How Joe Rogan Went From Fairly Unknown Comic To Podcasting's Demi-God
Welcome to ComedyNerd, Cracked's new deep dive series on the history of making people laugh (we're talking about humor, not tickling strangers' toes with an oversized feather like an old-timey pervert). Today's topic: how did Joe Rogan become famous? (Also, the ComedyNerd newsletter launches September 30. Sign up by entering your email below.)
Ten years ago, if asked which stand-up comedian would become the Edward R. Murrow of podcasting, chances are insanely high you would not have predicted one Joe Rogan.
Even at his pre-podcast heights, Joe Rogan was definitively B-list. From the seventh lead on NewsRadio (itself a B-list sitcom) to fight commentator for UFC (an XFL-caliber sport back in the '90s) to the host of Fear Factor (a B-list reality show), Rogan was always floating out there in the quasi-celebrity cosmos but never someone you would call a “star.”
Remember, only a decade ago, Rogan was a punchline on 30 Rock. He was co-hosting The Man Show long after most people forgot The Man Show existed. His celebrity was so dim that he was being interviewed by the likes of, well, us.
Despite being pretty much the only NewsRadio cast member who didn’t appear behind a microphone on the show, he started a podcast with fellow comic Brian Redban in 2009. It was the beginning of an unlikely success story. Remember, a dozen years ago, not every cut-rate comic had a podcast. Rogan’s took off, became The Joe Rogan Experience in the summer of 2010, and has rarely left the iTunes Top 10 ever since.
But of all the podcasters in all the world, why Rogan? The reason for his success is deceptively simple: He appeals to Guys with a capital G.
“It’s a massive group congregating in plain sight,” says The Atlantic’s Devin Gordon. “It’s made up of people you know from high school, guys who work three cubicles down who are still paying off student loans, who forward jealous-girlfriend memes, who spot you at the gym. Single guys. Married guys. White guys, black guys, Dominican guys. Two South Asian friends of mine swear by him. My college roommate. My little brother. Normal guys. American guys.”
Pop culture used to cater to Guys; one could argue pop culture was built by them and for them. But those same men aren't feeling much in vogue these days. Rogan is talking right at them, without condescension or blaming them for the world’s troubles. Guys identify with Rogan’s attitude. And what’s that attitude all about? The answer can be found in his comedy.
Rogan has been working the stand-up scene for a hot minute (here’s a 1994 bit about the differences between men and women, always a go-to for a young comic). Through all of the second-tier acting, hosting, and fight commentary, comedy always remained Rogan’s North Star. “One of the things I realized ... is not nearly as fun as the live standup comedy," he said back in 2007. "Live standup comedy is always better, it's more exciting, it's more enjoyable when it's done right. It's definitely more entertaining."
But here’s the ‘funny’ thing about Rogan’s comedy: It’s barely comedy at all. If one listens to his routines, it’s difficult to identify a joke, per se. His bits are more like free-form rants, about being a guy, about the possibility of alien life, about smoking pot. In other words, he just needed the podcast form to be invented so his act could find its rightful outlet.
Rogan’s podcast worldview was developed through stand-up, and listening to his comedy tells you everything you need to know about his Everyguy appeal. Check it out on Spotify, YouTube, and Netflix—and gain some insight into why so many listeners believe Rogan is just like them.
Joe Is A Man's Man, Just Like Me
Listen, if you’ve seen any of this show, and you said, “I think some of the stuff you’re saying is really funny, but I sense a lot of, like, macho posturing from you. I sense a lot of, like, bullsh*t, tough-guy stuff ...” You’re totally correct. (Joe Rogan: Triggered, 2016, Netflix)
Are you a man in 2021 America who feels like you’re no longer allowed to do traditionally manly things? Then you’re just like Joe Rogan, a guy who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. He has a black belt, in case you were thinking of starting something. Like a lot of his listeners, Rogan’s done some Average Joe jobs in his day, including construction worker and a driver for a private investigator.
He’s an equal-opportunity podcaster, but Rogan clearly prefers hanging with the bros. A random survey of the 25 most recent Joe Rogan Experience episodes reveals that 21—about 85%—featured male guests.
Don’t get him wrong, though. Rogan likes women. But living with them (he has a wife and two daughters) is a challenge. Here’s more from Triggered:
They constantly f*ck with my manhood. I’ll come home and some new thing is painted pink. I’m like, “Why is this pink?” “It looks better pink, Daddy.” “It looks better pink, Daddy.” And my wife’s like, “I think they’re right.”
I’m like, “Oh, I see what the f*ck is going on here. It’s mutiny!” They just chip, chip, chip away. It’s like if my manhood was a mountain of marbles. Every day they steal two. They just walk up to my stack. You can’t say sh*t. You can’t say sh*t, ’cause it’s only two marbles, and you’re like, “I still got all these marbles. Everything is gonna be okay. I’ll deal with this eventually.” But you’re not gonna deal with it. Every day, two more marbles. You never get those marbles back.
