Meet Teresa Strasser: Co-Host, 'The Adam Carolla Show'
Photo by Matt Beard / used with permission
The Adam Carolla Show is a smart, entertaining way to start your morning. Carolla, perhaps the fastest mouth in the west, has been making radio listeners laugh since the mid-90s. Thanks to co-host Teresa Strasser, The Adam Carolla Show isn’t just smart for morning radio. It’s just smart.
Meet Teresa Strasser. Born in the inner city of San Francisco, this award-winning former LA Times journalist, never had any intention of getting into radio. Yet, she has become an integral part of a syndicated radio show — they’re heard in a dozen markets.
Teresa chats with LAist about her experience on a hit morning show, Los Angeles, and the eating disorder which almost took her life. If you’re not familiar with Teresa, don’t be fooled by her striking, television looks. She's all sharp wit. And sorry guys, she's recently married. Her husband is quite tall. Be warned.
LAist: The Adam Carolla Show was on for five months before you came aboard. Were you a listener?
Teresa Strasser: I was listening from my Koreatown ghetto mansion. I was barely making a living as a freelance writer, and I hadn’t had a television job in a while. I had these two foreign exchange students because I didn’t know how else to make a living. I had to make breakfast, dinner and clean for Mari and Yui. It’s not like I was that recognizable, but I didn’t want to be at the Topper’s Yogurt Store, and have someone say "I’d like my chocolate and vanilla twisted and...hey, it’s the girl from ‘While You Were Out.’" But I had to pay my mortgage.
I’m a radio junkie. I remember when Adam’s show first went on the air, I was listening in, and wondering who’s going to be their Robin? How do you ever get a job like that?
How did you become a member of The Adam Carolla Show?
Somebody else had my job, and she took a couple weeks off to do a pilot. They called my agent, and asked if they had anybody with a news background who is Latin. Latin newsgirls are in high demand. I was the closest thing. You get the Jew, and that’s the best we can do.
They had me come for two days, then, they asked me to come back for two more days, then two more days. I said “are you guys going to hire me or not?” And they did. I’m sure everyone regrets it. They wish they hired that other girl with bigger tits.
Sounds like it was nice to get the gig.
It’s not like I was discovered at the Malt Shop, and became a huge star. But on the smaller scale, I did have a little bit of a Hollywood Moment, because I thought it was so cool to have that job. Then I had it.
Had you ever worked in radio?
I had a news background, but I had never worked in radio for one second in my life. I had worked as a newspaper reporter, when I was 19, then on and off when I needed the money. I also worked at Good Day New York on the morning news.
What was it like being new?
I would show up at 3 in the morning. I didn’t know how to do the technical things that any intern knew how to do. Basic things, like not knowing the password to get into the audio service -- I would descend into a state of terror.
How’s your job today?
There are days where Adam, Bald Bryan and I are clicking and it kind of swirls -- I can’t believe how much fun it is and I’m paid to do this. Like any job, there are days where I look at the clock and think it’s 8:19, how could I have been here for 12 hours? That’s rare, but like any job, at some point it is a job. Some days, I feel I was meant to do this.
Four out of five days, I drive home thinking about the stupid things I said, or the insightful things I did not say. I can’t believe I said thymus, when I meant thyroid.
Descartes: “I think therefore I am.”
Strasser: “I second guess, therefore I am.”
It is the essence of how I do every job. I wonder how I could’ve done it better, I think about how I’m going to do it better the next time, and I mull it over.
Has that happened recently?
Pat Buchanan called, and started referring to refugee camps in Gaza as concentration camps. I knew he was being an incendiary. He said “no, like in the Boer War.” I didn’t know that the Boer War ended in 1902.
I always regret that I don’t know everything about everything, because it’s so satisfying to say “Patty, ‘concentration camps’ takes on a new meaning after World War II, than it did in 1902." Just like swastika doesn’t generally conjure images of the Indian sign for prosperity -- which is a swastika. The Nazis kind of effed that up. Sometimes I was my brain was a little more Wikipedia.
How is it to be part of an ensemble?
