Joe Rogan Is Too Big to Cancel

He’s now one of the most consumed media products on the planet. His Spotify deal, estimated at $100 million, speaks to the allure of making audiences feel they’re in on something subversive.

Credit…Nigel Buchanan

The Great Read

Joe Rogan Is Too Big to Cancel

He’s now one of the most consumed media products on the planet. His Spotify deal, estimated at $100 million, speaks to the allure of making audiences feel they’re in on something subversive.

Credit…Nigel Buchanan

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The other comics called him “Little Ball of Anger” — semi-affectionately, never to his face — a man flammable by bearing and branding, it seemed, with his taekwondo muscles and a scorching conviction that the Bible had some holes.

“Noah was 600 years old and a drunk!” Joe Rogan told his Los Angeles crowds some two decades back, in one favored bit about the implausibility of the scriptural ark. Then he’d spar afterward with a waitress who was raised Catholic — and mindful of divine wrath.

“Stand back,” Eleanor Kerrigan, the Comedy Store waitress who became a comedian herself, would say to Mr. Rogan, blessing herself as he left the stage. “You’re going to burst into flames.”

“It’s not sacrilegious!” Mr. Rogan protested, according to Ms. Kerrigan. “You’re not hearing what I’m saying!”

Now, for better or worse, many millions of people are hearing what Joe Rogan is saying. He’s still not sure they’re always getting the joke. But he has yet to burst into flames.

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Mr. Rogan, left, with Duncan Trussell on an episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience.”Credit…Getty Images

Mr. Rogan, 53, is one of the most consumed media products on the planet — with the power to shape tastes, politics, medical decisions — a fact well-known to legions of men under 40, nonsensical to the many Rogan-unaware over 50 and befuddling, by his own admission, to the man himself. His podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” is effectively a series of wandering conversations, often over whiskey and weed, on topics including but not limited to: comedy, cage-fighting, psychedelics, quantum mechanics and the political excesses of the left. The show was licensed to Spotify last year in an estimated $100 million deal, boosted by a conceit that can at times seem self-fulfilling: The host is dangerous, at least in the way that comedians like to be dangerous. He should probably not be taken at face value, except when he should, and the discerning listener should be trusted to tell the difference. And if the establishment had its way, Mr. Rogan would surely be chastened, “canceled,” reeled in.

“I got through the net,” he said in one recent episode, cursing before “net” in what felt like a statement of purpose, “and I’m swimming in open waters.”

It can all feel like something of a system breakdown in his telling, at once a testament to the trust deficit plaguing mainstream institutions and the durable allure of convincing people they are listening to something subversive and undiluted.

In 2019, Mr. Rogan said his podcast was downloaded about 190 million times in a month. Some single episodes have reached tens of millions, including interviews with Elon Musk, the Tesla chief executive whose rollicking, joint-smoking appearance coincided with a discernible slip in the company stock price, and Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist with whom Mr. Rogan has long been friendly. The most popular host in cable news, Tucker Carlson of Fox News, might expect about three million live viewers per night.

“We worship this guy,” Kristian Khoury, a 20-year-old student at Oklahoma State University, said of Mr. Rogan, ticking off favorite episodes after joining a friend to see him perform stand-up in Houston in May. “I would do anything to do what he does.”

What Mr. Rogan does can be difficult to categorize neatly, his standing as audio’s zeitgeist-iest voice sustained by a heap of surface contradictions.

He is a generous listener who seems to share every half-thought aloud. He is publicly outraged by “recreational outrage.” He is, depending on the audience, the jock or the scholar, the bully or the aggrieved. His podcast uniform — bicep-hugging T-shirt, headphones pressed against a bare scalp — calls to mind a high-school wrestling coach who commandeered the AV room.

He is a comedian equally liable to discuss the coronavirus, intelligently, with an epidemiologist and discuss epidemiology, less intelligently, with another comedian. He makes market-moving recommendations for dietary supplements, CBD-infused beverages, nonfiction — an Oprah for the Creatine-taking set or a Schwarzenegger for the Native American history buff, depending on the day. He also says he is not to be trusted as a “respected source of information.”

