The main question of the article being: what, if anything, makes The Joe Rogan Experience, special.
The other day I was setting up some basic browser tools for an older friend of mine and came across the YouTube homepage fresh, without my history of likes or watches. Among the featured or trending channels, the videos front and center, were the clickable links of Joe’s bald head. You know, that head you’d like to sneakily walk up behind and start tapping with your fingers as a bongo drum. To an outside observer, seeing this homepage for the first time, one might guess that the Joe Rogan talk show was one of YouTube’s main properties. It was then, in that moment, where I realized the show might be pretty big.
Of course I’ve heard rumblings for years and many current guests spend time (figuratively) sucking Joe’s dick, referencing the Rogan bump and saying how he’s one of the biggest cultural forces around. But like Joe does, I often shrugged that kind of flattery off. Agreeing, when Joe says stuff like “God, I hope not.” Although for different reasons. In Joe’s case because he honestly seems unconcerned about his influence, with no interest in inflating his ego to sacrifice the authenticity of his show and choices of guests. Me, because I’m still twisted up in some notion of cultural phenomenon being ‘exceptional entertainment’ and not, as Joe’s podcast often is, kind of repetitive and benign.
In this way it mimics the classic late night television dynamic by being predictable. The good kind of predictable. The kind of cultural property that gives off the illusion that it’ll just keep going on. For about as far ahead as I can see the future, the show gives no signs of stopping. That is one of the things that makes it work, to the extent where it now seems to have a significant influence. Joe seems pretty stable and reliable.
My suspicion is that this makes Rogan, as a comedian and podcaster, pretty special. Not that their haven’t been others. Marc Maron’s podcast being one of the notable leaders of these mostly serious chat sessions. But I’m not here to compare and contrast podcasts. I just know that I have listened to Rogan more. The Rogan podcast seems to have the right amount of potential for volatility. Just enough to keep it interesting. Joe, sometimes a wacky entity, sometimes a competent interviewer .. when the situation calls for it.
In fact, one can listen to the podcast and hear Rogan flexing these skills. In a somewhat recent interview with the Democratic candidate for president, Andrew Yang, they discuss Universal Basic Income. Rebranded by Yang as The Freedom Dividend. At many points in the past I’ve heard Rogan express agreement and interest in this idea (with varying levels of enthusiasm) yet when Yang came on the program Rogan smartly hid his own bias. Needling Yang to expand and explain better, winding up with a more fascinating interview than if he had betrayed his agreement. His sympathy to it. Rogan knows when to ask questions and he always seems interested in getting at issues.
This is not a skill that all comedians have. But Rogan helps himself out with the podcast format. Choosing his own guests. A format, as I understand it, started on satellite radio and morphed into the podcast. The history of this; comedians needing to sell tickets to their shows so going on local radio, day after day, city after city, and then the refreshing “hang” mentality which was incorporated by some satellite shows, is probably partly to do with the success of Rogan’s podcast. Like most things, one gets better in time, with practice.
Yet the question remains: what makes Rogan different? In the universe of comedians who have podcasts, why is his at the top of the charts?
Perhaps the long format function of the podcast, the fact that most of the conversations approach three hours long, perhaps this limits the room for other podcasts. His interviews are so spatially expansive that most listeners don’t have time in their lives for other podcasts of the same function or length. I think that this is a possibility. But it also begs the question; what kind of person is capable of doing 3 or 4 recorded conversations, long conversations, every week? And being, if not consistently entertaining, still able to surprise.
It’s not so simple to hit all the right criteria. For one, engagement in the podcast enterprise, at Rogan’s level, lots of shows, nice equipment; one would probably already need to be successful or independently wealthy. Podcasting is supposed to give the illusion of accessibility, but outside of the financial, there are still limitations of character, the profile of guests, and saturation of the market place. Though despite all this, the innovation (one might even be inclined to proclaim revolution) of the ‘hang’ mentality, what it has really succeeded at, is its potential for anyone anywhere to find a group of people who they like listening to, being with for a few hours, which requires no work in return.
Yet it is often this fact about podcasts which leaves me wanting more. Like an addict. There’s holes in the structure which one sort of yearns to figure out and fill. Like me, asking this question; just what the hell makes Rogan’s podcast so popular?
In a podcast from 2016, Rogan has a conversation with the cartoonist Scott Adams. Adams makes the point that, actually, we don’’t want things to be entertaining all the time. Sometimes stuff has to miss the mark to make us appreciate when it’s done well. Adams was using this comparison in defense of the persuasive powers of a one Donald J. Trump (who I’ve never found even mildly entertaining, but I’ll still take his point). Maybe one of the things that makes the long form podcast conversation work is the lulls. The sensation that you are, really, hanging out with that person. It creates this illusion well, so well that one can forget that there is obviously a fiscal, careerist element, to the ‘just hanging out’. That’s another one of the things that Rogan does right, masking that element and never interrupting the podcast with ads (I’m about done with you: Malcolm Gladwell). In a free form conversation it becomes obvious quickly who’s there to punch the clock and who’s there to talk about ideas. Unlike many classic talk shows, almost none of Rogan’s guests are career actors. Regular talk shows are encouraged by their format to fall into the trap of interviewing actors, but let’s face it, they’re generally not that interesting. The craft of acting encourages actors to be blank slates upon which characters can be sculpted. If an actor is working regularly, they spend their time being other people. Which is great for the movies and TV shows, not great for long form conversations about ideas.
