East Coasters’ apparently endless appetite for caffeinated townies shouting lukewarm sports takes loudly in the morning is as strange and exotic to the rest of the country as their obsession with bodegas and bad coffee. Oftentimes, the titans of sports talk scream theater remain strangers to those of us west of the Mississippi until they become famous enough to warrant the documentary treatment. Such is the case with Craig Carton — former co-host of WFAN’s “Boomer & Carton,” alongside Boomer Esiason — profiled in HBO’s new rise-and-fall documentary, Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth. It’s fascinating to see how just much trouble Carton (degenerate gambler, eventual securities fraud committer) has to get into simply to distinguish himself from anyone else in this genre.
Carton, according to the documentary, is an asshole on the radio (“I’ve got a big mouth”) but a softie deep down, with a regional accent, a deep well of hot takes, and a gambling problem. I think it would be funny to remake this as a mockumentary starring a fake radio host, just to see if anyone outside of the tri-state area could tell the difference. Barely two minutes into Wild Card, talking heads are already explaining the difference between “Craig Carton,” the caring family man, and “Carton,” the loud-mouthed sports opinion-haver he plays on Boomer & Carton. This kind of faux-introspective ego vs. alter-ego comparison has been a staple of sports reporting for so long as to be muscle memory (Deion Sanders vs. Neon, Brian Bosworth vs. The Boz, Earvin Johnson vs. Magic, etc), but it’s much funnier when applied to a broadcaster whose “sport” consists of shouting that A-Rod is a bum every morning.
I would’ve loved to see a scene where Craig Carton, caring family man, watches his children play soccer, but starts twitching like Bruce Banner when each subsequent poor coaching decision threatens to turn him into his evil twin, Carton, who’d surely level the playing field with a nuclear sports take. “Ay, he tells it like it is, ya gotta give ‘im dat,” bystanders would say, respectfully.
The film depicts other talking heads, like Chris Christie and an assortment of other New York sports radio people I didn’t recognize, explaining that what makes Craig Carton so successful is that he’s “funny and edgy.” That he “tells it like it is,” and that “whether they love him or hate him they can’t stop listening to him.” This is interspersed with clips from Boomer & Carton where Carton puts a sausage down his speedo and walks across the Brooklyn Bridge, or calls a random listener to ask if she’s “got bush,” because “we’re doing a search for bush.”
There’s an uncanny valley aspect to Wild Card, where I learn about an apparently famous New York sports radio man, only to discover that he’s a virtual carbon copy of all the other East Coast yelling sports radio men I belatedly learned about. It causes one to ponder this entire phenomenon — how widespread it is, the latent desire it fulfills, and how it was discovered. How is there such widespread, deep-seated desire to be screamed at by a medium-smart gambling addict? Was there at one point a telling-it-like-is gap that desperately needed to be closed?
The question of what makes Carton different from Francesa or Mad Dog or the other East Coast radio guys I learned about from other documentaries or cameos in gambling movies is the withheld information that keeps us watching. In the early minutes of the film, Carton reveals the he’s been hiding a dark secret since childhood. For the next 40 minutes, the film mostly depicts Carton becoming more and more successful as a radio guy while getting deeper and deeper into a gambling addiction.
We think, Hold on, his secret can’t be that he’s a gambling addict, can it? That would be the last surprising secret of all time, like Donald Trump admitting that he’s laundered money.
Despite getting deep into gambling debt and eventually going to prison for securities fraud (frankly I would’ve liked to know more about that plea deal) it turns out that gambling is not the secret Carton was hiding. The secret he is hiding, is more compelling than that (I don’t want to spoil it here even though you could probably look it up). Yet even still, it warrants only a brief discussion before Wild Card returns to its reflexive, rise-and-fall-of-an-unlikely-hero structure.
It’s a wonder that this structure should remain reasonably compelling to me despite not caring much about the subject and never quite answering what, to me, is the central question of the story: why does the media world need so many of this guy and why are there so many of them? Yet in happily sitting through a documentary I’ve already seen a version of many times before, maybe I’ve partly answered my own question. Maybe HBO sports documentaries are just my morning sports talk radio, familiar and comforting in ways we can’t entirely explain.