Mr. Rogan’s celebrity makes enough sense to those who know him. He had ascended across the decades as a comic, sitcom actor and cage-fight commentator for the U.F.C.

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Mr. Rogan interviewing Alistair Overeem, a U.F.C. fighter, in Las Vegas.Credit…Getty Images

What is different now — exhilarating to his fans, alarming to others — is the social capital he managed to accumulate while proudly defying the traditional gate-keeping strictures of mainstream fame. It is a story of persistence, timing and a keen feel for the prevailing cultural winds. He started recording himself nearly a dozen years ago for a live web assemblage of hundreds, and people listened. Then more. There were no network censors. His first sponsor was a sex toy.

“He didn’t need Hollywood,” said Dom Irrera, a comedian and longtime friend. “Joe’s got his own thing.”

And that thing has grown hulking enough to collide, occasionally, with institutions as varied as the White House and the British monarchy. After Mr. Rogan suggested in the spring that young healthy people need not get vaccinated against the coronavirus — before later stressing that he is “not an anti-vaxx” person” and shouldn’t be considered a medical authority, anyway — his comments drew condemnations from the Biden administration and Prince Harry, another Spotify podcaster. “If you say you disagree with me, I probably disagree with me too,” Mr. Rogan said in semi-self-defense. “I disagree with me all the time.”

The episode crystallized a central tension in the show’s success: whether his megaphone carries with it a higher responsibility, one he has said he never wanted.

Some in comedy, to say nothing of politics, do not extend him the benefit of the doubt. “I view having a large platform,” the comedian Amy Schumer, a supporter of progressive causes who has been a Rogan podcast guest, said pointedly, “as an opportunity to help people.”

While Mr. Rogan has said he did not vote for Donald J. Trump in either of his campaigns, praising Bernie Sanders (a 2019 podcast guest) and promoting left-wing policy like a universal basic income, he has proved uniquely skilled in the kind of cultural combat that lifted the former president: projecting shared disdain for elite groupthink and liberal hypersensitivity. “You can never be woke enough — that’s the problem,” Mr. Rogan complained in May, riffing on the perils of cancel culture and suggesting that “it’ll eventually get to ‘straight white men are not allowed to talk.'”

Yet there is also a hitch in this construction, the bracing counterexample that is Joe Rogan, White Man Talking: He has long said what pleased him, offended polite society and warned of the reputational risks in pursuing such a life. For his sins, he has been burdened with a staggering fortune and a global reach.

“The power of what he’s created, he doesn’t have to be afraid of getting canceled,” said Andrew Dice Clay, a friend of Mr. Rogan’s and comedy’s most famously cancelable export of the 1980s and 1990s. “He’s all good.”

And where’s the danger in that?

‘People Will Watch’

Joe Rogan’s position was clear: The show was harmless. No one was being forced to tune in. And if it was all so terrible, why were so many people entertained?

“Everybody keeps harping on this rat thing,” he said, defending himself on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” in 2001, as the host and his other guests laced into “Fear Factor,” the Rogan-hosted reality hit that had competitors munching on buffalo testicles and lying in pits of vermin on prime-time television. “So you lie, and you’re covered with rats. They don’t do anything to you.”

Mr. Maher likened the program to a snuff film. Mr. Rogan assured him that the participants enjoyed themselves, more or less, and that the audience most certainly did. “If it’s exciting and if it’s entertaining, people will watch,” he said. “If it’s not, it’ll go away.”

Such is the through-line in much of Mr. Rogan’s arc — an instinct for keeping people on the hook, just curious enough to stick around for the next contestant challenge, the next joke, the last 20 minutes of a three-hour conversation with Quentin Tarantino.

“I remember Googling him and being kind of confused,” said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and campaign finance reform advocate who appeared on the podcast in 2018, recalling his first exposure to it. “Maybe there were two Joe Rogans.”

His entertainment career began early, with a magic act on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco when he was 7 or 8. Mr. Rogan had moved there with his mother, he has said, after living in Newark with a now long-estranged father who was prone to violence. (Mr. Rogan, who rarely speaks extensively to print publications, declined to be interviewed.)

