How Joe Rogan Went From UFC Announcer to 21st-Century Timothy Leary
Maybe never in your life do you meet an individual like Joe Rogan. He’s that singular, in a multivariate kind of way. For instance, most folks think of him only as the flapping-jawed, bug-eyed, hyperexcitable blow-by-blow commentator for all the Ultimate Fighting Championships’ fights since 2002, given to innumerable “wows!” and “unbelieeeeveables!,” all the while displaying a depth of mixed-martial-arts knowledge second to none and a totally side-splitting yet insightful way with words, as in the time he called a fighter’s cut as deep as “a goat’s vagina.” In this regard, he’s entirely sensational. “He’s educated more people in mixed martial arts than anybody ever,” says UFC president Dana White. “He’s the best fight announcer who has ever called a fight in the history of fighting.” And you’ve got to love him for that, unless, of course, you hate him, which many do, but let’s not get into that now, because he’s a lot more than just a UFC frontman.
Today, Rogan’s finishing a workout at his cool, sprawling pad in a gated community north of L.A., 22 egg-laying chickens clucking around somewhere out back. His face is shiny with sweat, his bald head, too. He’s been pounding away for the better part of an hour inside his garage gym, mainly working on his switch kick, which is exceedingly powerful, knocking his trainer back a foot with every thump, a reminder that, even though he’s 48, he was once a teenage martial-arts champion and black belt. He wipes his face with a towel. He’s a thick guy, not on the tall side, with a few pale splotches of stress-related vitiligo on his hands and feet. From one angle, he looks like a typical lunkhead chowder-brain knuckle-dragger, which might make sense, given that he comes from a home busted up by violence in Newark, New Jersey. But for a ball cap often worn backward, however, that’s not him. In an hour, he will go host his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, which is downloaded 16 million times a month, making it one of the most popular in the nation, and discuss things like addiction, impulse-control issues and serotonin deficiencies, not smoking any weed beforehand, as he usually does, because today’s topic is more serious. Then he’ll head on over to a local cryotherapy center, get himself frozen for a few minutes at minus-270 degrees (or roughly the temperature of the dark side of the moon), and afterward say, “Oh, that was perfect!” In the evening, he’ll wind up onstage in front of sold-out crowds at the Comedy Store and the Improv, because he’s also a hardworking comedian with seven recordings to his credit.
And sometime soon, he’ll find himself at a friend’s house, half sprawled in the easiest of chairs, eyes shut, having just removed a smoking pipe from his mouth, breathing with purpose, while brilliant colors, shapes and swirls fall over him, rendering him helpless, until a few minutes later he is returned to Earth a happier man, a “more compassionate, more aware, more vulnerable” man, a better husband to his wife and father to his three kids, and so forth. Of all the psychedelics he’s a fan of, his favorite is DMT, which Hunter S. Thompson once said was “like being shot out of a cannon.” Rogan loves it, thinks everyone could benefit from it, often uses his podcast to fulminate positively on its various perception-enhancing benefits. He has been compared to Timothy Leary because of this, which he wouldn’t know anything about, since he hates labels.
Right now, he’s stepping around the cars in his garage — a sleek white SharkWerks-tuned Porsche 911 GT3 RS rests on the floor beneath a deep-silver ’65 Corvette on a lift— to open a freezer and show what’s inside. Dozens of small packages wrapped in brown paper and bagged in plastic.
He points at one of them.
“This is a moose heart,” he says, happily. “I like moose. I like moose steaks, moose stew, and moose burgers are delicious.” He closes that freezer, opens another. “This is from a wild pig. This is a sausage from something. This is more moose. This is deer. This is bear. And all this I killed myself.” Stepping back, he says, “Yes, I get some grief for it. But you know what’s unexpected to me? How little rational thought comes from vegans who own pets and feed them murdered animals. I’m like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck is going on here?'”
So, he’s got lots of things going on besides being the voice of the UFC. Stack one thing up against another, however, and not much of it makes sense, which makes him some kind of stitched-together perplexity, maybe even a novelty.
“Yeah, man,” he says later on, going inside his house and down a set of stairs. “Like, you’re not supposed to be a psychedelic proponent and a cage-fighting commentator at the same time. Those two things joined are just too fucking weird, you know? I mean, I don’t get it. And I’m me. I just—” He stops talking, cuts that one thought short, finds another. “You know what you figure out in the middle of a trip? That all these assumptions and preconceived notions of who you are, they’re all bullshit. You’re just an organism who is trying to find normalcy by repeating patterns.” Unless, of course, you’re him, in which case patterns are made to be broken. He doesn’t say this about himself, though. But it is understood. A pattern-driven mind doesn’t often stumble onto a goat’s vagina. But his does.
