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Inside The Revved-Up, Pissed-Off Brain of Adam Carolla
Adam Carolla talks with his eyes closed. Not all of the time. Not even most of the time. But at some point during each of his four-hour weekday-morning programs, he leans back in a swivel chair at CBS Radio’s Studio M , throws his feet atop a high table cluttered with computer terminals, telephone consoles, and microphones, and tunes out the world. When this happens, the only thing that cohost and former Partridge Family member Danny Bonaduce and headline maven Teresa Strasser (“The number one Jewish news reporter on this station right now,” boast the promos) can do is get out of the way. The Adam Carolla Show is built around its namesake’s unscripted rants, and there can be no distractions.
The improvised monologue is, of course, a mainstay of talk-radio hosts, but no one does it as well as Carolla. Neither a bombastic right-winger nor a shrill lefty (he’s unaffiliated with any political party and hasn’t voted in ten years), “the Ace Man,” as the 43-yearold Carolla has been called since his student days at North Hollywood High, is an equalopportunity offender. All manner of topics set him off . One day this summer, it’s a news item about a man who in an attempt to cover up his theft of lottery tickets burned down a convenience store, setting himself on fire.
“In general, stupid people play the lottery,” Carolla begins, his sandpapery voice both provocative and intimate. Then he’s gone. “That’s why it’s a horrible thing for the government to sponsor. It’s saying, ‘You ain’t gonna make it through hard work.’ You came to this country or your great-grandparents came because it was an even playing field, and they were gonna sock away their money and maybe they didn’t make it, but the next generation went to college and through perseverance and education made it. The lottery says, ‘Feh, feh to all of that!’ It says, ‘Here’s your one shot, baby, your one goddamn shot. So put on your housecoat, pull up your slippers, hammer that welfare check, and come on down.’ It’s ironic that the money goes to education. Most of those playing the lottery don’t have a goddamn GED. The lottery is state-sponsored gambling for retards. We should be ashamed of ourselves.”
A little more than a minute, the outburst is quintessential Carolla. He not only mocks the government but also the elites who delude themselves that worthy ends justify questionable means. Along the way he uses the off handed “ain’t” to signify his lower-middle-class San Fernando Valley origins and gives a nod to the upwardly mobile Jewish culture he reveres by deploying the Yiddish “feh.” Then there’s the zinger at the end: “retard,” at once politically incorrect and redolent of the sixth grade. Finally, an underlying idea gives the piece heft: True wealth and happiness spring not from games of chance but are earned through eff ort and imagination.
Two mornings later Carolla closes his eyes again. The previous night Paris Hilton had told CNN’s Larry King that being stripsearched at the Los Angeles County Jail was “the most humiliating experience of my life.” The Ace Man can’t let that pass. “Let’s make it the second most humiliating,” he says. “Everything will be second until you shoot another bootleg porn and you’re dressed like Hitler.” Then Carolla does the sort of thing that sets him apart. Commenting on the convicted heiress’s professed desire to transform herself into a substantial person, he changes directions. “What’s standing in her way? Let me tell you what was standing in mine. I come from a group of people who don’t know what success is. I didn’t feel smart. I just felt dumb. I got horrible grades, barely graduated from high school, and then someone handed me a shovel and said, ‘Enjoy the rest of your life.’ I knew I needed to infuse myself with confidence. I knew I needed to start at the bottom and build up. So I built a core. Until that point I was just a shell.”
The ability to shuttle between the topical and the personal, the exasperated and the inspired, gives Carolla’s rants unexpected depth. Every day something thoughtful, pointed, or moving comes out of his mouth. Soon enough, he sneaks up on listeners, so much so that when they read a story in the paper or ponder an issue in their lives, they wonder, “What would Adam say?”
What would he say about a USA Today headline praising actress Jessica Alba for her “mold-breaking” performance in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer? “I’ve had an assful of everyone named Jessica—Jessica Alba, Jessica Simpson, Jessica Tandy. I just think Jessica Alba is vapid. I’ve never heard her say anything smart. Every time I ask, ‘Why is Jessica Alba such a big star?’ guys go, ‘Dude, have you seen how hot she is?’ Well, that’s great, but what year are we living in? There are other good-looking women who have something to say.”
What would he tell a caller upset at the difficulty of getting an iPod repaired? “There’s no fixing anything anymore. Every time anything digital breaks, you gotta toss it. Look at your cell phone. It’s like a bar of soap. What else do you hold that doesn’t have a grip? You sell someone a cell phone, you’re not selling them one—you’re selling them three. A cell phone should be knurled, like the handle of a pistol. Then when you put it to your head, people would think you were going to kill yourself. ‘No, Carolla, your show is not that bad .’”
