Before The Joe Rogan Experience, before even Fear Factor, Joe Rogan was an actor on a much-loved, little-seen show called NewsRadio. Laura Vincent looks back at the unproblematic hunk Rogan used to be.
I’m an expert on Joe Rogan. You know the guy, right? If not from yelling enthusiastically at UFC cards you’ve surely heard of his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, where he talks about smoking weed or the benefits of sensory deprivation and meditation while riffing with comedians, actors and public figures.
Doesn’t ring a bell? Lately, he’s been hosting prominent alt-right figures in his unchallenging, friendly space. He claims no political affiliation but his ability to placidly agree with almost anything his guests say is getting increasingly weirder to behold. Yes, that guy! You know him! He conveys a kind of ‘whoopee cushion straining at the join’ vibe. He smoked weed with Elon Musk and his opening serve to this billionaire – who called one of the rescue divers of the kids in the Thai cave a “pedo” – was to skittishly ask how someone “constantly innovating” finds time to make a flamethrower.
He brought on Jordan Peterson and they merrily talked smack about gender pronouns, diversity, and income equality. His name comes up more and more as his podcast grows in popularity. Its clips go viral, reddit analyses them, and your not-yet-radicalised cousin on Facebook clicks on them out of idle curiosity.
Yes, I’m an expert on Joe Rogan. Wait, that’s misleading: I’m an expert on a very precise slice of Joe Rogan, during the years 1995-1999 when he played a gorgeously handsome lunk in the little-watched but extraordinary NBC sitcom NewsRadio.
I don’t actually know that much about the man now, but without his current level of clickbait infamy, there’s no way I’d be able to write about my precious gem NewsRadio. I’ve tried. I’ve pitched. I’ve been waiting like a spider for my opportunity, and here it is at last (editor’s note: I’m more familiar with his mid-career fame as host of Fear Factor, but you do you.)
Consider the 90s sitcom and it’s the juggernauts that spring first to mind. There’s the vicarious, cosy, Buzzfeed-fluffing Friends and the groundbreakingly clever and mean Seinfeld, the opera-heavy spinoff-that-could Frasier, and Everybody Loves Raymond, which was also there. Zoom in, peel back layers of Just Shoot Me and Caroline In The City and there you’ll find NewsRadio, a sitcom about shenanigans and machinations at the fictional WNYX radio station in New York.
It ran for four years from 1995, during which it suffered 11 time-slot changes before cancellation at the end of its fifth season. NewsRadio achieved woeful viewer numbers, yet retaining any audience was impossible with this scheduling carry-on. It was less of a chicken-and-egg, more a chicken-throwing-its-eggs-at-the-wall situation, and probably the reason why you haven’t heard of the show before.
The first thing to know about NewsRadio is that it’s just the most peerlessly clever and funny sitcom, marrying the workplace family and increasing surreality of MASH with Frasier’s theatrical physicality and the purgatorial un-poignancy of Peep Show. Did you know 10 of its episodes are named after random Led Zeppelin albums for absolutely no reason? Did you know that in direct reference to its own appalling ratings, the show had an episode called Sinking Ship where the characters travelled back in time to the Titanic?
The second thing about NewsRadio is that from where we stand now, the cast is a truly gobsmacking group to have gathered in one room. From “oh that guy” Stephen Root to “oh…that guy” Andy Dick; from ER’s Maura Tierney to Treme’s Khandi Alexander; from Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall to stage actress Vicki Lewis. There was also Phil Hartman, the ex-SNL showman who provided the deliciously smarmy voice of Troy McClure on The Simpsons and designed several album covers for the band America in the 70s. He was also murdered by his wife in May 1998 just before season five of NewsRadio was due to start filming. To the surprise of all, the show was picked up for another season. But the loss of Hartman sent it into an obvious decline before it was finally cancelled.
And there was Joe Rogan. Young and fresh-faced, with this lantern-jawed brunette thing going on that the 90s favoured (think Greg from Dharma and Greg, Will from Will and Grace.) He played Joe Garrelli, a character undoubtedly originally influenced by Joey Tribbiani of Friends. NewsRadio’s Joe is a loveable dolt who’s funny, loveable, charming, and a blue-collar contrast to the fancier radio hosts and executives who make up the rest of the cast.
