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OC LIVE : COMEDY : Carey's On : He's Survived Hard Knocks to Earn a Sitcom--and Some Respect

November 02, 1995|GLENN DOGGRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rodney Dangerfield has always wanted it. Drew Carey, stand-up comedian and sitcom star, now has it.

"I like the respect I get from people finally. I always thought I had a good act, but unless you had a [television] show, it didn't seem to mean anything," Carey said by phone from Los Angeles as he waited for new tires to be installed on his Miata. "I think we're doing a great show. I can go into clubs and see my comedy friends, and I can hold my head high. Which is more than a lot of people can say."

Carey, who plays the Irvine Improv on Saturday and Sunday, began performing as a stand-up comic in his native Cleveland in 1986, soon after he started writing jokes for a disc jockey friend. But his performing career crawled along for about five years. He missed out on a much-coveted opportunity to appear on "The Tonight Show" in 1988 when he didn't receive the program's last-minute invitation in time.

His subsequent relocation to Los Angeles did little to jump-start his career. Carey's first few years living in California were marked by depression and frustration. For a while, the thirtysomething comic even lived out of his car.

"If you ask anybody who worked with me at that time, they would tell you that I would just sit by myself [before shows]," Carey said. "I didn't talk to anybody. I was out here in L.A. I lost 'The Tonight Show.' I broke up with my girlfriend. I didn't have a place to live anymore. All I had was my stand-up act. . . .

"I was so depressed that I would spend every dollar I made trying to entertain myself. I used to go to arcades and spend 50 bucks in quarters. I would play video games all day."

In 1991, Carey got another chance to appear on "The Tonight Show." He took full advantage. The comic's retro '50s look and sly humor had the studio audience and Johnny Carson in stitches.

"You can't do much better than that," the host told him. "You're funny as hell." (This performance is included on the "Best of Carson" home video.)

Carey's stand-up has been described as self-deprecating and cynical. Though Carey doesn't disagree with that, he adds a modifier.

"How about 'happily cynical'?" he suggested, laughing, as he did throughout the interview. "I never think of the character that much. If I write stuff and it's funny, it goes in. I never put that much thought into my act. It's too much like therapy. I just want to get a laugh. I'll let someone else label me, like 'his wacky outlook on the world,' which means nothing."

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Carey's triumph with Carson helped turn his career around. In 1993, his Cable Ace-winning comedy special "Drew Carey: Human Cartoon" aired on Showtime. A year later he landed a supporting role on the NBC sitcom "The Good Life." Carey, however, proved to be the most memorable component of that porous mid-season replacement show, which quickly faded into obscurity. "Thanks for all the cards and letters," Carey sarcastically told an Irvine audience last year.

In "The Drew Carey Show," which airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC, the former Marine reservist plays the assistant director of personnel at a Cleveland department store.

"I wanted a white-collar job with no authority and a bad boss," explained Carey, who created the show with Bruce Helford ("Roseanne"). "Someone to do all the work and get no credit. He could've worked in a bank, in insurance. The guy on TV makes about $26,000 a year. In Cleveland, you can live pretty decently [on that]."

Settling on a character, which plays off the buzz-cut, suit-wearing Carey's stand-up presence, was a no-brainer.

"It's just me. The glasses I wore from the Marines. I always had my hair cut short. The job was Bruce's idea, to bring people in and out of your world real easily."

Unlike many comedians who land sitcoms, Carey, as a co-creator, finds himself in the enviable position of having a certain amount of control.

"I like to tell people I can do whatever I want if I ask Bruce first," Carey said. "We've got really good writers. It's not like I need to seize control. I just like to get my own jokes in for my own ego."

That's one difference he's found between sitcoms and stand-up. In stand-up, the performer is top dog.

"The sitcom is so collaborative all the way around," he explained. "If you got good grades in 'Works Well With Others' in elementary school, you'll do well on a sitcom. You're like a team leader to get everybody going in the same direction."

There are down sides too, though Carey downplays them.

"I really enjoy my work and love going to work, but I haven't seen any movies, and I had to hire a personal assistant to get my shopping done. That's what you give up the most, your time. It doesn't have to be this way, but I want to keep a hand in the show. I like to contribute because it's my name and everything."

And there is further fallout:

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