by Chad Lehrman (Twitter: @chadlehrman)
Joe Rogan is best known for hosting Fear Factor and co-starring on NewsRadio, but he was a martial arts champion and soul-searching, x-rated comedian long before he got his high profile TV gigs. Joe will be appearing at The Fillmore in San Francisco on Friday, August 22nd, and the San Jose Improv August 29th-31st.
@ The Fillmore
@ San Jose Improv
In the following interview Joe shares what it was like to see Bill Hicks live, almost fight Wesley Snipes, and become a father. He gives plenty of advice to aspiring comedians as well.
Why did you decide to tape your last CD in San Francisco?
JR: San Francisco is one of my favorite cities, I love it. I think it’s probably the smartest city in the country, without the smugness of New York. It’s a more open, intelligent city. It’s just a cool place. I love the way it’s set up, the restaurants, the architecture is unusual. And for me it’s pretty significant because I lived there from when I was 7 years old till about 11. I used to do a magic show at Fisherman’s Wharf when I was a kid. I would draw pictures and sell them down there and stuff. I lived a block away from Lombard Street.
So are you working towards a TV special or a new album right now?
JR: I’m definitely working on new material and I’m definitely working towards a new album. As far as a TV special, Comedy Central has offered me something, but it’s so hard to get through the censorship, cause it’s not just the words. It’s not just bleeping out when I say the word fuck, it’s subject matter. It’s making fun of suicide, making fun of religion, making fun of so many things.
Whatever happened to your planned fight with Wesley Snipes that was going to be televised?
JR: He decided not to do it. I think the only reason he wanted to do it in the first place is because of the IRS situation. He owes a ton of money in taxes. I guess he didn’t pay it for like 7 years. Then when it came to bite him in the ass, he wanted to do anything and everything to make money, and that’s when they called me. I thought it was so ridiculous, I was willing to do it.
Oh so they approached you about it?
JR: Yeah yeah, it was their idea. It was the same producer- there’s a show on BET called Iron Ring, a really horrible mixed martial arts show. The same producers of that were the ones trying to organize the fight between me and Wesley. I don’t really want to fight anybody, but it’s a weird opportunity in life, and I had plenty of time to train back then. I was like yeah I’ll go and choke Wesley Snipes, that’ll be fun. If you don’t understand jiu jitsu, the odds of him being able to stop me from choking him are pretty slim. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was a little kid, and I’ve been doing jiu jitsu for like 12 years. It’s just one of those things- it’s like having a conversation with somebody who doesn’t speak English.
So in those mixed martial arts fights, I know it’s mostly anything goes but I haven’t really watched them- you’re allowed to just grab somebody and choke them?
JR: (laughs) Yeah, that’s what jiu jitsu is all about. The actual chokes are mostly your forearm across someone’s neck- they’re blood chokes, to stop the circulation to the brain and cause somebody to pass out. It’s really the most effective way to handle someone because it doesn’t hurt them. If you stop the blood flow to someone’s brain, they just go unconscious, and when they come out of it, they’re fine. It’s really just cutting off the valve and they go to sleep.
Some comics say that comedy was a defense mechanism for them, a way to fit in. Obviously (having been a taekwondo champion) you didn’t need it as a way to defend yourself- why do you think you got into comedy?
JR: Well I think it all comes from the same place. The defense mechanism is also wanting to get people to like you. You know, that insecurity- that same insecurity is what leads people to martial arts, because you don’t want to be at the mercy of an attacker. You don’t want to worry about somebody physically dominating you. So I think it’s very similar in the motivation to get involved in it in the first place. What real martial arts is about, is not really about fighting- it’s more about developing your human potential. Martial arts really applies to comedy in that way. In comedy, the real deep stuff, when someone is really searching their own mind, their own soul, their own mortality, their own view of the world, they’re not just saying something to try to get some heehees and hahas out of a group of strangers. They’re digging deep and creating some art out of their own introspective thought.
I read that your big influences were Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks- did you ever see them live?
JR: Yeah I got to see Hicks live a bunch of times. One of the most defining moments of my young standup career was when Hicks came into town to headline in Boston. I think I’d only been doing comedy a couple of months. I started in 1988 and this was probably ‘88 or maybe ‘89. He was sort of known, he’d done like a few little things like the Rodney Dangerfield HBO special. He came into town and he went after this guy who was kinda hacky and was just doing, you know, cop donut jokes, whatever. It was like a Wednesday night and the crowd was eating it up. Then Hicks went up and he just did his own thing. I always saw comics cater to the crowd and try to get everyone to like them. But Hicks was like, “listen man, I don’t have a lot of time- here’s my points, this is what I think about things, like it or just get the fuck out, I don’t care.” The conviction that he had was amazing, and he just cleared the room. There were 350 people in that room. By the time he was offstage there was maybe 50. And 10 of us were comics in the back of the room laughing our fucking balls off, just dying, cause we knew we were watching something special. There were a bunch of people who got offended because he was making fun of religion, and he had this crazy bit about satan coming out of Oprah Winfrey or something like that. I don’t remember the bit, but I do remember being in the back of the room and watching this guy who was just doing his material for his fans- even though there weren’t any there, you know what I’m saying? It was amazing to see him just stick to his guns and it didn’t seem to bother him that he was bombing. Even though there were 300 people not laughing, the comics that were laughing in the back fueled him. He just kept going. At one point he was doing this bit where satan is taking a shit and John Davidson is popping out of his ass and he’s grunting on the toilet. He’s doing it for like 45 seconds, a long time- and he looks up as people are getting up in giant groups, and he sighs and goes, “yep, this usually clears the room.” He was an outlaw comic, that Kinison style, and to this day they love that style of comedy in Texas. They like it wild.
