Conventional wisdom says that there are dozens, maybe hundreds, possibly thousands of comics who are funnier than Carrot Top. Presumably, they think they’re the ones who should be selling out a 350-seat theater at the Luxor 240 nights a year, earning millions and entertaining Howard Stern’s listeners with tales of irrigating the professionally aroused faces of Moonlight Bunny Ranch whores with their frothy, creatine-flavored carrot juice. But they’re not. They’re doing Tuesday night sets at their local comedy traffic school and begging Dane Cook to give them a MySpace add. Meanwhile, Carrot Top is laughing—and flexing his realistic action-figure biceps—all the way to the hideous shrunken T-shirt mall.
How? Why? Life is mysterious. What makes one skinny redhead with delicate facial features Axl Rose, and another one Carrot Top? How come it’s fashionable when Pete Wentz slaps on enough guyliner to frighten a rabid raccoon, but when Carrot Top does the same it evokes images of Ronald McDonald in a troubling midlife goth phase?
America’s most earthquake-proof prop comic could sit around contemplating these questions and cursing the universe, but he doesn’t. Or maybe he does. But if he does, he’s simultaneously crafting a director’s clapboard for Lindsay Lohan. (Flip it over and you see a mirror with several lines of coke on it.) Or inventing an application form for would-be Hooters waitresses. (It’s a poster-sized sheet of plywood with two large holes in it. If you can fill it out, Top cracks, you’ve got the job.)
In the late 1980s, when Carrot Top first started doing stand-up as a college student in Boca Raton, Florida, he made a key observation. “I wasn’t very funny,” he recently told the listeners of The Opie & Anthony Show. “I’m not a good comic like these other comics. I knew that right away.”
In similar straits, many aspiring headliners steal jokes. Carrot Top chose a more creative, more original path. He stole signs. One was a Neighborhood Crime Watch sign. The other was a sign for a street named Butts Road. “It takes 20 seconds to break into a house, but it took me an hour to unbolt this sign,” he said of the first. “This must be where the assholes live,” he said of the second.
People laughed. And the Top had the epiphany that would ultimately make him the Strip’s most appropriate comic. Don’t just tell. Show and tell. And don’t tell too much, actually. Stick with the showing. The average drunken comedy-club patron has the attention span of Ron Jeremy’s penis. In Las Vegas, it’s a hundred times worse. If it isn’t spinning or erupting, if it isn’t blinking, beeping and buzzing like a slot machine trying to hail a cab, no one’s going to notice it. Carrot Top’s frantic onstage screeching makes sense here. His wardrobe, which he seems to have hijacked from some color-blind midget pirate, makes sense here.
No one comes to Las Vegas to listen, after all. They come to see. And no matter how well Rita Rudner pulls them in at Harrah’s, they don’t really come to Las Vegas to ponder the wry absurdities of married life. They come to watch volcanos explode. Carrot Top gets this. Carrot Top understands. The lasers, the flashpots, the fog machines, the wind machines, the sound effects, the vibrating seats, the high-decibel rock ’n’ roll, the video projection screens, the sprinklers that soak the audience if they don’t laugh hard enough—they’re as important as the jokes. Maybe more important.
Which is not to say the jokes are not effective. When Carrot Top reaches into one of his many trunks and pulls out, say, a dinner plate with a miniature toilet attached to it, he turns into a magician of sorts, performing acts of transubstantiation even his friend Criss Angel cannot equal. Typically, a good joke illuminates the world in some tiny way—it points out unnoticed hypocrisies or contradictions, it draws attention to the similarities in unrelated elements, it questions assumptions we take for granted.
Carrot Top’s plate with a side order of indoor plumbing does none of that, however. It simply concretizes the stereotype that bulimics like to finish their dinners with two fingers for dessert. But imagine a completely verbal rendition of this joke. “I’ve got a new invention for bulimics,” the Top might screech. “It’s a dinner plate with a miniature toilet attached to it!”
The audience would sit there in silence, waiting for the punchline, because there isn’t any punchline. But when Carrot Top presents the actual object, instead of merely describing it? Just look at a miniature toilet and try not to laugh. Miniature toilets are inherently funny. And when you attach one to some other object, like a dinner plate? Voila! This is Carrot Top’s special magic—he pulls punchlines out of thin air!
There are some comedians who are too smart for the room, but the room that is too smart for a dinner plate attached to a tiny toilet has yet to be built. The joke works every time.