How would he respond to a financially struggling devotee who asks whether to spend $400 a month on medicine for a cancerstricken cat? “To me, that cat is just a cat. But to you, it’s a friend, nay, a loved one, nay, a sibling. That cat is your boss. That cat is your therapist. When you come home after a long day at the offi ce, who’s there to greet you? Little Mittens. And now she has cat-cer. Step up and pay a couple of shekels.”
Carolla wants to make listeners laugh, think, and do the right thing. Not only this, he’s a blue-collar guy who’s as interested in psychology and highbrow debate as in power tools and strippers, as comfortable in the studio as on a job site. His main projects in life—constructing his own identity and renovating homes—make him a rarity, a media figure who can speak with equal authority to guys at the local Spearmint Rhino Gentlemen’s Club and guys in group therapy. “He does a great job balancing between clock punchers and intellectuals,” says advertising executive Richard Zien, whose Mendelsohn/Zien agency has created attention-grabbing advertising campaigns for such clients as Carl’s Jr. and who listens to Carolla in the morning while driving to work. With women, it’s a little trickier. Some are put off by his testosterone-drenched pronouncements, although others fi nd his bad-boy brio alluring, seeing in him an antidote to those modern males who couldn’t jumpstart a car, much less put an addition on the house. “He’s smart,” says the singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, a longtime fan.
All of which goes a considerable way toward explaining why nearly two years after Infinity Broadcasting replaced Howard Stern with Carolla in Los Angeles, former Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth in New York, and well-known Midwestern DJ Rover in Chicago, the Ace Man is the last man standing. Neither Roth nor Rover could fill Stern’s oversize shoes, but Carolla, while not quite filling them either—he attracts half the audience that tuned in to Stern—has won a sufficient number of listeners both to stay in the game and become one of the country’s most talked-about talkshow hosts. A sign of his stature is that his agent is James Dixon, who represents the kings of late-night comedy—Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Carolla’s friend and business partner Jimmy Kimmel. Originating from CBS Radio’s KLSX, The Adam Carolla Show is carried on 12 stations, most of them on the West Coast, and has made its host, as he’s fond of reminding listeners, “literally a millionaire.” Still, the one person who does not seem entirely convinced of Carolla’s success is Carolla himself. Emerging from Studio M after yet another 6 to 10 a.m. shift, he rubs a hand over his unshaven mug and in his slyly corrosive way says, “I’m simultaneously the most pompous and most humble person you’ve ever met. I’m pompous in that I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet funnier than me. But then my next thought is always the same: Who cares?”
On the 45-Minute drive fromKLSX’S Mid Wilshire offices to Malibu, where he’s working on a house, Adam Carolla alternately barks orders into a cell phone (“Measure the can lights in the ceiling”) and fumes about a subject that provides him with unending on-air fodder—the miserable state of Los Angeles traffic. “I could clean up traffic so fucking fast in this city,” he declares as he barrels through a red left-turn arrow on the Pacific Coast Highway, a signal that, to his thinking, not only slows drivers down but puts them at risk by forcing them to sit in the middle of the road as oncoming vehicles hurtle toward them at 60 miles an hour. Now, as he parks his Audi S4 in front of the $3.6 million faux hacienda that he’s transforming into a beach cottage, he proclaims, “On the radio I wear the jester’s cap. Here I put on the hard hat . I’m gonna kick a little ass.”
Remodeling homes is Carolla’s obsession—he’s done five in the past several years. Although he says he takes on the projects as an investment (he’s held on to three, flipped two), they also keep him connected to his days as a construction worker. He’s most comfortable and content around men and tools, for it is in such company that he pieced together his life, once a neighborhood eyesore. His sense of self was always his real undertaking, and so it remains, whether he’s pounding a nail or functioning as a contractor . He builds, therefore he is, in the process assuring that The Adam Carolla Show maintains its authenticity as a report from the front lines of working-class L.A.
Today everything is bedlam. Painters are in the living room, floor finishers in the dining room, cabinet guys in the kitchen, tile guys on the deck. No one seems in charge, which upsets Carolla, as he’s throwing a party here in a week and the invitations are in the mail. Approaching a group of Latino laborers gathered around a radio blaring ranchera music, he bellows, “Will you turn this down? It’s the most annoying shit. Why do you guys listen to this? Is it just to annoy whitey?”
Carolla is a big guy with wavy dark hair, a high forehead, and thick eyebrows, who on the air and off favors mismatched Adidas sweat suits and running shoes. He moves with the battered grace of an aging athlete, yet establishing himself as the alpha male on the property isn’t easy. Nearly everyone here has known him for 20 years. In fact, the construction foreman, Ray Oldhafer, and a worker named Oswaldo Castillo not only go way back with him, they’re regulars on The Adam Carolla Show. Oldhafer is Carolla’s oldest friend, and Castillo, a Nicaraguan who fled his country during the revolution (“I don’t know whether he was a contra or a Sandinista,” says Carolla. “I think he was collateral damage”), is his sidekick. They’re not about to let Carolla push them around. In the wake of his crack about the music, Castillo and another Latino begin speaking behind his back in Spanish. Then Oldhafer upbraids him for throwing away a box of window hardware on his last visit. “You’re a maniac,” he sputters.