Do you see young comics with that kind of potential when you go there now?
There was a bunch of them in Houston, but the Houston comedy scene fell apart. The Houston Laff Stop used to be a major place for it. There were a bunch of really good local open mike comics when I first started performing there about 10 years ago, but that club kinda slipped, for whatever reason. Lack of guidance or lack of open mike nights. Lack of open mike nights is what really kills local comedy scenes. The scene in Boston was really strong and one reason it was so strong is because there were open mike nights like every night of the week. They had them all over the place. It was like a great workshop- there were so many places to get up and perform, and so many other comics doing the same thing. Stand-up comics, especially in the beginning when they’re developing, they need a local scene. That’s one of the best things about San Francisco, it’s a very good local scene.
Was there much of an audience at those open mikes in Boston when you were starting out?
JR: Sometimes real good, sometimes tiny, but I think that even tiny crowds are important. There’s no contagious laughter in tiny crowds, you have to actually say something funny. When you’re in front of small crowds, you see the fat in your material. You see when you’re pandering, you see when you’re saying things that you don’t really believe in. There’s a lot of traps you can fall in when you’re developing material, and one is that you just try to do things that work. Instead of doing something you think is funny that is a direct expression of your thoughts, you’ll just do things that you think are effective.
I was going to ask what advice you have for aspiring comedians, but I think you’ve already given a lot…
JR: There’s a lot of advice to give though, man. The two most important things are to get on stage as much as possible, and write as much as possible. Get on stage as much as you fucking can, especially in the beginning. The other thing is to record yourself, that’s really important. I’ve learned a lot by going over recordings. A lot of guys just hone their stuff on stage and go “yeah that went pretty well but I’ll work on that part some more,” and then they just do it the same way the next night. If you actually listen to it by yourself you can get a fuckload out of it. You can see little things, maybe it’ll open up a new path in your mind. “Oh I can say that too, oh I can take it in a different direction now.” You really get the most out of the material that way and can get in depth with it.
So you still listen to new recordings of yourself?
JR: All the time. I record every set I do, especially on the road. Sometimes I don’t listen- sometimes I think, well that was a fun set but I don’t think there’s anything in there. Really that’s me being lazy. You have to discipline yourself and treat it like a job. There’s work to be done. Sometimes I’ll go over videotape and see how maybe certain bits I’m looking at the ground and I shouldn’t be, maybe I should pause more, maybe I shouldn’t move away like that. It gives you a chance to see the best way to do things. When you create material, you’re trying to introduce an idea into someone else’s mind. The way to do that is to do it the most efficiently- with the least words possible, with the best words possible, so the transition from your thoughts to their mind is as smooth as possible, and maybe even as unexpected as possible. As impactful as possible. And that takes work to craft it. It’s not the most fun part. The most fun part for me is just going onstage and riffing, to take an idea and just go onstage and fuck around with it, but the real work comes from sitting down and reviewing shit.
Have you ever tried to get joerogan.com from that real estate guy in Idaho?
JR: (laughing) That dude wants a lot of money.
You should have all your fans bug him until he gives it up.
JR: I think they already have, but he’s a really stubborn guy.
He kinda looks stubborn in his picture.
JR: He does look stubborn! He’s a really nice guy, but he wanted like $70,000. Through the magic of Google, you really don’t need a dot-com anymore though. If you put my name in Google, my site comes up. Whatever, he got it first, I fucked up.
Congratulations on having a baby- are you glad I haven’t asked you about it yet?
JR: (laughs) No, I’m not glad, it’s cool… it’s a pretty interesting subject. It’s pretty spectacular. You know, the same drive that makes you wanna have sex… it’s really a biological trick. That reward that nature gives you from sex, is magnified by like a million when you see your kid. The reward of being with your child and the love that you feel for this little baby that you don’t even know- God damn, it’s mindblowing. My little baby, all she has to do is stare at me and I go limp. She smiles and it’s like heroin- it’s like morphine just pumping into your body. You don’t want to do anything, you don’t want to go to the movies, you just want to stay with the baby and make her happy.
How old is she?
JR: She’s 11 weeks old.
So have you been on the road since you had her?
JR: Yeah I’ve been on the road for a bunch of gigs. It’s hard, I miss her so much. Right now she’s not talking or telling me she misses me, I can’t imagine what that’s gonna be like. I’m gonna have to tour the road with a gigantic RV and bring my kids everywhere. I know a lot of guys who do the road who have kids, and I don’t know how they do it.
So do you have plans to get married?
JR: She wants to get married, I think marriage is silly. It’s a legal contract with the state, but I don’t have any plans to go anywhere. I’m pretty committed. I’m completely devoted to raising this kid, I’m not going anywhere… maybe she’ll talk me into marrying her.
And you’re staying in L.A.?
JR: I dont know, I’ve actually thought about moving to San Francisco quite a few times. I really like it up there, it’s more open minded. When I lived there, I lived next door to this gay couple when I was like 7 years old. My parents were hippies, and they were really relaxed about everything. Then we moved to Gainesville, Florida and I was hanging out with a friend of mine and his dad was furious because they were trying to pass a law to let gay people marry. He was like “these faggots wanna get married, fuck that.” I was like 11, but I was like “this guy is ridiculous, what does he care?” But that was a direct result of living in San Francisco. I literally didn’t hear the word nigger until I moved to Florida. I had to ask my Mom what it was. I literally didn’t know, and it was because of growing up in San Francisco. I’ve gotta get out of L.A. eventually.