Talking MMA and Comedy With Brendan Schaub and Bryan Callen

I imagine that when you’re an elite-level mixed martial arts fighter you’re so distanced from the majority of society that sometimes feelings of isolation leave you almost desperate to meet people with shared experiences. Which is one of the best reasons to have fight teams and one of the best reasons for fighters to find likeminded people outside the fight world to hang with: to keep themselves sane. 

I’ve been extremely curious to find out if this condition is the reason behind the growing phenomenon of fighters and comedians forming relationships and becoming more involved in each other’s worlds.

The godfather of this phenomenon is Joe Rogan: stand-up comedy veteran, life-long martial arts practitioner, UFC commentator, and creator/host of "The Joe Rogan Experience" podcast. Along with co-host and producer Brian Redban, Rogan has cultivated a community of fellow podcasting MMA-talking comedians such as Joey Diaz, Ari Shaffir, Bryan Callen, Duncan Trussell, Bert Kreischer, Tom Segura, and Sam Tripoli, as well as members of the martial arts community such as Eddie Bravo, Tait Fletcher and Daniele Bolelli.

As “The Joe Rogan Experience” and Redban’s Deathsquad Podcast Network have exploded in popularity--and as its members have gone on to develop their own podcasts--an ever-growing group of fans has become exposed to the rather unexpected relationship between MMA and comedy. However, only one podcast is focused directly on the intersection of the two: UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub and comedian Bryan Callen’s “The Fighter and The Kid.”

Few have more insight into the relationship between fighting and comedy than these two close friends. Their on-air chemistry offers a window into the connection shared by any two people who walk onto a stage, cage, or any other platform alone to entertain an audience at the risk of soul-crushing humiliation and/or grave physical harm. 

Fightland: Why do you think comedians and MMA fighters are gravitating toward each other?
Brendan Schaub:
There’s that saying that actors want to be fighters and fighters want to be actors. I just think we’re of such different worlds but we both entertain so we kind of get each other. For me, if I hang out with anyone else in the sports world or the regular world--the regular world outside of entertainment or fighting or professional sports--they’re going to talk to me just about my job non-stop. That’s going to be like a straight Sherdog interview. You know what I’m saying? So I think, with Bryan, we can just talk about stuff and I can kind of escape from that world.

Bryan Callen: There’s always a mystery, right? I sat next to a brain surgeon one time and he was so excited that he was sitting next to me and he wanted to know all these things about my business. He said, “I’m sorry to ask all these questions.” I said, “Well, know you, if you were a brain surgeon I would probably be asking you a bunch of questions.” He said, “I am a brain surgeon.” And he showed me all his stuff. He was like, “Look, I’m doing work here.” I was like, “You’re a brain surgeon?” So the tables flipped so quickly and the reason they do is because I was curious. There’s a mystery to what that guy does and I don’t know anything about it. So it’s a world that’s so, so difficult and so vast and what you have to do to get there and all that.

I think it’s similar, in the sense, when I think of what Brendan does when he gets into a ring or a cage. It’s a real fight and someone can just end it for him. He doesn’t know when his career is over. So that’s a very Spartan existence. So I have tremendous respect for fighting. I have limited experience fighting, myself. Nothing on the level that guys like this do. But I had enough as a wrestler and as a Tae Kwon Do guy and all that bullshit to appreciate the margins for error.

Here’s probably where I think comedy--and Brendan and I have talked about it--where comedy and getting in the ring alone are similar. It’s that you are alone. It is a solitary process. You are kind of left to your own devices. And so when it comes to performance anxiety, when it comes to reacting to what your audience gives you, in some ways that can be measured with the same stick that you could measure (and I’m being general here) how you’d react to a fighter in front of you, how you’d react to somebody trying to kick and punch your lights out, who’s highly trained. How do you react to somebody who’s trying to submit you? You can go in there with your game plan but you still have to react to what’s in front of you. And I think stand-up in that sense is a little similar in that you get out there and you have your bag of tricks and your game plan but you don’t know necessarily what’s going to happen in the moment. It’s got to look very spontaneous and feel spontaneous and in a way it’s got to be spontaneous. So I think maybe in that sense, fighters and comedians have something to talk about, whether they know that or not. There’s a mutual admiration.

Do you see any shared psychological traits between the desire to be a stand-up comic and to be a mixed martial artist?
I do think the comics I really admire and I know--and I think you could make a case for most of us as comics--have some kind of a deficit that we are trying to account for, a hole we’re trying to fill, if you will. I don’t think you can feel too good about yourself and be a comic. I don’t know a really good fighter, with maybe the exception of BJ Penn and I don’t know him, but I don’t know a fighter who doesn’t have ... most of the fighters ... I’m generalizing but most fighters come from a broken home, some kind of family trauma. A difficult childhood. And I think it’s why they build all this armor around themselves. And I think comedy’s a form of armor. When you don’t feel safe as a child in the world for whatever reason, you figure out a way to make yourself safe. And some guys do it by learning how to kick, punch, and wrestle really, really well. And I think when you don’t feel so good about yourself, some people like myself, you figure out a way to turn it into something funny.

I’ve always wanted to be someone else. I’ve always wanted to be built like someone like Brendan. I’m an athletic guy and all that bullshit. The tragedy as a kid of being a guy not built like a super hero is a lot of what I talk about. I think in that sense, there’s a lot of common ground. I really think I understand emotionally why somebody would train that hard to step into a cage and impose their will on another man. Art is the same way. Art is domination. Stand-up is a form of domination. When you’re up on stage and you look at an audience, you have to basically dictate how it goes. Especially if they’re there to hear you laugh and you’ll be on stage for an hour plus. They don’t want to see you second-guessing. You got to know where you’re going and you got to tell them and dominate the tempo there. So in that sense, I think there is an emotional connection.

