It’s a myth that sunlight is the best disinfectant: On comedy and Joe Rogan

February 6, 2022

One of the funniest comedians I saw multiple times at the Comedy Cellar in the early 2000s in un-Google-able, because as I recall his stage name was Hood. No last name, just: Hood. I may not even be spelling that correctly. (Update 2/28/22: I found himHis full name is Hood Qa'Im-maqami, and, as expected, some of my memory was off.)

In my memory, this was a part-time gig for him — he had a job in finance, maybe? — but I remember he was a standout performer because he was uproariously funny, his bits had layers, and the three or four times I saw him, he killed. Perhaps that was a function of him not using the Comedy Cellar to work out new material, and so while other comics were using these nights to shape their jokes and search for just the right edges, Hood’s act was much more polished because he wasn’t going anywhere else with it.

Hood said he was Iraqi, which colored much of his material in 2002, when I first saw him perform. One of the times I saw him, he started his set talking about how, because of all the racists, he’d started letting people think he was Italian. Somehow, he had the audience scream-laughing as he talked about what it was like to move through New York in the wake of 9/11 with assholes left and right accusing him of being a terrorist, sometimes openly. He moved on to other topics, but also ended his set with a bit that involved his son, and the final joke was a callback, as he recounted telling his son, “Finish your spaghetti, Luigi.”

All that’s to say that Hood, in my memory, was courageous with his comedy. At a time when Middle Easterners were being attacked and shunned, he got up on stage and used jokes to say that was a fucked up thing to be happening.

I thought about Hood when, once again, a bunch of comedians leapt to defend Joe Rogan against people complaining that Rogan has said a bunch of racist shit on his popular podcast over the past decade-plus, and furthermore, that Rogan has given his platform to numerous guests who proffer harmful pseudo-facts and ignorance dressed up as intellectualism and out-and-out racism (and more racism) (and more racism).

Never mind that most of Rogan’s podcasts aren’t “comedy” per se, but let’s acknowledge that the guy cares about comedy enough to keep doing it even after getting rich from Fear Factor and then his podcast. He’s certainly part of the fraternity and, for purposes of this conversation, he styles his podcast persona in much the same way many comedians style their acts, which is why I think many of them see a fellow traveler. Here’s Whitney Cummings, on Twitter, seemingly defending Rogan, succinctly explained that mindset:

Comedians did not sign up to be your hero. It’s our job to be irreverent and dangerous, to question authority and take you through a spooky mental haunted house so you can arrive at your own conclusions. Stay focused on the people we pay taxes to to be moral leaders.

Hood is a great contrast to Rogan because, if we’re following Cummings’s formulation, his comedy was irreverent and dangerous, questioned authority, and was pretty clearly intended to guide the audience through some gnarly issues at a fraught time in our nation’s (and New York City’s) history. Specifically, it’s worth grappling with what “dangerous” meant at that time: Hood was a man of Middle Eastern descent telling an American audience it was shitty that people who looked like him, with names that sounded vaguely like his, who worshiped as he did, were subject to increased racism because of a major terrorist attack months before. Anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked right after 9/11, which is precisely when he was saying this, and he said it less than two miles from the site of that terrorist attack. My audience was sympathetic, but it would be reasonable to fear that a few people in any audience would take those jokes poorly.

I don’t know where Hood is, so I’ll step in, because here’s the crux of the matter: If someone didn’t like his jokes about pretending to be Italian in order to avoid being subject to racism, and that person complained they were in poor taste or wrong in some way, I would gladly argue those points on the merits. The ethos of being a “dangerous” comedian — or podcaster, or other form of public thinker — usually means you’re saying things that other people don’t want to hear but that they need to hear, and it’s “dangerous” because you, the truth-teller, are upsetting the status quo and creating problems. Perhaps you’re creating problems for people doing bad things, and now that the truth is out there, they have to deal with it, but perhaps it’s dangerous, too, because a lot of people don’t like what you’ve said, they’ve reacted poorly, and now you’re subject to criticism. Being criticized sucks!

However, if all you’re doing is saying things people don’t like because they don’t like them, that’s not being dangerous or guiding people anywhere; that’s being transgressive for transgression’s sake. In a previous era, people who did that were called shock jocks, and, rightly, the term took on a derisive connotation.

Rogan’s fans will often say he brings a whole bunch of people on his show in order to have interesting conversations. After all, Bernie Sanders was a guest! But there’s a basic misconception about mass media baked in to such defenses, one that’s been understood by experts for decades: Giving any airtime to bad ideas is, itself, a form of support. That is, allowing racists to explain and promote themselves is giving them 95% of what they want since no amount of pushback can undo that they’ve explained and promoted themselves; it’s a myth that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and most of the time it’s better to crush and suffocate bad ideas under tons of soil and clay.

But setting aside that Rogan’s rejection of expertise means he’s trying to learn a whole lot of things without proper preparation, and therefore he’s more susceptible to grifters and bullshitters, and that by making his brand of expertise-rejection attractive to his audience he’s making them susceptible to scams and various flavors of conspiracy theory, at the very least I wish Rogan and his defenders would admit his podcast isn’t “dangerous” for him. It’s certainly transgressive, because Rogan often has people on to say things that cause distress and harm, but he simply doesn’t put himself at risk, because he rarely challenges guests and he casts his role as that of a guy who presents a wide spectrum of ideas as you “arrive at your own conclusions”. Thus, he won’t be blamed for guests’ ideas on his show, even though he’s the one bringing them on and holding their ideas up to an audience of millions.

There's nothing courageous about that, either.

(Photo: "Comedy Cellar" by Gus Taf. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)