleague of Yang’s, helped write his iconic Iceberg-that-sank-the-Titanic character. “It’s amazing to me just how much star power those kids got to witness for free.” Rogers was a regular performer at Upright Citizens Brigade. Both Rogers and Yang wrote and performed in (occasionally musical) sketches for their group Pop Roulette, which also featured future SNL writer and frequent Las Cultch guest Green.

In the spring of 2016, while Yang was working at the home decor flash sale site One Kings Lane as a graphic designer and Rogers was waiting tables, they decided to start a podcast. “It was a pretty scrappy affair,” says Yang. “We really had no long-, medium-, short-term idea of what it would be at all. It was in our producer-at-the-time’s living room.” The very first episode commenced the same way every episode iconically would.

“DING DONG,” they chirped in unison, in the buoyant cadence of Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands. “LAS CULTURISTAS CALLING.” The vision was there right from the start.

“It’s the candor and the transparency that both of them have approached the show with that really makes it compelling to listen to,” Booster tells me. “It’s a rare thing to watch two close friends work through bumps in the road in real time over the course of many episodes.” Rogers says he cringes when people tell him they’re combing through the years-old archives of the show. But going back in time can make for a fascinating, and even inspiring, listen. Sometimes, it’s because you get to see the arc from “Matt loves Kelly Clarkson” (Rule of Culture no. 6, established way back in Episode 10) to Clarkson actually appearing as a guest on the show. Other times, it’s because you get to see two fiercely creative and competitive and compassionate humans navigating their own lives and friendship with the vivid nuances of a Nicole Holofcener film.

One of the most real and raw shows in the archive is an episode from December 2019, in which Rogers and Yang looked back on their year and announced a brief podcast hiatus while they switched podcasting platforms. “I’m feeling a little down,” Rogers remarked partway through. Haltingly, he explained: he wasn’t living in New York City full-time anymore, and it was hard to watch as the city—and Yang—carried on without him. “Sometimes I see the things that you’re doing,” he told Yang, “and I’ll think to myself, like, oh, I wonder, like, what funny thing happened in creating that, you know what I mean?”

It was one of the most honest descriptions I’ve ever heard of a particular sort of envy-FOMO-pride that only exists among best friends. And then Rogers dropped an even more vivid story, one to which I couldn’t quite so easily relate: Several months earlier, he and Yang had both tried out for SNL, but only one of them got the gig. And if that wasn’t enough, the show put them in the same dressing room as they prepared for their auditions! (You’ll have to listen to the episode to hear the story Rogers then told about Yang rehearsing a bit that involved choking; it can’t be paraphrased.) And if that wasn’t enough, they had to record the podcast together all the while. For about three weeks, Rogers said, the experience was wrenching: “This is crazy to say, and I know it’s not true, but it feels like nothing will ever really upset me again.”

“You know,” Yang said, “we can listen back to this, and be like, oh god, remember when we were talking about [the film] Bombshell and panicking about our careers?”

“Oh my god,” Rogers agreed.

“Just feeling abandoned by each other,” Yang said. “Not abandoned, but you know what I’m saying, like, feeling like we’re missing a part of ourselves without the other.”

“I will say,” Rogers said, “it’s been interesting to navigate and negotiate what gets shared on the pod and what doesn’t.”

That was four years ago, but the navigating and negotiating remains. In July 2023, Yang took a short break from the podcast to help address some mental health issues he was having: namely, a phenomenon called “depersonalization” in which he struggled to feel present in his body. Listening to Las Culturistas, I appreciated being let in, as ever, but I also felt bad wondering whether the hosts thought they owed listeners this kind of intrusive explanation. What happened next, though, caught both hosts a little off-guard: the tabloids picked up the story, and suddenly Yang’s time off wasn’t just On a Podcast, it was In the News. “It just got a lot more pickup than I thought it would,” Yang says now.

Rogers—who’s been In the News himself for much more absurd reasons having to do with an appearance on The View, Joy Behar, and Joy Behar’s bare tootsies on a plane—says that he’s realized that even when the readers-Kayteighs-publicists-finalist brigade gets a little too close, they still mean well. “There’s never any, any hesitation about sharing anything with our listeners in regards to them treating us with care,” he says. “But publications don’t treat us with care.” (He calls The View “an entirely warm experience.”)

A lot has changed since that first ding dong. “I mean, we’re not only eight years older,” Rogers says, “but also eight years further into the industry. And I think that another thing about the beginning of the podcast is that we didn’t genuinely think that we would, like, succeed.”

