As synonymous with the UFC as some of the superstars of the sport, Joe Rogan first picked up the mic for the promotion in 1997, when the Octagon made its way to Dothan, Alabama for UFC 12. More than 23 years later, the color commentator, comedian and podcast king is still here and one listen to him on fight night will let you know that he is as enthusiastic as ever about the sport.
Before UFC 57 in February 2006, I checked in with Rogan to discuss his journey in MMA, as well as his take the world of standup comedy. It remains one of my favorite interviews.
When Saturday night’s UFC card at the Mandalay Bay Events Center ends, and the sold-out crowd shuffles off to eat, gamble, party, or all of the above, Joe Rogan - the pay-per-view telecast’s color commentator – is going to work. But for him, his standup comedy gig at the House of Blues (midnight) is far from a chore – it’s a labor of love.
“I can’t wait to do it,” said Rogan. “When you’re good at standup comedy, it’s the most fun thing in the world. It might sound like hippie nonsense, but you take a whole room of people and you make them feel better. That’s a real, plausible effect, and you see it happen. You see them come to the show, you see giant smiles on their faces, they’re doubled over laughing, and you make them think about some crazy s**t. There’s no more rewarding job on the planet. Nothing is even close.”
It’s not as easy as it sounds, though, and Rogan will be the first to admit it, having done more than his share of crashing and burning during almost 18 years at the microphone.
“I knew early on that I could do it, but I knew that it was a long and bloody process,” he said. “It’s not easy. Being a standup comic is a really long, difficult process. You have to go through some really hard times and some really bad sets where you just bomb viciously, and there’s just nothing more upsetting than that.”
Ask the Newark, New Jersey native what it’s like to bomb in front of a crowd paying to be entertained, and you will get a sentence you can’t print on a family website, but one that will leave you in tears it’s so funny. That’s the essence of Rogan’s comedy – a no-nonsense look at the world that is funny, insightful, and which makes you scratch your head as if to say, “Where did he possibly come up with that?” It is an adult show, though, so if you’re expecting the guy who is in your living room each week as the host of NBC’s “Fear Factor,” you may be in for a surprise. It’s a topic that has come up.
“I can approach that one of two ways,” Rogan explains. “I can tone my act down for them, which is not gonna be good for anybody, or I can just do what I do and eventually everybody’s gonna figure it out, which is basically what I’ve done. A lot of comedians have run into that problem, though. Bob Saget had a big problem with that, because he was on that show, “Full House,” and was so squeaky clean and super nice, but he had a dirty standup comedy act. I don’t think he did standup for a long time and he just kinda milked it and got the money from “Full House,” and now he’s out doing the clubs again.”
Rogan has met plenty of success in the entertainment business, not only with his standup act and Fear Factor, but previously as a member of the cast of “Talk Radio” and currently as the UFC’s color commentator. The UFC role was something he actually revisited, as he had conducted interviews for previous UFC owners SEG beginning with UFC 12 in Dothan, Alabama.
“The old SEG, we were in weird little s**tholes in the middle of nowhere,” he recalled. “You’re in a 10,000-seat arena and there are like 2,000 people in there, scattered. That was the real dark ages.”
So when Zuffa took over the UFC and got Rogan and some buddies tickets for an event, one conversation with the diehard MMA fan (as well as a former Tae Kwon Do champion and jiu-jitsu practitioner) convinced President Dana White that Rogan was the man for the commentator’s chair.
“He (White) was talking to me about fights and I was just going off about this and that, and he asked me if I ever thought about doing commentary,” said Rogan. “I told him that I just wanted to watch. He said, ‘Just do it once for me, as a favor.’ I said ‘Sure’, I did it once, I did it again, and then I wound up doing all of them.”
Rogan’s commentary mixes the enthusiasm of a fan with the knowledge of someone well versed in combat sports. I can say without a hint of shame that his knowledge of the ground game saved this reporter on more than one occasion when I looked at a submission and said, ‘what the heck is that?’
“When I do the UFC,” said Rogan, “my preparation is that I’m a huge MMA fan and I watch all of them and pay attention to everything, and there are a lot of matchups that really interest me 100 percent. That’s my preparation – it’s my life. It’s not like a job to me, where it’s something I have to sit down and do. I would have done it anyway – I did it anyway. It’s really crazy, but I never set out to be a sports broadcaster. That was the criticism I got a lot in the beginning – ‘well, he doesn’t sound like a sports broadcaster.’ Well, I’m not; I don’t even know how I got the job.”
This self-effacing honesty is a hallmark of Rogan’s comedy, and to him, it’s a key to good comedy in general.