“Well, you left the stuff in a box near the trash, so you’re an idiot,” Carolla replies.
“Don’t call me an idiot,” shouts Oldhafer.
Carolla is in his element—where men show their affection through insults and bluster. He is both the boss and one of the boys. He specifi es that the baseboard shoes beneath the kitchen cabinetry be “flush, with no reveals.” He wants the marble surrounding the fireplace wet sanded. “Don’t use an orbital,” he warns. Confident that everything will be done before the party, he announces that he needs to be in Burbank in an hour to make an appearance on Scarborough Country. As he walks to the door, he has a brief talk with another of his longtime running mates , a carpenter named Gary Butters. The subject—the placement of some toothbrush holders and glass shelves in a guest bathroom—is innocent enough, but the encounter gives him pause. Pulling away, he says, “That used to be me.”
In 1994, Carolla was 29 and earning $15 an hour as a carpenter. He installed baseboards, built home entertainment units, and put up exterior siding. His toolbox contained most of his material possessions—screw gun, router, belt sander, circular saw, roto hammer, levels, finish hammers, framing hammers, tape measure, and stubby pencils. He drove a 1979 Datsun pickup . Considering where he’d started in life, it seemed just about right.
On The Adam Carolla Show the Ace Man never tires of discussing his upbringing. The son of divorced parents, who, as he puts it, disliked each other so much they “practically needed mutual restraining orders,” he was raised without much nurturing or structure. Jim Carolla, a failed musician and perpetual student, was distant and depressed. “He liked reading and taking walks and that was about it,” says his son. Kris Carolla, an unreconstructed hippie who enjoyed listening to Cat Stevens and smoking pot, was intermittently on welfare and cosmically preoccupied, one minute infatuated with a New Age guru, the next bemoaning the American police state. Adam and his older sister, Lauren, lived with their mother, subsisting on a diet that ran to soup prepared from dandelions picked from the lawn and tofu pumpkin pie. Their Victorian home in North Hollywood, which belonged to Adam’s grandmother, had fallen into such disrepair that it was referred to as “the Barn.”
Carolla attended L.A. Community, an experimental school in Silver Lake that featured grade-free classes. For five years he did little more than make pottery and build forts. When he entered Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood, he could barely read or write, for which he blames his parents. Jim and Kris take issue with the finer points of their son’s indictment, emphasizing that before he transferred to public school they hired a tutor to help him with his reading, but they concur with the basic thrust. “There’s enough truth to it that it stirs up feelings of regret that I wasn’t a better mother,” says Kris, who’s remarried but still lives in the Barn. “It’s hurtful to hear him talk about it on the radio. I turn it off .” Adds Jim, who’s gone on to a career as a psychotherapist, “The family was not in great shape. I was having a hard time trying to sort out what I was going to do with my life and make a living. Adam has a lot of resentment. He feels cheated, and his sarcastic attitude comes from that feeling.”
During his boyhood, Carolla spent after-school hours roaming the streets of North Hollywood looking for a surrogate family. He liked to play baseball and football , take apart and rebuild bicycles, and eat hamburgers—none of which he really could do at home. Ray Oldhafer’s mom prepared German cuisine and was usually good for a pork chop. But it was Carolla’s step-grandfather on his mother’s side, a Hungarian Jew who whipped up a spicy goulash, to whom he most often turned.
A short story writer in the old country, Laszlo “Laci” Gorog moved to Hollywood on the eve of World War II and began writing for the movies, receiving an Academy Award nomination in 1945 for The Affairs of Susan, starring Joan Fontaine. Gorog liked sports and tools and encouraged Adam’s love of both. More important, he helped his grandson conquer a mortifying problem. “I wet my bed way later than you’re supposed to,” says Carolla, “probably up to the fourth grade. There’d be stretches when I did it every night—except when I slept at my grandfather’s house.” On such evenings, Laci would tuck Adam in on the sofa, place a metal trash can at its edge, and set a timer to go off at 1 a.m. His sole instruction was that when the alarm rang, the boy was to get up and pee into the can. That way he’d have an empty bladder, and he could sleep until morning without incident. Later Carolla would embrace psychological theories equating uncontrolled urination with unexpressed rage, but what mattered when he was ten was a solution, and his grandfather gave him one. This was both a gift and a revelation. The legacy Carolla’s parents had bequeathed him was that he was powerless to change his life. His grandfather taught him that he could.
