How Carrot Top Wins in Vegas (Yes, He Can Be Funny)

Posted May 6, 2018 5:16 p.m. EDT

LAS VEGAS — Mocking Carrot Top is a venerable comedy tradition.

“South Park” and Norm Macdonald were merciless, but Bill Hicks got there first, burying that redheaded comic concisely: “Carrot Top: For people who didn’t get Gallagher.”

In a recent episode of “Conan,” Jim Gaffigan puzzled over why the popular comic inspires such scorn. “I don’t know,” he said, in a tone that suggested he was searching for answers. “Props?”

In comedy circles, props get few props, except that is, from audiences. Steve Martin, after all, was a prop comic, although he’s too respected for anyone to call him that. At the height of Martin’s stand-up fame, one of the only other stand-ups filling arenas was Gallagher, whose onstage fruit-smashing earned him 15 comedy specials. Carrot Top was influenced by Gallagher, but has eclipsed him to become the most famous prop comic alive.

These days, Carrot Top, whose real name is Scott Thompson, receives little attention from critics, talk show bookers or Netflix executives despite having what is surely the longest-running stand-up act in the country: He has played sold-out houses at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas for 13 years, competing with Criss Angel and Cirque du Soleil for longevity. On a recent visit, I found Carrot Top, 53, to be a far more ambitious performer than he gets credit for, an innovator in the shameless pursuit of cheap, sometimes questionable, laughs.

He has heard the ridicule and done the savvy thing by working it into his act. He presents clips from shows teasing him, but also projects a self-deprecating persona, calling his own bits stupid and poking fun at his appearance. Several years ago, Carrot Top started bulking up, and while he has lost some of that muscle, he still has a thick neck and sharp, smooth facial features. In a 2015 Esquire profile, he said he got Botox and tinted his eyebrows. Onstage, he wears insecurity about his appearance lightly, confessing that some of the curls he’s known for are going white. “I am going to be Cotton Top next time,” he says.

His insults about the rest of his appearance go harder. Pointing at his face, he says with a grimace: “Thank you for looking at this.” Then he waits a beat, looking slightly uncomfortable listening to the laughter. In this moment, you can see Carrot Top morphing into Scott Thompson, before he returns to the next joke.

What’s even more striking than this abrupt vulnerability is how little prop comedy he leans on. He opens and closes with it, but that’s about it. Imagine going to see Larry the Cable Guy and hearing him say “Git-r-done” only twice. Moving slower than he used to, Carrot Top does straight stand-up, much of it focused on local concerns (“Be careful gambling,” he says. “I got drunk and spent $20 on a Coke machine.”) There’s also a series of hustling imitations of aging rock stars (Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler). But the vast majority of jokes from the show are not visual but aural.

I’ve never seen a stand-up show with a more elaborate sound design. Hardly a few seconds go by without a bit punctuated by a clip from a popular song or a cartoonish squawk or some other audio accent. It’s stand-up scored like a musical, tricked out with smoke and wind machines and confetti blasts, as well as dramatic shifts in lighting. Are these meant to be easy shortcuts to laughs? Often, yes, but precision matters as much with design as it does with punchlines. And the timing of this production is never off.

The biggest laughs come when the visuals, sound and props all work together, as when the stage went dark, and he walked around with a flashlight while the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” played.

Carrot Top’s props are still quaintly homemade, a clumsy juxtaposition to the rest of the show. It’s like a video game interrupted by an arts and crafts demonstration. Standing in front of a collection of trunks, he grabs sight gags like a New England Patriots helmet that doubles as a Kleenex dispenser or goofy objects like Croc shoes pasted to toy crocodiles. These require no explanation, but are visual punchlines to quick setups. He announces “Amish blow dryer,” for example, then grabs a tube and blows on one end.

None of these are especially funny on their own, but he picks them up and dispenses with them so quickly that they do take on a diverting momentum. Emphasizing speed over quality, Carrot Top overpowers his audience with a flurry of jokes, never pausing for more than a few seconds before the next one arrives.

This show is dopey and occasionally offensive. There are lame sexual jokes about Elton John, Ellen DeGeneres and Ricky Martin, as if the fact of their homosexuality is itself funny. If you wanted to do a deep dive into the politics of Carrot Top, there’s plenty to work with. After all, he is an orange-haired buffoon who became famous in the 1980s and remains popular despite being sneered at by the elite media.

But Carrot Top mostly avoids politics, saying “no more” after one Trump joke. If the content of his jokes seems dated, the form is ahead of its time, more in tune with the kinetic Tim and Eric-style of videos than what you find in a club. Stand-up can be tradition-bound, and some segments of it have long fetishized stationary comics talking into a microphone. This simplicity can be a strength — keeping the focus on language in a digital age when words are often overshadowed by image — but can also be limiting.

Certain comics with unorthodox artistic careers, like Bo Burnham, expanded the range of what stand-up can do. Carrot Top is a less sophisticated and more ruthlessly commercial artist, but he shares some of the same experimental spirit. In staying in his own theater for so many years, he has had time to build up his show and refine it.

By the time he starts passing out drinks, it’s clear he will do anything to please the crowd (which does appear to be having a great time). His comedy panders shamelessly, but he is hardly the first entertainer in Las Vegas to commit this sin.

Carrot Top has figured out something essential about surviving in show business. To sustain a long career, you’ve got to have more than a gimmick. You need at least two or three.