A wild thing about ascending to the pinnacle of Saturday Night Live is that once you finally arrive there, people start asking what’s next. In his 2022 book, Sicker in the Head: More Conversations About Life and Comedy, director and producer Judd Apatow chatted with Yang about his upbringing, his work ethic, and the idiosyncratic cauldron of SNL. “I think I heard the legend that you told Bill Hader, maybe during his second season of SNL, that he had to start putting the wheels in motion then so that things will bear fruit further down the line,” Yang said to Apatow during their conversation.

Apatow responded by using Hader as a great example. “He was writing like seven screenplays over the course of his time at SNL, of which none were made,” Apatow said. “But that was all his rehearsal for Barry. He was learning what to do.” Yang commented that one thing he’d realized was that, for all the honor and glory of SNL, it is a universe unto itself, one with customs and habitats that don’t always translate to traditional TV or film projects. “I’m realizing, oh the credits don’t transfer from SNL,” Yang said.

And so Yang, like Rogers, is always in motion. They both shined in 2022’s Fire Island, Booster’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation—“I genuinely don’t know I’ll have more fun making a movie,” Booster says—as well as on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Yang’s Saturday Night Live duties have only grown more frequent and visible this winter, with roles like a singing George Santos, and he is popping up in other projects. There’s the goofy and eminently watchable Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain, which was written by some NYU grads/SNL colleagues and produced by Apatow. (Yang plays a woodlands cult leader with droll nihilism.) There’s Dicks: The Musical, in which he plays God. There’s the upcoming musical feature film Wicked. And there’s frequent voice work.

“We have these other, you know, seeds to water in our lives,” Yang tells me. The podcast, in comparison, “is just like, a beautiful succulent that we don’t have to like, maintain too much.”

As we speak, Rogers’s voice is recovering from his latest show and he periodically pauses to stretch out his back. Have You Heard of Christmas?, his album of satirical holiday tunes, is at once a throwback and a fresh sashay forward, a cornucopia of genre delights—from R&B slow jams to “emo pop” to traditional crooners—that shows off Rogers’s range and wit. “The skill of pop songwriting and sketchy comedy actually are very, very, very closely intertwined,” he says.

One song, “Everything You Want,” features MUNA. Another, “RUM PUM PUM,” is described by Rogers as a “gravy train, dirty, filthy, nasty pop-girl song” and “was actually vocal-produced by Troye Sivan,” who was in the recording studio at the time. (Sivan, who would later be the subject of a very funny SNL sketch involving Yang, Timothée Chalamet, and the band boygenius, hailed “RUM PUM PUM” as “diabolical.”) At the end of the album, Rogers included “a traditional, very Phil Spector wall-of-sound Christmas pop song called ‘I Don’t Need It to Be Christmas at All,’” he says. He intended it as a joking little tongue-in-cheek flourish, one nice song at the end of an album full of naughty ones. “And lo and behold, it’s my biggest hit from the album,” he says. “So, I guess I played the joke on myself.” As of this writing, it has over four and a half million Spotify streams.

As the year concludes, the sisters remain almost outlandishly busy. There’s the New Year’s Eve appearance with Cooper and Cohen. They were on The Today Show earlier this month. They had front-row seats at a Brooklyn Nets game, which they enjoyed. Sports, Yang points out, have “always been culture,” after all.

“I might, as a New Year’s resolution, make myself a Tennis Gay?” says Yang. “I don’t know—”

“Ooh!” says Rogers. “That’s good. I like that for you.”

“Because someone summed it up for me,” Yang explains, with a tone of true wonder. “It’s like, it’s just one-on-one sometimes. Most of the time it’s just one-on-one.” The players are surrounded by people who make them who they are, but no one can help them out there on Centre Court. It’s probably not far from the way it feels to be a comedian auditioning or singing show tunes or choking in front of the mirror/Lorne Michaels/the world. And come to think of it, listening to Las Culturistas often does feel like watching an endless tennis rally, one of those points where two skilled craftsmen bob and weave and volley and grin and grimace without breaking a sweat.

The good news is that, unlike in tennis, podcasting and performing isn’t a zero-sum game. Everyone can win, and in this case, objectively everyone already has. The score on Las Culturistas is always [ding-dong-in-unison voice] love-love, the hosts are always serving and holding court, and we—readers, Kayteighs, publicists, finalists, those OG 65 people somewhere in the world—are out there clapping and gasping and spectating, never taking our eyes off the ball.

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