Who Rogan does often have on, sprinkled among the normal flow of comedians, are a surprising amount of academics, researchers and journalists. Who, I must confess, are often my personal preference and why I keep going back to the Joe Rogan Experience feed. There are other social science podcasts that are good, but they’re often condensed. Never really approaching the scope and digression that Rogan initiates. That’s one of the benefits of not having any particular focus and it probably explains the shows success on YouTube as a two or three hour interview can be condensed and cut to a few shorter clips. Spend enough time talking to an interesting person, there are sections where they’re gonna hit their stride.
But let me backtrack to the question of the shows popularity. Should a deconstruction of its popularity include some metric of blind luck? How if one keeps doing a show, day after day year after year, one gets better guests who signal to other guests to do it. Is popularity simply a kind of momentum? If someone showed me numbers which heavily supported that theory, I’d be inclined to call it at that. But considering that I don’t have those numbers I’m gonna do some old school speculating.
Rogan is very clear about the fact he has people on that he’s interested in. Now why should we, his millions of listeners, also presume that we will be interested in them? Well, it seems, in general, Rogan has good taste. But he also does his show so regularly and each episode is so long, one wouldn’t really have the time to listen to them all, so the listener gets to pick and choose which episode they feel most interested in. That’s one thing. Another, it seems to me, is Rogan’s fluency with the internet, its people and concerns. Its possibilities, downfalls, disappointments and redemption.
Rogan is very much an internet product. With a background in conspiracy theories he speaks the fluency of obsession which the internet is want to stimulate. For better or worse the groupthink of the internet is different than real life and the podcast often operates how many of us do in our daily lives now. One foot in, one foot out. The gamesmanship of data transferred to our everyday consciousness.
Importantly for Rogan, his popularity, I think, is the out. Outdoors, movement, physical competition. As above I briefly mentioned Maron’s podcast, which I recall dealt in some dimensions with depression and feelings of inadequacy. Rogan tries to inspire the listener to stop giving so much of a fuck and go out and do stuff. It’s not a complex dictum. It gives off an aura of sustainability and isn’t that what we look for in those who expose us to ideas? The possibility that we, too, might one day get it right? (Even if this is just a fantasy.)
There is a level of paternalism to Rogan’s podcast. But in our media landscape this can give off the feeling of coming up for air. Like most people I’m not invested in one particular political sphere over the other. All that their, exclusive, sophisticated and prudish arguments describe to me are the blusterings of the ambitious. A figure, like Rogan, who risks understanding both sides will always incorporate a certain level of paternalism. Explanation.
Now I know that this is not the most common definition of paternalism. That in which: the paternalistic actor is the person who is telling you to do certain things. Do this/not that. There are certain implications towards this on Rogan’s podcast, but I had trouble truly accepting the truth of that definition as there aren’t any hard lined assertions about anything. Yet there is clearly something about the podcast which gives off a sense of paternalism. This is sustained and undercut by the ingestion of cannabanoids by Rogan on his podcast. Who, if inclined to lean into his paternalistic instincts, mostly hides it. The weed creating boundless holes of skepticism.
The MMA thing is a bit of a curiosity to me, since I don’t get it at all. I’m not interested in it and it heavily features in Rogan’s podcast. Guests often bring it up and huge stretches of time will be taken in discussion of different fighters. Now, while I’m not personally interested, I have heard that the UFC and MMA in general has one of the fastest growing fan bases around. It seems kind of young and hip. Not like football, which one generally associates with farty dads or father-in-laws in recliners.
One of my favorite writers, the great Chuck Klosterman said a thing regarding football and popularity. He said; you can tell a cultural product is truly popular when even people who don’t care about it pretend like they do, feel like they have to care. Well, to apply this thought to the Rogan podcast: I don’t care about MMA, I don’t like or care about conspiracy theories, I’ve never taken DMT, I don’t hunt for elk or eat it. And yet I’m still a listener of the podcast. Maybe Rogan’s just so cool he can make listeners like the same stuff he likes. Or maybe we’re simply willing to pretend because of the popularity.
I don’t really know. But I do think it’s correctly functioning like an archive of the time. Our time. Much like Dick Cavett’s show, there’s value to going back and watching or listening to old episodes. You can’t say that about every talk show.
(You can find Jonah’s low-budget podcast Western Thought on iTunes. A bi-monthly ‘hang’ experiment with his friend/novelist/bookstore owner Will Peterson where they talk about literature and life. A different author every episode.)