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The politicization of Adam Carolla

Comedian Adam Carolla testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on July 27, on free speech on college campuses. (Video: House Oversight and Government Reform Committee)

Four weeks ago in the Rayburn House Office Building, comedian Adam Carolla found himself in a position he never expected: testifying in front of Congress.

Carolla reminds the world frequently on his popular podcast that he was a poor student. He says (jokingly?) that he's still “functionally illiterate.” Yet he became a well-known radio host and star of TV's “Man Show” with Jimmy Kimmel before launching one of the most popular podcasts in the world and parlaying that success into an independent movie, documentary filmmaking and multiple New York Times bestsellers.

And along the way, he's somewhat unwittingly become political. He has interviewed lawmakers from California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (more on that later) to Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and I've written on this blog about how his “Stupid or Liar” theory has particular salience to today's politics. Then came his July 27 testimony in opposition to safe spaces on college campuses, followed by an appearance at Politicon.

As part of an effort by The Fix to interview nontraditional political voices that are drawing lots of ears, I spoke with Carolla recently. Our conversation is lightly edited for clarity.

QI’ve been listening to you for a while now, and a big reason is I think you have a radar for political B.S. and a pretty unique political outlook. The worst thing to cover as a journalist is someone who is reflexively partisan and doesn’t have any true beliefs. You want someone who surprises you and challenges your preconceived notions. That’s why I like your show, and that’s why I like Bill Maher’s show.

I think the first time I really noticed this on your show was in 2013, when you interviewed California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). I was a little surprised when that interview took the turn that it did. I didn’t really know you had that in you, to be honest. Was that something of a political turning point to you, or do you trace your political awakening back to something else?

I never really thought of myself or think of myself as a political person. I think that other people think I’m a political person. You know, I think sometimes people may be a little disingenuous, or they try to stay out of the fray, and they say, ‘I’m not political, I’m not political.’ I’m not political. I have very strong ideas about everything, and how to fix everything. And a lot of that bleeds into mechanical and interpersonal. It just so happens that we’re living in a time where these thoughts have been converted to political.

Gavin Newsom poses a problem, I pose a solution, and he rejects it a thousand times over. That’s not a political statement; I would say the same thing if we were talking about hanging doors or doing wheel alignments on your Volvo. And it’s not different, by the way. There is no difference, by the way, in fixing the alignment on your Volvo wagon and fixing whatever ails us politically. There is an answer, and it comes from mechanics and science, and it’s pretty straightforward. Gavin Newsom’s a liar, and he’s not going to acknowledge it, but there’s an answer to all this stuff, and I simply want to get to the answer. So in a way, it’s incredibly nonpolitical, the same way its nonpolitical who’s doing the alignment on your Volvo wagon.

You testified to Congress last month in opposition to safe spaces on college campuses, and you have Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro on your show a lot. I think lots of people view you as a conservative and/or a Republican. You said in 2012: “I used to be a Democrat, now I’m basically a Republican.” To me you seem like a classic Western libertarian — conservative on economic issues and personal responsibility, liberal on social issues. How do you define yourself?

I would say how you just described me feels about right. First off, I’m not interested in non-issues. I’m not interested in third-hand smoke, and I’m not interested in peanut allergies, and I’m not interested in wheat allergies. I’m not interested in things that are essentially nothing. Again, Gavin Newsom came on my show and proudly boasted that he liked working “small to big,” which is an insane answer for a politician who lives in a town with huge problems — but he wants to work “small to big.” Now again, that’s him just bloviating. That means nothing. You shouldn’t want your principal, your sheriff, your governor, your mayor, you shouldn’t want your nanny, you shouldn’t want the guy who works at the corner station — you shouldn’t want anyone working “small to big.” You don’t want airport security to do that. You don’t want anyone to do that. It’s an insane answer.

I just like to work big to small. And I’m not interested in talking about second-hand smoke because it doesn’t kill anybody. So it’s not on my list. I’m not interested in the fate of Cecil the Lion. It doesn’t affect anybody. It’s a waste of time. I am interested in kids and education and traffic and things like that, and that’s basically how I’m wired.

Those guys — Prager and Shapiro — have pretty divergent views on …

Let me interject for one second. People say, well, you have these right-wing political pundits on your show, you know. You have Milo Yiannopoulos or Ben Shapiro, whatever. That’s true, but you also have to understand every single comedian who comes through, every director, every writer, f them, but they’re hard-left. I mean, they’re pretty hard-left, all these guys. I shouldn’t say “hard-left,” but they represent the Democratic Party. So if you make the assertion that, well, you have these political guys from the right side, but what about from the left side — everyone I have all day every day is from the left. They’re not making political statements, but sometimes they are.

So it isn’t a Bill Maher situation where we have a bunch of people from HuffPo on the panel this week. The Ben Shapiros and the Dennis Pragers are the exception. The rules are Norman Lear. And he’s not there to talk about political policy, but we always get into something, and they represent that viewpoint, and I’m fine with it.

The reason I brought them up is they have differing views of the president. Prager’s very much onboard; Shapiro’s one of the so-called never-Trumpers. I don’t know that I’ve heard you weigh in too much on Trump as president. As a guy who has been on “Celebrity Apprentice,” what is your take is on how he’s doing as president?

