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THIS MAN IS NOT A NERD : But Drew Carey Does Play One, on TV and on Stage, When It Suits Him

June 03, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

With his dark suit, narrow tie, horn-rim glasses and crewcut, comedian Drew Carey looks like he took a wrong turn on his way to an "I Like Ike" rally and kept driving.

The distinctive retro '50s look is a guaranteed laugh-getter as soon as Carey, who is in his mid-30s, steps on stage, setting the tone for a comic the Hollywood Reporter calls a "powerful comedic presence."

"Yeah, I know what I look like, thanks," Carey says at the outset of his act. "People laugh at me all the time and say I look like that guy from the ad in the back of comic books for X-ray specs."

Despite the nerdish appearance, Carey--who's performing in the "Five O'Clock Funnies" comedy concert at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim Sunday--does not play the stereotypical nerd on stage.

But he is the kind of guy who jokes that he drives one of those ultra low-sticker-priced Yugos. He says he once stopped at a traffic signal to find another compact Yugo pulled up beside him. "I couldn't believe it. Same Yugo, same stop light, same neighborhood-- what are the odds? Then the guy rolled down his window and he said, 'Pardon me, would you have any mayonnaise? ' "

Carey also recommends not going to your high school reunion: "That's a lot of stress, a high school reunion. You get that letter in the mail and right away you feel like you only have six months to make something of yourself."

Although a lot of his material is based on self-deprecation, Carey says it's hard to pin a label on his act.

"Some of it's self-deprecating, some of it's absolutely the opposite: kind of real loud and boisterous, and some of it's 'I'm not going to take this (stuff) any more,' " Carey said by phone from his home in Hollywood last week. "All it's got to do is make me laugh and make the audience laugh."

The Cleveland-born comic, who's sharing the "Five O'Clock Funnies" concert bill with Craig Shoemaker, Steve McGrew, special guest Larry Miller and the host, KLOS-FM disc jockey Geno Michellini, has been on a career-roll since November, 1991. That's when he made a highly successful stand-up debut on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."

Carey not only scored big laughs, but at the end of his six-minute set, Carson beckoned him to the couch--which comics then considered the ultimate accolade. ("You can't do any better than that for your first shot," Carson said. "You're funny as hell.")

One routine, in which he mimics the high-cholesterol ingredients of a chili dog with cheese and bacon-- "Follow me, boys, we're going to the heart!"-- caused Carson to laugh so hard he was doubled over, gripping the side of his desk.

"I did the best set of my life," recalled Carey. "I can't do any better than that. It was like mistake-free comedy for me. Everything went perfect."

Carey said his "Tonight Show" debut didn't just open doors for him, "it kicked them in. It launched my whole career. I got 'Letterman' from that--every big gig I've gotten is because of that."

In the wake of that one "Tonight Show" shot, Carey said, he also had meetings with "people I couldn't even consider talking to before." The result? He's co-starring as comic John Caponera's friend and co-worker in a sitcom called "The Bowmans," which will be a midseason replacement on NBC. He also landed a small part in "The Coneheads" movie, and he's taping a Showtime comedy special in Cleveland on June 26, for airing later this year.

"Everything I could have wanted in the comedy business I got because Johnny liked me," he said. "The biggest thing is you have this acceptance. Before, I was funny, but so what? Overnight, I went from being just a club comic to somebody people knew of."

Carey, a former Cleveland waiter, didn't start doing stand-up until his late 20s. That was seven years ago, after he began writing jokes for a friend who was a morning disc jockey.

At the time, he was in the Marine Corps Reserve, so he already had the close-cropped haircut and GI-issue glasses. He also already owned the trademark dark, loose-fitting suit, which he had picked up for $40.

The first time he stepped on stage in the suit, he said, "I got a big laugh. It's the first laugh: It automatically releases people. Your dress and demeanor mean so much. A lot of comics ignore that."

Indeed, the haircut and suit are an integral part of his act. Carey said he's performed without the suit and wearing contacts instead of his horn rims. "The jokes are still funny, but not as funny as when I'm wearing my glasses and suit."

In fact, he said, "when I just get a hair cut and it's really short, it's like I'm funnier."

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