At North Hollywood High, Carolla oscillated between flashes of football glory and high jinks . As a star guard and linebacker, he won a spot on the 1982 All Central Valley fi rst team . But what he remembers most about the games is that his parents weren’t in the stands. Away from the playing field, Carolla and his buddies staged adolescent pranks, many of them involving bodily fluids. “We were jack-offs from the Valley,” says Carolla. “We didn’t have any money. No one had delicate sensibilities. If spitting on somebody was a 4, pissing on them was a 9.” During this period, Adam lived in his father’s garage—a building without heat or plumbing—and picked up his nickname, which for all of its bravado is steeped in irony. “People started calling me the Ace Man as a joke,” he says. “Some girl would dump me, and they’d say, ‘Way to go, Ace.’ I’d get fi red from a job, and they’d say, ‘Ace Man strikes again.’ On super-rare occasions when I did something great, they’d call me that and mean it.”
Carolla was recruited to play football for the L.A. Valley College Monarchs, at the time coached by former Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel. But before his first season began, a back injury, combined with the realization that he was not big enough to compete on a higher level, put an end to his dream. Still essentially illiterate—he says he bluffed his way through high school—he set out on the path for which he feared he was destined: manual labor.
“My first job was cleaning restaurant carpets in the middle of the night with crews of criminals and misfi ts,” he says. His next job, installing custom closets, wasn’t much better. But where a lot of people might have turned inward, he turned outward. First, because he wanted to test himself, he took up boxing. Then, because he’d always trembled at the thought of appearing before audiences, he began performing at open-mic nights at comedy clubs. As a teen he’d been a jokester. “I noticed stuff and made comments,” he says, “but they weren’t embraced. My friends were all lugheads, and my family didn’t want to hear it.” His early efforts at stand-up went poorly, too. Oldhafer remembers attending a gig at the Comedy Store where Carolla billed himself as Vic Vegas, an Elvis impersonator. “He barely got a laugh,” says Oldhafer. Nonetheless, he persisted, in his midtwenties enrolling in the prestigious Groundlings comedy school. Carolla spent three years attending classes with such fellow students as Lisa Kudrow, but he blew his final audition and wasn’t invited to join the troupe. “I was an idiot from the Valley,” he says. “I didn’t know what the fourth wall was. Still, the experience was great for me. I learned improvisation.”
Approaching 30, Carolla was dating a stripper and sharing an apartment with five guys on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. By day he worked as a carpenter, while on mornings and weekends he taught boxing at the Pasadena branch of Bodies in Motion, a gym he’d helped to build. Among his students was Shelby Coffey, then the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Times. Coffey adored Carolla for both his boxing skills and his sardonic patter. “He never stopped talking,” Coffey says. “Whenever I’d get off a good punch, he’d say, ‘I haven’t been hit that hard since my sister left home.’ ” For two years the editor spent a couple of hours each week with Carolla. What he recalls best is the Ace Man putting his students through their paces. He’d keep up a chant that seemed as much for his benefit as theirs: “Stop blaming your parents.”
No sooner has Adam Carolla finished a rant than he’s dealing with the avalanche of information and decisions that come with hosting a talk-radio show. Names of callers and synopses of what’s on their minds are popping up on a computer screen. Producer Angie Fitzsimmons is racing in with three-by-five note cards bearing scrawled updates about pending guests and sketches. From a glassed-in booth, board operator Bill Mahoney is issuing hand signals to indicate whether the program is on the air. Next to him the “dump guy,” whose responsibility is to distinguish between the titillating material that is the lifeblood of morning radio and the forbidden utterances that could draw a penalty from the FCC, provides a reminder that at any moment a comment could be bleeped. Yet in this room of high-tech equipment, an old-fashioned clock on the far wall is the most important piece of machinery. Like a football game, The Adam Carolla Show occurs in real time, but the quarters, instead of 15 minutes, stretch out for an hour, and as the player-coach, the Ace Man can’t let his attention wander. Not that this is a problem. “Adam is always aware of his environment,” says a longtime friend. “In fact, the term I use for it is ‘hypervigilance.’ ”
Most of Carolla’s interactions are with Bonaduce and Strasser, for whom he functions as a tough-love-dispensing counselor, alternately haranguing them for their foibles and advising them on how to change their behavior. The 48-year-old Bonaduce, who sits to Carolla’s right and typically wears tight black T-shirts that show off his biceps, a pair of rhinestone-studded, size 9 women’s jeans (the Ace Man calls them “BeDazzlers ”), and cowboy boots, does not hide that his existence in the years since he was on The Partridge Family has been equal parts nightmare and farce. In a career that saw him go from the cover of TV Guide to living in his car, he has been stabbed twice, shot by a girlfriend, arrested in Phoenix for beating up a transvestite prostitute, and has battled cocaine addiction and alcoholism. Strasser, a former host of the Learning Channel’s While You Were Out, sits across from Carolla and is usually turned out in halter tops, tweed pants, and kitten heels, whose straps she unconsciously fi ddles with during broadcasts. She earned an Emmy as a writer on Comedy Central’s Win Ben Stein’s Money. Yet she, too, has issues—men are always mistreating or leaving her.
