Jason, from the evening of December 31, 1995, to December 25, 1999, made a living (or at least tried to make a living) with prop comedy. He of course was a fan of Gallagher, which was rare for a non-working-class male attending graduate school for theoretical physics, but after seeing a Carrot Top show in Las Vegas at a New Year’s Eve party with his then fiancé, he fell in love. Prior to Carrot Top becoming a terrifying musclebound version of himself and part-time spokesman for AT&T commercials, he was just that awkward ginger with his twin steamer trunks of homemade props with too much time on his hands and no competent delivery whatsoever.
Jason tried making his own props, and take it from me, they were terrible. He took a page from Carrot Top and bought about two dozen fake NFL helmets for various teams, rigging each one into a tissue dispenser depending on which teams were performing poorly that year, the obvious joke being that fans of a certain team would be in tears for most of the season, so they might as well wallow in misery while at the same time showing their team spirit. After his fiancé left him, Jason tried inserting tissue dispensers into every item for as many occupations as possible. He started doing open-mic nights, a more composed Carrot Top without the showmanship of Gallagher, advertising nailguns, tablesaws, sewing machines, electric typewriters, cobblers’ benches, paint buckets, chainsaws, cutting boards, industrial-sized ovens, and movie cameras with tissue dispensers inserted in them. It was his only joke. He became absolutely consumed with it, even taking the joke to a meta-level by creating a prop comedian’s work bench that was nothing more than a giant tissue box.
Nobody applauded at his jokes/props (I still hesitate to call any prop an actual joke) but every once in a while they’d laugh at one of his helmets. Most people would think this lack of enthusiasm at his own act would dishearten him, but he wasn’t really passionate about performing prop comedy, he wanted to be a prop comedy scholar more than anything, the kind of person who couldn’t do it very well but who could teach it to pretentious young adults. The sad thing about Carrot Top, he theorized, was that he had little to no talent, charisma, or even stage presence. His seemingly nonchalant presentation (the twin steamer chests, his prop-comedy equivalent of one-liners, his act of letting his props fall to the floor after he’d sucked all the jokiness out of them as if to signify that he really didn’t give a shit about his act or the props he’d made) was undercut by his eagerness. He wanted to be the Mitch Hedberg of prop comedy, Jason claimed, but he lacked Hedberg’s charismatic lack of charisma and instead exuded the naive energy and cloying eagerness of a five-year-old who just wants to show his parents’ friends all his cool new toys. There was a certain charm to Carrot Top, sure, but that charm long outlived its welcome after he showed off his middle-finger-shaped envelope he claimed to mail to the IRS every April. And somewhere between that middle-finger-shaped envelope and the plush dog with the tube sticking out of its imaginary anus, the audience grew weary not only of Carrot Top but of the generation he was trying to represent, the people coming of age in the mid- to late-nineties who wanted something to be done for comedy that Dave Foster Wallace had done for literature and that Nirvana had done for music.
This all changed on the evening of Christmas, 1999. Unlike the beginning of his passion, which had begun at the end of a year, this ending was disappointingly anticlimactic because the ending began only near the end of the year and not at the proper end of the year, which would be understandably disappointing to a perfectionist or anybody who cares about the dates in one’s life holding significance, whether that significance comes from events simply being attached to those dates or for more obscure numerological reasons, like when tragedies in a particular person’s life all occur on months and days whose sequence in the year are all prime numbers. But even if Jason’s disillusionment with prop comedy didn’t come at the end of a particular year, it at least came on Christmas, and the disillusionment took place in Las Vegas, the same city and, in fact, the same hotel auditorium where his love affair with prop comedy had begun. So even if the time wasn’t significant, the place was.
Carrot Top was performing again, just as he had been almost four years prior. He produced a lamp made out of prophylactics from one of the chests, let it fall, and the lightbulb shattered. Usually, Carrot Top would have expressed a combination of shame and sadness at destroying his own handiwork. He’d even have a goodhearted chuckle at himself, laughing at himself instead of one of his own jokes for a change. But instead, he just shrugged and said, “Oh well, it wasn’t a very good one anyway.”
At which point, Jason stood up in his seat, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted for the entire lobby to hear, “Bullshit! You can’t just do that! You’re Carrot Top! Make us feel bad about ourselves for being here!”
The audience fell silent. Who was this man? Why did he care so much about Carrot Top and his mediocre act? Most of the patrons that night weren’t even there to watch Carrot Top for Carrot Top’s sake. They were just there for the buffet, and if a red-haired prop comic was the backdrop for their lavish, overloaded eating experience, so be it. This was Vegas, after all, the place where the luxurious, the banal, and the vapid all culminated in the kind of week-long binge that felt like a joint hosting effort by Dionysus and an IRS agent.
Carrot Top, meanwhile, laughed at himself again. That was all he knew how to do.
“What the hell’s the matter, man?” the comedian asked.
“You know what’s the matter,” Jason called again. This was no longer heckling. This was a challenge. Carrot Top, Jason felt, was no longer being true to himself or what his comedy had originally meant. “You pick that lamp back up and treat it with love!”
“I’m not doing that,” Carrot Top said, “I’ll cut myself.”
“What happened to you?” Jason screamed. “You used to be so genuine. Now look at you!”
“Security? Somebody? Can we get this guy out of here?”
Jason’s fiancé at the time (fortunately not the one he had lost so many years before) shielded her face from onlookers as hotel security gripped Jason beneath his armpits and carried him screaming out of the auditorium.
“Carrot Top doesn’t care anymore!” he kept calling toward the stage, never once breaking eye contact with his former hero/object of study.
As soon as Jason and his two escorts were out the door, he heard Carrot Top say, “Let’s hear a round of applause for that man, eh?” The audience, in response, erupted in ironic laughter and applause, grateful to be able to laugh at something that, they all knew, wasn’t worthy of either laughter or applause, but the fact that the situation was neither funny nor applause-worthy made it all the more entertaining. And as Jason sat on the street corner in front of the hotel, he knew part of the 90s had died (or was close to dying) in that auditorium. Carrot Top (the person, the bodily, physical entity) hadn’t died and probably wouldn’t die for many years to come, but his spirit had. With Mitch Hedberg dead, what was left? What would people pretend to laugh at now?