In his basement, he flicks on a light. In front of him is a huge box, made out of stainless steel, big enough for him to fit inside, should he feel the need or desire.
In truth, his podcast is one of the greatest things going. It’s like a journey around the known universe, as well as the unknown, the suspected and the highly suspect. So far, there’ve been 705 episodes. He started it five years ago, with friend and fellow comic Brian Redban, 41, just the two of them smoking weed and chewing the fat, nothing much going on, no grand ambitions. Early guests were largely confined to friends from MMA and comedy. But then Rogan started to haul in the more far-flung: marijuana activists, former porn stars, believers in the sanctity of shrooms, four-hour-work-week proselytizers, rappers, former LAPD cops, outdoorsmen, futurists, neuroscientists, Egyptologists, Tommy Chong, triathlete vegans, whistle-blowers, mind coaches, insomniacs, experts on toxoplasmosis, comics with nicknames like the Machine, Neil deGrasse Tyson, former CIA operatives, a woman who lives in Kavik (197 miles north of the Arctic Circle), former UFC great Georges St-Pierre half admitting to alien abduction, and conspiracy theorists of all kinds (Bigfoot, UFOs, chemtrails, JFK, 9/11, the Apollo moon landing).
Not a lot of rhyme or reason there, but that’s just how Rogan likes it, and he does have his logic. “Everything we do or try to do, we try to do a better version of it all the time. We’re constantly looking to improve. It’s a big part of being a human being. And I think the podcast improves people, not only the people who listen to it, but me as well.”
Along the way, he will allow that he’s only a conduit for those smarter than himself and call himself a “silly bitch.” Regardless, he’s huge into self-improvement, especially of the self-dabbling kind. He shoots himself up with testosterone on a weekly basis — “It’s what fighters get in trouble for, but, obviously, I’m not competing. I just like the idea that I’m cheating old age and death, although, you know, you can’t cheat it forever”— as well as human growth hormone. If he’s dragging a little, he’ll pop a Nuvigil, a variant of the focus-improving drug that fighter pilots use. Most mornings, he preps for the day with a Vitamixed, sludgy blend of kale, spinach, celery, “a large hunk of ginger about the size of a child’s thumb,” four cloves of garlic, an apple and some coconut oil. Tastes like crud. “But after your body digests it,” he says, “you’re like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got a lot of stuff to work with here.’ ”
And where does his beloved dimethyltryptamine (a.k.a. DMT) come into play in all this?
“Well, that’s a good question,” he says. “That’s like saying, ‘Where does life come into play in all this?’ The experience is so overwhelming and so alien. It’s just hard for anyone to describe. You’re just boom! Shot to the middle of everything for 15 minutes. Constantly changing geometric patterns. Jokers with jesters’ hats on, all giving me the finger. I’ve had psychedelic trips where my own sanity was slippery. It’s so titanic that any words I use to describe it are just noise. It’s a fucking billion roller coasters, plus aliens. It is whatever it is. I don’t know what it is. A chemical gateway to another dimension? A portal of souls you can tap into? I don’t see any negative to it. And it’s so fucked up that we don’t have the freedom to experiment with it legally, because there are lessons to be learned that are just not getting learned.”
What those lessons are, exactly, he’s hard-pressed to say. It’s like when he says, “It’s a very odd experience to take an animal’s life. The first time I did it, it was psychedelic. It was a transformative experience.” Which sounds good but doesn’t mean much. Or like when he’s down in his basement, as he is now, standing in front of that big stainless-steel box. It’s his flotation tank, first developed by dolphin researcher John Lilly in the 1950s, later made infamous in the movie Altered States.
Rogan opens the doors and peers inside. Normally, he floats a few times a week, the saltwater inside keeping him at neutral buoyancy, the temperature matching his skin’s, in total blackness, allowing his mind to wander and, upon its return, for him to say things like, “It can be brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of you and your reality,” and “It can be uncomfortable in the sense that you really can’t run away from any of the things that are subconsciously troubling you.” And even now he says, “I’ve definitely had some dark moments in there.”
He shrugs and starts back up the stairs, says, “Well, nothing interesting that’s negative,” and pretty soon, he’s in his Porsche, gunning himself somewhere, and with each passing second adding more G’s to the day’s unfolding situation.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, father a cop, mom a free spirit. He was five when his folks divorced, and seven when he moved with his mom to San Francisco, where she remarried a hippie sort “with hair down to his ass.” First tasted weed at the age of eight, with his stepdad, and then not again, unless drunk, until the age of 30. He remembers that a gay couple lived next door and “my mom would go over and get naked with them and play the bongos and smoke pot.”
