Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Joe Rogan (background photos: Carlo Allegri/Getty Images; foreground photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The improbable revival of Joe Rogan, America’s bro whisperer

Joe Rogan (background photos: Carlo Allegri/Getty Images; foreground photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

When Joe Rogan speaks, people listen. It’s the damndest thing. What he says on his popular Spotify podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, isn’t that insightful, enlightened, or unique, and occasionally, it’s a public health hazard. On April 23, Rogan—who’s a comedian and not a doctor or even a comedian doctor like Patch Adams—suggested that young, healthy people shouldn’t bother getting vaccinated against COVID-19: “I’ve said, yeah, I think for the most part it’s safe to get vaccinated. I do. I do. But if you’re like 21 years old, and you say to me, should I get vaccinated? I’ll go no.”

A few days later, Today host Savannah Guthrie asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has a medical degree, to respond to Rogan’s comments. Fauci politely reminded everyone how vaccines work. This wasn’t a scene from Idiocracy but our current dumbass reality, where the president’s chief medical adviser must enter the rhetorical ring with the former host of Fear Factor.

America has a fully functioning First Amendment, much to Prince Harry’s astonishment, so Rogan is perfectly free to stay stupid stuff for profit. The problem is that his 200 million listeners take him seriously, and politicians of all stripes are eager to capitalize on his platform. Rogan started out as a typical frat boy stand-up comic in the late 1980s before acting in the mid-to-late 1990s on sitcoms like Hardball and NewsRadio. He was also a color commentator for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Rogan’s breakthrough came 20 years ago as the host of NBC’s gross-out game show Fear Factor, where adults ate worms on camera for the chance to win cash prizes. This cemented his macho credentials. It’s also how Rogan learned that if you’re allergic to shellfish you’re also allergic to roaches. 

Putting his roach consumption days behind him, Rogan launched his podcast in 2009. Not only was it incredibly successful, but Rogan soon became a spokesman of sorts for the Fear Factor/UFC demo—white guys who don’t identify as either conservative or progressive. They don’t hold strong ideological positions, but they usually demonstrate libertarian leanings (though, as the old saying goes, a libertarian is a Republican who likes to smoke weed). During the 2020 election, they were seen as potentially “gettable” voters for Democrats, and Rogan was the bridge to bro-land. After all, 2016 had proven that connecting with The Daily Show audience wasn’t going to help you win the Rust Belt.

Rogan had welcomed Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard on the podcast, but he turned down requests to host Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden. He said he’d prefer to “talk to his friends,” which presumably didn’t include the first openly gay presidential candidate, a woman whose policies were similar to Sanders’, and even an old white guy who was the first Black president’s loyal wingman. “I like Tulsi and I like Bernie, that’s it,” he said. “Everybody else can eat shit.”

That was probably a bummer for Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, who Rogan hosted in 2019. A study from the Cambridge University Press revealed that Yang’s appearance on the podcast had catapulted his candidacy and his universal basic income platform into the mainstream. The Yang interview is informative and Rogan’s a good listener who keeps the conversation moving. It’s overall more probative than an appearance on any other talk show, even The Daily Show, where humor is still the primary objective. Equal-time rules don’t apply to Rogan, so candidates such as Kamala Harris or Kirsten Gillibrand were never offered an opportunity to make their case to the very audience with whom they struggled the most. Gabbard spent a good deal of her time on the podcast actively bashing Harris and setting a narrative Harris could never challenge on Rogan’s show.

When Rogan said he planned to vote for Sanders in the primary, this wasn’t treated like your typical celebrity endorsement but as a potential sea change. The New York Times ran an article about how “a Joe Rogan endorsement could help (or backfire on) Bernie Sanders.” As the eventual nominee once said, this was a “big fucking deal.” Rogan’s rationale was revealing. He said, “Look, you could dig up dirt on every single human being that’s ever existed if you catch them in their worst moment and you magnify those moments and you cut out everything else and you only display those moments. That said, you can’t find very many with Bernie. He’s been insanely consistent his entire life. He’s basically been saying the same thing his whole life. And that in and of itself is a very powerful structure to operate from.”

Sanders trumpeted Rogan’s endorsement, generating backlash from the marginalized groups that Rogan had unapologetically mocked over the years. This led to a debate about whether Rogan’s transphobia and casual racism was something Democrats should tolerate in exchange for winning over the “non-woke” electorate, those elusive voters who resented #MeToo and “identity politics” but were open to UBI and Medicare For All. It’s the inverse of the supposed “economically conservative/socially liberal” voters, many of whom did end up backing Biden.

When Biden won the nomination, Rogan considered voting for Donald Trump, who had little in common with Sanders, policy-wise. Rogan’s reasoning wasn’t “insanely consistent,” either. He claimed Biden was too old for the job, although Sanders is a year older than the current president. Rogan told guest Eric Weinstein: “I don’t think [Biden] can handle anything. You’re relying entirely on his cabinet. If you want to talk about an individual leader who can communicate, he can’t do that. And we don’t know what the fuck he’ll be like after a year in office. The pressure of being president of the United States is something that no one has ever prepared for. The only one who seems to be fine with it is Trump, oddly enough.”