In some ways, I like being interrupted. I’m from a culture that if you don’t get interrupted, it’s because you’re being boring. On the other hand, it can be really frustrating because I’ve made a fraction of my point, and if I’d been allowed to finish my point, it’d be much more compelling. It’s a combination of flattering, and frustrating, to be interrupted all the time.
It’s kind of my job. I’m throwing raw meat at the lion, which is Adam’s Mouth. I’m just trying to keep the beast fed with talking-meat. That sounds weird but that’s kind of what it is.
What is your schedule like now?
Get up at 4:30, get to work at 5, on the air at 6. Then three days a week, I go to my other job at the TV Guide Channel. I try to still write a piece every month. I value how uninterrupted I feel to have 600 words to myself. I can read over something, and fix it. Where as, on the radio, I don’t have that luxury. On the other hand, some of the most thrilling things happen because they’re unplanned.
How has Robin Quivers (of the Howard Stern Show) paved the way for you?
In Malcolm's Gladwell's book Outliers, he talks about needing 10,000 hours to master anything -- chess, cello, computer programming. Robin probably started with a natural gift for radio, and has probably doubled those 10,000 hours of air time. To me, she's a master -- smooth, tough, seemingly impervious to douchebag callers who give her shit, and excellent at picking news stories that fit her show.
Sometimes, people ask themselves, WWJD, What Would Jesus Do? Occasionally, I ask myself WWRD? I look forward to having the kind of ease and experience she brings.
Who are some of your favorite guests?
Ken Burns has no right to the social skills and dynamism he has, because he's the PBS dude spending all his time locked up in an edit bay, staying away from photons and zooming in on black and white images of obscure baseball players. We had him on before the election, and even though McCain is a veteran, Burns accused him of exploiting his war hero status. I could listen to him talk all day -- because of his knowledge of history, he puts everything in context and you feel smarter for having had the exchange. Even Adam -- one of the most gifted talkers I've ever heard -- sits back when Ken is on the show, and lets him dazzle.
I love Lisa Lampanelli -- so essentially sweet she can get away with anything -- and Greg Fitzsimmons, a truly rare combination of acid humor and warmth. Lately, we've had Chris Hardwick on doing tech reports. Anyone who can be funny and make me care about an iPhone app is amazing. I love how relaxed he is on the air.
George Takei, I love. He has a great American story -- interned during the war with his family, becomes a big television star, gets married, and his marriage becomes illegal -- all the best and the worst.
Charles S. Dutton is really fantastically honest about his past. He killed a guy and did some prison time. He takes full responsibility, and he doesn’t talk about the bad childhood, just the bad choices he made. He’s really charismatic in a cuddly, homicidal way.
The more honest a guest is the better.
Are you honest on the air?
If I’m at a loss for what to say, my fallback is to say the most honest possible thing. I may not be able to be clever or insightful, but I know I can usually say something that’s close to the bone. You might say “she sucks” or “she’s annoying”, but you can’t say “she’s phony.”
Which do you prefer: radio, TV or to write?
I think that writing is the thing I’m best at doing, but I haven’t really figured out a way yet to make a living doing that. When you hear about the ninth lead on the West Wing buying a house in the Hollywood Hills, and I’m getting $200 for a piece in the LA Times...
I think writing is the only one of those three where I have a knack. I’m not the fanciest writer, but I think I’m able to be honest. When I’m editing a piece, I think how can this be more true? There’s something to be said for that even though my prose is pretty mediocre.
What would you recommend to a radio fan who wants to read your work?
The piece about planning my stepfather’s funeral, called "Saying Goodbye To An Angel in Sin City". My stepfather was black and we’re Jews. I sort of had to plan his funeral because my mom was too bereft. There are a lot of things that I had to learn in a day or two -- and it’s summer, and it’s Vegas. She didn’t like the plot because there weren’t any other black people around. We had to bail, find a different cemetery with more black folk. We don’t have open caskets, they do. How are we going to manage that?
