“You should go on the Joe Rogan podcast.”
A student made the suggestion above about a month ago during a zoom drop-in session for my course, “Sacred Drugs,” while discussing the book The Immortality Key and the author’s appearance on a recent episode. Of course I knew of Joe Rogan–my two sons have remarked over the last few years that I’d be a good guest on the show–but when the student said it, it felt, at the moment, more like a sweet compliment than a serious possibility to contemplate.
Then I started thinking about it and realized, what the fuck, what have I got to lose? Over 20 years in academia has given me the necessary survival skills to love rejection, wallow in humiliation, and glorify failures. The circumstances in my life at the time encouraged a devil-may-care attitude, which was liberating, motivational, and, it turns out, effective.
First, I have a new book out. It’s an unconventional book, I think, with a somewhat untrodden path to publication, at least for an author from the world of academia. Regardless of the path, however, the name of the game remains the same for any self-respecting author: self-promotion (by the way, you can purchase the book, Don’t Think About Death: A Memoir on Mortality, here). And in that vein, going right to the top of the media heap seemed worth a try.
Second, in an additional twist to the circumstances of the moment, the Emory media people did not seem too keen on helping me promote the book, which may be understandable given its offbeat nature, the fact that the memoir ends with me and a hooker, and that I am not as polished in public as they might like. In any case, I don’t hold it against them but, being honest, I’d have to say this also fueled the fires of my fuck-all attitude.
Also, there is a pandemic, and death is everywhere, on everyone’s mind. I’d like to contribute to the public grappling with that reality.
So, with no institutional support, no agents, no personal managers or media consultants, I went all DIY. I sat down at the computer and within 2 minutes I found a link on the Joe Rogan Experience website for anyone to use if they’d like to be a guest. When I clicked on the link two thoughts immediately came to my mind simultaneously: “you are a genius” and “you are a fool.”
In the subject heading, I wrote: “Death, Drugs, Sex, Religion….”
In the message text box I wrote:
“Briefly, I’m a professor at Emory University in the Dept of Religion. I have a new book just out, Don’t Think About Death: A Memoir on Mortality, which might be of interest (I’ve written two other books on the history of death in America, as well as a book called Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the US). The courses I teach at Emory bring in 200-300 students and include, Death and Dying, Religion and Sexuality, and Sacred Drugs. Happy to send you books or other info. Would be fun.”
Within a matter of hours, I received an email and the wheels were in motion. From the get-go, Rogan’s crew were absolutely wonderful. Travel arrangements were set up, instructions about the upcoming appearance were sent (including notification of a COVID-19 test before going in the studio), and other planning information was clearly communicated. As I mentioned earlier, at the time I did know of Joe Rogan and had seen some of the clips from his podcast. But I soon began to realize that I had no idea what I was getting into. In any case, I was thrilled and excited and nervous. Tom Petty is right, the waiting is the hardest part, and my god those few weeks of anticipation before the trip to Austin were killer.
One item in the information material states that guests should not make any public announcements about upcoming appearances. I wanted to abide by that but I also couldn’t help myself. I had to tell my family and some friends. But I also knew that I had to tell the 280 students in the Sacred Drugs class, and that they would likely go nuts. And they did. I have never loved zoom chat more than those few minutes of absolute pandemonium. It went even crazier when I told the students that I was already obsessing over two main questions: first, what should I do with my hair (which did come up in the interview)?; and second, what should I do if he passes me a big fat blunt (I had seen the Elon Musk episode)? Here is a sampling of some of the comments:
Garys getting a podcast before Kanye
wait, what happened?
shave it to match his energy
let the hair flow
PLEASE SMOKE IT
GO FULL ELON
Idk its illegal in Texas
u gotta face the glizzy
And what may be my favorite zoom chat comment of all time from a student: “when Joe offers u the blunt, u smoke it.”
By the time I got to the crowded Atlanta airport as the pandemic resurged across the country, my nerves, stress, and anxiety levels were quite high, for obvious reasons. Though crowded, the airport did what I thought was an excellent job in ensuring masks and social distancing. The Delta flight to Austin was not crowded and very uneventful, and I got to the driver in the empty Austin airport without a hitch. By the time I got to the hotel the night before the interview, I was exhausted and frayed. The fairly empty hotel bar and very friendly bartender helped immensely.
I was ready and raring to go the next morning.
I arrived at the office complex where the show is recorded a little early, which suited me fine. It was nice to meet some members of Rogan’s team, and soon after I entered we all took our COVID tests administered by the nurse from a local hospital. By the 15-minute mark, each of us would hear the nurse shout out the person’s name and say, “you’re negative.” Joe was running late so I was able to hang out and chat some with the guys, even though I was the only guy there with no muscles, no tattoos, and long hair. They were super and, in normal circumstances, I would have offered to buy them all a drink after the show.