I agree with Prager for the most part which is, first off, he’s our president, let’s root for him. For the sake of the country, let’s see what we can get done. On the other half, nobody — no sane person — agrees with all the tweets and all the talking about the audience at the inauguration and stuff like that. It’s not only unbefitting a president; it’s just unbefitting a crossing guard. I mean, you’re just not supposed to brag about yourself that way. I’m a comedian. I’m not supposed to say, ‘Hey I put more people into the Moore Theatre in Seattle than Jo Koy did.’ It’s stupid. So I don’t think anyone — president or not — should endorse that.

But by the same token, I don’t really care that guy does that as much as I care about many policies. And most of them are just economics and let’s get moving and let’s lower the corporate tax rate and let’s keep jobs here and let’s create jobs and let’s get working. The more I think about life, the more I realize that the way our society is structured, if you don’t have a job, you’re basically not in our society, and you’re rudderless, and that leads to hopelessness and self-esteem issues. And I just want to get as many people working as we can possible get working. Most of the other stuff is window dressing. I know it’s always doom-and-gloom with everything, but I’m not buying into doom-and-gloom with travel bans. I don’t say that I agree with it; I just don’t feel like it moves the needle.

It’s not relevant to you, necessarily, or you don’t think it’s going to even become policy?

I don’t think it’s relevant to the country, good or bad. Whatever side you’re on — you can agree with it, you can disagree with it — I don’t think it’s going to make a difference one way or another. It’s something to argue about. But to me, creating jobs is a much more relevant thing to discuss.

So I’m in-between. I’d like him to do a great job. I understand he’s a blowhard. And I think you just have to sort of — like I said, I think Prager basically has most of the same thoughts too, which is you’d love to clean up all these un-presidential qualities he has; on the other hand, if he can get the economy going great and jobs created, then great.

You’re big on personal responsibility and capitalism, which is generally the domain of the Republican Party. During the health-care debate, you spoke passionately about why you think government-run health care is a bad idea. You said it reduces the quality of care and makes it so people don’t have any personal “skin in the game.” I think it’s interesting that I didn’t hear that argument from the Republican Party during the health-care debate. I don’t know how much you tuned in, but do you see the Republican Party making the right arguments these days?

I didn’t tune in, and I’m guessing no. But every road leads to, once you get stuff free, it’s kind of over. You can’t un-ring that bell. I don’t care if it’s your stepdaughter who you’ve made her BMW car payments for or someone you don’t know and you’re offering free health care. Once the stuff starts coming in, people rarely appreciate it, and you can rarely get it back. And then it usually gets abused. And it’s not because people are bad. It’s because people are human beings; that’s just the way they work. That’s just the way we’re wired. So I really don’t have any hard-and-fast answers, other than I have a psychological template that I use for life, and that is, ‘Get people invested, get them involved.’

I can go to a parking lot and pick out all the cars that somebody saved, worked hard for and paid for themselves, and makes the payments themselves, versus the ones that were given to them. I’ll give you a rock-solid example: We’ve all had these friends — I pray you have too, Aaron — I had a roommate this way, but I’ve had a couple friends. I didn’t have this, but I’ve had these friends. They have a relative — like a grandmother back east — and she kicks off, and she sends them her old car. She has an old Oldsmobile Cutlass that’s 13 years old with 84,000 miles on it, and the thing looks brand new. Or it’s a Dodge Shadow. My roommate got one from his grandmother. The thing was 10 years old. It’s a piece of crap, but it looked brand new when he got it, right? It took him about six months to have the thing look like a pile of s---. Meaning what she didn’t do in a decade of driving, he accomplished in six months of driving, with food wrappers everywhere. It was dirty, not maintained, fill in the blank. What I’m saying is, Why? Because he was given that car. He didn’t save, he didn’t work, he just got that car. How can treat something that way when someone gives it to you? And the answer is, you can. I would’ve done the same thing with the car.

You obviously don’t like Gavin Newsom, you don’t have much regard for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) or former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D). I know you’ve had Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on your show. Are there some politicians out there that you really like?

I don’t follow it close enough to know who I like. And also since I’m a comedian, I only focus on the people I don’t like. So nothing jumps to mind. I’m sure there are good people on both sides of the aisle. I just happen to think Maxine Waters is insane and Gavin Newsom’s a liar. … And Villaraigosa failed the bar four times. It sounds funny — from one bad student to another — he failed the bar four times. He didn’t pass on the fifth time; he quit after failing four times. Is that the kind of guy you want to run the seventh-biggest economy in the world? Tony Villar, not Villaraigosa. His name is Tony Villar, so obviously he’s going for a vote. I don’t know which one, but he’s pandering to somebody. So he’s dumb and he panders. Newsom just panders. He may be dumb and panders, but he’s a panderer. And Waters is an insane person. I’ve met her. I announced she was insane 20 years ago when I met her backstage at [Maher’s] “Politically Incorrect.” I was trying to tell her about the morning-after pill, and she was telling me the science wasn’t in yet, although of course it was in, and she had no idea what she was talking about. But why would she ever need to know what she was talking about?