After another move to the Boston area, a decorated teenage taekwondo career and a stint at the University of Massachusetts Boston before dropping out, Mr. Rogan edged into stand-up in 1988, when friends coaxed him onstage one night and he took to it. His biggest early break came when he moved to Los Angeles, securing a cast role on the sitcom “NewsRadio,” which ran from 1995 to 1999. Mr. Rogan played a conspiracy-minded everyman named Joe.

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Mr. Rogan, standing second from left, in a scene from “NewsRadio.”Credit…NBCUniversal

But he found his strongest sense of community at the Comedy Store, earning a reputation as the volatile, musclebound pool shark whose martial arts demonstrations in the club’s kitchen left this much unsaid: “You have to be out of your mind,” said Mr. Clay, then a fellow Store regular, “to mess with Joe Rogan.”

He took such care of his body that he rarely drank heavily or smoked marijuana, announcing himself an expert in other vices, claiming that he possessed the largest private collection of pornography in the world. When one skeptic questioned how this could be proved, the man recalled, Mr. Rogan delivered a two-word affirmation that sounded convincing enough: “Trust me.” (A Rogan spokesman said, “If there was ever a comment like this made, it was in the context of a joke.”)

Often, puckish shouting matches would follow him offstage, with Mr. Rogan insisting, loudly, on the genius of Led Zeppelin, or the stupidity of comics who watched the Lakers instead of the U.F.C., or his earnest belief that man never made it to the moon. Some patrons seemed to enjoy getting a rise out of him, too. “Salt is a mineral! Salt is a mineral!” Mr. Rogan was heard yelling at a woman in attendance one night. Nobody was quite sure why.

“He’s screaming, ‘Salt is a mineral!’ I go, ‘Joe everybody knows that,'” Ms. Kerrigan, the waitress-turned-comedian, recalled warmly. “He says, ‘That’s not what she said!’ I’m like, ‘You have to calm down.'”

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Mr. Rogan performing a set at the Comedy Store in 2003.Credit…Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Onstage, frenetic and trim, Mr. Rogan was the kind of stand-up who would today probably try to find a way to get himself booked on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” dissecting the animal impulses of men or the wonders of dating unintelligent women. “The kind of girl when you look deep in her eyes, you see the back of her skull,” he said in one bit.

He made a point of wearing flappy clothes that often obscured his physique. “He specifically wore loose-fitting clothing on purpose to not draw attention to that,” said Shayma Tash, a friend and comedian who has known Mr. Rogan since the 1990s, recalling that he once advised her not to wear “distracting” tight clothes onstage, either.

Attire notwithstanding, some comics could find Mr. Rogan’s performative belligerence tiresome, privately referring to him and his brawny friends and followers as the “Cobra Kai.”

Even today, many comedians are reluctant to speak critically of Mr. Rogan in public, conscious of his present platform and zealous fans — and well-versed in his capacity to unsettle presumed adversaries even before he had such power.

“He just had that vibe where I don’t want to have too long a conversation with him because I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” remembered John Caparulo, a comedian and former club doorman who said he admired Mr. Rogan at the time but has since taken a dim view after some in the podcaster’s orbit antagonized Mr. Caparulo publicly. “He’s just a guy who can flip out. And then where are you?”

Mr. Caparulo recalled a fellow comic passing him at the door one night while Mr. Rogan was onstage. “He goes, ‘There he is,'” Mr. Caparulo said, “‘the unhappiest millionaire.'”

As a professional exercise, Mr. Rogan’s penchant for confrontation and patience-testing did him far more good than harm, an intuitive fit for a profile-raiser like “Fear Factor.” “It’s very rare that you’ll have a host who will fight with your contestants,” said Matt Kunitz, one of the show’s executive producers. “Joe would fight with our contestants. We would have to literally run out of the control room and separate them.”

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Mr. Rogan hosted “Fear Factor” for seven seasons. Credit…Getty Images

Friends tend to cite twin personal developments that seemed to leaven the experience of being around Joe Rogan: He has been with his now-wife, Jessica — with whom he has three children — for some two decades, after long speaking openly about the uselessness of marriage. (“Everybody who knows me says there’s, like, me pre-children and post-children,” Mr. Rogan told his friend Dave Chappelle on the podcast in May. “I’m so much nicer.”)