Joe Likes Getting High And Thinking About Weird Crap, Just Like Me
Space is too scary, most of the time. It’s very weird that we’re on a f*cking rock flying through the universe. And it hardly ever comes up. We’re on a f*cking rock flying through space. Above you is the craziest thing you could ever look at and you’ve hardly ever looked at it.
How about all that sh*t? Those aren’t lightbulbs, motherf*cker. Those are giant nuclear explosions billions of miles away. And it goes on forever. Do you know what forever means? That means this whole universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of solar systems, might just be a part of one atom that’s in the cell of the balls of another guy who lives in another universe and it goes on and on and on and on and there’s no end ever! (Shiny Happy Jihad, Comedy Central CD, 2007)
For a moment back in 2013, Rogan hosted a SyFy show called Joe Rogan Questions Everything. The content was an extension of popular podcast episodes, trippy investigations into ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot that really seem to resonate with his fans. Add an episode or thirty on the virtues of eating weed vs. smoking weed, and you’ve created the perfect listening experience for your brother-in-law who has some interesting theories about Alaskan mind-control labs.
Joe Hates Politics, Just Like Me
We have a very clear trend in this country. We try one person as president, and the next person has to be completely opposite. Because no one can do the job correctly. So we let someone try it and we’re like, “He f*cked it up.” We go with this guy who’s totally different, who’s got our interests in mind. And we always do the same thing. We go right, left, dumb, smart. We give everybody a chance. (Joe Rogan: Strange Times, 2018, Netflix)
Liberal Rogan critics lament the megaphone he gives to some pretty right-wing voices, including Ben Shapiro and Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones (twice!) Conservative Roganites lament the platform he provides for a plethora of authentically lefty voices.
All of those detractors are missing the point. Rogan’s appeal lies in a rejection of politics in general. For people fed up with partisan bullshit and bureaucracy (so, pretty much everyone), his apolitical rants resonate. That explains why there was even a petition for Rogan, signed by nearly 300,000 people, to moderate a 2020 debate between Trump and Biden.
As the petition states, “Many voters have become disenfranchised with pundits and/or anchors connected to large mainstream corporations that are viewed as having ulterior motives or ties to a certain party or politician. Electing Joe Rogan would negate the chance of corporate influence in the presidential debates.”
If you could go back in time and grab Thomas Jefferson and bring him to 2018… his first question would be… “You guys didn’t write any new sh*t? Dude, I wrote that with a feather!”
Joe Isn't Afraid To Have Unpopular Opinions, Just Like Me
In Florida: they hire undercover cops to pretend to be high school students. Specifically a hot woman. They hired a 25-year-old hot woman to pretend to be a high school student, flirt with boys, get those boys to sell her weed, and then arrest them. That lady’s a piece of… f*cking human garbage.
Not only is it not fair, that is one of the most sexist stories you’ll ever hear. Here’s why it’s sexist. It’s sexist against boys. Here’s why. You could never imagine that story if the genders were reversed. Nobody cares. ‘Cause nobody cares about boys. (Joe Rogan: Strange Times, 2018, Netflix)
Whew. It’s not one of Rogan’s more progressive takes, but it likely appeals to men who feel like they don’t know the rules anymore. Bits like these are catnip for that subset of guys who believe yesterday’s perfectly acceptable jokes are today’s hate speech—and they didn’t get the memo about how or why things changed. And it’s not just that the rules are different. It’s the consequences:
I got cocky and I wrote hashtag #vegan and that’s where I f*cked up. Ooh! That wasn’t worth it. That didn’t feel good. Oh! The hate, the anger! Never in my life have I encountered such a ruthless, vicious group of kind, compassionate people as I have in that f*cking hashtag #vegan group.
Joe's World No Longer Makes Sense, Just Like Mine
We are that close to President Trump. (This was early 2016.) Bill Cosby’s a rapist, and Bruce Jenner’s a chick. We’re in an episode of Lost. Down is up and up is down! This is the type of world you get when you give kids participation trophies for getting their ass kicked in soccer games. This is the world we get! We get a goddamn Nerfed-up world filled with nonsense. (Joe Rogan: Triggered, 2016, Netflix)
Forget the hacky jokes about participation trophies. What Rogan’s comedy is really about is trying to make his world make sense. He wants us to see what he sees, the baffling inexplicable. As he told Cracked back in 2007:
“There are three levels of comedy. The first level, you try to do stuff you think will work for the audience. Then you start doing comedy you think is funny. And then the third level of comedy is when you start getting people to laugh at your philosophies. Getting people to laugh at the way you see life. That's real comedy, to me.”
And that’s The Joe Rogan Experience, guy-centric philosophies dressed up as comedy. The comedy part is essential because problematic opinions can always be dismissed as “just a joke!” More skilled comics, for example, Marc Maron, have found a place in podcasting by adapting their comic personas to the new form. Maron brought his attitude and inclination for self-revelation, but you couldn’t drop one of his stand-up routines straight into an episode of WTF. It would feel out of place.
So maybe that’s why Rogan is so good at this. He’d been podcasting all along.