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More on comedy and circulation in the age of endless speech.
Hello folks, letdown comedy has recently turned one 🎉🎉🎉
For the occasion, I am concluding what has become yet another three-parter. After writing about two different types of edgy comedy (comedy about death and anti-PC comedy), this month I follow-up on some of the stuff I mentioned last time to explore the wider cultural influence of Joe Rogan, a figure that more than any other embodies the circulatory potential of comedy and its ambivalent relationship with politics in the age of social media. But before that, a bit of homework.
WTF has been around a long time and, while it’s still great, I admit I don’t listen to it as much as I did when it was a smaller and more strictly comedy-focused project. This one episode is quite the gem, though: featuring interviews with comedy historians Kliph Nesteroff and David Bianculli, it dissects the discourse around “cancel culture” in contemporary comedic circles and gives it historical depth, along with some precious context. A must-listen, whatever your opinion on the matter.
Joe Rogan is a recurring figure in this newsletter (I mentioned him here and here, at least), so this time I’m going to try and write down some more coherent thoughts on his cultural impact.
First of all, I think Rogan might possibly be the most influential comedian out there at the moment, if anything because a lot of his own fans (perhaps most of them?) would probably not define him as such. Apart from doing stand-up since the late 80s, in fact, the New Jersey native is also a martial artist, TV anchor, UFC presenter and (most recently and notably) world-famous podcaster. Rather than as a stand-up comic, then, today Rogan is mostly known as the name behind the wildly successful Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), a 1000+ episodes, hundreds-million downloads-strong multi-media brand built on a specific format: 3-hour conversations with characters that range from mainstream zeitgeist icons (Kanye West, Elon Musk, Bernie Sanders) to the borderline figures making up the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” (a label that is also applied to Rogan himself). While controversial guests make up a small minority among the 700+ people the show has had on throughout its history (most are MMA fighters or comedians), they have been enough to create a very particular allure around Rogan. On one hand, the fact that several JRE guests have been “de-platformed” at one point or another (a few examples are Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes, Stefan Molyneux) has made the show a point of reference for a lot of those preoccupied with the emergence of the so-called “cancel culture”; on the other, Rogan’s association with certain characters has led many to consider him an enabler of far-right extremism, leading many Spotify employees to protest the platform’s acquisition of the show a while ago.
Rogan’s comedy is pretty much at the margins of all of this, but I think his comedic persona is key to understanding how his show was able to unite so many disparate audiences and become so divisive at the same time.
In a nutshell, Rogan’s bits usually have two polar foci. On one hand there are man’s most basic biological instincts: shitting, fucking, etc — all seen from a markedly masculine perspective and articulated in the style of Boston-bred blue comedy. Women are usually stereotyped as nagging or jealous or overly emotional; men are brutes who only think with their dicks, like strip clubs, and sometimes have latent gay feelings for their gym mates (sex is very funny to Joe Rogan, gay sex perhaps even more). As described in the bit above, the comedian says he does not mean to degrade women, but rather degrade everybody. This is all in line with the confrontational style of edgy stand-up comedy I described last month, but if we consider Rogan’s career overall there is also a veneer of cynicism in that statement: this is the Rogan who watches people eat animal dicks for money on Fear Factor, or the Rogan who meets believers in fringe cults like Bigfoot for a laugh. Rogan’s exploration of his own species seems to be animated by a genuine sense of awe at the darkness of human experience, but there is also a glimmer of satisfaction for being one of those who come out on top — the hunter, rather than the hunted; the alpha, rather than the beta; the skeptic, rather than the believer. When we listen to the comedian engage in long conversations with anti-feminists or borderline eugenicists that occasionally get kicked off mainstream social media, we know his feet are planted solidly on his own platform and that his status grants he will most likely remain on top of it, no matter what policies YouTube or Spotify might adopt. In other words, getting away with teasing the fringe by adopting a generally skeptical approach (although not as often an openly critical one) is kind of Rogan’s thing. It is integral to his brand.