The Adam Carolla Show is not, however, just another bantering morning-radio zoo, a point that Carolla, Bonaduce, and Strasser periodically emphasize by shrieking en masse in a parody of a bantering morning-radio zoo. Rather, the program is an audio midway that over the course of a week presents segments that are by turns salacious, juvenile, comedic, brainy, and subversive—sometimes all at once. One day Mr. Skin, who operates a Web site that hunts down the exact frames in which actresses appear nude onscreen (Barbra Streisand disrobes 45 minutes into The Owl and the Pussycat, a shot now available only on a Japanese DVD), is on the line. Says the Ace Man: “You’re the Simon Wiesenthal of movies.” The next morning, director Ken Burns is in the studio flogging his PBS documentary on World War II. Says the Ace Man, “Look, you so-called Americans who don’t know about the sacrifices our fathers made, you owe it to yourselves to watch this.” Every day comedians—among them David Alan Grier, Harry Shearer, Billy West, Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, and Larry Miller—drop by.
For all of this, it’s very much Carolla’s show—the gross-out humor, the self-deprecation, the earnest intellectual inquiry, the double entendres. Many of the recurring bits are designed, if not to prompt monologues, at least to spark the sort of witticisms that might be called Adam’s ribs. “Stuff , the world is full of it, and one man has a complaint about it all,” intones the lead-in to “What Can’t Adam Complain About?,” a segment in which callers pick topics seemingly beyond criticism and challenge the Ace Man to find the flaw, which he inevitably does. Even Carolla’s own beloved white Labrador, Molly, isn’t safe. “She has an anus the size of a tea saucer. It’s all I see when she leaves the room. I’d like to put a pirate’s patch over it.” Another regular call-in feature invites listeners to grill the host for home improvement tips, which he dispenses with a mixture of seriousness and abuse. To Joel, whose landlord won’t allow him to drill into the floor of his loft to put up drywall, the Ace Man snaps, “Here’s what you do, Joel who claims to be straight but lives in an artist’s loft. Put a bottom plate down with silicone adhesive. Then install the drywall. That way when the landlord finds out about your alternative lifestyle, you can peel off the plate and leave.” Invariably, the Ace Man concludes such flurries with his byword, a tag he deploys to convey everything from genuine joy to scornful disapproval: “Good times!”
Given the nature of The Adam Carolla Show, it’s surprising that he’s had only one run-in with an ethnic group. During his first month on the air, in a spoof of the Asian Excellence Awards, cast members mouthed the racist chant “Ching chong.” Following a boycott threat, Carolla apologized and invited his critics onto the program. Yet it’s Carolla’s job to court trouble. In June, Perry Caravello, who starred in Windy City Heat, a film produced by Carolla, Kimmel, and Daniel Kellison, sued the trio and Jackass star Johnny Knoxville for $10.5 million, claiming damages from a stunt Caravello participated in on Carolla’s show. In the bit Caravello placed his penis in a mousetrap after Knoxville told him that payment for the DVD version of Windy City Heat was dependent on his doing so. “Plaintiff was severely injured when the trap literally went on his manhood,” the suit contends. Last spring conservative fulminator Ann Coulter called in to the show an hour and a half late after having altogether skipped an appearance the previous week. Not only was she unapologetic, she began the interview by informing Carolla, “I’m really tight on time right now.” To which he replied, “All right, get lost. I’m tight on time, too, and I don’t have time for bitches.” Hanging up on Coulter, the Ace Man says, was maybe his greatest moment on the program.
In the end, however, The Adam Carolla Show is less about controversy than about presenting its host’s egocentric vision, which is rooted in a place, the San Fernando Valley, and a time, the 1970s and ’80s, that are his own. Whether through the frequent on-air appearances of friends like Ray Oldhafer and Oswaldo Castillo or the Ace Man’s own reminiscences, the program gives voice to a latter-day Silent Majority. Carolla articulates their joys and drives home their resentments, their desire to upend polite sensibilities and smug assumptions. The result is a bittersweet humor underlaid by class anxiety and spiked with rancor.
