October 8, 2019
Joe Rogan interviewing Elon Musk
NEW YORK – Joe Rogan is not a byline you would find in the New York Times. Not because Rogan calls himself a comedian and would prefer his work heard with a chuckle, nor because his medium is video and that pivot has long since seen its course. But because Joe Rogan handles information, sometimes his own breaking news, in a manner more similar to an entertainer than a journalist: with verve, with humanity, with imprecision.
Nowhere is Rogan’s approach more visible than in his podcasts. Across almost 1400 interviews he’s spoken to a who’s who of those whose ideas, thoughts, even bodies have gone to developing society as we know it: from Mike Tyson to Neil deGrasse Tyson, it seems as though he’s interviewed them all.
And that breadth itself is valuable. It allows Rogan’s work to act as a sort of database of popular information. By itself it is a searchable, constantly updated continuum that can provide context even for the most minute events in society. It seems impossible to name a journalist who has contributed as much to the public discourse on so many topics.
What’s more, Rogan has a knack for bringing out a candor in his interviewees that is rarely seen in public figures, often bringing a new roundness to the flat personas so many of those figures have carved.
“Mental illness gets people the way lung cancer gets people,” says a pensive Mark Normand in episode 1355, miles away from the shock comedy that made his name infamous. The interview continues into a frank discussion of mental well-being, and the difficulties inherent in an industry where emotional exposure is synonymous with profitability. Throughout, Rogan remains disinterested and cajoling, steering Normand more and more towards revelation over rehearsed material.
In fact, that talent has time and again led his interviewees to reveal genuinely news-breaking facts about themselves that have not only changed public opinion, but the course of industries. In his most watched interview, with over 25 million views, Rogan speaks to Elon Musk about technology, business, and Musk’s singular role in society.
“Do you think about your role in culture?” Rogan asks Musk. “I don’t think people would like to be me” Musk replies bleakly. As the conversation continues Rogan offers Musk a weed cigarette, encouraging him to try. Musk’s acceptance, coming at a time when faith in his ability as a CEO was under public scrutiny, proved a turning point: Tesla, Musk’s multi-million dollar company, dropped 9% in stock value that day.
The incident however, also exemplifies the tension that Rogan brings to his interviews: the prioritization of entertainment over information. In this instance, Rogan goes so far as to insert himself into the story, actively inviting Musk to make history.
The issue is pervasive in Rogan’s interviews with controversial public figures. In his interview with Alex Jones, Rogan refuses to provide facts or context to the many egregious claims Jones airs. Instead Rogan either stays silent or recontextualizes Jones’ statements with comforting words of assent.
“Who the [expletive] said science is bad in 2019” Rogan says, as Jones comments on his previous claims that the Sandy Hook shootings were staged.
Therein lies the fundamental difficulty of a Joe Rogan interview. They are exciting, interesting, novel, but paint a picture of the world as Rogan sees it, not as the truth portrays it. Perhaps Neil DeGrasse Tyson described it best when talking about Van Gogh on Rogan’s own podcast:
“He painted what he saw folded into what he felt”