That Time I Saw Joe Rogan’s Terrible Stand-Up
You know, I don't have a lot of opinions about Joe Rogan. It seems like that might be ironic, because he really seems to have a lot of opinions, but I really couldn't care less about him. (I didn't even realize he was the guy from "Fear Factor" until this month, that's how little I know or care about his whole deal.) But since he's in the news, I got to thinking about my first exposure to him... watching him do stand-up in LA in 2017. My boss at the time had a client visiting town, and this client wanted to take me out for a drink to thank me for my hard work. We went to one of the comedy clubs in Hollywood, and we saw a few really terrific comedians. And then the headliner, Joe Rogan, took the stage last. And he... he was bad. "But Mike," you might say, "comedy is so subjective, Maybe he just wasn't to your taste!" That's definitely true. We were less than a year removed from the election that had put Donald Trump in office, and he kept joking about how Hillary Clinton wouldn't have done any better because "she was an old lady who kept falling down." But whatever, you can make jokes about Hillary Clinton, she'll be fine. And making jokes at Democrats expense isn't a bad thing (although I'd argue we weren't exactly ready for it when we were still dealing with the Muslim ban and any number of other terrible policy decisions). But what bothered me most wasn't any of the jokes he told, but it was how he reacted when the audience groaned... "I'll get up here, and I'll say things I don't even believe." He probably said this five or six times during his set, almost always as a way to either pacify the crowd and try to get them on his side, or to bail out of a joke that hadn't landed well. And while other audience members were undoubtedly more upset by the substance of the jokes themselves, it was this argument that really pissed me off.
And honestly, he was still getting laughs - they were the same shocked, gasp laughs that "shocking" comedy always gets. And for some comedians, that's the goal behind certain jokes. But you have to stand behind your material, and understand why people are reacting to it... and ideally, understand why you said it. Stand-up comedy is one of the most personal forms of art. Almost every other medium involves creating characters who can stand in for an author's beliefs or reflect their interpretation of the world. But for most stand-up comics, there's no character to hide behind whatever you say on stage, the audience will believe you believe it. In the words of Mike Birbiglia, "If someone says they don't like your stand-up, they're basically saying, 'We don't like you. You know... your personality.'" I also tend to believe stand-up only works if it expresses some sort of truth; truth about society, the human condition, bad movies, whatever. I don't necessarily have to agree with the comedian (although that definitely helps). But if I don't think a comedian genuinely believes the core truth of their jokes, then there's no way the jokes will land with me.
Yet here was Joe Rogan: this weird, twitchy, sweaty thumb. Standing on stage, claiming that he'll say whatever he can to get a cheap laugh, and openly telling us that he "doesn't believe half" of what he says while on stage.
And I remember thinking, "Then what are you even doing here? If you don't have any opinions you can honestly stand behind, let alone find humor in them, then what are you even doing?" Anyway, all that to say, I'm not too surprised to see him in the news because he's still saying stupid stuff.