And he determined that marijuana was a fine choice after all.

“I’ve never seen pot help somebody like it helped him,” Mr. Irrera, the comic, said.

“We would just be like, ‘Oh, God, I hope he has his edibles today,'” Mr. Kunitz recalled. “That would mellow him out.”

Not everything changed. A few years ago, Mr. Kunitz said, he ran into Mr. Rogan while vacationing in Hawaii. “He’s matured a lot,” Mr. Kunitz reasoned. “I said, ‘You still believe man didn’t land on the moon?'”

Mr. Rogan promised to send him some video clips that NASA doesn’t want you to see.

‘Men Are Not Represented’

Mr. Rogan, crusader against cancel culture, carried off perhaps the first celebrity cancellation of the modern internet age. It is generally considered a righteous one.

In 2007, Mr. Rogan stepped onstage at the Comedy Store to confront another comic, Carlos Mencia, over longstanding allegations that Mr. Mencia had stolen jokes from other comedians. A friend filmed the exchange, and Mr. Rogan posted clips of it online, spliced with damning footage of Mr. Mencia performing versions of jokes that others had done first.

“I’m a real comic, bro,” Mr. Rogan told him, wearing a backward hat and what appeared to be the “College” shirt from “Animal House,” as the crowd hollered. Initially, the Comedy Store sided with Mr. Mencia — the more successful act at the time, with his own show on Comedy Central — banning Mr. Rogan from the club. Mr. Rogan has said his agency, which counted Mr. Mencia as a client, dropped him, too.

But as the video went viral, around the dawn of the viral video era, Mr. Mencia’s reputation would irretrievably sag. In a recent interview, he sounded resigned to his historical fate. “For the majority of comedians, he was looked at — still is — as a kind of hero to the cause,” Mr. Mencia said. “It is ironic that a guy who is now saying you shouldn’t cancel anybody at least started the building of his podcast by canceling me.”

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Carlos Mencia performing at the Comedy Store in 2007.Credit…Michael Bezjian/WireImage

Though “The Joe Rogan Experience” would not debut until 2009, the Mencia affair was central in establishing its founding ethos: mischievous, boundary-less, merrily punching up. The friend who filmed the Mencia conflict, Brian Redban, became Mr. Rogan’s initial co-host. Listeners were encouraged to visit joerogan.net to find discounts on “the Fleshlight,” the show’s masturbatory advertiser.

These modest beginnings — built around unstructured conversations about stand-up, or political hucksterism, or why women wear heels (in the opinion of men) — enshrined what has remained the podcast’s defining technical feature: an absence of curation, or any discernible editing, as if such filtering would amount to a form of censorship, doomed to cheapen the product.

And that product, increasingly, positioned the host as lifestyle sage — an ideal toward which listeners might reach, physically and intellectually, if they could only read the right books and swing the right kettlebells — a vision of a certain kind of manhood.

“Aspire to be the person you pretend to be,” Mr. Rogan counseled in one episode, “when you’re trying to get laid.”

He has appeared to attribute his own popularity to an underserved market, recently recalling the bafflement of advertising professionals over his audience demographics. “They’re like, ‘Jesus Christ, he’s got like 94 percent men. Like, what is going on here?'” Mr. Rogan said in May, probably exaggerating the figure a bit. “I’m like, ‘It’s because they’re not represented. Men are not represented.'”

For listeners, the attachment is visceral, communal — a “monoculture of free-thinkers,” as Marc Maron, the fellow podcaster and comedian, has said of the Rogan-inclined masses, tweaking a group that can descend on its targets as an online bloc.

Comics say they have become instantly recognizable to new fans as far afield as Australia after appearing on Mr. Rogan’s show. Shanna Swan, a reproductive epidemiologist who was a guest in the spring, said she received a message afterward from a Rogan-lover desperate to deliver him a handmade samurai sword. Authors have seen long-published works rocket back to relevance.