There’s clearly a real theme of independence with that kind of mindset, but at the same time, both in stand-up comedy and in mixed martial arts, there is an effort to validate yourself and get validation from the crowd. These are contradictory ideas, so how do they play out together?
The balancing act always is to not always listen to that, even though you need it. It’s kind of like the weird irony of life. And I think that might be why you can only understand that experientially. You can only understand and navigate the dichotomy through experience, through action, through doing something.

That’s something you either learn or you fail. You have to learn how to do that. I think it’s actually a good way of looking at life. When people say, “Well, let me think about that.” I don’t like that expression because it’s an active expression. It sounds like we’re taking action. You say to children, “Well think about it. Think.” I don’t know what that means. Human beings don’t think, necessarily. When you get stuff you’re not supposed to be thinking about out of the way, when you get very good at that, the other stuff happens naturally. There’s an argument for that. I don’t know if I’m right but I like the idea. I like the idea that you already know everything you need to know. It’s kind of like when Michelangelo carved “The David.” He looked at the marble and said, “It’s all already in there. I just have to get the stuff around it out of the way. “ It’s kind of a beautiful way of looking at life, you know? This guy won the Field’s Metal in mathematics for figuring out this crazy equation. He said, “Well the answer was always up there. I just happen to have a certain kind of wiring. I prepared my mind, my frequency, my antenna. I got it to a point where I was able to channel this answer that had always been there.” It’s kind of a beautiful way of looking at life.

I think it was Flannery O’Conner who said, “I sit at my typewriter at 5:30 in the morning, not to write but just in case something happens.” So this is sort of the point of taking the journey. I think this is why I love fighters so much. It’s why I have so much respect for fighters. It’s why I think fighting is so terribly beautiful and romantic. I really do, man. I think it’s more beautiful than watching dance, then watching ballet, watching anything, because I think, first of all, your life is short. Your career is short. Your life is pain. You have to suck weight and then you have to face somebody you really don’t know anything about. Some killer. 

You better know how to talk to yourself. You better know how to keep negativity out of the way. You better know how to be as honest with yourself as possible, and training on the level that these guys train on is a little soul-numbing sometimes. You’ve got be able to keep yourself inspired. And I would argue this is the case for any kind of creation, art for sure. Inspiration is very, very important. Some people do it with music, some people do it with religion, some people with bio-feedback, I don’t know. But I know it starts with learning what not to think about. I know it starts with learning what not to indulge in. So, that’s my philosophy. That’s my religion. Learning and being very specific about where you allocate your mental space is very important.

What do the actual acts of engaging in MMA and stand-up comedy have in common?
Brendan: Any time you’re putting yourself out there, especially going on stage in front of people, you’re going to be dealing with nerves. Now, is it the same nerves as walking into the UFC Octagon? It’s a little different. Bryan doesn’t get punched in the face and it could change the way he acts forever in his life. But at the same time, when you’re doing anything, and you’re putting yourself out there in front of millions of people, whether it’s a podcast that anyone can listen to, or you’re on TV--and Bryan’s in some big-time movies, stuff like that--I mean, you're putting yourself out there. 

I’ve had 17 fights now. Anyone who tells you they’re not nervous is lying, so it’s about dealing with those nerves and making them work for you, not against you because if you let the nerves get to you and your mind starts thinking, “Man, you shouldn’t do this; let's get out of here, let's hurry up," and you get away from the game plan and you lose, that’s letting the nerves get to you. The people who are very successful and make money doing it--whether it’s sports or comedy or acting--are people who can deal with those nerves and get those butterflies to fly in sync and not fly all around and be chaotic and mess up the speech or not do the right stand-up or not throw the right punch.

Bryan and I talk about it all the time. Bryan’s a big fan of Ronda Rousey and I brought Ronda to one of his shows and I go back there and have him meet Ronda and she walks in the back. And he grabs my hand and says, “Dude, I’m so nervous now that you brought Ronda.” I’m like, “What?” He’s like, “Fuck, I’m nervous, man.” I’m like, “You’ve done this a million times. Just act like she’s not there.” And he killed it.

Fighting and laughing are kind of opposites in a way. We’ve talked a lot about the similarities, and there obviously are major ones, but is this also a case of opposites attracting?
Yeah. People love to laugh and everyone wants to know who the toughest kid in the neighborhood is. And when you’re hanging out with Brendan Schaub, he’s the toughest kid in the neighborhood. You never lose that. We’re cave men. Boys love that delineation of authority. The, sort of, “He’s the alpha male, he’s the tough guy.” Then you have your court jester. It’s kind of boring if you just talk about fighting. You’ve got to bring your jackass along with you. I like hearing about Brendan beating up some monstrous guy in the ring and he likes coming to my stand-up. We’re both proud of each other. But he brings Ronda Rousey to my stand-up. It’s kind of cool right? She’s this UFC champion and she’s laughing. That’s cool. That’s exciting for him and that’s exciting for me. So I bring people to his fight in the UFC. That’s really cool, too. It’s exciting. Yeah, I’m proud of him and I’m proud he’s my friend. And I don’t know how he gets into a ring and fights guys who are world-class athletes. It’s incredible. And it’s probably surprising to him that I can make all those people laugh for an hour. 

When you watch each other perform, does what you're watching feel familiar in any way?
Bryan: It’s not a team sport. Stand-up ain’t a team sport. Fighting sure as hell ain’t a team sport. You got a great team with you. You got your coaches. But not a team sport. It’s the loneliest place in the world. The ring, the mat, the cage: the loneliest place in the world. Sometimes being a stand-up comic onstage in front of a group of people can be the loneliest place in the world when you’re starting out.

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