I really love that piece because I was close to my stepfather. The rest of the members of my family are shy. They don’t like being included, they don’t like being written about, don’t like being on the radio, and don’t like being on TV shows. But my Stepfather was a musician all his life, and he got such a huge kick out of it. It was such a bittersweet thing writing that piece, because I won an LA Press Club Award. It’s not a Pulitzer, but it’s a moment. It was so embarrassing because, at this award dinner I start bawling. He would’ve gotten such a big kick out of it because it was about him. He would’ve thought “this is so cool.” I really love that piece.
And oddly enough, another piece I will direct people to that’s a good representation of my writing -- the dark nature of my stuff -- is a piece I wrote the same year about my stepmother dying. She was The Great Santini in a denim-wrap skirt. She was beyond evil and I hated her. I was confused. How can I be honest about the fact that I’m relieved she is dead? To this day, a couple years later, when it comes to me that she’s gone I’m happy all over again.
What was the focus of your earlier columns?
Mostly about dating. Then I ran out of stories to tell. It wasn’t like, this guy turned out to be a crazy jerk, and that guy turned out to be a crazy jerk. Most of the stories were about how I turned out to be the crazy jerk. And how many ways I could screw up and sabotage my own life. Then I got interested in writing about family stuff. If I feel squeaming or uncomfortable, then I know I’m onto something.
Do you think you’ve ever gone too far?
Once. I wrote a piece about Sunday School, on how some Sunday School’s in LA are on the cutting edge. I decided to get in and out of the piece describing my own experience at Sunday School. I wrote about my teacher Mrs. Kipnis. She was an octogenarian, and she used a bullhorn when she was 3 feet away to talk to you. Because there’s no other Jew than me named Teresa, she started calling me Rachel and I accepted it.
The fact of the matter is that Mrs. Kipnis was a great teacher. She had been teaching Sunday School forever to thousands of kids in San Francisco, for I’m sure for almost no money. I left that out of the story. I told the funny part of the story. I got phone calls and letters. It turns out she had a lot of children. There are some local Rabbis that had Mrs. Kipnis. I tried to be clever, and in the process I was a complete asshole. It was horribly irresponsible. I still feel guilty to this day.
One morning Dr. Drew Pinsky was a guest on the show. What was it you revealed to him?
I guess I used one too many recovery phrases, and Dr. Drew busted me. He said “you know too much.” I’d been on the show for two years, and I’ve been in a recovery program -- eating disorder related -- for a seven and a half years. I kept my mouth shut because there are very specific rules about maintaining anonymity at the level of radio, film, and television. I wanted to make sure I was respecting traditions, but at the same time, there’s always a certain amount of shame about some part of your life that spun out of control.
Why did you come out?
Ultimately, the reason I chose to say something was that I thought maybe someone was listening, and they could relate to this in someway. I’d like for them to know there’s a solution. It’s also weird talking about every aspect of my life, but not talking about something that’s so huge, something I do every single day. It’s a really big part of my life and I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be alive without it.
What did it used to be like?
It was bad when I was a teenager. I was a ballet dancer, and I was always trying to see if I could get under 100 pounds -- which always lead to becoming 150 pounds. Weight was like an octave. In six months, I’d be a size 2, 4, 6, 8, 12. Then back: 12, 10, 8, 6...
My mood was completely dependent on how fat I was. Everyday I’d think this it the day I’m not going to do this anymore. I started to do a lot of dangerous things to control my weight. Those dangerous things could’ve been pretty disastrous. But more than that, I felt embarrassed and weird. Why can’t I stop doing these things?” And really lonely, really really lonely and isolated.
That’s something I like about being in recovery. There’s always a community in any city that you go to that will accept you just because.
How does Adam handle it on the air now?
There’s dark humor in recovery with your fellows. If I call someone crying, it’s like “put down the fork, it’s not that bad.” I’ll pick up the phone “hey Fattie.” Adam naturally does that. He’ll make a lot of bulimia/anorexia jokes. I think that’s really, really healthy and funny. I can’t get enough of it. If they play that vomit sound effect a hundred times a day, I find it hilarious. If you can’t joke about an eating disorder in American then it’s not worth it.
How much better do you feel on the inside?
People say come for the vanity, stay for the sanity. That’s true. You get a lot saner. I thought I don’t want to have these food and body issues anymore, because its taking up every single second of my brain time and it’s depressing and confusing. I had no idea that there was a different way to live, that I would be able to look people in the eye.
