A Trunk Full of Criticism: What Carrot Top Gets Right

At times Carrot Top’s life seems like some sort of Faustian deal with the devil gone wrong (not that most deals with the devil go right). Carrot Top is one of the most recognizable comics working today and is in incredible shape (even more so now that he has lost the cartoonish bulk of his weightlifting days), yet he is the constant butt of jokes from comedians all over the country, arguably more so than the previous entrants in this series, Jeff Dunham and Larry the Cable Guy.  While Larry the Cable Guy and Dunham seem to take their criticism with a grain of salt, Carrot Top seems to take his criticism with a weary resignation.

In an interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast about a year and a half ago, Marc and Carrot Top dig deep into being comedy’s punching bag and Carrot Top answers with what amounts to a shrug. The subject seems important to Maron as throughout the interview he continues to circle back to it. And it’s no wonder that Marc Maron, who obsesses over his standing in the comedy community and prides himself on his reputation as a “comic’s comic”, finds being so famous and yet so ridiculed such a fascinating subject. Perhaps it’s the gold that Maron has struck in previous interviews with comics with Carrot Top-like inverse proportion to fame and respectability that Maron felt he should stay on this track, however the fireworks never come as even Carrot Top doesn’t seem to really feel that he can adequately defend his act.

Which is too bad. While there’s a lot to find fault with Carrot Top’s act, there’s also much to be admired. With a stage filled with large trunks stuffed with props, Carrot Top, a whirling dervish of excitement and enthusiasm, pulls them out willy-nilly, shows them to the audience with a pun filled joke or a topical reference then thoughtlessly discards the item while digging through the trunk looking for more. If you don’t like one joke, two jokes, or even five in a row, there is one right around the corner, bound to get you and make you laugh in spite of yourself.

Getting audiences to laugh in spite of themselves has become something of a forte for Carrot Top. In his interview with Maron, Carrot Top, or Scott Thompson, delves a bit into his background. While attending college in Boca Raton Thompson went to his first open mic at the insistence of friends, but it was not until he auditioned for The Comedy Corner in West Palm Beach that Thompson first started using props in his act. Thompson says that it was during his audition that he was encouraged to pursue the use of props in his comedy and he soon found himself incorporating them more and more into his act.

After honing in on what it is that he did best, Thompson began a quick ascent to the top of the comedy ranks. While he did well in comedy clubs, Thompson found that he connected well with college audiences and it was through those shows that he found his feet at as a performer. It is no surprise, as Thompson’s high-energy act, with its endless barrage of puns, props, and jokes, lends itself quite nicely to the expectations of the college audience.

Since then, Thompson has gone on to check off a list of highlights that most comedians would kill to have in their career. During the early 1990s, he performed on a slew of stand-up comedy shows, earning a big enough name for himself that he was offered a starring role in the 1998 comedy Chairman of the Board. The movie, well, the movie is not good. Perhaps tellingly, this is the  best Carrot Top could sell the movie in an interview with The AV Club back in 1997, “It’s a cute little movie. I’m sure it’s no Academy Award-winning movie; it’s not even a Jim Carrey movie. I think it’s basically just a movie. You know, it’s a good family movie, I think. It’s silly. I mean, it’s my first film, and it’s kind of got a little bit of goofiness to it, but it’s fun. I haven’t even seen the finished product yet, so I haven’t seen what they’ve done to it.”

Whew boy, when even the hot, young stand-up comic who is starring in his first film can’t quite drum up the proper enthusiasm for the movie, you know you’ve got a stinker on your hands.

Thompson has purposely stayed away from Hollywood after the dismal failure of Chairman of the Board and with the exception of stand-up appearances and popping up in wacky cameos on late night shows and web videos, has largely resisted that part of show business. While Hollywood was not in the stars for Thompson, his future would be found just a tad to the east. Since the mid 2000s, Carrot Top has called Las Vegas his home. After a brief residency at the MGM Grand, Thompson now headlines at the Luxor Hotel and Casino. While I am not sure that getting a regular gig in Vegas is the “move that every comic dreams of” as stated on Carrot Top’s web site, it does provide stability to entertainers who still wish to perform, but would like to do so without the demanding rigors of life on the road. Carrot Top’s stay at the Luxor has proved so successful that they agreed to an extension of the contract, keeping Thompson in town until 2015.

The hate that Carrot Top receives continues to puzzle and it must prove to be heartbreaking for an entertainer like Scott Thompson. Throughout his act, Thompson squeezes in self-deprecating lines about jokes that don’t work and his outlandish appearance. Self-deprecation is an unfortunate skill that some of us have cultivated as a way of beating our tormentors to the punch. And while it may take some of the sting out his critics’ words, the sheer deluge of crap he takes must be dispiriting. It is sort of like admitting to your boss that you screwed up, but then having to sit through a half-hour haranguing session anyway.

