Comedian Joe Rogan on the PC Culture War and His Future with the UFC

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Comedian Joe Rogan on the PC Culture War and His Future with the UFC
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

For those in the know, MMA was a beautiful spectacle, the ultimate expression of humanity's mastery of the body, mind and spirit. Fighting can reach across culture, religion and race to unite us. But that doesn't mean it's self-explanatory.

At the purest level, games are simple. Who can run or swim the fastest? Who is strongest? Who can throw this object the furthest? These Olympian struggles require little from the audience. We can simply sit back and marvel at the human body pushed to its limits.

As the games get more complicated, the role of the announcer becomes more and more important. The games still seem simple—but there is a lot going on to make them seem so. 

In most sports, the color commentator role is filled by a former player, a stalwart of the gridiron or the jump-shooter extraordinaire. Think Troy Aikman or Steve Kerr. They've been there before, in the muck, and can relay the athlete's experience to the audience living vicariously.

If there's no athlete to fit the bill, the buck is passed to a former coach, an analytical mind capable of parsing the nuances of the fast-moving sport he has given his life to.  

In MMA, those things didn't exist. There was no former athlete to walk fans through positional hierarchy on the ground. Even today, the earliest pioneers such as Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie are still actively competing themselves.

Into that void came Joe Rogan. A stand-up comedian best known as the host of Fear Factor, Rogan was on the surface an odd choice for the assignment. But his infectious enthusiasm and obvious knowledge soon won fans over. 

For 14 years, he's been the voice of the Octagon, taking millions of new fans by the hand and guiding them through the Byzantine world of MMA. At the same time, he's continued his life as a comedian, releasing a number of successful specials and hosting one of the world's most popular podcasts. 

Occasionally, however, those worlds collide, as witnessed last December when Rogan hosted his UFC boss Dana White on his show. An insensitive joke at the expense of Cris "Cyborg" Justino was widely condemned, most notably by my colleague Sydnie Jones

Much has changed since Rogan's early days with the UFC. What was once an underground spectacle held in small towns such as Dothan, Alabama, has become a corporate phenomenon, with Good Morning America replacing Full Contact Fighter as the news source of the day.

Does Rogan still fit in this new-era UFC? Or will he have to choose between two successful careers? He sat down with Bleacher Report's Jonathan Snowden to discuss what the future may hold.

 

Bleacher Report: It is Joe Rogan.  How are you doing, man?

Joe Rogan: What's up, buddy?  How are you?

 

B/R: I'm doing fantastic.  I hope you are too.  I know we roughed you up a bit in an article recently, and I wanted to get your take on it. 

The basic premise, as I read it, was that Joe Rogan needs to be more cognizant of the impact that his words might have once they leave his mind and his mouth.  Do you think that’s fair?

Rogan: I think the premise is fair, sure.  It's always good to be cognizant of the words that come out of your mouth. Where I took exception—I think she was being very dishonest with a lot of what she was doing, by quote mining podcasts and Twitter and all those different things. 

You can do that, and you could piece together some argument that I say a lot of stupid s--t, and I absolutely do.  Over the course of X amount of years and 700-plus three-hour podcasts, and who knows how many f--king tweets and all kinds of other s--t.

I mean no doubt about it.

 

B/R: But you don't think it's representative of you in some meaningful way?

Rogan: We're pretending that human interaction and human language doesn’t have any subtlety to it and that there's no variables as to your intent when you're saying things.  You could say some really ridiculous s--t under the guise of humor, and I accept it because I know that what you're trying to do is entertain.  You're not trying to make a statement of fact.  You're not filling out an affidavit, OK?  You're not putting your hand on a Bible and swearing these are my actual thoughts.  You're trying to entertain.  And that is what a joke is.

The problem is when someone's singing a song, it's quite obvious that they're singing a song.  They're trying to entertain.  When someone says something, whether it's in text, like in a tweet, or whether it's in a conversation and you type it out as text, if you take out the context of what they're trying to do, you could take a lot of the jokes that people say and make it seem way worse than what it actually is.  And that’s what people love to do when they are recreationally outraged.

 

B/R: Right. 

Rogan:  In one I said about I view women that don’t like kids the way I view dogs that like to eat their own s--t.  The context of that tweet, I was at a restaurant, and I was with my friend who was with his kids.  And his kids are like really well-behaved.  

