In September 2016, two months before Trump was elected, comedian and podcaster Shane Mauss sat across from Joe Rogan, recording episode number 851 of the Joe Rogan Experience. At the time, Mauss and Rogan seemed to have a lot in common: They’d both worked as comedians and entertainers for over a decade, and they’d both successfully carved out their own paths as podcasters. Plus, they’d both had an interest in psychedelics, which was why Mauss was in Rogan’s studio that day.
Mauss was enthusiastically received by many JRE listeners, who were impressed by his willingness to take Kratom on air, as well as his insights on smoking DMT. Overall, Mauss’ working-class, open-minded sense of humor and curiosity sat well with Rogan’s audience.
In the five years since, however, a lot has changed. Mauss now has his own science podcast, Here We Are, in which he conducts long-form interviews with scientists while touring the country. The show averages a humble 20,000 downloads a month and has become a particularly important pet project for Mauss since COVID hit. Meanwhile, boasting 190 million downloads a month, Rogan and his podcast guests have spent much of the pandemic speculating if the virus was made in a lab, joking that wearing a mask is “for bitches” and implying that mask mandates could lead to an uprising. Most recently, Rogan has been under fire for hosting guests who spread COVID misinformation and share misogynistic and transphobic beliefs, as well as using the n-word in the past.
Like many others, Mauss noticed Rogan’s podcast becoming a safe haven for COVID conspiracists at the start of the pandemic, and grew concerned that Rogan was fanning the flames of an increasingly paranoid and misinformed fanbase that’s escalated to scientists receiving threats against them and their families. Since he has access to so many scientists and other experts in their fields, he personally contacted Rogan on Twitter to say that the virus “is serious, this is gonna be a really big deal, and if you want, I can connect you with some scientists who can explain this really clearly,” Mauss tells me. But Rogan never responded. “For all I know, he never saw my messages. He’s a super busy guy.”
Mauss noticed an underlying theme in everything Rogan said on his podcast, like episode number 1,498 with Jon Stewart in June 2020, where Rogan joked he was going on tour but would spray Lysol on the audience. Kidding aside, the overarching sense that Rogan could distance himself from the crowds of people putting their lives at risk to line his pockets didn’t sit well with Mauss. He interpreted it as, “You need to be tough, and this is an individual responsibility, and if you don’t have big enough biceps to punch COVID, it’s your fault for getting it.”
As the pandemic continued — and though much of what we knew about COVID was still evolving — Mauss used his platform to try to help with the public health crisis. He interviewed experts like Nina Fefferman, a professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, about the use of statistical models to predict the outcomes of pandemics, as well as Olamide Jarrett, an associate professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of Illinois Chicago, to discuss the gravity of the contagion head-on. Most recently, Mauss sat down with emergency room physician Graham Walker, who reviewed Rogan’s recent interview with vaccine skeptic Robert Malone on Twitter, after Malone compared the vaccine to Nazi medical experiments.
Because Rogan has apologized for spreading misinformation and walked some of his comments back, other comedians have tried to get Mauss to lighten up and look at the context of the podcast. But Mauss argues that the context is even more horrifying. “If you think the little clips are bad, if you actually hear where Joe Rogan is coming from, it’s the perfect storm of everything dangerous during a specifically communal, specifically scientific problem,” he argues.
Mauss has since followed up with Rogan again on Twitter:
Ultimately, Mauss tries to control what he can by working to correct the misinformation Rogan repeatedly hurls into the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. “Trying to communicate this stuff is like, oh my god. I’d rather have COVID than try to explain COVID to the general public,” he jokes.
Even as a kid growing up in Wisconsin, Mauss was interested in biology, philosophy and any scientific explanation for human life that he could use to argue with his Christian family. “When I first learned about evolution, it was to argue with religious people, quite frankly,” he tells me. When Mauss decided to skip college to pursue stand-up, working in construction and factories to pay the bills, he continued to independently educate himself by listening to audiobooks while driving to gigs.
His comedy career took off in 2007 after his first of five appearances on Conan and a Comedy Central Presents special a few years later. But then he found himself at a strange crossroads: “My comedy dream came true, and I thought it was going to take longer. So I was like, now what?” To try something new, he decided to blend his two loves — science and comedy — through live themed shows. Soon Mauss got in the habit of emailing scientists with more specific questions for his jokes. Surprised by how accessible they were, this back-and-forth eventually inspired him to start conducting long-form interviews, which laid the foundation for Here We Are.
Mauss, however, wasn’t initially successful at blending stand-up and science. One misstep in 2013 was the release of his Netflix special Mating Season, which was intended to make evolutionary biology more accessible to the religious, anti-science groups he’d grown up with. “I was really unhappy with the end result,” Mauss says, admitting that he made something too hyper-accessible and dumbed down. “I focused too much on making it funny and not enough on making it interesting because I got scared. I was still figuring out how to present this stuff.” But what originally inspired that special — getting an evolution-denier in the back of Hyena’s Comedy Club in Plano, Texas to say, “I never thought I’d laugh at science like that” — still inspires him today. The difference is he’s now trying to do it on a broader scale.
Both science and comedy are largely about finding novel incongruities in life and communicating those ideas to others, so it makes sense why Mauss and his scientist guests have a lot in common. And he loves that scientists tend to take a zoomed-out look at most things. “I’d rather talk with scientists on my show more than I would with almost any comedian on any podcast on almost any day of the week, with few exceptions,” he says.
Mauss has also found that scientists are open to being corrected when they’re wrong and are rarely certain about anything. “Scientists say, ‘I don’t know’ more than anyone I’ve ever met,” Mauss explains, something he’s been trying to work on personally as well. And that may also be the difference between someone like Mauss’ “hero,” neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, who he’s interviewed several times, and Rogan’s buddy Jordan Peterson. “I’ve never met any scientist who speaks so matter-of-factly and with such authority on any subject like the way Jordan Peterson speaks about subjects he doesn’t even study,” he says.
All of this is very personal for Mauss, too. Years before COVID, he lost his comedy mentor to conspiratorial thinking. When Mauss’ teacher and close friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he fell down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, first focused on what causes MS and then turning to Alex Jones’ rantings, anti-Semitism and “shape-shifting lizard people.” His friend soon stopped trusting doctors and went into debt chasing homeopathic cures. “I was trying to get him out of that for a while,” Mauss says. It’s this experience that pushes him to continue to try to reach others who have similarly fallen victim to all sorts of dangerous misinformation.
In the end, too, it’s also why he views his podcast as his true calling. “I don’t really even care about comedy anymore, honestly,” he tells me. “Other than it being a nice way of delivering science in a more palatable, understandable way that’s clear and entertaining.” He might not have all the answers — and what he talks about might be more scary than funny — but that’s sorta the point: He’s more than happy to hand over the mic to the people who do.