The unorthodox charm of Adam Carolla


When you’re a performer out on the road, nothing wins over a restless audience faster than a nicely timed and authentic-feeling moment of admiration for a famous hometown hero. A base tactic, to be sure, but also an effective when trying to get a room warmed up and ready to agree with you. However, when dealing with comedian/writer/podcaster Adam Carolla, agreement is not a well-respected notion. So it should be no surprise that, during his resent visit to the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis, Carolla thought it prudent to open the second of his two shows with a diatribe berating the late-career musical stylings of Bob Dylan.

Once the perfunctory Zimmerman-bashing was out of the way, Carolla proceeded to careen through the assemblage of photos, jokes, stories, and complaints that constitute the odd creature that is his live show. Pacing back and forth in front of a projection screen that offered photos, visual aid, and counterpoint though out the performance, Carolla filled the hour with huge laughs drawn from a deft mixture of standard comedy fare, (Louis C.K.’s defense of it not withstanding, is there a comedian who actually enjoys air travel?), hilarious notions of personal development, (he made a rather compelling argument in favor of using of rodeo clowns in the parenting of young children), and refreshingly charming stories of celebrity interaction (Carolla has, in one lifetime, embarrassed himself in front of both Tom Cruise and a Dixie Chick).

Even though, in terms of content, his live show didn’t really deviate too far from Carolla’s podcast and past writing work, it was interesting to see how a seasoned radio and television performer was able to fill space and interact with the audience. There was a sense of celebration among the audience, not just for the late show finally getting off to a start, but also for the mere presence of Carolla in the room. It was as though, after knowing him through broadcast for years, people were excited to see him in a context within which they had never seen him before.

With Carolla actually in the room, it was the moments where he was able to operate outside of a typical broadcast performative mode that the show found its deepest laughs. An animated short adapting a popular podcast moment with actor Bryan Cranston was both hilarious and inventive, offering a nice change of pace from the mic-in-hand nature of the show’s proceedings. A later moment of Carolla being baffled by an audience member’s hollering (not heckling) the word “Hmong” provided a moment of entertaining confusion and connection that delivered laughs throughout the last quarter of the show.

As jovial and well-paced as it was, the exact nature of the show is hard to classify. Though funny, it’s not stand-up comedy because Carolla is not quite telling jokes. There is a notion of rehearsal, but it’s not quite a spoken word presentation or a reading. Yes, he’s got a book out (In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks), and many audience members arrived with their copies in hand, but you couldn’t really call this a book event, either. The book is months old, and he didn’t really seem interested in moving any units that night in particular.

Also, it should be said that most of the material in the show has existed in other forms. From his podcast to his book to his website, a great deal of the show’s content would not have been original to anyone with a more than passing awareness of Carolla. The die-hard Carolla fans in the audience had probably heard all of these jokes before, but to add to the show’s unique nature, it seemed as though those were also the people laughing the hardest throughout.

Carolla has found a great deal of success by being able to connect with a sort of Everyman resonance without trying to portray himself as the prototypical cliché comedic everyman. While not above telling a story about the time he imitated shitting a pigskin in front of a cupcake-wielding Tom Cruise at a football party, Carolla does not flavor these anecdotes with the typical dash of gee-wizzness of lesser comedians trying to win their audience over by relating to them.

Rather, Carolla attacks with his humor by becoming a sort of oracle for the way in which, even after one seems to have conquered media, career, and life, there is still much to lampoon and complain about. There is a tension between the obvious relish with which Carolla talks about his life’s good fortune (at one point in the show, he projects an image of his Social Security statement, tracking his eventual increases in income), and his inability to leave his lowbrow past behind him. He may talk about how a Dixie Chick is out of his league, but he does so while telling you a hilarious story about himself on a date with one.

It’s in these tales of low-culture collision with the superstars that the real power and strangeness of the Adam Carolla live show becomes apparent. In the room with him and his fans, you get the sense that he’s been able to mine a vain of comedy that has been left untapped. Somewhere between the comedy of anger and the comedy of weird, somewhere between the act of storytelling and the art of narration, Carolla’s show at the Varsity Theater provided an excellent and hilarious journey into his perspective and a glimpse into the exact nature of his fandom. While mileage may vary joke to joke, story to story, the quality and unorthodoxy of the show made it clear why Carolla is able to fill venues through the strength of his comedy, insights, and personality.