When Joe arrived, we were introduced, said hello, and then he went to the nurse to have his test. My pacing had picked up a bit by this point, but I was enjoying the banter and camaraderie within the group, and trying not to think too much about what was about to happen. After 15 minutes, the nurse shouted, “Joe, you’re negative.” He then came over to me and said, “Ok, it’s time.”
He let me go inside the strange yet strangely comfortable studio space first, and I entered and mistakenly went to sit down in his chair. Joe let me know I sit in the chair across from him, and I thought, “shit, not an auspicious start here.” But I got settled in to what may be the most comfortable office chair I’ve ever sat in and put the headphones on. Joe and the producer, Jamie, were getting everything set up. Joe finally offered me some drugs–a cup of coffee–which I declined considering I was already amped up on a morning brew. Things seemed set. Joe finally looked me dead in the eye and said, “are you ready?” to which I replied, “let’s go.” He then gave a countdown I will never forget: “3, 2, 1.” Boom. It was on. I’m a sucker for a good conversation that’s free-wheeling, full of banter, but also, hopefully, substantive and stimulating. Joe was fantastic, and I had a great time in that studio for 2.5 hours.
The time flew by. I couldn’t believe it was over. But as soon as we finished, I was in the car heading to the airport. When I left, the guys told me that it would be up and running the next day, by 12pm Central.
Pacing furiously at the mostly empty airport, I was both relieved it was all finally over and behind me, and freaking out because I wasn’t sure what I said in that conversation. Three things, however, stood out vividly in my mind right away: first, I recalled making an intentionally loud gulp before we started talking about Deep Throat, and I was so happy he called me out on those sound effects; second, I was very glad I asked him about the “Sacred Clown” tour; and finally, I was thinking, how the hell did we end up talking about tenure, and that many (if not most?) of my tenured colleagues were not going to be happy with me.
The flight home and navigating the Atlanta airport went smoothly. My mind, on the other hand, was a mess as I continued to wonder if I really said what I thought I said, or why I failed to mention what I wanted to mention, and so on. I consoled myself on the drive home from the airport by telling myself, over and over, that no one would watch this or care much about what some old grey-haired academic has to say.
The next day, the day of the broadcast, I had to teach Sacred Drugs at our usual start time, 4:20pm (I kid you not). I tried to focus on my pedagogical responsibilities for the later afternoon’s scholarly exploration of psychedelics and religious life. I kept the same basic reality-denying mantra looping in my head for the first half of the day, “very few people will see this.”
Within 15 minutes of the start of the podcast, I received my first email. It was from someone in the US military, and it read:
“Good day Sir,
Just wanted to shoot you an email before I watched you on the JRE podcast. By my calculations your email should be full in about 2 more hours.
That kind of startled me, but not in any threatening way. (I know something about threatening emails from strangers who discover me via “public scholarship,” but that’s a whole other can of worms, for another essay). No, I actually saw it as a protective move that showed genuine concern for my well-being. On the other hand, it shattered my soothing mantra, and the reality of the situation finally hit me. Like a ton of bricks.
The dude was right on. Emails from family, friends, former students, and complete strangers started coming in to my public Emory address. I soon started getting reports from friends of activity in the comments section on YouTube, and some kind of debate among commenters about whether I looked more like George Lucas or Jerry Garcia. After 2.5 hours and with the broadcast finished, but now available as show #1565, I was hoping—truly—that things might blow over.
I checked the YouTube site right before class and the show had something like 700k views, with lots and lots and lots of comments. At that point I did what I know is something you never, ever do if you are on YouTube: I started reading the comments. It struck me as soon as I started scrolling, feeling a strange mixture of good humor, dread, disgust, inspiration, and a good bit of overall ambivalence, that this is a very bad move. So, I stopped and haven’t checked back on any of the over 5k comments. I also haven’t watched or listened to the show. As of this writing, I believe it’s got close to 1.5M views, and is now available on Spotify.
My social media footprint is now not quite Kardashian Bigfoot size, but it’s at a completely different level than pre-interview. I have a bunch of new Facebook friends who are complete strangers. Twitter numbers too have gone up quite a bit. But Instagram has blown up, with all kinds of people from all over the freaking world following me. The comments on social media, and particularly on IG, were really, mostly, seemingly, very positive and encouraging, which is cool. Some messages I’m not sure I fully understand, but still, it is a level of response and engagement that is wholly different from the classroom and its students. It is also clear, to be quite frank, that social media can be very drug-like.
A few weeks out, my new mantra is “this too shall pass.” But for now, I’m trying not to be too self-absorbed (as you can tell), and just go with this post-interview flow. My sense is that people want to talk about the very topics I love and teach–death, drugs, sex, and religion–which are all so central in our lives, and all so potentially subversive the more we speak openly and candidly about them. In a roomful of students, or on massive platform like the Joe Rogan Experience, you can count me in.