“I’d never heard of the guy,” the writer S.C. Gwynne said, recounting his confusion in 2019 when his publicist called to ask why sales for “Empire of the Summer Moon,” his 2010 book about the Comanche Indian tribe, were spiking. It seemed that Mr. Rogan had posted about it on Instagram. Weeks later, Mr. Gwynne went on the show. “In October of the next year, I just got an absolutely gigantic royalty check,” he said. “To me, that is the power of Joe Rogan.”

In interviews, fans repeatedly cite Mr. Rogan’s willingness to air any perspective, however provocative, especially those shunned or overlooked by traditional news organizations. “It’s the sort of questions I think about when I go to sleep at night,” said Stephanie Jones, 27, waiting to see Mr. Rogan perform in Austin, Texas, in May. She attributed her decision to get vaccinated against Covid to Mr. Rogan’s discussion about immunocompromised people on the podcast.

Mr. Rogan has described having a “love-hate relationship with conspiracies,” and his contempt for opinion-policing can cut both ways: He was, for instance, far earlier and louder than most legacy media outlets in raising the possibility that the pandemic originated with a leak from a Chinese laboratory, a prospect that has attracted fresh scrutiny from the Biden administration.

But his theorizing is also something of a volume business, validated by the hits and unimpeded by the misses. Mr. Rogan is less likely to dwell on the debunking of hypotheses he floats, like the baseless notion that the Clinton family was somehow connected to the 2016 murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staff member.

Mr. Rogan can sound most animated when mining the intersection of sports and social mores. He has repeatedly disparaged Fallon Fox, who in 2013 became the first openly transgender athlete in mixed martial arts, making the sorts of remarks (“she’s not really a she”) that advocates find repugnant and many listeners delight in hearing someone say without apology.

“When Joe Rogan comes after you, it’s not just him,” Ms. Fox said by email. “With every insult he made toward me, he was signaling to his followers that directing transphobic insults and slurs toward me was acceptable.”

Some progressives noted experiences like Ms. Fox’s in criticizing Bernie Sanders for appearing on the podcast during the 2020 Democratic primary, especially after the campaign began promoting Mr. Rogan’s kind words about him ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

In fact, in a race focused largely on perceived electability against Mr. Trump, granting the interview was seen internally as a fairly easy call, a way to reach independents or even conservative-leaning voters who might rarely hear from Mr. Sanders otherwise.

“Happy to go on there again,” Faiz Shakir, a Sanders adviser and the 2020 campaign manager, said in a recent interview. “The whole idea is to talk to people who don’t always agree with you and to persuade them.”

‘I’m Not Joking’

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Mr. Rogan’s show is now exclusive to Spotify.Credit…Getty Images

Over the past year, Mr. Rogan has made two big moves.

One was intuitive enough: He relocated with his family from Los Angeles to Austin, declaring the former overcrowded and overtaxed. “It’s ‘Keep Austin Weird,'” said Steve Adler, the city’s mayor and a recent Rogan podcast guest, reciting a favored local slogan. “He fits in.”

The second leap presented more of a branding snag. By agreeing to stream full episodes exclusively on Spotify, a media behemoth based in Stockholm, Mr. Rogan codified the podcast’s evolution from impish underdog to bankable juggernaut.

The show saw an initial audience dip as listeners were compelled to download Spotify (for free) to hear him, and Mr. Rogan’s ubiquity on YouTube has seemed to wane some. Now, beneath abridged clips still permitted to appear on the site, users often accuse Mr. Rogan of selling out.

Plainly sensitive to any perception that he answers to suits, Mr. Rogan has by turns assured his audience of his unchallenged creative control and addressed Spotify employees who have expressed dismay at the company’s association with him.

“If you’re a 23-year-old woke kid and you’re working for this company, you think you’re going to put your foot down,” he said last October. “I get it.” He urged such employees to “listen to some of the lyrics” in the less saintly music available on Spotify, too.

But among top Spotify leadership, people familiar with the company say, the notion that Mr. Rogan presents any kind of regrettable executive headache is laughable. Though some die-hards may grumble — like fans of Howard Stern, perpetually convinced he’s gone soft — Mr. Rogan’s following remains young, loyal and increasingly global. So central is he to the company’s fortunes that the podcast is listed as its own category on the app: Sports. Music. News and Politics. Joe Rogan.