Even so, the program is a work in progress. During its nearly two years on the air, it has undergone personnel shifts (original cohost Dave Dameshek was dropped when Bonaduce became available) while also abandoning some of its sketch humor in favor of more rants. The response has generally been positive. The show has seen its Arbitron ratings for the crucial segment of the Los Angeles market ages 25 to 54 tick up to a respectable 2.5 share. Yet the numbers are below those earned by KROQ’s Kevin and Bean, KIIS-FM’s Ryan Seacrest, and KLOS’s Mark and Brian. This summer Carolla lost stations in Phoenix and San Diego. Nevertheless, KLSX vice president of programming Jack Silver remains a believer. “Los Angeles is all that matters,” he says, “and Adam is making strides here. It takes time to build an audience. Adam is running a marathon, and we’re there with him.” In the fall the station plans to extend Carolla’s contract at $2 million a year.
* * * * *
That Adam Carolla inherited Howard Stern’s mantle traces back to 6:15 on a spring morning in 1994, when he found himself racing around a Burbank offi ce tower, desperately trying to get inside. But all of the entrances to the building that housed the KROQ studios were locked. After 20 minutes Carolla, a seven o’clock boxing class fast approaching, roared off to Pasadena, his mind still whirring. He had been obsessed for months. “I was bored and lonely,” he says. “I’d be scraping shingles off a roof for nine hours—I was going insane. So I started listening to talk radio. It was a friend. Even if I couldn’t converse with it, I could listen.” He became addicted to Dennis Prager, admiring the conservative host’s intelligence and “how he could beat up opponents Marquis of Queensbury style—knock them to the ground, then help them back up.” He was fascinated by Dr. David Viscott, fi nding the psychologist an intriguing mixture of blowhard and seer. He was crazy for Michael Jackson, the liberal Brit who snagged the best guests, and for Stern, in Carolla’s mind a revolutionary. Immersed in this bath of information and opinion that he couldn’t have comprehended had he encountered it on the page, he had an epiphany—he, too, should be on the air. When he heard Kevin and Bean advertise for an instructor to train KROQ’s “Jimmy the Sports Guy” or “Michael the Maintenance Man” for an upcoming boxing match between them at the Reseda Country Club billed as “The Bleedah in Reseda,” he knew what he had to do.
When Carolla returned to Burbank that same morning, he took the elevator to KROQ’s ninth-floor offices, where he was again stymied—more locked doors. Eventually a delivery guy appeared and agreed to carry in a handwritten message. A half hour later, Jimmy the Sports Guy, aka Jimmy Kimmel, “waddled into the lobby,” as Carolla puts it. By late that afternoon, the two were standing in front of a heavy bag at the gym in Pasadena.
“We did a little boxing that day,” says Kimmel, “but mostly we drank Snapple and talked.” Adds Carolla, “I didn’t want Jimmy to think I was training him just so he could hear my act. I didn’t want to press my spec Frasier script on him during our first date.” Kimmel estimates that during their three lessons the two spent 75 percent of their time discussing comedy. “Adam and Jimmy fell in love at first sight,” notes a mutual friend. “Jimmy thought Adam was the funniest person he’d ever met, and Adam idolized Jimmy, seeing in him the person he wanted to be. If they were gay, they’d have become life partners.”
Although Michael the Maintenance Man triumphed in the ring, Carolla was the winner. “When the fight was over,” he says, “Jimmy said, ‘You’re funny. It’d be nice if you could be a part of the show. What would you like to do?’ I said, ‘Crack wise, take calls, and work off the cuff.’ He said, ‘That’s what Kevin and Bean do. You’d better come up with a character.’ ” Thus was born Mr. Birchum. A misogynistic, xenophobic junior high shop instructor who’d fought in Vietnam and suffered from delayed stress syndrome, Birchum was a composite of several of Carolla’s teachers. Initially the setup was that Birchum would use KROQ as a platform from which to dispense lessons, as he assumed his students listened. “Kevin and Bean have no patience,” says Kimmel. “If an act isn’t funny, it never gets another shot. Birchum killed from the start.” Soon the bit evolved into a regular call-in segment during which listeners asked Birchum for advice on home building projects. “Some poor guy would phone,” says Kimmel, “and say, ‘I’ve got a wood floor and want to put down carpet. Do I need padding?’ And Birchum would answer, ‘What’s your nationality?’ ” For the first year Carolla performed Birchum gratis. “That was hard for him,” says Kimmel. “He needed money and almost took a job screening calls for KROQ. But I said, ‘Don’t do it. They’ll think of you as the call screener. Just keep doing Birchum, and you’ll win their respect.’ ”
Birchum became wildly popular. One of his biggest fans was another KROQ personality, Dr. Drew Pinsky, cohost of Loveline, a call-in show that attracted mostly young listeners coping with sex, drug, and relationship problems. An internist and director of Chemical Dependency Services at Pasadena’s Las Encinas Psychiatric Hospital, Pinsky scheduled his rounds so he could be in his car with the radio on during Birchum’s segments.
