fb-pixel Skip to main content

Where does Joe Rogan draw the line?

‘Somewhere, somebody’s got to say, “No, Joe, that guy doesn’t get to be on your show”’

Joe Rogan in 2013.Vivian Zink/Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Listeners of Joe Rogan’s podcast have likely heard him rave about the nutritional value of elk — “you’re literally eating a super athlete” — or the full-body benefits of sitting in a room set at 250 degrees below zero.

But idiosyncrasy alone isn’t the reason “The Joe Rogan Experience,” with an estimated 200 million downloads per month, is the world’s most popular podcast. To reach those heights, you also need to revel in conspiracies; question climate change; chat up ideologues; skewer the media; and sound hyper-masculine, which seems to particularly enchant Rogan’s zealous, mostly male audience.

It’s been a wildly successful formula for Rogan, a Newton South High School graduate who dropped out of UMass in the late 1980s to do stand-up. But it’s also combustible. In the past few weeks, Rogan has drawn fire for leveraging his massive platform to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, and for using racist language. In protest of his anti-vaccination comments, several musical acts, including Neil Young, pulled their catalogs from Spotify, which reportedly paid as much as $200 million for the exclusive rights to stream “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

Amid the controversy, the embattled but unbowed podcaster still has plenty of defenders — former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart says the criticism is “overblown” — but many others, including some Boston comics who’ve worked with Rogan, believe a comeuppance is overdue. They say Rogan can be cruel, and during a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 900,000 Americans, he’s been reckless in allowing guests to disseminate coronavirus misinformation to his vast following. Rogan, who lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and three children, did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Advertisement



“Somewhere, somebody’s got to say, ‘No, Joe, that guy doesn’t get to be on your show,’” says longtime Boston comic Mike McDonald, who worked with Rogan back in the day. “Someone has to tell Joe, ‘Look, we don’t need Pol Pot’s opinion.’”

Advertisement



Rogan has come a long way from Stitches, the defunct comedy club on Commonwealth Ave. where he did stand-up for the first time in 1988. Before then, he’d been mostly focused on martial arts, which he’s said he took up as a teenager after a classmate in Newton put him in a headlock during a confrontation in a locker room.

Fiercely competitive and built like a fireplug, Rogan excelled at taekwondo, and eventually competed in — and won — multiple statewide taekwondo tournaments.

“I wouldn’t have achieved anything in life without martial arts,” he told Black Belt magazine in 2019. “I developed so much discipline and so much insight about life that I don’t think I really would have learned otherwise.”

But Rogan also had a knack for making people laugh — “... life is too important to be taken seriously” he wrote in his high school yearbook — so when his passion for kicking people (and being kicked) began to wane, a few UMass friends encouraged him to try stand-up. Veteran comedy promoter Bill Blumenreich, who opened the Comedy Connection in Faneuil Hall in the late 1980s, says Rogan was ambitious from the outset.

“In 1990, Joe was the first comic in the whole Boston area to have a cellphone, and it made him a lot of money,” says Blumenreich, who became friends with Rogan and still promotes his shows, including a sold-out appearance at TD Garden last October. “Every time a comic didn’t show up or couldn’t make it, you’d have to call someone. You’d be lucky if they called you back 10 hours later.

Advertisement



“But Joe had a cellphone, so he got a lot of work,” says Blumenreich.

Rogan didn’t stick around Boston long. He moved to Los Angeles, where in 1995 he got a role on the NBC sitcom “NewsRadio” — he played an easygoing conspiracy theorist named Joe. The show lasted five seasons and helped Rogan land his next gig, hosting “Fear Factor,” the gross-out reality show that dared contestants to swallow spiders, leeches, and, in one episode, a pizza made of cow bile and coagulated blood paste. Later, Rogan’s enthusiasm for fighting led to a job as a commentator for Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Joe Rogan (left) on an episode of "Fear Factor."NBC/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

All the while, he continued doing stand-up. Rogan is a fan of Richard Pryor, whose concert film, Live on the Sunset Strip,” he saw with his parents when he was 13. The influence is apparent in his material, which is barbed and profane. Rogan ridicules everyone, including himself. “I talk [expletive] for a living,” he likes to say. Sometimes, though, his macho shtick feels harsh. Comedy is a no-holds-barred business — anything for a laugh — but some fellow comics say Rogan seems to relish punching down, targeting the vulnerable.

Advertisement



A dozen years ago, when comedian Mehran Khaghani was starting out in Boston, he went to see Rogan at the Comedy Studio, then located above the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square. He says Rogan was funny, but used a gay slur repeatedly, which Khaghani, who’s gay, found odd and unnecessary.

“It wasn’t some magical punch line. It was low-key signaling to people that you’re the kind of guy who says [expletive],” says Khaghani.

