Complicity and the Peril of Misinterpretation in Joe Rogan’s “Strange Times”

Joe Rogan in Strange Times

Joe Rogan, the founder and host of the tycoon podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, delivers a very funny, occasionally uncomfortable, but nonetheless surprisingly sharp take on performing stand-up in the hotly-surveilled space of modern American comedy.

Far from his more laid back role as podcast host, Rogan’s stand-up tears through a range of political, cultural and social issues with a tenacious confidence. Rogan begins Strange Times with a polished and very funny take on the absurdity of Trump’s behaviour as president, citing the example of the president challenging ex-Veep Joe Biden to a fistfight on Twitter. However, he goes on to argue that Trump’s election win was a “clear trend” in American history, where “We try one person as president, and the next person has to be completely opposite”. For Rogan, America, in a heady mix of wild abandon, chose Trump as the coarser, wilder contrast to Obama’s “boring but sensible” personality, akin to someone getting out of a stiflingly stable long-term relationship and looking for a thrill: “She’s got fake hair, she’s racist, and she’s always lying. We don’t care! We’re not trying to start a family, we just want to run red lights and fuck.” His following critique on Hillary Clinton (described as “a lying old lady who faints a lot”) gives him some insurance by ensuring both sides of the partisan divide are mildly roasted, and he reinforces this by asking why we even need an American president in the first place. This material allows Rogan to return to the institutional critique of his premise that argues that however we put into office, “No one’s going to do it right.” While critiquing Trump’s behaviour, his opening material works well because it plants his presidency within the idea of a historical cycle that offers a much wider complicity and readily blames American voters and the limitations of American power. In a comedy environment where you can’t walk eight feet in any direction without hearing an easy Trump joke, it starts Strange Times off on a more original footing by letting Rogan offer a more perceptive reading of the American presidency, if one that is nonetheless a little short on interrogation.

However, his opening material opens up a running theme that courses through Strange Times, that of our own individual complicity in aiding a range of troubling political and social ideas. In some areas of his special, this is really well pronounced; in the context of his critique of Men’s Rights Activists, Rogan offers a sympathetic hand to women. In a piece on a (cited) lack of prominent female inventors, Rogan refers to the tragic example of 1940s actress Hedy Lamaar and her development of a secret communication system during WW2. While the U.S military went on to use Lamaar’s invention, she was side-lined and advised she would make a greater contribution to the war effort as a pin-up than as an inventor. Rogan is ruthless in his excoriation of Lamaar’s neglected role, saying that because she was extremely attractive, “nobody paid attention to anything smart she said.” In the context of Rogan’s loveable, nerdy dissection of a contentious premise – the lack of female inventors – his inclusion of Lamaar as a terrible example of neglected female ingenuity is appreciated and very well executed.

While this piece rests within Rogan’s critique of the brutality of male power, there are other portions of Strange Times that test ideas of more overt, female complicity. In a piece on Harvey Weinstein, Rogan argues that his own sexism against men is illustrated when he admits that he wouldn’t have cared if Weinstein’s victims had been men rather than women. Through his depiction of a female “Harvina Weinstein” character, he seems to relish the opportunity that would await young men in giving sexual favours in exchange for the opportunity to play the lead role in the next Batman movie. While opening up an important discussion about male and female sexuality, Rogan’s own admitted sexism in this area that is combined with his enthusiasm in imagining men in the profitable situation of a “Harvina Weinstein”, isn’t done with enough nuance to really deliver a more original interpretation. He emphasises this idea of male disposability later in Strange Times, arguing that nobody cares about young men, but fails to delve into more detail or pursue this much further. While Rogan’s material does open up space to explore both male and female blind spots, this specific piece falls a bit flat, and does a disservice to his more complex readings in Strange Times by too easily falling into a typical take on male sexuality. While a strength in other portions of Rogan’s special, his treatments of individual complicity ironically falls back on himself in this section.

Resting alongside his material on individual complicity, another major theme that runs through Strange Times is one of interpretation, and how this becomes a reflection on the intense, partisan nature of modern, American cultural discussions and the overtly-reactionary nature of traditional and digital media. For Rogan’s regular hosting of a spate of right-wing commentators such as Jordan Peterson on The Joe Rogan Experience, his own direct involvement in the contentious and hyper-partisan world of online political and social discussion hangs like a spectre over Strange Times, and one he is ready to critique. Often, Rogan seems to bait his audience into pinning the worst assumptions onto him as a means to puncture them. In fact, he readily plays with this technique whenever he encroaches into sensitive issues such as feminism, adopting a falsetto accent and accusing himself of being a sexist or a bigot. Following a funny critique on the savage nature of household cats, and a less convincing piece justifying his use of the word “gay” to mean lame, he impersonates an upset audience member who furiously begins to prepare a blog post on his work. (Ahem) Rogan’s use of accents, from his shrill impersonation of a reactionary feminist to his gruff imitation of a Men’s Right Activist, while a little grating after a while, is one of the more unique elements of Strange Times. While many entertainers would balk at the idea of giving so much space to their critics, if even in jest, Rogan’s use of this technique in Strange Times offers a more sympathetic reading of his own personal beliefs than I was personally expecting, and one that seemed eager to communicate with his critics without lessening the edge of his social and political commentaries.

In his comic bafflement at not knowing the answers to all of his questions, Rogan’s Strange Times playfully veers outside the tamer lines of social and political discussion and incites his audience with ridiculous takeaways on modern life. At the same time, he seems to make an effort to show he is not insensitive to where his stand-up could take him, and balances his more traditionally masculine bits with sympathetic commentaries on male disposability and neglected female intellect. I was pleasantly surprised at how self-aware it was, and how much it offered reflections on the frequent, knee-jerk like reactions that stand-up comedy has been dealing with more frequently in the past few years. I look forward to more specials from Rogan in the future, but I just hope the next one has a few less impersonations.

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