By Matt Hanson
As amusing and informative as The Joe Rogan Experience can be, a few podcast interviews doth not an actual education make.
Joe Rogan’s extremely popular podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, has recently been picked up for distribution by Spotify for many millions of dollars. The podcast has been around for over a decade and has been easily available via YouTube and various streaming platforms. As an actor, Rogan has had a long and multifaceted career. He appeared on the superb sitcom News Radio, hosted both Fear Factor and The Man Show. He’s also a very successful standup comic and a commentator on the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Like many comics of his generation, he’s become a sort of countercultural version of Larry King.
The format is very simple: Rogan (who hails from Newton) interviews guests in his funky-looking studio for a couple of hours at a time, discussing whatever happens to come up. Few if any frills, flashy production values, or scripted promotional hype are called in. Rogan and his guest of the day sit and talk candidly about whatever’s on their mind. He’s hosted rock stars like Billy Corgan and Stephen Tyler, fellow comics, athletes, actors, journalists, authors, radio hosts, even speaking remotely with Edward Snowden and jawing with Bernie Sanders during the primaries.
Recently, the idea was even proposed, hopefully semi-jokingly, that Rogan should host one of the Presidential debates live in the studio. Trump enthusiastically signed on right away. This tells us something, considering how skittish the President has tended to be about appearing at previous debates and the many complaints he has about the media. When Trump gets excited about sitting down somewhere and discussing ideas for hours it is not an encouraging sign.
The JRE podcast is informal by design. Jokes are exchanged, and that leads to some fun comic riffing and free-association, the swapping of colorful stories, and the eruptions of musings political and existential — and that’s about it. Rogan is a mild-mannered, curious, and amiable interviewer, usually content to let the guest control the flow and direction of the conversation. It isn’t about shock value à la Howard Stern or the alpha posturing of a Bill O’Reilly. Comics make natural podcast hosts, given their improvisational skill, satiric eye for social hypocrisy, and gift of the gab. Plus they are likely to know more interesting people, given their proximity to show business.
If the guest is someone who happens to have a particularly unique story — like Megan Phelps-Roper, daughter of the infamous fundamentalist Christian Fred Phelps, who ended up leaving the fold after discussing the tenets of her faith with the man she later married — then his questions will be centered around their specific experiences and opinions. Refreshingly, the interviews aren’t usually framed with any specific agenda, ideology, or predetermined point of view — Rogan generally just goes with the flow. This can sometimes work beautifully because it fosters a compelling mind-meld. Or Rogan’s editorial indifference, as seen recently, becomes dangerous given the dark places where random statements go.
In a certain sense, Rogan’s podcast puts the concept of unlimited free speech into practice. Rogan once admitted, with endearing honesty, that he once went to college (UMass Boston, my alma mater) simply because he didn’t want other people to think he was stupid. Given his current level of fame and fortune, it takes guts to be that honest about one’s all-too-human insecurities, especially when our culture compulsively fetishizes being “smart” above all else. Those of us who (myself included) live and die by expertise, the informed opinion, and the highfalutin reference should appreciate those who are honest enough to admit that they are still working out their ideas about life, the universe, and everything in between.
As amusing and informative as the show can be, a few podcast interviews doth not an actual education make. We all know the old saying about how a little learning is a dangerous thing. This is not about accumulating silly things like diplomas or reading lists, but involves knowing when and how to put information and analysis into its proper context, understanding nuance, and putting ideas into perspective. I have seen Rogan push back on his interviewees, which is a good thing, but generally he is content to let ideas that appeal to him go by without much scrutiny. It’s a perfectly normal thing to do, if it’s just two people kicking back on the porch, but the podcast only resembles that in terms of format, not function.
The Onion, astute as ever, once joked about a fictional Joe Rogan fan whose only news source was Rogan and claimed that he was “really coming around to his point of view.” Like all good satire, it touches on a larger truth. Lately, I have noticed how little people bother to question whatever they hear guests of Rogan’s opine — and that is obviously alarming in any number of ways. Anybody can fall victim to confirmation bias, that’s part of being human, but when you’re talking about a show with a massive following things start to get dicey.
Rogan has hosted some very controversial guests. Rogan is fascinated with Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who advocates a creepy obsession with ultramanliness and a return to traditional gender roles, claiming that women can’t be happy in high-paying jobs and can only be satisfied with alpha males as mates. Peterson’s ideas about homosexuality and transsexuality have drawn criticism for their reductionism (hint: he’s not a fan). Rogan, at least in the interviews I’ve heard, hasn’t really pushed back much on Peterson’s claims and is eager to host him as much as possible. Of course, it’s his perfect right as an American to do so, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Peterson’s ideas deserve as much airtime as Rogan gives them.
