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Comedy

Bringing ’em back together

With help from our writer, Gallagher and Carrot Top reunite, at last

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Illustration by J. Alex Stamos
Rick Lax

Carrot Top has been the butt of more jokes than Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky and Brooke Hogan combined. But he’s still standing, still inventing and still performing prop comedy to sold-out crowds at the Luxor.

Only one other prop comic has ever reached (and arguably surpassed) that level of success: Gallagher. Back in the 1980s, Gallagher’s watermelon-smashing TV specials catapulted him into that league of stand-up comedians who, for a brief period of time, were bigger than stand-up comedy (e.g., Steve Martin, Andrew Dice Clay, Dane Cook).

On June 20, Gallagher performed at Boulder Station, and afterward, he hung out with Carrot Top. It was the first time the two prop comics had spoken to each other in nearly 20 years. The following is the story of their falling out and their reconciliation:

Three weeks ago I caught Carrot Top’s show at the Luxor’s Atrium Showroom, a theater pimped out with vibrating seats, police lights and foam machines. At breakneck speed, he showed off his dog-poop picnic plate (so the flies stay off your food), his feet-shaped shoes (which you don’t have to take off for airport security) and nearly 200 other comedic inventions. Every 15 minutes or so, he paused to let the audience catch its breath. Aside from that, the night was filled with nonstop laughs.

“I’m attacked every second of the day,” Carrot Top (whose real name is Scott Thompson) told me after the show. “But it’s getting to the point where it’s hack to pick on Carrot Top. Today, people are like, ‘He got through 20 years, let’s give him a break.’”

Unlike Thompson and Gallagher, most prop comics who reach the two-decade mark are reclassified as something other than “prop comics.” Example 1: In the 1970s, Steve Martin wore bunny ears, Groucho glasses and an arrow through his head. He made unrecognizable balloon animals and performed nonworking magic tricks. But after he got big, nobody thought of him as a prop comic. Example 2: Harpo Marx performed gags with hats, canes, peanuts, scissors, sausages and bike horns. But today, nobody remembers Harpo as a prop comic; we remember him as one of the Marx Brothers.

Most comedians who use props in their acts (Demetri Martin, The Amazing Johnathan, Rip Taylor) shy away from the term “prop comic.” Perhaps they do so in response to the comedy world’s sentiment that prop comics wouldn’t be funny without their props. What’s ironic is that Thompson, one of the few comedians who doesn’t mind the title “prop comic,” never set out to do props; for Thompson, the visuals are just means to an end: laughter.

“I try to hit the audience with everything,” said Thompson, “jokes, musical sound-bites, visuals—the visuals are just different ways to incorporate a punch line.”

Thompson understands why his act works. He understands his strengths and his weaknesses: “I love Dennis Miller and Bill Maher. I love watching smart comedy, but I can’t pull it off. There’s a lot of dumb jokes in my show—like the one about Mr. Clean dying of pneumonia—and I deliberately throw those in so the show works on different levels. George Carlin did that too; he’d talk about abortion for 15 minutes, then he’d pause and say, ‘You ever fart on a plane?’”

Thompson mentioned Carlin’s name several times during our interview, but he mentioned Gallagher’s twice as often. Like a lot of young comics, Thompson was deeply inspired by Gallagher’s act. Thompson actually grew up down the road from Gallagher’s then-manager, Gary Propper. As a teen, Thompson would hang out backstage with Gallagher, and one of Thompson’s proudest moments was when Gallagher asked him to hear a joke.

“Here’s the one I told [Gallagher]: ‘In California, it’s legal to start a fire in the woods, but not on the beach. But on the beach, you’re 10 feet away from sand and water—that’s the shit that puts it out!’ Gallagher asked me if he could use that joke, and I was like, of course you can use it; you’re Gallagher!”

Gallagher’s relationship with Thompson turned sour in the early ’90s.

One of the many faces of Carrot Top.

One of the many faces of Carrot Top.

“I’m playing comedy clubs,” Thompson explained, “and then I get the call about The Tonight Show, and all of a sudden I’m legitimate. And then Gallagher stopped talking to me. Maybe he thought I was a threat? Things got ugly between us, which is a shame, because I’d love to have a guy like that as my mentor. Gallagher took this genre, prop comedy, and turned it into a franchise.”

I told Thompson that I was going to be speaking with Gallagher the following day, and he replied, “Tell him I still think he’s the best, and that I’ll go to my grave thinking that.”

“Will do,” I said.

