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What makes Joe Rogan so successful?

No single factor explains it

May 26, 2020

12:38 PM

26 May 2020

12:38 PM

If you had watched the Joe Rogan Experience in the early 2010s, you would have had no idea that it would become the world’s largest, most influential podcast. Filmed in the living room of the Fear Factor host and Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator Joe Rogan, JRE featured Rogan and his hapless sidekick Brian Redban hunched over webcams in novelty t-shirts and beanies and talking to a strange assortment of comedians and conspiracy theorists. It was sponsored by Fleshlight, a company which produced masturbatory aids.

Fast forward 10 years and JRE is moving to Spotify in a deal allegedly worth $100 million. It is watched and listened to millions of times a week. Guests have included Elon Musk, Mike Tyson, Bernie Sanders, Robert Downey Jr and Mel Gibson. Musk could take a hit from a spliff on-air and Tesla’s stock would plummet.

What has made JRE so peculiarly big? Of course, no single factor explains it. One is the development of entertainment mediums. Rogan was fortunate enough to have an established podcast when podcasting took off. This took an element of foresight but also a lot of luck. Would Howard Stern be a successful radio host if he broke into the medium today? No more than being an accomplished swordsman in the 21st century gives you the chance of earning the social status of William the Marshal.

Our cultural moment has also suited Rogan. Rogan, influenced by the freewheeling nature of the Opie & Anthony radio show, offers spontaneous conversation rather than structured questions and answers or debate. People like that kind of organic entertainment, both because of its unpredictable charm and because when many people feel so isolated it is strangely intimate. In the same way Jordan Peterson has acted as a lot of people’s internet dad, Joe Rogan has acted as a lot of people’s internet cool uncle.

In an age of shrill political correctness, the foul-mouthed comedian’s willingness to defend edgy jokes, the idea that men and women are different, and the belief that people should have the freedom to speak their minds has earned him admirers among people who feel bullied and patronised elsewhere. Crucially, though, Rogan’s good humor, friendliness and inclination towards sitting on the fence and kicking his feet both ways means he can speak to loud-mouthed InfoWars host Alex Jones and New York Times columnist Bari Weiss and have them both believing that he is on their side — which, in a sense, he is.

In her article on Rogan, Weiss talks about his status as a macho icon who ‘swings kettlebells and bow-hunts elk’. Of course, there is something to this. While many men feel atomized and feminized, Rogan is a kickboxing, weight lifting, joke-telling, elk-eating, don’t-give-an-f’ing man — if one who can also break down into tears when he talks about his dogs because, well, everybody has a soft side.

But there is something a little more uncomfortable about the relationship between Rogan and his audience. Rogan constantly, inspiringly extols the virtues of exercise, dedication and discipline. No wonder! He grew up in a violent home, in a working class family, and literally fought his way to being somebody when he became a martial artist, before grinding out an astonishingly successful, varied career as a comedian, actor, presenter, commentator and podcaster. He knows what he is talking about.

Yet the audience has only seen Rogan at the top. We know he works hard, but the work we see him do is bullshitting with his friends and commentating over MMA fights. We know he exercises, but we see him do it in the hills around LA, beneath the Californian sun. In essence, Rogan presents the best of both worlds: he can do the hard work of a man and make it look as if it is the recreation of a boy.

Most of us cannot do that. Our work involves a lot of boredom and a lot of doing what other people want. Our lifestyle options are limited. To some extent, men who watch JRE are like women who watch flawlessly beautiful Instagram influencers dive into the clear blue sea of the Maldives. A recent YouTube skit showing a man undergoing an existential breakdown in his office as he listens to Rogan make fun of ‘regular jobs’ shows what I mean. There is an element of vicarious pleasure in it, but also an element of masochism.

Rogan has discussed David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs on his show. There is something to the argument that many modern jobs are downright unnecessary, but if we are going to have the supplement stacks that Rogan is often endorsing, to take a random example, then we are going to need people who fill boxes, who arrange logistics, who drive trucks, who make advertisements, who stack shelves and who serve customers. We cannot do without these jobs, if we want these products, but I doubt they are much fun. 

Rogan talks about minimalism, and ordering your life around what you want to do. Again, there is wisdom in that. There is no point killing yourself working a job that you hate and then blowing your money on a slightly nicer car to take you to the job. But having a safe, comfortable home is expensive by its very nature — and, besides, what many people ‘want to do’ is essentially exclusive. The world does not have room for a million Joe Rogans. 

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Even exercise is inevitably more miserable in practice than theory. Like Rogan, I enjoy running on hills, but for two-thirds of the year it freezes my balls off.

There are two things I should say, though. One is that this is not a criticism of Rogan. He’s earned everything he has, by being talented and professional, and nothing is more foolish than wasting your life on jealousy over the success of others. The second is that this is not meant as a counsel of despair. The last thing I am saying is not to work on what you love. If I say most people will never realise their youthful dreams, I can also maintain that getting halfway is a lot better than getting nowhere at all

When I was young I dreamed of being a full-time novelist, but even if that never happens, I am happy to have been a part-time commentator. Life is not about getting everything you want — it is about reaching the limits of your potential. You can never be a champion but still win a fight. You can never finish marathons but still love to run. We should never let what seems ideal blind us to what is good, and when we accept that life inevitably entails a great deal of frustration, tedium and compromise we can enjoy our pleasures and accomplishments — and, perhaps, the Joe Rogan Experience.

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