Yes, it is odd to suggest that Donald Trump can handle pressure, despite everything we witnessed during his presidency and were told outright by people who worked in the White House. However, Trump is “insanely consistent” or at least consistently irrational. He’s certainly not someone who acknowledges his mistakes, even when they resulted in a pandemic spreading mostly unchecked through the nation.

Muhammad Ali observed in a 1975 Playboy interview that “the man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” If Rogan finds consistency, no matter how foolish, appealing, it’s a compelling contrast to talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, whose career had similar origins to Rogan’s but took a vastly different sociopolitical trajectory. Kimmel, who co-hosted Comedy Central’s The Man Show with Trump defender Adam Carolla, said in 2017 that “I look back at every show I’ve ever done and cringe.” This is maturity. Most people cringe at high school yearbook photos or videos of their drama club performances before eventually finding the ideal balance where we can appreciate how far we’ve grown without rejecting who we once were. Rogan, like many who denounce so-called “cancel culture,” can’t find that balance. They cling to the past despite the harm it might’ve caused others. Rogan is very popular with men who resent that the world has changed and they might have to change with it. He lamented recently that you “can never be woke enough” and predicted a nightmare scenario where white men are oppressed because the general population respects people’s differences: “It keeps going further and further down the line and if you get to the point where you capitulate, where you agree to all these demands, it’ll eventually get to straight white men are not allowed to talk, because it’s your privilege to express yourself when other people of color have been silenced throughout history.”

Slippery slope arguments are at their root conservative appeals, despite Rogan’s efforts to hide behind free-wheeling libertarianism. His absurd concerns wouldn’t stand out in a National Review editorial during the Civil Rights or Women’s Movements. The obvious Strawman Strawmington argument is a Ben Shapiro classic. But Rogan’s not just a guy in a bar complaining about his ex. He’s tapped into the same “anti-empathy” as fellow reality TV star Donald Trump. Rogan’s net worth is around $100 million, but his listeners consider him a fellow victim of an overly “woke” society.

Rogan told guest Judd Apatow that he found comedic inspiration as a teen when his family took him to see Richard Pryor’s Live On The Sunset Strip. This is interesting because that concert film is the one where Pryor confronted his own toxic masculinity head on. He rejected his once-liberal use of the n-word and confessed to struggling in relationships because of his own personal failings. This was what we’d now call a “newly woke” Pryor, and one comics like Rogan often forget existed. Rogan dismisses political humor as a mundane source of comedy. He agreed with his guest Anthony Jeselnik, who said that political comedy just pisses off half the audience and too easily pleases the other. This criticism is both reductive and covertly conservative. Pryor’s work was overtly political and he’s rightly considered one of the greatest comics of all time. Rogan likely remembers Pryor simply as someone unafraid to challenge the power structure, which is true—but Rogan believes the current power structure is whoever demands that we don’t call trans people “transvestites” or make gross rape jokes. It’s the same power structure that believes people should take the damn COVID-19 vaccine.

Rogan’s vaccine remarks were misinformed, but also not that different from what actual elected Republicans have said. When he clarified his position on the April 29 episode of his podcast, he insisted that he “wasn’t an anti-vax person.” Heck, his parents were vaccinated! He just didn’t think that “if you’re a young healthy person, you need it.” But we live in a society and not Ayn Rand’s Fuck You Funhouse. We should willingly sacrifice a half-hour of our time to get a life-saving vaccine even if we don’t exclusively benefit from it. Dr. Fauci corrected Rogan’s statements, but he’s also had to tangle with equally dumb rhetoric from Senator Rand Paul.

This is why it’s a mistake to dismiss Rogan as just some comedian with a podcast. When politicians appear on Jimmy Kimmel’s, Stephen Colbert’s, and Jimmy Fallon’s talk shows, their objective is to come across as relatable, like average people you’d want to join for a beer. Their efforts are often stiff and cringe-worthy, because they aren’t professional TV personalities and, in Senator Ted Cruz’s case, they barely have personalities. Voters believed Trump was a successful businessman because he played one relatively convincingly for more than a decade on NBC’s The Apprentice. Rogan’s politically incorrect machismo feels authentic on his podcast, and that’s what matters most to his audience. It’s also what seems to matter most in modern politics. Republicans, including Cruz and Senator Josh Hawley, spend more time these days complaining about the “woke mob” and “cancel culture” than they do discussing substantive policy. Cruz especially trolls on Twitter like a frustrated stand-up, claiming the U.S. military has become “emasculated” because it dares promote diversity. These rants are all well within Rogan’s core competencies, but Cruz and Hawley lack Rogan’s genuine rapport with his predominately white male audience. Rogan could probably beat both senators silly in a GOP primary. If that seems ridiculous, just remember who previously resided in the White House.