The question now, as Mr. Rogan settles into his kingmaking phase, is how he might like to use his capital. He does seem to like the idea of people coming to him, in every sense, and the power that flows from commanding a platform so large that even those who might feel more comfortable elsewhere — elected officials, scientists, the occasional journalist — recognize that ignoring him would be irresponsible.

As the pandemic began enveloping the United States in March 2020, Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, made what he said would become his final plane trip of the year to appear with Mr. Rogan and warn his listeners. “Realizing that there would maybe be many in his audience who wouldn’t agree that this was going to be a problem, I felt like this would be the best opportunity to get that information out,” Dr. Osterholm said in an interview. “It was, without a question, the most pushback I’ve ever received on anything I ever said publicly.” (The epidemiologist said he has offered to return for another conversation with Mr. Rogan, so far in vain.)

More often, Mr. Rogan has taken care to promote comedians in his circle, making explicit his goal of expanding the comedy footprint in Austin and opening his own club. Friends have teased him about being his generation’s Johnny Carson, the host whose blessing could mint stars overnight, and his new address has already produced a gravitational drift among comics of a certain ilk.

“All these comics are moving there to be near him — you want to talk about leeches, parasites,” Mr. Clay said. “Let the guy breathe. What are you, parked outside his house? Waiting for him to go, ‘You wanna be on the show today?'”

And so, there is now a kind of Rogan sub-economy of comedian-podcasters whom he helped gain exposure, their public personas likewise built in part around scorning political correctness and the institutions associated with it — a heady cultural space where it can feel as though left and right converge. When The New York Times emailed one such Rogan friend, Tim Dillon, asking to chat about the host, Mr. Dillon responded with an expletive and posted the exchange to his hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. What followed was a striking testament to Mr. Rogan’s eclectic constituencies and their assessment of his treatment in the press.

“New York Times Gearing Up for Hit Piece on Joe Rogan,” read one segment chyron on the right-wing One America News Network.

“Clearly the knives are out for him,” Krystal Ball, a left-wing commentator, said on “Rising,” the popular establishment-bashing web series she co-hosted until recently.

“If the word ‘misinformation’ does not appear in the first — I’ll say — first three paragraphs,” pledged Saagar Enjeti, Ms. Ball’s more conservative studio-mate, “I will eat my own sock on camera.” (His move.)

Yet if there is any long-term challenge to Mr. Rogan’s standing, it is not in saying something so spicy that a newspaper scolds him, or Spotify drops him, or the White House wags its collective finger. It is in running out of things to say.

Relaxing recently at an outdoor bar in Austin after a stand-up set — flanked by a muscular associate who stepped in to tell an encroaching reporter, “If you don’t know him, that’s not a good idea” — Mr. Rogan bore the markings of a person at peace, staying past 1:30 a.m. to accept praise and kibitz with friends. He held forth beside a game of cornhole, near some skinny-jeaned locals, with a man in close range clutching what looked like a plastic bag full of supplements. He mugged for a few pictures. He danced, briefly, to “Superfreak” with an arm in the air, disco-style. Everyone laughed at his jokes.

Here was the guy who caught the car, bought it and piled his buddies in for a road trip to the summit of influence. And it is hard to punch up from the top.

In one episode that week, Mr. Rogan — whose enduring efforts to identify cultural overreach can sometimes leave him reaching, as well — had lamented the timidity of modern comedies. His argument: Today’s America would never allow films like “Superbad” or “Step Brothers,” raunchy if functionally harmless hits from the late 2000s, to sniff the big screen.

But the ascendant forces of cancellation would not stop there. This is where Mr. Rogan found himself wondering about future gag orders on straight white men — and the purported logical extension after that, which would have the privileged class barred from going outdoors, as a kind of reparations, “because so many people were imprisoned for so many years.”

“I’m not joking,” Mr. Rogan said.

He seemed to be joking a little. And maybe that uncertainty is its own reward.

“There’s a lot of people,” he said moments later, eye-rolling those who shame the un-woke, “that are taking advantage of this weirdness in our culture.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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