This woman was just looking at his kids with disgust and she said to her friend at a level that I could hear, "I f--king hate kids."  

"I f--king hate kids."  And she's like shaking her head back and forth.  And I was like, ugh, that’s so disturbing to hear a woman say that about like a little human being.  And I understand if you don’t have them that you would think that they're annoying.  I get it.  I mean I was guilty of that when I was young.  I thought kids were annoying.  But it's just—there's something about it coming out of this woman's mouth.  It's sexist.  It's sexist certainly to say, woman, a woman, but it was an honest reaction, and I just put it in a tweet because I was just like, ugh. 

But then like feminist bloggers have blogged about it.  It's been like the subject of like whole articles that they wrote, a f--king tweet that I wrote on like three glasses of wine in Santa Barbara at some f--king restaurant.  You know you can do that with me if you really want to, if you want to quote mine and find a bunch of s--t that I said that’s stupid. 

 

B/R: Do you buy the idea that it's bad for the sport somehow? Your comedy?

Rogan: You know, you could say that any other sport, that I would be fired.  Probably good, probably true.  But guess what, I wouldn’t work for any other sport.  

There's a lot of other examples of similar jobs where you wouldn’t be able to get away with what I really get away with.  But I'm a cage-fighting commentator.  And if you get offended by jokes—I have a hard time taking people seriously that want to try to pass off jokes as fact or a statement. 

You know and I think that’s a lot of what these "social justice warriors," people that are recreationally outraged.  That’s what they do.  Instead of going "eh, he was just f--king around, he's telling a joke," they go, "oh, I got one. " And then they write it down, and they run with it.  It's bulls--t, because they know and you know that it's a joke. 

 

B/R: The way I see it is there's a general disconnect between you and critics. They buy into this premise that comedy shouldn’t make fun of people.  

I think like comedy is great when it shatters someone's dignity absolutely.  Most often in your humor, and in anyone's comedy, the person telling the joke is the butt of the joke. And that's OK.

But sometimes it's somebody else, like a celebrity or an idea. And there seems to be a growing sentiment that, well, you shouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t make fun of anybody?  

Rogan: That’s absolutely foolish.  I mean they're fools.

I think that speaks to their intent when they're critiquing.  What they're trying to do is they're trying to censor you.  They're trying to silence you and censor you, and they're trying to do it with shame.  That was the whole reason why she takes all these things over the course of several years and compiles them into one article. 

You're trying to shame someone into changing their behavior to suit what you think their behavior should be like.  I saw one of the tweets that she wrote like saying that someone should never joke about someone's appearance.  Like, what?  Says who?  Says who? 

 

B/R: Says Twitter.

Rogan:  I think that these people that say these things, they are either not a fan of comedy or they're not a fan of certain types of comedy.  They think that somehow comedy should be without victims. 

But comedy is comedy.  If it is funny, it is funny.  And you know there's some things that you're gonna find funny that I won't, and there are certain things that my friends would say that would hurt my feelings, and I don't find funny.  I don’t have to.  But I don’t want to censor them.

This is what you should joke aboutall things that are funny.  All things. Including things about yourself, which I do all the time. 

I'm f--king brutal when I make fun of myself.  I do it all the time.  You know, and if I was a sensitive person and I wasn’t me, I would be offended at me.  That’s stand-up comedy, you know?  That’s human.

In a lot of ways, humor, although it's uncomfortable for people, it exposes truths that people are trying to hide and close off.  And sometimes those truths being exposed to you is healthy.  It's actually good for you, and it's good for other people as well.

I think when you don’t make fun of something, when you put something off limits, that’s when it has all this power because it's like the elephant in the room that everyone knows about and no one is discussing.  And I think that actually gives things more power when you don’t talk about them openly. 

 

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Will Rock's humor stand the test of time?

B/R: I'm reading this book The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff.  It's tracking comedy from the vaudeville era to podcasts today.  And like he has this idea that there's like a generational gap in comedy, so like people who grew up on Bob Newhart or Jay Leno maybe aren't gonna appreciate Louis C.K. or Chris Rock. 

Maybe there's like a millennial generation who aren't gonna appreciate the people who came before them? Are these just generational and cultural differences rearing their heads?

Rogan:  I don’t think so.  It's not a cultural gap.  It's an ideology. 