I called Gallagher at 3 p.m. I admit, I was nervous. Like Thompson, I grew up watching Gallagher’s TV specials—watching Gallagher pick apart the English language (“Why do they call them ‘apartments’ when they’re all stuck together?”) and logically deconstruct the world around me (“Why do cowboys wear a spur on each boot? If one side of the horse moves, the other side moves with it”). Of course, I best remember Gallagher from his Sledge-O-Matic infomercial parody. Gallagher wasn’t the first comedian to satirize infomercials (and he certainly wasn’t the last). But like many great parodists (Gilbert and Sullivan, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Stephen Colbert), Gallagher seems to at least partially respect the art form out of which he’s taking the piss. You get the sense that if things had gone differently, Gallagher could have found success as a legitimate infomercial pitchman.

Like Thompson, Gallagher never set out to do props: “It’s not that I’m a prop comic,” Gallagher told me. “I just used so many props on those TV specials because I understood that television is a visual medium, and if you’re doing a TV show, you should be visual. The comedians at the time weren’t using the medium effectively.”

Today, Gallagher focuses the bulk of his comedic efforts on more traditional (i.e., non-visual) stand-up bits, like this one: “Why is it that every time we want to be fancy, we speak French? We don’t have ‘fancy room’; we have ‘suite.’ We don’t have a ‘report’; we have an ‘exposé.’ We don’t have ‘fancy sex’; we have a ‘liaison.’ That’s not ‘crap’ on the floor; it’s ‘debris.’”

But Gallagher still does props, too, and this, according to him, is the reason why: “If you do same thing again and again, an organism will habituate. It becomes numb in that area, and anything more you do in that area will not get a response. But if you go from talking to showing an object, you can get an audience’s interest, and keep it.”

Unfortunately, these days it’s tougher and tougher for Gallagher to do props: “When you have a truck and a soundman and sound system, and you sell a hundred T-shirts before each show, you’ve got the freedom to bring around large objects. But I’m not doing 2,000 people anymore. So now I come into town, go to Wal-Mart and spend $300. About $200 of that is on food items to smash. Then I buy men’s underwear and a hula hoop for two other bits. And I buy a shirt, too, because during Sledge-O-Matic I take my shirt off like a rock star and throw it into the audience. That way, I don’t have to wash anything after the show.”

Gallagher brought up Carrot Top before I had the chance to relay Thompson’s message: “The problem with Carrot Top,” said Gallagher, “is that he has very few things in his little trunk that are funny, and a lot of those things can be purchased—like his lights around the toilet seat. I’ve seen that one online.”

I told Gallagher that I had caught Carrot Top’s show the previous night and that I’d spoken with him afterward, but before I could pass on Thompson’s kind words, Gallagher asked, “Did Carrot Top tell you the story?”

“What story?” I asked.

“Carrot Top came to my shows as a young kid. In Fort Lauderdale—he lived down the street from my promoter, Gary Propper, and his wife Ruth. Gary Propper and I had an argument one day, and Gary said, ‘I’m going to go and get the kid down the street [Carrot Top] to copy your act.’ So I said, ‘If you do that, then I’m going to get your wife.’ And we both did what we threatened to do. Carrot Top got my manager, my bus driver and my soundman. And he went around with a striped shirt, a microphone around his neck and a box full of props.”

I got the sense that Gallagher hadn’t seen Thompson’s act in a long time. I told Gallagher that Thompson doesn’t wear a microphone around his neck anymore. That he doesn’t wear striped shirts. That he definitely has way more than one “little trunk” of props. That he doesn’t do any gags with toilet lights. And that none of his props are available on the Internet (to the best of my knowledge). That gave Gallagher pause. Then I told Gallagher all the nice things Thompson had said. Gallagher went silent.

The following day, Gallagher’s PR person told me I could give Gallagher’s phone number to Thompson, which I did. Thompson called Gallagher a few days later, and the two arranged to meet up. Gallagher’s PR person told me they didn’t want media (i.e., me) at their reunion. I was pissed—but only as a reporter; as a human being, I understood that these two had a lot of talking to do, and that they needed to do it on their own.

Thompson’s manager described their meeting as “two friends catching up.” Gallagher’s PR person said, “Gallagher and Scotty did get together and had a great talk. Thank you for your help in putting this together.”

There’s no denying the similarities between Carrot Top’s act and Gallagher’s. But Carrot Top is the first to admit that he was inspired by Gallagher’s work, and sometimes the line between inspiration and imitation is a tricky one to pin down. But it sounds like Carrot Top and Gallagher are willing to try, and for that, you’ve got to give both of them props.

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