While much of Thompson’s self deprecation is directed toward his act, the main source of his ire continues to be his appearance. In interviews, Thompson has steadfastly refuted allegations that he had plastic surgery or that he ever did steroids and quite frankly, I believe him. It is not a huge leap to think that the same person who sits at home, thinks of strange visual puns and then works to meticulously put those things together would also be the type of person, spurred on by body image issues to obsessively work out and put on a ton of muscle, although he has thankfully scaled back on the bodybuilding.

It seems that no matter what Scott Thompson does, he can’t quite get the level of respect that he desires, whether as a physical specimen or as a comedian. Despite what you may think about his material, though, Carrot Top is a great entertainer and no one attains that level of success without having some comedic chops. In this clip from his appearance on Regis and Kelly (which, sheesh! Despite what his detractors might say, even Carrot Top is not safe or bland enough for a morning talk show audience), Thompson illustrates the valuable comedy rule of threes:

Like the callback, the rules of three is a nifty comedy trick. You set up the joke, throw out two punch lines and end the bit with the strongest punch line. Every comedy act is a bit like a magic act in a way. Like a magician, a comic asks the audience to believe something that they know to be untrue. For a comic, that thing is that they are telling their jokes for the first time. Carrot Top knows which of the props about the oil spill work and which ones don’t, but he saves the best for last, setting the audience against him, but then winning them back in spite of themselves.

Of course, winning the audience back in spite of themselves has become Carrot Top’s forte. He plays to packed houses every night at the Luxor, yet is a constant source of derision, so we can infer that not everyone going to his show is a fan. And yet, night after night, he continues to win audiences over. As I mentioned earlier, Carrot Top’s show is a big production and that kind of show business razzmatazz plays like gangbusters in Las Vegas.

And here is where I need to make a confession. When I was 18 years old, a friend of mine, who attended The University of South Florida, had an extra ticket for a Carrot Top show. I was invited and gladly accepted. I had seen Carrot Top make the rounds on the late night shows and, while he was not yet a household name, he was definitely gaining a large following on the college circuit. I attended and was quite frankly blown away.

Sure, I could sit here and say that the reason for this was because I had not yet developed the sophisticated comedy taste that I believe I have now. I hadn’t heard of Bill Hicks yet (hearing Rant in E Minor for the first time was a watershed moment for me and changed the way I thought about comedy practically at the molecular level) nor had I made my attempt at performing stand-up comedy, which is to say before I was taught to hate prop comedy. I could make my case, but at the end of the day, the Carrot Top show was simply fun.

Carrot Top’s comedy show was part stand-up and part rock concert, complete with lighting effects, music, and fog machines. The theatricality along with his boundless energy and steady stream of props and jokes was more than enough to please my nascent comedy interests. The truth of the matter is, a Carrot Top show is such a machine gun barrage of jokes that sooner or later you have to make the choice between going along and having fun or sitting and being a sourpuss all night. It would take years before I got to a point where I would choose the latter of the two options and it is only recently that I feel comfortable even contemplating the former.

While researching this article, I was struck by how topical Carrot Top’s jokes are. True, they tend to be along the lines of late night monologue type of material, but I was not prepared how dated even a late night set from a year ago now sounds. This topicality illustrates Thompson does have a tremendous work ethic to continually keep his show updated, especially since he not only has to think of a joke, but also make some sort of contraption to go with it.

There are a lot of reasons for the comedy purist to turn their nose up at Carrot Top; his outrageous appearance, his silly name, and, yes, the props. Prop comedy has become a dirty word in the comedy community and it easy to see why. For the purist, props are like doping in the stand-up world. Actually, anything brought up onstage other than a beverage or a stool are basically performance enhancing drugs to the stand-up comic, whether that be a musical instrument, some weird prop, or simply dressing crazy. Of course, if any comedian did all of those things, they would be the absolute worst, right? Might as well just throw in balloon animals while you’re at it!

OK, sure, Steve Martin is a bit more clever than Carrot Top and his act was subtly lampooning the show-biz lounge acts of his day, but it is hard to imagine anyone working in such an outrageous manner today without being immediately dismissed as “hacky” and perhaps that resistance to silliness in today’s stand-up has resulted in something of a loss in the comedy community. We live in a strange age in which we demand that our comedians be truth tellers, shaman, and dark avatars of the soul. This has resulted in a golden period of comedy that is challenging, thought provoking, and deeply funny.

Stand-up comedy tends to act as a refuge for the weird, awkward kids out there who developed a sense of humor to keep bullies at bay. Those kids become attracted to the dark, smokey shelter of the comedy club to not only work on their art, but to find a place where they fit in. If comedy clubs are no place for gangly, weird looking red heads with a trunk filled with crap, where do they go? If there’s no room for silly fools in comedy, then what’s the point?

A Trunk Full of Criticism: What Carrot Top Gets Right