Smoking a cigarette outside afterward, Khaghani says he complimented Rogan on his set, but also told him he didn’t need to use gay slurs gratuitously, especially in a gay-friendly city like Cambridge.

“He immediately got defensive and was, like, ‘Oh, come on,’” says Khaghani, who recalls that Rogan seemed taken aback by the criticism.

“Joe feels easy saying certain things because he doesn’t have people who stop him. Like, if you talk a big anti-feminist game with real-ass women in the room, you’re going to get clapped back at,” Khaghani says. “That tells me you don’t kick it with a lot of strong women.”

Comedian Sue Costello, a Dorchester native who began doing stand-up in the mid-1990s, remembers one night in Los Angeles when Rogan followed her at The Comedy Store. He was on “NewsRadio” at the time, and she was getting notoriety for “Costello,” her short-lived sitcom on Fox.

“Joe came on after me and was so viciously disgusting to me,” Costello says. “He said, ‘Who would ever [expletive] her with that accent,’ and simulated [sex] on stage. It just ripped through my chest.”

Advertisement



The incident still angers Costello, who has called Rogan out for it on social media, antagonizing the podcaster’s millions of Twitter and Instagram followers.

“All his bros attacked me, saying I’m a [expletive] old lady and who do I think I am,” Costello says. “Now Joe’s the one taking some hits, and he’s being a big wimp.”

Last week, in response to the Spotify protests, Rogan sounded contrite. He apologized for his past use of the N-word, calling it “regretful and shameful,” and said he supports Spotify’s decision to add a content advisory to any podcast that discusses COVID-19. In his Instagram mea culpa, Rogan insisted he’s not trying to be controversial.

“I’ve never tried to do anything with this podcast other than to just talk to people,” he said.

Since it began in 2009, “The Joe Rogan Experience” has produced over 1,770 episodes, with guests ranging from singer Miley Cyrus to whistleblower Edward Snowden, as well as countless comedians. The episodes tend to be long — the average run time is 2½ hours — and some are interminable. (Rogan’s back-and-forth with comedian Duncan Trussell goes on for more than 5 hours.)

According to a fan site that analyzes and archives Rogan’s podcast, the great majority of guests — 88 percent — are men, as is his audience, which a writer for The Atlantic described as “guys who get barbed-wire tattoos and fill their fridge with Monster energy drinks.” Rogan has interviewed hunters and historians, MMA fighters and mathematicians. While some guests are unknown outside their field, many are not, notably Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who made headlines when he took a hit of weed during one of his three appearances on the podcast.

Boston comic Don Zollo, a regular listener and Rogan fan, says the podcast is an antidote to “cancel culture,” which he believes has “infected everything from sports to media to college to Hollywood.”

“The two things Joe is selling that piss a lot of people off are truth and masculinity,” says Zollo, who claims rebukes of Rogan are part of an effort to silence him. “Joe’s willing to talk with people instead of just blindly believing what he’s told, and the mainstream media doesn’t like that.”

But critics say their beef with Rogan is his willingness to talk — and give credence — to certain people. One is Alex Jones, the far-right provocateur who falsely claimed the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax. Jones, who’s been a friend of Rogan’s since the 1990s, has been on the podcast three times, and his 2019 appearance has tallied more than 30 million views on YouTube.

Also denounced in the midst of a global pandemic are guests who make false or misleading claims about the COVID-19 vaccines. The two who galvanized the latest protest against Spotify were vaccination skeptic Robert Malone, who told Rogan the American public is being “hypnotized” (through “mass psychosis”) into getting vaccinated, and cardiologist Peter McCullough, who said on the podcast that effective treatments for COVID-19 were withheld in the pandemic’s early days “to promote fear, suffering, isolation, hospitalization, and death.”

Both assertions are false and scurrilous, but Rogan didn’t challenge them.

“Joe gives voices to certain people who shouldn’t have voices,” says McDonald, the Boston comic.

Still, proscribing speech is complicated, says longtime Boston comic Jonathan Gates. The founder of the Black Comedy Explosion, a weekly showcase at Slade’s Bar & Grill on Tremont Street, Gates, who’s Black, says he understands people’s anger about Rogan’s use of racist language — on one episode, Rogan likened a Black neighborhood to “Planet of the Apes” — but Gates is wary of banning words and ideas.

“You don’t have to listen to Rogan,” he says. “I’m an entertainer, too, and I don’t want people telling me what I can say.”

At Newton South High School, meanwhile, junior Abby Hepner wrote a column last week for the student newspaper about her frustration with a certain famous comedian/podcaster who graduated from the school in 1985.

“I wrote it because, at South, we’re trying to have protocols about vaccines and masks based on scientific data, and we’re trying to be a more equitable place,” Hepner says. “And Joe Rogan is doing the opposite.”


Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.