Shortly after Pinsky began listening to Carolla, plans were developed to transform Loveline into a television series. When the producers couldn’t make a deal with cohost Riki Rachtman, Pinsky suggested Carolla. “Adam did a screen test and knocked everyone out,” says Pinsky. “The next Saturday they called us back, put us in makeup, and said, ‘Work things out.’ An hour later they filmed the first show.”
Just as Carolla’s relationship with Kimmel validated him as a comic talent, his relationship with Pinsky confirmed that he had things to say. Over the course of 400 Loveline episodes for MTV and thousands more for radio (he replaced Rachtman on the nationally syndicated show), he developed an ability to hold forth on almost any topic—and to do so in his own voice. For someone who could barely read (he had to memorize cue cards in advance of filming), this was a big jump. “I knew I could tell a joke,” he says, “but Loveline was different. I was suddenly in the realm of ideas. With jokes, if people don’t like them, they don’t laugh. With ideas, they take issue with you.” What got Carolla through the transition was, in Pinsky’s words, a “commitment to the truth—no matter how abject.” When a woman phoned to say that her boyfriend was “a good guy” even though he physically abused her, Carolla replied, “Listen, deep down, everyone is a good guy. Hitler, Manson—they were good guys way, way, way deep down. Women, when are you gonna smarten up? It’s like, sure he smacks me around a little, but when you catch him on the right day, he’s warm. Whatever you’re doing is what you are, everybody. If you’re boozing, you’re an alcoholic. If you’re raping, you’re a rapist. Who cares what your core is?” Carolla leavened such blasts with moments of comic relief. A regular theme was his favorite pastime: “Masturbation has been going on a long time, since the cavemen. I’m guessing it came along before the wheel or fire. It must have been a tough couple thousand years. No hamper. No shower. Can you imagine that?”
The Carolla persona had emerged. Comedy Central’s The Man Show, which debuted in 1999, played up the coarse component. From the opening monologue of the first episode—which featured cohosts Carolla and Kimmel atop the Hoover Dam pledging, “We are building a dam to hold back the tidal wave of feminization that is flooding this country, a dam to urinate off of when we are really drunk. We call this dam The Man Show”—the program mocked and inflamed. Each episode concluded with a segment called “Girls Jumping on Trampolines,” featuring girls jumping on trampolines. By the second of The Man Show’s five seasons, Carolla—who continued to work on Loveline—was earning more than $1 million a year , nearly 200 times the amount he’d made when he met Kimmel several years earlier. Yet he still could not win his parents’ approval. “My mom and dad didn’t hear or see 99 percent of what I was doing,” he says. “To the best of my knowledge, no one in the family had cable TV, and I had two shows on cable. I was over at my mom’s house, and there was a flyer advertising an introductory discount on cable and she said, ‘Is there any reason I should subscribe?’ ”
For the next few years Carolla was all over cable television. He and Kimmel starred in Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers, a show on which hand puppets act out prank phone calls . For the Learning Channel there was The Adam Carolla Project, on which the Ace Man and his crew remodeled his father’s house. His only failure was, surprisingly, a talk show, Too Late with Adam Carolla on Comedy Central.
Carolla’s most ambitious effort is the feature film The Hammer, in which he stars and for which he wrote the story. The picture, set in a Los Angeles of physical labor and unscrupulous bosses, focuses on Jerry Ferro, a construction worker who at age 40 tries to make the United States Olympic Boxing Team. An amalgam of Rocky and Little Miss Sunshine, it debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival to positive reviews. While Harvey Weinstein has agreed to release the film on DVD and cable, it has failed to attract a national distributor. Carolla says he will put together the funding to release the fi lm theatrically. “This picture is not going straight to DVD,” he says.
Much as Carolla would like to become a comedic actor, he is committed to radio. “People look at the celebrity pyramid,” he says, “and see features at the top, then TV, and down there on the bottom is radio. But I don’t look at it that way. On radio you get to say what you want and tell people things that will make a diff erence in their lives.”
There’s also this—radio gives Carolla a medium through which he can continue to grapple with his parents. On the first broadcast of The Adam Carolla Show, he had his dad in the studio to participate in a blackly humorous father-and-son challenge. After letting listeners know that his dad had earned, on average, $7,000 a year during Adam’s childhood, the Ace Man pulled out his checkbook and to a drum roll announced, “I have five questions for you, Dad, and the first is for $10,000: Your son was on a legendary radio station for the past ten years. Name that station, the call letters, and the number on the dial.” Following a pause, Jim Carolla said “KROQ,” but he spelled it “KROC” and had no clue about the number. “Sorry, Dad,” Adam said. A $5,000 query followed: “I did a popular TV show on a cable station in which puppets make phone calls.” Jim Carolla didn’t even hazard a guess regarding Crank Yankers. “Well, I wouldn’t have put up this kind of money if I thought I was gonna lose it,” Adam said gamely before voicing his third question. “What was the last name of my partner on the popular KROQ show Loveline?” Jim answered, “Pinsky,” taking home $2,500. Afterward the Ace Man seemed resigned. “It made me sad and angry, but it’s nothing new.” His father was unapologetic. “I just don’t remember the shows he was on, and I don’t think I should be expected to.” Then he added, “I didn’t mind being the straight man. Adam was doing a good thing for himself.”