The family eventually settled into Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts, just west of Boston, where Rogan took up karate at age 14; became a four-time full-contact taekwondo state champion; won the U.S. Open Taekwondo Championships by age 19; and stopped at age 21, suffering from headaches and fear of worse. He attended UMass for a few years but found it pointless and dropped out. In Boston, he delivered newspapers, drove a DUI-saddled private investigator around on stakeouts, taught martial arts. He decided to become a stand-up comic, in 1988, after friends goaded him into taking the stage one night and he liked it. Played bars, bachelor parties, anything. Moved to L.A. in 1994, to make it in the big time. Acted in a failed sitcom before getting his big break on NewsRadio, 1995 to 1999, playing a goofy electrician. Loved that job. Served fly-and-maggot cocktails as the host of the gross-out reality show Fear Factor from 2001 until 2006. The first time Dana White called him about doing the UFC’s color commentary, Rogan tried to beg off. This was in 2002. “I just want to go to the fights and drink,” he told White. But White persevered and eventually got Rogan for free, in exchange for prime fight tickets for him and his friends. Fifteen or so gratis gigs later, Rogan went on the UFC payroll and has been there ever since. “The thing about Rogan is, when you watch him call a fight, you know he knows what he’s talking about and loves what he’s talking about,” says White. “The man is passionate.”
In 2007, at the Comedy Store, he got into a beef with comic Carlos Mencia and called him out as a joke thief — “Menstealia,” the lowest of the low — which led to a sprawling argument that was caught on video and went viral. (Mencia has denied consciously stealing jokes.) Comics everywhere rose up to support Rogan, and to this day, he is beloved for his actions.
Over the years, he has appeared in documentaries like Marijuana: A Chronic History (2010) and DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2010), and shown up in two Kevin James movies, Zookeeper (2011) and Here Comes the Boom (2012). He’s long said he’d never get married — even today he says, “Marriage is dumb, fucking dumb” — but in 2009 he got hitched to a former cocktail waitress with whom he already had two daughters, and now has another. “She lets me do whatever I do. That’s how we get along well. She doesn’t fuck with me. A prenup? Of course. I’m ridiculous and dumb, but I’m not stupid.” Then he’s thinking about his kids for a moment. “You know what? Porn and strip clubs seem so different to me now. They’re not out. But they just don’t seem the same. Having kids just ruined it.”
Sometimes, Rogan will flesh out his story by saying that, early on, being moved around from place to place, he never felt like he fit in. He didn’t get picked on and bullied so much as he was ignored or dismissed. He developed this odd sense that he was just another sad sack who didn’t have anything going for him. He had friends, even had girlfriends, but he felt neither here nor there. “I was terrified of being a loser,” he says. “Superterrified of being someone who people just go, ‘Oh, look at that fucking loser.’ You know? I was always thinking that the other kids were going to turn on me at any moment. I was weird. I just fucking drifted.”
In Joe’s 15th year, a school tough got him in a headlock in the locker room, not hurting him, really, but humiliating him to the core. A sudden determination to never experience that again led him to take up martial arts, where he first saw that he did have talents, was maybe not a loser, could stand up for himself. It was life-altering, and from there, one thing led to another.
And then there’s his father, the cop, who he really would rather not discuss.
“All I remember of my dad,” he says, “are these brief, violent flashes of domestic violence. And when I was five, I had a fight with one of my cousins — punched him in the face over something stupid — and his mother was screaming to my parents, ‘Your son’s a little monster. He punched my kid in the face!’ My dad pulled me aside and I told him the truth of what happened. He said, ‘Did you cry?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Good, don’t ever cry.’ I mean, he was happy that I punched my cousin. But I don’t want to complain about my childhood. Nothing bad ever really happened to me. It was just confusing, you know? He was just a very violent, scary guy. After the split, we moved to San Francisco and that was it. Never heard from him again.”
As for his father, Joseph, now a retired cop still living in New Jersey, he won’t respond directly to the allegations. All he will say is, “I don’t talk about people the way they talk about me. That’s not in my DNA. What’s gone is gone.”
These days, the main driver of Rogan’s “personal evolution,” as he calls it, is his podcast, which he records inside a small office in a nondescript industrial park. It’s dimly lit, with mug shots on one wall, most notably of Jimi Hendrix. Brian Redban is here today, looking kind of disheveled, as well as comedian Nick DiPaolo, a mostly right-leaning longtime Rogan pal. Before the show begins, Rogan sparks up a joint, takes a hit, passes it to Redban and says, “A guy I was friends with, all he wanted to talk about was how he was the finest grower in all of L.A., always stroking his cock in front of you. Like, come on. These days, everyone’s got good weed, so strong I almost don’t want the best. I’d like to relax a little, Jesus fucking Christ. I don’t have to get blasted off into the center of my childhood on the first two hits.”