The people that are doing this, if you follow them, they're the same people that take these cookie-cutter ideologies, like they have these predetermined patterns of thinking and behavior, and you're not allowed to stray outside those lines.  Fill in whatever is the most current political or social cause you're supposed to get behind. 

And there's good things to that.  I think a lot of what we're seeing with this outrage that people have about the social climate and attitudes about certain topics, I think ultimately they're good, even though they're kind of detrimental to the art form of stand-up comedy. 

I think they're good because I think we live in a time where it's easier to live than it's ever been before.  It's an amazing time.  We're experiencing the lowest murder rate today than any time in the last 50 years and possibly ever in human history.  Right now is the safest time to live ever.  And because of that, people have more time to come up with s--t to complain about that doesn’t make any sense. 

I think it's also people are more aware of all sorts of horrible things that are going on in the world than they ever have been before.  We're more aware of the power of thoughts and of the way we perceive things in our culture than we ever have before.

That’s why, even though I disagree with it, you're seeing this ban on words, even innocuous ones like bossy.  I think the idea behind it is kind of bulls--t, but I think there is like a pull to do these things because people are genuinely thinking that the world is changing.  And despite all the horrible s--t that you see in the news, that seems to be true. 

 

B/R: So bringing it back around, I guess, when your worlds collide like they did with the Cyborg joke, do you think it demands a different approach?  When your comedy is MMA-focused?  You might have to commentate a Cris Cyborg fight one day.  Do have a different professional obligation to play it straight?   

Rogan: Ultimately, this was an area where my two professions collided and I went on impulse, and that impulse was to go for a laugh.  I would chalk the whole thing up on my part to a combination of poor decision-making, alcohol and the environment that I was having the conversation in which is a podcast with two comedians going for the joke.  It’s a situation where my two separate professions collided and I failed to navigate them correctly.  I f--ked up, plain and simple.

I certainly think, especially in retrospect that I do have a different professional obligation when I’m making a joke about a fighter that I might have to commentate on.  Obviously, in the moment, alcohol and all, I didn’t consider it, and I f--ked up...  Being a stand-up comedian and a fight commentator at the same time is tricky business.  Maybe too tricky.

 

B/R: Is it hard sometimes not to bring up things like drug suspensions and other negative things that rarely seem to make UFC broadcasts?

Rogan: One thing that you never hear me talk about during the broadcast is testosterone replacement therapy.  I had to bite my f--king tongue when Vitor Belfort was fighting Chris Weidman because I think as a fan and as an analyst it is my job to point out issues with the sport, significant issues. 

Like if someone had undergone a strength and conditioning routine and all the sudden they started putting on all this muscle and you started seeing them having better performances inside the Octagon, you'd say like, "Hey, Nate Diaz has really stepped up his strength and conditioning, and you can see the results physically in him and you can see the results." That would be a pertinent issue, right? 

John Locher/Associated Press
Weidman takes on a shriveled Belfort.

 

B/R: Right.

Rogan: That would be something that we would all want to discuss when you're talking about how a fighter would perform inside the Octagon.  But when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs like testosterone or things like that, we were supposed to give it a cursory mention.  And that’s it. 

I think that is disingenuous, and I think it does a discredit to the overall analysis of the competition itself.  And I...

 

B/R: Do you ever do any pushback? I assume you have the producer saying like, "Hey, you know, tread lightly."

Rogan: No, no, no.  They don’t do that.  But the UFC has told me to not bring it up.  That’s it. 

They don’t want to touch it.  They want to leave it alone, and they want to leave it up to USADA and Nevada State Athletic Commission, and they just want to talk about the fighter's skill and how they perform inside the Octagon.

 

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

B/R: Is it hard for you to maintain the credibility I feel like you’ve built up by telling us the truth for 14 years.  Is it hard for you to step back and not say what you want to say?

Rogan: Only in that regard.  And that’s why I talk about it on the podcast all the time.  And I'm not gonna stop doing that ever.  I'm just not. 

And if the UFC ever said, "Hey, you gotta stop drinking and talking shit about people doing testosterone," I'd be like, well, this is where we part ways.  I'm not going to. 

If you want me, while I'm working for you, to not bring up one aspect of this, if that is your choice, I don’t have a problem with that.  But if it gets more hairy than that, I'm out. 

