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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A Comedian Who Knows a Joke When He Sees One

April 01, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

Barney's Beanery is busy for 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning. Some customers have come for breakfast, like the three guys from the Fire Department in the corner booth. Some have come for one of Barney's 272 brands of beer. Some have come early for a 1-3 p.m. "lingerie and bikini show."

Drew Carey has come to break the law.

We are standing on the sidewalk, in a light rain. He is wearing a black "Drew Carey Show" jacket from his hit ABC-TV series. From a pocket, he pulls a pack of cigarettes.

"Three packs for $5," he says. "Pretty good deal."

The sign above Barney's doorway warns all who enter:

NO SMOKING

A sandbox right behind Carey is a coffin for dead filter-tips.

"Barney's Butt Box," it reads. "Every Little Butt Helps."

Carey doesn't care.

He is here for a cause. The comedian thinks California's no-smoking law is a joke.

I am here because I've never been to a pro-smoking protest before.

"OK, ready?" Carey says. "All set?"

He turns toward Barney's door, armed with his Winstons and his Zippo.

"I'm three feet away from being a criminal," he says.

*

Driving west down Wilshire from downtown L.A. the other day, I spotted a large billboard. It appeared to be one of those Marlboro ads, with a couple of cowboys, havin' a smoke on the range.

It wasn't.

One cowpoke says to the other: "I miss my lung, Bob."

Everywhere I turned this week, anti-tobacco troops seemed to be mobilizing. In advertisements. Lawsuits. Legislation. I half expected a proposal to not only colorize Humphrey Bogart's old films, but to airbrush out the smoke.

I got a call informing me that six tobacco companies Tuesday were being sued by environmentalists and by San Francisco's city attorney for improperly enticing children with smokeless tobacco. Some products were "cherry flavored" and such, and being marketed like candy.

(You know what they say. Cherry snuff leads to harder stuff.)

In Washington, meanwhile, a Senate committee drew up an anti-tobacco bill that would hike the cost of cigarettes by $1.10 per pack over the next five years.

(I have a theory that in 10 years, a single cigarette will cost $10 or more, but a pack of cigars will go for about a buck.)

And, speaking of cigars, California health officials Monday launched a new big-budget ad campaign against those.

They call cigars "the big new trend in cancer."

(It's a subject we will hear more about, probably next month in Cigar Aficionado magazine's cancer-and-swimsuit issue.)

Being pro-tobacco in California is like being anti-potato in Idaho.

I thought it impossible for anyone to come out publicly for smokers' rights, let alone a high-profile guy like Drew Carey.

Yet here he stands on Santa Monica Boulevard, as brave and alone as Gary Cooper on a dusty street, except I don't recall Coop wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses.

"How long you been a smoker?" Carey is asked.

"I don't smoke," he says.

*

For the 36-year-old comedian from Cleveland, this is strictly a matter of principle. Being advised not to smoke, that's one thing. Being asked not to, that's one thing. Being ordered not to, under penalty of law, that's something else.

He asks, "How can you criminalize a bad habit? This isn't even jaywalking.

"Sacramento shouldn't tell you what to do. They think they're your nanny. Pretty soon they'll be telling you how to dress, what time to be in bed."

A guy on the sidewalk nods.

"Where you from?" Carey asks.

"New York."

"Hey, New York, don't let this happen to you!" he says. "Imagine the riots in the streets of New York if you couldn't smoke there."

Inside the restaurant, Carey lights up. So does his TV co-star, Nan Martin, who is 69 years old and has come to support him. A waitress warns them that smoking is illegal. Other patrons puff away, joining Carey in "the first act of civil disobedience of my life."

If this is an April Fools' joke, it's a weird one.

"Hey, did you ever hear the comedian Kip Adotta's joke?" Carey asks me. "He says, 'There are places where people can't smoke. So, to be fair, I think there should be places where people have to smoke.' "

I nearly laugh a lung out.

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