And, in fact, Rogan takes only one hit, while Redban takes three and DiPaolo takes none. “I haven’t smoked a joint in 25 years,” DiPaolo says. And Rogan says, “It’s good for you, Nick. I’m telling you.”
Then, over the next few hours, they talk about El Chapo’s great Mexican-jail escape. “Gotta give props where they are due,” Rogan says. “He executed that like a goddamn Clint Eastwood movie! How the fuck do you not respect that?” Liberia: “There’s an area where people just shit on the road. The shitway.” Moderation: “I have, like, a night a week where I just eat like a fucking slob in front of the TV.” Late-night cooking: “My favorite thing is grilling meat in my underwear. I want to protect my shaft and balls at the very least.” Cat-shit coffee: “This animal called the civet eats the coffee beans and then shits them out….The digestive enzymes are juice in the cat’s stomach that make it a smoother, smoother coffee.” And so on. A real scattershot assemblage, near the end of which Rogan says, “It just seems like there’s more wackiness going on right now in the world than any time I could ever remember. Does it seem like that? Like more hypocrisy, more contradiction, more chaos.”
Yes, of course. On the other hand, how much of that could just be a reflection of Rogan’s own picking and choosing and not so much a truth about the world — which has always been filled with hypocrisy, contradiction and chaos — as it is a truth about him?
“When I first met you,” DiPaolo says later on, “you were fucking nuts.”
“No, I was still fighting,” Rogan says. “Yeah, I mean, that was just out of fear, I’m sure. When you grow up with violence, you’re programmed to respond and react quickly. [Kids like this] develop this hair-trigger reaction to things. Overreact. Make mistakes they can’t rebound from. And a lot of it is because of the actual programming that occurs when they’re in the womb, even. When their mother is experiencing violence from the father, it literally changes their genes in the womb.”
They don’t linger on the point, however. It’s time to wrap up the podcast and move on to other matters. Caitlyn Jenner, for instance, which don’t get Rogan started, because he won’t stop.
“I’ll call her a woman if she wants to be a woman,” he says. “I’ll call you whatever you want. I don’t care. But you can’t tell me she’s beautiful and that because I disagree I’m a piece of shit….I mean, I don’t understand the mindset of an ultramarathon runner, or an asexual person, or a person who wants to have sex with animals — by the way, I’m not connecting zoophilia to transgender people. What I’m saying is, I don’t give a fuck. And I think it’s kinda ridiculous that everybody is forcing the fact that she’s beautiful down everybody’s throat. And that heroic thing is just outrageous. These are vampires of attention. The patriarch of this family becomes a woman and there’s virtually no conversation about the fact that she killed someone while driving. There’s no talk of that. That’s been dissolved.” (Since this interview, the L.A. district attorney’s office decided not to bring charges against Jenner.) Rogan pauses. Finally, he says, “I mean, there’s a lot of nutty shit with this, but ultimately, you know, for the human race, I think this is all for the good.”
Later that day, he grumbles and roars his way to Pasadena in his ’65 Corvette, to a famous comedy club called the Ice House, where he has a gig. He mills around in the parking lot, waiting to go on. His dad is still on his mind and he has a few more things to say.
“Look,” he says, “I don’t want to try to figure out what went wrong. I don’t hate the guy, I don’t want to beat his ass. I just don’t want to be involved with him, and I don’t want to talk to him. He was very nice to me, loved me. But he was super, super-violent, and he would have turned me into a fucking psychopath.”
Rogan seems sure about this, like there’s no doubt in his mind, which maybe explains so much about why he’s stitched everything together the way he has: the UFC gig, the testosterone and HGH injections, his float tank and freezers full of self-delivered meat, his DMT trips to the portal of souls, the taking of one hit off the joint instead of the two that’d rocket him back into childhood, all those guests on his podcast, filling his feverish, hopeful mind with all kinds of things. It’s where life has come into play, stacking one thing up against another like into a fortress or a wall.
He turns to go inside, and pretty soon the crowd is laughing at bits about Texans, Scientology, Santa Claus and how “you eat a pot cookie and think about somebody you fingered when you were 14, and I’m sorry, OK? Jesus Christ, we were kids.” A few of the transitions are shaky, some of the jokes a little flat. Not to worry. He’s doing better than anyone might have expected, and the alternatives could have been far worse.
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