If unapologetic masculinity and blue comedy are one important element of Rogan’s comedy dialectics, on the other end is a quasi-religious faith in the infinite potential of the mind. The comedian’s frequent mentions of evolution sometimes echo the preacher aspirations of the late Bill Hicks, but there are some substantial differences in the way he carries those messages off stage. For example, according to Rogan enlightenment is often unlocked not only by consuming psychedelic drugs like mushrooms or DMT, but is also helped by at the very least buying specific chemical supplements to “optimize” the brain (especially a pill called “Alpha Brain” produced by Onnit, a company that is very close to the comedian). Beyond his commercial interests, which are after all a staple of any successful influencer brand, it’s important to highlight how important the composition of Rogan’s fan community has been since the beginning. One interesting and perhaps defining aspect of Talking Monkeys in Space (the special that contains the bit above) is half the record is in fact dedicated to a live Q&A session the comedian conducts after his regular stand-up bits. Across a series of 14 tracks, Rogan engages people from the audience and answers their questions with a mix of crowd work fundamentals, inspired banter, and semi-improvised bits. Most questions come from men who ask him about MMA or drugs stuff, and it’s interesting to see how Rogan switches from the clearly comedic to more serious speculations (the DMT bit for example) and how these interactions clearly informed the nascent JRE (which debuted a year before the special was published). The Rogan who engages in conversations with scientists is also the Rogan that sells vitamin supplements, or the Rogan that tells the world he might have cured his Covid using disputed medicines.
It’s clear that a personality with such a big platform could potentially have some real influence on people, and for this reason people have tried pinning down Rogan politically, tying to decode his ideology out of the literally thousands of hours of material out there. While Rogan himself identifies as a libertarian (which makes a lot of sense), he has had liberal candicates like Bernie Sanders on, as well as several Trump fans. The topics discussed on JRE demonstrate he is politically minded, or at least privy to cultural trends, but I think the way Rogan sees politics is inextricable from the Internet dimension he has carved from himself. I cannot imagine him choosing to ever enter the party politics stage like Beppe Grillo (an Italian comedian turned blogger turned political instigator, who kicked off major shake-ups in the Italian political environment from the pages of his blog), but I definitely envision him ultimately making the interests of what media theorist McKenzie Wark calls the “vectoralist class” — tech people with huge influence like Elon Musk or Jack Dorsey, those who can stitch together the infrastructures needed for someone to get rich through ads, donations, or cryptocurrencies.
As a comedian, it is expected Rogan’s politics are first and foremost tailored towards his self-interest in radical freedom of speech: freedom to build a profitable brand out of it, freedom to make “fuck you-money” (an expression that is a political statement in itself) and freedom to be “uncancellable” (as Joe defined Anthony Cumia’s platform in an interview). But Rogan invites people only as much as it is convenient for himself, and ultimately it is the amount of speech that he can produce and channel that matters the most. JRE is a post-ideological speech-a-thon that connects disparate worlds; ultimately it is a content machine, a conveyor belt that frequently intersects the zeitgeist on its capricious trajectory. Rogan’s biggest innovation is not so much the variety of his guests or their political heterogeneity, but rather the pioneering of one of the longest content formats out there, a meandering conversation that runs for hours on end and captivates millions with its inspired banality. Trying to isolate bits to create a coherent pictures of the show’s political profile is pointless, because its strongest political message is the endless unfolding of speech itself, the hypnotising grip of social media on our attention. Joe Rogan is the master of content circulation and his politics are the polics of the Internet that is, and perhaps the Internet that will be. While people are burning out because of information overload, Rogan has made speech an endurance sport. In this context, comedy’s edginess is the spark that sets the machine in motion, its ambiguity is the lubricant that keeps it going. There is no last laugh here, though — except maybe one at the expense of those who are “unfit” to talk, and are left to listen.