But I didn’t just come here to write about a pretty face (valid though that is). As the show progresses you start to see Joe the person’s influence on Joe the character – and the seeds of who Rogan would become – hiding in plain sight.
Joe Garrelli’s main deal is that whenever he’s given a job he tries to DIY it, usually elaborately. You know the saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Joe Garrelli likes to preempt this entirely. (“I’m rewiring the phones for speed-dial, so like, if you have to call 911 you don’t have to push a whole lot of buttons.”) The man makes his own duct tape.
As the show builds, Garelli quickly starts – like Rogan – to display a strong propensity for conspiracy theories. From alien abductions and paranormal activity (“I don’t care what you say about me but making fun of alien technology is just stupid”) to government cover-ups and security cameras being part of a grand social experiment from an unnamed agent in a mountain in Virginia.
In episode nine of season two, ‘The Cane’, Joe suggests – hilariously from this angle – that the station work on launching a “fully interactive online website”.
By episode 17 of that same season, ‘Physical Graffiti’, Joe is the resident expert on all things cyber, and wisely, with some portent, says “you can’t take something off the internet. That’s like trying to take pee out of a swimming pool.”
In season four’s eighth episode, ‘Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show’, Joe shows off his prowess against a piece of wood. “My talent is hitting things really hard and not hurting my hand.”
By season four’s 20th episode (rakishly named ‘420’) Joe is pitted against Andy Dick’s character in a charity UFC bout, which, let’s face it, is just an incredible metaphor for Rogan’s real career path.
At first, it amused me that through Rogan’s current infamy there was, at last, a vehicle for writing about NewsRadio, and I thought it cute how he worked UFC references into his character’s storyline. But the more I researched, the less amused I felt.
There’s an episode of Rogan’s podcast from 2011 – an unfathomably far off-time – where he talks to his NewsRadio castmate Dave Foley. It’s bittersweet and funny, and the two guys, both part of something special, have a comfortable back-and-forth. And then Foley starts talking about his divorce. His experience, full disclosure, sounded singularly horrific. I also know in my very bones, like a spider innately knowing how to spin a web, that you shouldn’t read YouTube comments.
Yet read them I did, and then some. Turns out there’s a ton of people out there taking whatever Joe Rogan says and using it to springboard off and extrapolate wildly. The level of hostility in these comments made me feel queasy. With every episode of the podcast I watched, especially recent ones, the comments seethed harder, and what Rogan said became more influenced by a particular style of politics. Which in turn – the real chicken and egg – set off the commenters even more.
In the Foley episode, Rogan says he’s “learned from the Phil Hartman experience” and will now openly warn his friends if he feels they’re in an unsafe relationship. This is commendable: men looking out for their friends should be encouraged. But while looking for ways in which Rogan had influenced his position on NewsRadio, I started to wonder if being on the show had created these fissures that are now cracking into his real-life persona.
Would there be this much discourse about suspicion of women if Rogan hadn’t experienced his friend getting murdered? If Rogan didn’t have this veneer of being the reasonable middle ground, which I found myself agreeing with often in spite of myself, would he have attracted so many listeners who imprint upon him exactly what they want to hear? It was a lot to consider.
But did you know that in response to network instructions for an episode of NewsRadio where a character dies, as a tie-in related Four Weddings and a Funeral, the writers had the characters hold a funeral for a dead rat? Did you know they had an episode set in outer space for no reason whatsoever? Did you know they got Jerry Seinfeld to guest star in an episode about the characters desperately trying to get Jerry Seinfeld to guest star on their radio show to avoid cancellation? Did you know that Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond was originally cast in Joe Rogan’s role?
If you are already a Joe Rogan fan, maybe consider watching NewsRadio. Not because he was hot in it, not because I can write more about this show if it has a resurgence, but because honestly, you don’t have much time on this earth and of what you have, very little is spared for leisure. If it’s Joe Rogan you want then you might as well consume something really good. His NewsRadio role bears all the hallmarks of his particular personality, with remarkably less alt-right commentary. You can’t take the pee out of the swimming pool, but you can swim elsewhere.