 

B/R: I know you've said that when your contract expires, you're not sure you want to keep doing this with UFC.  Is it the things like this that have kind of led you in that direction?

Rogan: Potentially.  It's potentially confusing to people, I think.  But in all fairness, the UFC has never given me a hard time about it.  They didn’t give me a hard time about the Cris Cyborg joke; they really don’t ever give me a hard time about anything.

Overall, they’re amazing to work for.  It’s a real pleasure.

I really couldn’t ask for more understanding or open-minded employers in that regard, and being able to do what I do for the UFC really is a huge honor and a position that I deeply respect.

I don’t think that this could ever work out the way it does if I didn’t start with them in the beginning.  I mean, if they just hired me last month and I cracked an unfortunate joke while drinking booze on a podcast with the president of the company about one of his female fighters having a d--k, I think I would be rightly fired.

 

B/R: It sounds like you're legitimately thinking about calling it a day?

Rogan: I'm probably gonna think about this over the next few months, what I would be happiest doing.  I would always be a fan of the UFC.  I don’t think it necessarily makes me more of a fan to do commentary.  You know, I mean I think I do it professionally, and it's fun and I enjoy it, but I'd probably enjoy it just as much, if not more, if I was just watching. 

 

B/R: The commentary gig is not so easy, is it?

Rogan: I'm juggling a million different things.  I'm trying to be entertaining, I'm trying to accurately assess the movement of the fighters and see if I can find patterns to analyze their strategy, I'm trying to see what they're doing wrong, I'm observing fatigue, observing flaws in their technique, I'm observing amazing technique and dominant performances, and I'm trying to put that into words to give it honor, to honor it, rather, with my commentary, to try to capture the moment in as entertaining and as concise a way as possible. 

So there's a lot of s--t going on while you're doing commentary.  And that’s one of the reasons why I try not to say who won a round because while you're talking and you're doing your best to do commentary, you're not shutting up and just watching and writing things down.  You're also concentrating on being entertaining. 

You know it's a very exhausting thing.  It seems like it wouldn’t be, but at the end of a hard night of fights, I’m spent.  Six hours of commentary requires a lot of energy and focus.

CHRIS PIZZELLO/Associated Press
Comedian Dennis Miller didn't last in the world of sports.

 

B/R: Every other comedian in this role, I'm thinking specifically of Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football here, flamed out. Why do you think you've lasted?

Rogan: You know why it was dog shit?  Because Dennis Miller tried to just—he tried to just shove jokes in.  You know I'll go 10 UFCs without even an attempt at saying something funny.  You know I'm not just trying to be funny. 

When I do the UFC, I mean all I'm trying to do is do that.  I mean I'm not trying to be a comedian doing UFC commentary, but it's also like when I'm a comedian outside of that and someone wants to interject the two of them, I think the only place where they really truly collide was like the Cris Cyborg joke or things like that.  Like, that’s when they collide, when I'm making fun of someone in a mean or a f--ked-up way, that I will have to eventually do commentary on. 

But if I do do commentary on them, I will do my very best to honor what they're doing inside the Octagon...  I think if it interfered with my performance in the actual commentary itself, that would be an issue. 

I’m very diligent about that when it comes to doing my best.  I mean, you can like my commentary or not like my commentary, but understand when I do it, I’m doing the very best job that I can. 

 

B/R:  It's been a crazy 14 years, and it's been cool to have you kind of like as our guide through the whole thing.  But that's a long time to do anything.

Rogan: Well, thank you, man.  I would enjoy it, even if I quit.  I've enjoyed it up until now. 

It's a long time to do anything.  I haven't even made any real decisions.  I don't know.  I don't know what I'm gonna do.  But that's where my head is at.  And again, I don't want to disrespect this sport in any way.

 

B/R: Yeah, I understand that.  But I think it's kind of cool that you have UFC Joe Rogan and you've got podcast Joe Rogan, and they're doing different things.  And it's cool to have different facets of your life.  You know so many people are so one-dimensional, you know?

Rogan: Well, I'm just really lucky that there's a bunch of stuff that I like to do that I can actually do for a living.  And that's really what it boils down to.  It's just I got super lucky that the things that I enjoy, they've become occupations.  You know?

 

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. This interview has been edited for time and clarity.

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