Earlier this year, I lamented the sudden and indefinite moratorium on the YouTube channel “All Gas No Brakes,” unaware that a gratifying replacement was yet to come. With “Channel 5,” Andrew Callaghan and crew are back. Now they’ve got a customized van, a new sense of autonomy and the same fascination with weirdness that popularized their version of social journalism.
For context, “All Gas No Brakes” was a YouTube channel dedicated to new wave comedy journalism. It reimagined the man-on-the-street interview into an investigation of authentic American oddities.
While “All Gas No Brakes” was clever, entertaining and ingenious in its own way, “Channel 5” applies the same artistic vision at a much larger scale. What sets the new channel apart is its comprehensive deconstruction of what it means to be American, and beyond that, what it means to be human.
A good example is “Q Conference,” a continuation of Callaghan’s investigation of right-wing politics and the people it enraptures. The video opens with an interview of a woman who admits to falling out with family and friends over her belief in the far-right conspiracy “QAnon” — her unequivocal conviction that the world is run by a cabal of Satanists thrives on white supremacy, anti-Semitism and a cultic idolization of Donald Trump. QAnon is so deeply rooted in unreality that its followers and believers can be dismissed as deranged and on the fringes of society, but what we see is an excommunicated woman who holds back tears at memories of sharing lunch with her sister. She is deeply hurt by the rift that QAnon created between her and her family.
Channel 5 makes us feel sad about this woman, then asks us what this sadness really means. Are we sad for the person who is, alongside thousands of Americans, vulnerable to being manipulated by a theory pioneered by 4chan trolls? Are we sad for the woman’s family and the loss of their close relative to a far-fetched delusion? Or are we crushed by the truth that an entire convention revolving around QAnon fanaticism, with thousands of people just like this woman, is one of the most American things there is? The video doesn’t give us much time to sit with this thought before kicking off a montage of QAnon believers singing, praying, eating and boasting their social media bans like trophies.
“Q Conference” has the same quirky charm as the typical “All Gas No Brakes” video, but it takes a more contemplative approach. The entertainment that comes from giving a microphone to impassioned conspiracy theorists is served alongside an in-depth contextualization of what’s unfolding. With the help of Brace Belden, co-host of the “TrueAnon” podcast, Callaghan offers a brief yet comprehensive ontology of QAnon, from online message boards to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. A subsequent montage of footage from the insurrection reminds us that QAnon is not a concrete ideology, but a collective spirit of hatred that mobilizes itself with violence — violence that is increasingly prevalent and acutely terrifying.
“Q Conference” culminates in an appearance from former U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who is presumably unaware of the nature of Callaghan’s content. Flynn denies knowing anything about QAnon despite Callaghan’s subsequent inclusion of a video of Flynn taking the oath with his extended family. Flynn’s presence here is a sobering reminder that people like him have been, and are still currently given, a voice within our government. It’s also a sign that “Channel 5” is a driven, mature team of creators capable of arranging an impressive lineup of guests and appearances.
Somewhere in between all of this, “Channel 5” is keenly aware of comedic timing — the montage editing exploits the contradictions in what these people are saying, and the effect is a larger picture of absurdity that can only be laughed at. Audio of a QAnon believer lamenting the silencing and de-platforming of their ideas and declaring a “war of the minds” is played over clips of conference attendees shoveling food into their mouths. An old woman with an “I Heart Jesus” bedazzled baseball cap unhinges her jaw for some mayo-coated lettuce, and it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen.
The connective tissue of “Channel 5” and the rest of Callaghan’s work is a sense of complacency, an intimacy with the subjects that beckons honesty and free-flowing thought. The snark of Trump rally trolls is replaced by inquisitive courtesy, no matter how hard it may be to keep a straight face. Callaghan has a skill of cracking open skulls and letting humanity spill out — it makes for radically genuine news that is also a stunning reflection of humanity’s plights, most specifically in America.
It’s only fitting that the best contender for a comprehensive summary of our political climate is a patchwork of chaos. In this way, Callaghan packages the American condition in a twenty-minute vignette — a condition of confusion, contradiction, absurdity, animosity and hilarity. “Q Conference” is no fake news.
Daily Arts Writer Laine Brotherton can be reached at email@example.com.