More worryingly, Rogan has hosted far-right figures like Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopolus, and the loathsome Gavin MacInnes, a founder of the countercultural magazine Vice who ended up creating the Proud Boys, which he not-so-jokingly terms a “gang” and which has been linked to overtly violent political action. From the name on down, the group celebrates a rather Peterson-esque obsession with maleness, toxic masculinity, and the cultural victimhood that comes with it. Rogan has said that he had no idea about MacInnes’s gang when he interviewed him, and he might not have. Which is part of the problem. Again, free speech is free speech, even for those with despicable views — but no one is entitled to provoke or encourage violence, just as no one who just happens to have an extreme opinion inherently deserves to be heard. No rights are unlimited and access to a popular platform isn’t a right.
Contrary to what some right wingers claim, not being provided an opportunity to speak isn’t censorship or oppression. As with stand-up comics who grouse about political correctness ruining their act, the fans you have are the people who happen to dig your work — no more, no less. Complaining that this isn’t as big a number as you’d like is pointless and self-defeating. It proves nothing in itself. And this goes double when someone laments a supposed cultural blackballing while on a show (either Rogan’s or anyone else’s) with a popular, sympathetic, well-known host and an audience of millions. Examples abound of obstreperously edgy commenters crying poor, so to speak, all the way to the bank.
Lately, Rogan got into some trouble by casually spreading misinformation, suggesting “left wing activists” were setting wildfires in Oregon. To his credit, he admitted he hadn’t fact checked this statement and apologized, confessing “I fucked up.” Spotify, for its part, has had some internal dissent/rumblings about whether or not it should promote Rogan’s podcast, especially after he hosted guests who were considered transphobic, making jokes about Caitlin Jenner and others. For the record, Rogan has refused to let Spotify dictate content or artistic control, which is commendable. It also means that the responsibility to be his own editor and program manager is on him.
Of course, Rogan (like everyone else) is entitled to his opinions and whatever jokes he wants to make. Once the show goes beyond chit chat and into actual verifiable statements on substantial issues, things change. At this point in time there is an urgent call for lines to be drawn, and drawn clearly, between what is rumor and what is fact. Rogan’s idle curiosity about, and occasional tacit endorsement of, his guests’ attitudes has gone far beyond a conversation between friends. If Rogan wants to be taken seriously as an interviewer — and given his large audience share, he’d better be — then he needs to reckon with the duties (ethical and journalistic) that come with being a professional. That means he has to adjust his fact-checking standards accordingly. The stakes are too high to ignore them.
Rogan has generally claimed to be apolitical in the sense that he doesn’t like to take sides. If anything, he seems to think of himself as a liberal, stating that he’s never voted for a Republican in his life. He also publicly endorsed Bernie Sanders during the primary, saying that at least with Bernie you knew what you were going to get. He’s hosted a wide variety of leftists on the podcasts as well. This speaks to Rogan’s genuine desire to make the show into a space for very diverse ranges of opinion, which is a good goal to have.
At the same time, I’m not sure that we need to reexamine the various complexities of the Kennedy assassination, as Rogan and Colin Quinn did in a recent episode. Conspiracies do exist, certainly, but not everything is a secret conspiracy in disguise. Postmodern paranoia has become, in too many cases, an attempt to sound wised-up and conspicuously cynical, too cool for school. Especially in this anything-goes media environment, it’s often the tell-tale sign of people biting off more data than they can actually chew.
It’s important to remember that there is an aspect of politics — maybe better to say “the political” — that goes beyond one’s own stated philosophy or voting record. Political discourses tend to rub off on you, depending on whom you’re hanging around with and, if you are not careful, they will slowly start to cling to you. The more you roll around in a certain ideology, even out of genuine curiosity, its implicit assumptions and biases may begin to color your thinking until there is no real difference between when your own thinking ends and ideology begins.
Whatever political persuasion Rogan happens to appeal to, the fact is that many people now see him as more than an intellectually inquisitive comedian hefting an extensive Rolodex. This means, or at least should mean, that Rogan can no longer indulge in the lazy luxury of passively accepting his guest’s statements and beliefs. This is blab without accountability, and there is growing civic demand that Rogan do more than simply disseminate whatever information his guests spew forth. A friend of mine once cracked that Rogan had a “lint roller mind.” Now would be a really good time for him to be pickier about what he picks up along the way.
It could be interesting if, for example, Rogan hired a live fact checker who would examine the claims being made by guests in real time. Why not point out the amusing ambiguities (or gaps) between fact and fiction. The technology is there, and he can certainly afford it. Maybe he could start doing round-table discussions, or have guests defend clips of their previous statements. There’s a lot of creative potential in Rogan’s podcast if it bothered to mature, including the risk that his reach might exceed his grasp.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.