* * * * *
Adam Carolla lives with Lynette, his wife of five years and a former scheduling manager at ABC, and their one-year-old twins, Sonny and Natalia, in a 1929 Spanish revival house high in the Hollywood Hills. “If you want to know who Adam is,” says Kimmel, whose home is around the corner, “you have to see the house.” When Carolla bought the place, it was a wreck. The project required a year’s work—eight-man crews, 50-hour weeks, a special team to jack up the foundation for restabilization—and Carolla relished every minute of it. He restored the place to its period glory—Batchelder tiles, wrought-iron chandeliers, hand-carved wooden beams, stained-glass windows—and added such Man Show touches as the Ace in the Hole , an underground bar adjacent to the pool outfitted with porthole windows that allow him, Kimmel, and their NFL Sunday friends to watch their wives and girlfriends swim by as they down drinks. “This house is like a painting to Adam,” says Lynette. “It’s his work of art. He likes people to come over just so they can see what he can do.”
“Adam’s tortured period is over,” says Pinsky. “He has balance. He has hobbies. He has a life he never imagined a guy like him could have.” Not only has he taught himself to read, but several years ago he remodeled the Barn for his mother, and he now leases a Jaguar for his father. Yet the process is ongoing. “I’d diagnose him as a partially treated narcissist,” says Pinsky. “He was in therapy the whole time we did Loveline. I watched him rebuild his ego. But he still hasn’t gotten to the point where he can have empathy for others. Being married has helped. Having kids has helped. But he can be very intolerant. Like a true narcissist, he has no problem seeing other people’s faults, but he has difficulty seeing his own.” Ray Oldhafer agrees: “For someone who was an underdog, he doesn’t have much sympathy for the underdog.” Says Lynette: “He loves to call you on stuff. I’ll tell him, ‘Adam, I just can’t win an argument with you.’ And he’ll say, ‘That’s because I’m always right.’ He is very challenging.”
This, of course, was how it had to be. To construct an identity from scratch, Carolla could not brook a lot of opposition. “I never thought I’d do anything in my life,” he’s saying one night. “I never thought I’d have two pairs of shoes. I grew up in North Hollywood in a quasi-hippie, quasi-trailertrash environment. I had a gift for gab, but the most I ever thought I could do with it was to become an announcer at a strip club—you know, the fat guy with the mullet and fanny pack, part carnival barker, part pimp, who says into the microphone, ‘Ladies, shake your moneymakers, and gents, show the girls some appreciation.’ ”
It’s a classic Carolla rant, yet the venue isn’t KLSX but a forum at that bastion of Westside Jewish culture, the Skirball Center. A Friday evening in early summer, and Carolla is speaking as part of the Zócalo lecture series, a symposium that typically features national political figures, intellectuals, and such local potentates as police chief William Bratton. He has drawn a standing-room-only crowd of 500, and for an hour he makes them laugh at patent absurdities and wince at hard truths. He attacks public service announcements (“Secondhand smoke doesn’t kill people”). He ridicules moveon.org’s get-out-the-vote drive (“I don’t want people to vote. People are idiots”). He digresses at will, jumping from a discussion of whether heterosexuals are at risk of contracting AIDS (he doesn’t think they are) to the observation that the immune disease was once called GRID. “What a terrible day it must have been for the makers of Ayds Dietary Chocolates when medical authorities decided to change the name.”
Afterward in the Skirball’s courtyard, Carolla, a glass of red wine in hand, takes questions from a group of 50 or so hangerson who just can’t get enough. Half want to talk about construction tips. The others want to talk about psychology. “I keep making the same mistakes in my life,” says a striking woman. “I’m stuck in this repetitive pattern.” Therapy, Carolla responds, is only good as far as it goes. “A lot of people talk to a psychiatrist and just check the box. But it’s action that matters. If you don’t like your life, change it. You can change your life. You may feel the same, but if you change your behavior, you will be different.”
Here, in this setting, Carolla was bridging the gap between the down-at-the-heels world from which he comes and the elite world to which he aspires. This was Carolla’s apotheosis, and again his parents were noshows, although for once he wasn’t angry. “It’s not their fault,” he says a few days later. “I didn’t tell them about it.”
Photograph by Zachary Scott
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