How do you maintain your abstinence?
I try to maintain a spiritual life, and I work with some people who are new to recovery. That really helps. As much as some days I’d like to be a completely self-absorbed fuck-up, I can’t, because these girls are looking at me.
Why is LA strong for recovery?
There’s no place like LA. I don’t know why, but the recovery is really rich here. I think because of the massive creative community you also get a community of addicted and otherwise. This is a really interesting place to be in recovery. It’s not just socially acceptable -- this is an epicenter. Especially for eating disorders. If you’re a size 4, you could be a size 2. If you’re a size 2 you could be a size 0. If you’re a size 0 we’re going to talk about you because you’re really really thin, and we’ll never stop giving you attention.
What keeps you in Los Angeles?
Cheap cost of living. Sunshine. I don’t have to be on public transportation, because I spent my entire childhood on either a Greyhound, or a Muni, or a BART train. And I have family nearby. It’s nice to be around family. I always thought they did nothing but annoy me, but when I lived in New York, I got really homesick. I got really, incredibly, deeply homesick.
Why do you live in Los Feliz?
You can walk to everything and it’s a little bit more diverse. Where in LA can you walk to the movies? Walk to dinner? Walk to the grocery store?
Los Feliz has an incredible variety of homeless people, like Chicken Ed, the homeless guy who lives in front of our building. He has a proclivity for eating chicken bones while sitting on our stoop. I wish Chicken Ed had a second pair of pants. He does smell of urine.
What about the West Side?
When I moved to LA, I lived across from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Gower. People would say, the longer you live here, and the more successful you are, the more west you’re going to go. Wrong! All I’ve done since I’ve lived in LA is move more and more east. If I continue on this trajectory I will be living in Victorville in three and a half years. The West side kind of freaks me out. I’m an Eastsider.
What’s your favorite restaurant, if you’re paying?
Little Dom’s. That’s where I went the night I got engaged. And my husband and I met at the OG Dominick’s on Beverly. Everyone knows about the Mustard Seed for breakfast, but they just started opening for dinner. Usually, it's almost empty, it's quiet and romantic. There's no beating the tortilla soup with fresh avocado slices.
What’s your favorite restaurant, if Adam Carolla is paying?
You know he takes your leftovers if he buys dinner. That’s his policy. He did pay, so there’s that. It’s actually fun to go with him to the restaurant he part owns, Amalfi. It’s good, my husband says it’s the best pork chop in town. I’m a vegetarian so I’ll take his word for it.
So you’re a vegetarian...
I’m way more embarrassed about being vegetarian than being in a recovery program -- at least some people think that’s cool. Everyone thinks being a vegetarian is lame. I keep it to myself. It’s not like if I show up to your house you have to have grilled tofu prepared.
If you have a voracious appetite for meat, that means you’re sexy. I understand, nobody wants the girl that orders a salad. When I’m ordering, I make it sound like I’m not interested in any of the meat entrees. I think that the minute people hear you’re vegetarian they ascribe all these personality characteristics to you. People immediately think you’re no fun, you’re uptight, and you’re a member of PETA. Vegetarianism is associated with sexual prudishness.
Do you have a favorite vegetarian restaurant?
That’s the thing about LA that’s great -- every restaurant has something for vegetarians. You don’t have to go to Santa Monica and have some crappy buckwheat pancakes. How emasculating if I drag my husband to Santa Monica for buckwheat pancakes and soba noodles every week.
Do you mind those who eat meat?
My husband eats a giant steak right in front of me regularly. I don’t care what you do, or what anyone does. I’m sorry, I like animals. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was 8. I realized that Wilbur was the pig, and Wilbur was the bacon on my plate. I didn’t want to eat Wilbur. Chewing on animal flesh freaks me out.
Photos of Teresa Strasser by Matt Beard / used with permission
Los Feliz 3 photo by Caleb Bacon for LAist
Listen to Teresa Strasser mornings on The Adam Carolla Show, KLSX 97.1 FM, 6AM to 10AM. TV Watercooler listings can be found here.