“Honesty and insight, two things that most people don’t really have a whole lot of, make good comedy,” he said. “What’s really funny is stuff that you can relate to; the stuff someone points out that really makes sense to you. That’s what’s really funny. But in order to really do that correctly, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. And that’s something that very few people really are, which is why there’s so much bad comedy and why there are so many boring people. These people aren’t really honest and they’re not figuring life out; they’re just pretending they figured life out. The best comedy is – here’s the world through my eyes and I happen to have an unusual or unique point of view. There’s other kinds of comedy, like Carrot Top stuff and other silly stuff – and I’m not knocking any of it, it’s all fun and makes people feel better and enjoy the show – but there’s a huge difference between a great standup comedian like Dave Chappelle and the boring kind of comedy. The boring kind of comedy is like point karate, and the kind of comedy I do is like MMA.”
And just like mixed martial artists look to the greats of the sport for inspiration, Rogan does the same when it comes to his work, citing a late legend as his first real exposure to standup comedy.
“When I was a little kid, my parents took me to see ‘Live on The Sunset Strip,’” recalled Rogan. “I might have been 13 or something, and I was in the movie theater and I couldn’t believe how funny it was. I was looking around the theater at people falling out of their chairs, slapping the chairs in front of them, and I’m thinking, ‘How is this guy doing this? He’s just talking.’ And I was thinking of other movies that I had seen that I really liked, like ‘Stripes,’ and how funny that was, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as this. ‘How is this guy so funny?’ And that experience profoundly influenced me. That was the first exposure I ever had to standup comedy. I didn’t even know what standup comedy was before that. I was 13. So from there I bought a bunch of Richard Pryor cassettes, and when I was in high school, me and my girlfriend would always listen to Richard Pryor. He was my first influence, without a doubt.”
As he grew older, Rogan also found inspiration in another comedian who died before his time, Sam Kinison.
“The one guy that made me think that I could really go into comedy was Kinison,” he said. “In the 80’s, before I got started, I had a couple of friends – Steve Graham and Ed Shorter – who talked me into doing standup. Comedy was like a weird thing. I would make my friends laugh when we were on our way to tournaments; I would tell jokes, crack everybody up, and lighten the mood. I would do impressions of everybody on the team and everybody would laugh at it. My friends told me that I should go and do some sort of open mike night. But I was like, ‘You think I’m funny, but other people are gonna think I’m an a**hole. You know me; if you don’t know me, I’m rude because I speak my mind.’ But they convinced me and talked me into doing it. And one of the reasons why I was willing to do it is because I saw Kinison.
“I saw him and went ‘Wow, maybe I can do comedy,’” he explains. “You’ve got to remember that in the 80’s, before Kinison came around, everyone had a blazer jacket with their sleeves rolled up, and they all told the same joke – like boring, bland, observational, ‘Evening at the Improv’ stuff. That was the trend of comedy in the 80s for some strange reason. And then when Kinison came along, he just crushed that mold - the same way like Nirvana crushed all those 80s metal bands.”
Thinking about doing it and actually getting on stage are two different things though. Rogan was well aware of this, but he took the plunge on a day he still remembers, Sunday, August 27, 1988.
“It was the most horrifying thing ever, the first time I did it,” said Rogan of his first attempt at standup. “The first time I did it, I was terrified, and I couldn’t believe how terrified I was. I had fought a bunch of times in Tae Kwon Do tournaments and I had wrestled in high school and kickboxed, so I had a lot of competitions, and I didn’t think that I would be that scared. But the first time I went on stage, at an open mic night in Boston, with ten of my friends in the audience, I almost totally chickened out and I was completely scared. I got over it, but from then on, I knew that that was what I was supposed to do. I knew that was my calling in life.”
There were some rough times along the way, but as he enters his show this Saturday night, he seems to have landed on his feet. He doesn’t forget the bad sets though.
“I’ve had some horrible sets,” Rogan admits. “I’ve had my ass kicked before and that never felt nearly as bad as bombing. I would way rather get punched in the face than bomb. Bombing is hard. You’ll have 300 people that hate you in a room. Basically, they hate you. If you’re demanding attention so much that you have a microphone, you’d better have something to say, and it’d better be funny. And rightfully so, the audience deserves it. They’re giving up their attention span to you – you’d better have something to say. If you don’t and you suck at it, they’re angry at you. It’s a bad feeling. But if you get through it, you learn how to do it right. It’s like fighting – you get your ass kicked, you learn how to fight. You don’t ever really learn how to fight until you’ve lost – whether you lost in practice or in a competition, you’re gonna lose. Nobody just dominates everybody from the very first time they start training. The whole key to it is that you’ve gotta go and overcome adversity. That’s the key to all of it – comedy and fighting. They’re very synonymous.”
And just like all the blood, sweat, and tears is worth it to a fighter when he gets his hand raised at the end of a match, for Joe Rogan, all the lousy venues, poor crowds, and bad sets are worth it when he hits the right note with his audience.
“The payoff is when it works,” he said. “To me, it’s like the ultimate mental chess game. And once you get through it, it’s the most fun thing you can ever do. When you’re killing and that audience is roaring with laughter and everybody’s happy, there’s no better feeling.”
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