The lure of the prank has been strong throughout Carlson’s career. Some of his best pieces carry a joker’s sensibility: in an elegy for Hunter S. Thompson he describes collecting his Fear and Loathing stash and smoking, snorting, and swallowing his way through it before heading to college. The Spin Room was one big joke on more earnest cable news fare. Off screen, his early form letter response to nasty mail at CNN was a brief “fuck you”; when Politico’s Ben Smith wrote that the Caller was “struggling,” Carlson sent a similar note. “I’m all for pith,” he tells me. Journolisters will chuckle—or recoil—to hear he almost named his site Punji Stick, after the sharpened bamboo spears the Viet Cong deployed in mantraps.

Is Tucker Carlson joking now? It’s hard to tell. He makes an obvious point when talking about his own writing that applies to writing about him: “Nobody is monochromatic.” That may be a trite platitude—it came in a long soliloquy on how he aged out of writing hit-jobs that this profiler took as a warning—but I remember the line when a man introduces himself to Carlson on the elevator by saying, “I told my mother I worked in the same building as you and she didn’t talk to me for a month.” Because to sit and listen to him for two hours, without the cameras, Carlson is more the guy you take home to mom than offend her with. Smart, funny, generous—he insists I take a square of the Nicorette he ceaselessly chews, even though I’ve never smoked—and a libertarian with far less truck for the GOP than you might expect.

But this is the Carlson who promised a site that would mimic one of the finest truth-telling enterprises in American journalism. And what he’s delivered hasn’t cleared the fog of bow ties and smarm that has allowed his critics to see him as what his good friend Labash describes as “the villain in a John Hughes movie.” Someone for whom the audience hisses on cue the moment he comes into frame.

Carlson isn’t going to let a hostile audience unnerve him. He is convinced that the Caller is a success, and says the failings in his career for which he has been much lampooned have been instrumental in making it one. “Success doesn’t force you into introspection,” he says. “It allows you to skate around the basic questions in life: What am I capable of? And more to the point, What am I incapable of? Only failure makes you answer those questions.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.