Click to Print

The Aceman Cometh

For Adam Carolla, comedy is a business--and business is good.
February 10, 2010
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/204944

At first, it looks like any other middle-aged guy's garage, only bigger. It takes a few minutes for the lights to come up, and the long buildup seems all the more appropriate as a museum of spectacles starts to reveal itself: old cars, vintage pinball machines, a collection of motorized bikes and go-carts juxtaposed against a single pink Dora the Explorer tricycle. The walls are like a timeline of a career that's been quietly iconic. A life-sized high-school football picture gives way to TV and movie posters, all leading up to the piòce de résistance: the massive neon sign that once loomed over the set of The Man Show. This is Adam Carolla's media empire--and it operates out of a warehouse in Southern California's San Fernando Valley.

It's the perfect setting for a utilitarian like Carolla--unassuming and efficient. In less than 20 years, he's gone from carpenter to cult hero, with a following not unlike that of another famous former carpenter, at least in terms of its devotion. A staunch atheist, Carolla would surely scoff at the comparison, but it's reflective of his formula for lasting success. For Carolla, comedy is an entrepreneurial pursuit, and while other comedians are essentially products to be bought and sold, Carolla is more like a CEO, lording over a brand that's easily identifiable--and profitable--in any medium or market. Like any successful entrepreneur, he's got a healthy contrarian streak, and the more widely accepted something is, the more likely he is to tear it down. He's also admittedly hyper-vigilant, to the point where he might start a story by saying something like, "Here's why I have trouble enjoying life," and absolutely mean it. It's all part of the product he's selling--his own sensibility--but it's also a useful tool for running a business.

"You notice things," Carolla says. "You become a little bit of a perfectionist. You become detail-oriented. For me, as far as the hyper-vigilance and the business goes, you become sort of a student of people and of psychology and how people work, and that's all business is.Gauging that in advance--how are people going to react to New Coke before New Coke comes out?--that's all it is. It's knowing something about psychology. It's knowing something about the human process and thinking, 'Are you going to piss them off? Are you going to alienate them? Are you going to anger them?' And it's never going to be that everyone's pissed off or everyone's happy. The lion's share of the people--how are they going to react when we start asking them for money? Because we have a business to run here."

His latest study in how people work--and what they want--is uniquely his own. Last February, just three days after his morning radio show was cancelled in favor of Top 40 music, he began hosting the Adam Carolla Podcast. Within two weeks, the show had been downloaded 4 million times, and Carolla forged ahead even though he was legally prohibited from monetizing the venture and was paying thousands a month in bandwidth fees. The investment paid off, and when his contract with CBS finally expired late last year, he found a few sponsors and was officially in business for himself.

"There are all these little plateaus and phases you want to get to in terms of your professional career," Carolla says. "And then at a certain point, you go, 'I want to get paid for doing what I want to do. I want to work with the people I want to work with. I want to do things I believe in.' I want to follow my muse and get paid, which is kind of the ultimate."

While podcasting certainly isn't anything new, Carolla's model for creating a business from it absolutely is. With help and feedback from both friends and fans, it's become a full-blown enterprise that loosely resembles something out of the music industry, with the podcast used to create a following that can be enticed to see Carolla and his guests perform live at various comedy clubs. Each tour stop features two shows, and in addition to the money made from ticket sales, fans tuning in from afar are given one podcast for free with the option of paying about $3 for the other.

"The next thing you know, it turned into a little cottage industry for us," Carolla says. "I never thought about doing live podcasts, and I never thought about that end of it. The thing that's interesting in this new frontier here is that there are all these interesting possibilities creatively, and there are also interesting possibilities as far as revenue streams. I would've thought that you do a podcast and you get some listeners and you do a few live commercials and you make a few dollars and that's how you do it. But we sold out the first show, and we're working on the second show, and who the hell knew that would be a way for us to get some money in our coffers?"

The podcast-for-pay model has also helped Carolla do more than his share of good for others. When Brian Bishop, who worked for Carolla on his morning show and who is a frequent guest on the podcast, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, Carolla held a benefit show that raised $130,000 in paid attendance and another $30,000 in downloads. He takes care of his friends, and he enjoys sharing in their successes as much as they've shared in his. He got his first break in radio through, in addition to his own tenacity, Jimmy Kimmel, who has become one of his closest friends and collaborators. He parlayed that into a long-running gig on KROQ's nationally syndicated "Loveline" radio show--Dr. Drew Pinsky had heard Carolla's earlier radio work and personally tapped him as his co-host. Even the original idea for Carolla's current podcast came from lifelong friend Donny Misraje, who now works as the show's executive producer, and who is just one of Carolla's many friends on staff.

"We're doing it with a bunch of people who want to be here," Carolla says. "We're doing it with a bunch of people who believe in something. It's a lot better than working with a bunch of strangers who are just here for the money, that's for goddamn sure. And I guess it should be everyone's dream to start a business and work with the people you want to work with."

For someone as successful as Carolla, such a dream might seem pedestrian. But in a landscape where the cart is all too often before the horse when it comes to fame and success, he's chosen to stay above the fray--and it's working. His old bosses at CBS are now backing K-ACE, an internet radio network that will air his flagship show alongside his automotive-themed Carcast and several new shows featuring friends and colleagues. The Parent Experiment, a mom-themed podcast starring Carolla's wife, Lynette, and former morning show partner Teresa Strasser, recently debuted at No. 1 on iTunes. Two of Carolla's closest friends have managed to navigate fame and stay grounded--Kimmel and Pinksy both have successful careers as on-air television personalities--but he's opting for a mostly behind-the-scenes version of success.

"It's an interesting distinction because if you're going to be successful, oftentimes you're going to be famous," he says. "And if you're going to be famous, unless you're a member of the Manson family, you're usually going to be successful. It was always my plan to be successful, maybe fly under the radar a little bit, produce, do a late-night radio show, kind of do my own thing, do some writing, do some independent films, and not necessarily chase the buck. I wouldn't really know how to chase the buck even if that was my plan. But I also know that if you do what you do and you do it well, there's plenty of money to go around."

Regardless of whether Carolla chases the buck, at this point it seems bound to find him--just as it always has. Among the pursuits that can make you famous, comedy is the most entrepreneurial--true innovation is the goal, but gimmicks are often just as profitable, and while the competition is fierce, there's also a certain degree of camaraderie. But above all, sometimes success means being satisfied with your place in the world and having faith in your own vision.

"When you find out how much money Tim Allen has made, or Larry the Cable Guy or Jeff Foxworthy, you never stop throwing up," he says. "Your innards would eventually come out of you [if] you [found] out how much money these guys make. On the other hand, I don't have to swing a hammer anymore, I'm working with people I like, it's easy money, and I'm getting paid to talk. How bad could it be?"