Carrot Top has hundreds of these magic tricks in his arsenal. He is the Leonardo da Vinci, the Thomas Edison, the Ron Popeil of hilarious sneakers and ironic kitchen appliances. Onstage, he presents his wares in rapid-fire style, like an amped-up slot junkie feeding quarters to a one-armed bandit. Giant backpack! Funny golf club! Funny football! Giant underpants! Funny briefcase! Hooters application! Lasers! Fog machines! Funny tennis racket! It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not every dish is on par with the fare at Joel Robuchon. Not any of them are, actually. But they’re not bad. They’ll do. And there are so many of them! When it’s time to leave, you will definitely be happy and full. “That,” you will say to yourself, “was quite a meal!”
Conventional wisdom says that Carrot Top is the luckiest, least qualified entertainer in the land, a kind of George W. Bush of comedy. The talent-leaning media elite can’t stand him. The movie magazine Film Threat described his 1988 movie Chairman of the Board as “the worst movie of the 20th century.” The New York Times assessed it more fairly, dubbing it “adolescent without an atom of charm.” Upon seeing his first commercials for AT&T’s collect-call campaign in 2001, Brandweek called him “the most loathsome creature in the marketplace of humor.” TMZ.com routinely mocks his appearance. Henry Rollins has joined in, too. “Dear Carrot Top,” he opined on his IFC show. “You freak me out, man. Your face is terrifying to me.”
Everybody, it seems, has something bad to say about the Top. But rather than dismissing him as a freaky, hacky, inexplicably durable and overcompensated aberration who has somehow stretched five minutes of talent into 20 years of success, here’s a more interesting notion to ponder: Has Carrot Top peaked yet? Or is there a truly great comic lurking beneath the no-fly zone of his hair and the ever-thickening firewall of muscle that protects his heart?
At Comedy Central’s recent roast of Flavor Flav, the abundantly fertilized vegetable dished it out as good as he got it. (Sample zinger: “Last time I saw Ice-T and Flavor Flav side by side, it was in the 99-cent bin at Wal-Mart.”) In radio and TV interviews, he’s smart, thoughtful and given to bursts of surprising candor. And at a time when the Internet has turned every celebrity into a virtual bukkake girl, convenient objects for the masses to ritually covet and defile on a million message-boards, he perfectly encapsulates this phenomenon.
What is it like when you’re rich and famous enough to support your own tiny ecosystem of sycophants, and yet entities as disparate as Brandweek and Henry Rollins take special glee in splattering you with contempt? The tension that comes with occupying such territory must be immense, and yet except for a general tone of self-deprecation, Carrot Top barely touches on this in his act. Instead, he sticks with what he knows (and what fills seats).
When interviewers ask him about the antipathy he inspires, he usually attributes it to jealousy and tries to shrug it off. And while he’s probably right at least part of the time about the jealousy thing—Carrot Top is at least as funny as Rollins, for example, his delts are more massive and he can probably sing better, too—he seems reluctant to contemplate the impact such constant public humiliation must have on him. “I am a normal guy with feelings,” he told a reporter from the Palm Beach Post last year. “I almost wish I didn’t have that in me.”
Rather than wish his demons away, however, why not address them in his act? Doesn’t he know that comedy is tragedy plus zany facial contortions? Surely he must have hilarious fantasies about battering his longtime critic Dennis Miller with a funny golf club until he’s reduced to a bloody, quivering, annoyingly articulate pulp. Or side-splitting dreams of himself and Danny Bonaduce leading an army of vengeful, frighteningly vascularized celebrities against the hoards of anonymous Internet hecklers. Even props could still play a role in his act. “Look!” he might say, fishing out a dinner plate with a shotgun attached to it. “It’s for prop comics when the creatine is no longer enough!”
Instead of turning his pain into art, alas, Carrot Top turns it into muscle. He acts as if it’s perfectly normal that his forehead has a six-pack and his temples can dead-lift more than a high-school linebacker. He acts as if it’s perfectly normal to walk around in public in size-XS belly shirts from Abercrombie & Blechh, oiled up like a 300 extra, with his fingernails painted black and his face bench-pressing 10 pounds of guyliner and lipstick.
And who knows, maybe it is. Maybe the insults hurt a little, but the 5,000-square-foot house and the sold-out shows and the staff at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch (whose website carries the Top’s endorsement) make it easy to overlook the pain. Maybe Carrot Top is so at ease with his place in the world that he feels free to customize himself however he pleases, public opinion be damned. Maybe his unusual synthesis of cartoon masculinity and geisha-like face-craft is just a natural consequence of living in Las Vegas, where everything grows progressively bigger, weirder, more jaw-dropping. Maybe when that resort down the street adds another thousand hotel rooms to its eastern tower, Carrot Top feels compelled to add another thousand rooms to his left bicep. Maybe when the casino on the corner installs a stunning new theater, Carrot Top keeps pace by installing stunning new eyebrows. Maybe Carrot Top is undeniably, irrevocably, transcendentally happy, and the joke is on us. That, of course, would be pretty fun, too.