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Adam Carolla's genius -- spoiled

THE TIME HAS COME to talk about Adam Carolla. Because you're reading the Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times, there's a good chance you're only vaguely aware of him as a host of cable shows you don't like or radio programs you don't tune in to. Maybe you've seen the bus ads for KLSX radio's "The Adam Carolla Show," which bill him as an "American Genius." You probably thought this was idiotic hyperbole. I'm here to tell you it's not. I'm also here to tell you not to listen to his show. Not now.

Carolla, a 42-year-old comedian and former carpenter/carpet cleaner/boxing instructor from North Hollywood, replaced Howard Stern in several West Coast markets just over a year ago, when Stern went to satellite radio. I've always appreciated Stern's insouciance and defiance of radio conventions, but if the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" is in a class by himself, I'd say that his terrestrial radio replacement is in a far more advanced class. For 10 years, Carolla delivered some of the most sophisticated comedy monologues I've ever heard on "Loveline," a late-night call-in sex advice show for teens that he co-hosted with Dr. Drew Pinsky.

I listened to that show whenever I could, and not because I wanted to hear 15-year-olds from Oklahoma asking questions about genital piercing. I listened because Carolla had a take on the hypocrisies of the human condition that was always smart, frequently radical and occasionally downright brilliant. Famous for his analogies, which he expands into complicated, protracted tangents on everything from junior college to ranchera music to the absurdity of "not being judgmental," Carolla's mental and verbal dexterity would make any professional writer jealous — at least it does this one.

Even though I cried when Carolla said his farewells on "Loveline" in November 2005 (the show continues with a new co-host, but its luster is gone), I soon got used to hearing him in the morning. Granted, things were different in the brash light of day. Undoubtedly scrutinized by executives (the show is produced by CBS as part of their Free FM platform) and no longer anchored by the pathos of the "Loveline" callers, "The Adam Carolla Show" took a while to find its footing. But Carolla, a guy's guy who is interested in cars and strippers and the gross-out factors of bad smells (that Carolla cable show you didn't like? Comedy Central's "The Man Show" from 1999 to 2003), is a natural for the testosterone-driven arena of morning radio.

There's more to him than that, however. Carolla's primary subject has always been class, the mannerisms and material ambitions that accompany that great American pastime known as socioeconomic striving. Having positioned himself as a lug-headed refugee from the low-rent reaches of the Valley — an oft-cited piece of Carolla trivia is that he got carbon monoxide poisoning as a kid from his mother's boyfriend's Volkswagen bus — he mocks trailer-trash culture without seeming remotely mean-spirited. He can also dissect the pretensions of affluence in a way that is actually interesting. Despite the masturbation jokes and pot references, to listen to Carolla is to sit in on an acid-tongued anthropology lecture. And you'd want to take notes.

Until Jan. 2. That's when CBS replaced a handful of supporting cast members with Danny Bonaduce, the former "Partridge Family" star now best known for reality shows focusing on his struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. If I may attempt my own Carollian analogy, this is akin to taking a highly crafted Impressionist painting and slapping a coat of Glidden on it. I've never seen a worse case of mediocrity usurping talent. Whereas Carolla is nimble and witty, Bonaduce is a lame, one-note blowhard whose hard-living past belies a worldview that is utterly generic. He constantly interrupts Carolla with his self-absorbed, clueless badinage, more or less demoting Carolla to sidekick on his own show. To tune in now is to hear not a radio program but a hijacking.

What's happening to "The Adam Carolla Show" goes beyond ratings anxieties. It's about the popular media's chronic distrust of the public's ability to get a joke unless it's shoved down our throats. Though TV laugh tracks are being phased out, the effect of televised scream-a-thons (any reality show) and ham-handed shock jocks (most radio morning shows) constitutes an even more insidious form of canned laughter. By refusing to leave us to our own devices, it absolves us of the responsibility to pay attention and laugh or be shocked in a genuine way.

Stern took millions of listeners with him to satellite radio. Carolla, who is more nuanced and complex than Stern, is hard to label ("American Genius" resonates only with the already converted) and hard to market. That means he needs time to find his audience, and vice versa. Now, thanks to myopic executives who overturned their wise decision to hire him with the baffling decision to drown him out, neither Carolla nor his audience stands a chance. That's hard on his fans, and I suspect even harder on him.

We can turn off the radio. He has to go to work.


mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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