May-16th-2003, 10:42 AM
I Stalked Carrot Top
He wormed his way into my brain, so I vowed to get into his soul--if there was one.
By Erik Torkells
I hate Carrot Top the way everyone hates Carrot Top: fleetingly but vividly. When he screeches, "Dial down the center!" in those 15-second AT&T ads, I get a shudder of repulsion. By the time I've aimed the remote, he's gone. And I forget about him. But then one day I switched the channel only to stumble across him again, and I actually thought about the man. Who was he? A standup comedian, perhaps. Where did he come from? He's one of those C-list celebrities who worm their way into your consciousness without your knowing how it happened. How does he live with himself? Does he have friends? Is he impossible even when the cameras aren't rolling?
I vowed to go into his soul. If there was one.
"He's evil," said a friend.
"I'd rather stick needles in my eyes," said another.
"You're going to write nice things about him, right?" This was from his PR guy. We'd already gotten off to a rocky start, when I said I found it interesting that AT&T would choose such an annoying spokesman. "He's not annoying," said the PR guy.
"Wrong word," I said. "He's provocative." That seemed to work. He got me a ticket to see Carrot Top's standup routine at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. Carrot Top, I learned, is a prop act--he likes to create objects, like a dish rack with a dog bowl attached to it: a "redneck dishwasher." I can't say I found it funny.
"He's funny, right?" asked the PR guy, who called me the day after the show.
"The crowd loved it," I said, trying not to lie. And the crowd did (then again, the crowd also loved the animal-humping videos played as a warmup). I had passed on meeting Carrot Top afterward or doing an interview at some office in New York. If I wanted to take the measure of the man, I needed to go to his home. I didn't beg, exactly, but I did have to be exceedingly patient. It took over a month before he agreed to a date when I could fly to Orlando, a month during which I had to repeat ad nauseum how much I wanted to visit his home, when in truth I didn't want to--I needed to.
I pulled up to his house, startled to find it was a very nice place, lovingly landscaped, on an island enclave with just ten other houses. He was standing in the driveway in a tank top and shorts. His trademark curly mop of hair was wet and slicked back.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," I replied.
Carrot Top--Scott Thompson--was born in Cocoa Beach, on Florida's Space Coast (his father worked for NASA, teaching astronauts how to drive the lunar rover). Thirty-five years old, he looks much younger. He's been doing standup since college, and now he's on the road more than 200 days a year. He's done well for himself: Carrot Top Inc. has its headquarters in a house nearby, and six workers on the payroll (two in the office, four in the road crew).
You can't just ask someone how he lives with himself, so I tried to get to it obliquely. I wondered aloud how he could stand to always be the butt of the joke in AT&T ads. ("It's funny," he said.) He claimed not to have known that AT&T would run the ads so relentlessly--and there are over 50 of them--but he doesn't get paid each time one airs, just a lump sum. I got the impression it wasn't about the money anyway. "People ask, 'Why would you want to do that?' " he said. "Why not? It's huge for my career. I've never had so much exposure in my life." AT&T, for its part, saw double-digit market-share growth in the 1 800 CALL ATT for Collect Calls division last year and renewed his contract for a third year. He's obviously connecting with a target audience. Which is what, exactly? "Who makes collect calls?" he sighs. "Prisoners and college kids."
Carol Eversen, general manager for 1 800 CALL ETC, laughed when I asked her why they chose Carrot Top. Naturally, AT&T had done loads of testing: The target likes it loud and funny. "It's kind of a contradiction," she said. "You can love him or love to hate him"--and as long as you remember the number, "either one works."
Instead of a shudder of repulsion, I got an anticlimax. He's a nice guy, working hard, writing his own material, and enjoying the fruits of his labor. There's the house, a Mercedes G500 in the garage, and a motorboat on the lake. Where I had imagined a shadowy life lived in disguise so that he wouldn't get the snot beaten out of him every time he poked his Day-Glo head out the door, I found a sunny little existence. Sure, there were delusions of grandeur--he thinks the AT&T ads have improved and earnestly compared himself to Steve Martin, who also started out as a prop act--but there was also insight. I asked him where the desperate need to entertain comes from. "I was the silly kid growing up with the curly red hair. Everybody gets the girls but me. But can you think of a male comic who's really hot? We're all clowns. Letterman has the gap in his teeth, Leno has the chin. It's for approval."
He seems to be getting it. "I hate the word 'famous,' " he said. "I'm not famous--I'm recognizable in a lineup. Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise--they're bigger than life. If you saw them in a restaurant, you'd say nothing. People see me, they scream, 'Carrot Top!' " He took me for a spin on his boat, and we buzzed a house with a lot of modern sculpture in its yard. Two girls scampered to the shore, hollering his name. Embarrassed, he zoomed away ... remarking that without AT&T, they'd have no idea who he was.
We talked about his creative disputes with AT&T, his ill-fated movie (Chairman of the Board--"I was the only person in the theater," wrote the L.A. Times reviewer), and his run-ins with the media. Rolling Stone did a story on him once. "The writer was a little quirky, but we hung out and had a good time. And then the story came out, and I was like, Was he even with me?"
"Well," I said, having come to the conclusion that I liked him more than I thought I would and myself considerably less, "you know how it is. Sometimes writers have agendas."
From the May. 26, 2003 Issue