Comedian Drew Carey has become a full-fledged media sensation: His self-titled television show, which airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST on ABC, is beginning its third season ensconced in the Nielsen top 20 (and locked in a ratings war with NBC's Third Rock from the Sun); his cable specials, most recently HBO's The Mr. Vegas All Night Party, command huge audiences; and his book Dirty Jokes and Beer: Stories of the Unrefined (for which he reportedly received a $3 million advance) hit stores in September.
Carey's appeal stems in large part from his Everyman status. The Washington Post once described him, not inaccurately, as "a tubby dork in a crew cut and thick-rimmed glasses…[who is] lovably and goofily awkward….Part of Carey's charm is that he manages to seem out of place in every setting." In his sitcom, which shares certain blue-collar affinities with shows such as Roseanne and Grace Under Fire, his character is an assistant personnel manager at a Cleveland department store. He is the consummate working stiff, besieged on all sides by an indifferent employer, hostile co-workers, aimless friends, and a strong sense of his own inadequacy and lack of success. From this potentially grim reality, Carey squeezes immense humor (and precious little sentimentality).
Carey's appreciation for the exasperations of everyday life is matched by a delightful sense of the absurd (his show sometimes features elaborate dance numbers) and an eagerness to strip away all sorts of pretensions and self-serving myths. Consider his take on the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and its ubiquitous slogan, "Save the Planet": "[That's] the most pandering corporate slogan I've ever heard," he writes. "`Save the Planet.' You can't get away from it. It's on every sign, every chip, every matchbook: `Save the Planet.' Like you can really save the planet from people in the first place, and if you wanted to, you could do it by drinking and gambling at the Hard Rock. `Hey, not only am I getting shit-faced drunk and picking up cute chicks, I'm saving the planet.'…Every time I play craps there, when I roll the dice I yell, `Save the Planet!' Then, win or lose, I loudly announce, `I don't care if I win or not, I just want the planet to be safe,' while I count my hundred dollar chips."
Although Carey openly disdains Hollywood activism–he winces at the mention of people such as Alec Baldwin and Barbra Streisand–there is a proto-political message in much of his humor. As the Hard Rock example suggests, Carey believes that people are far more resistant to soothing, feel-good rhetoric than its practitioners may fully grasp. In an age of ubiquitous and self-serving spin, that is no small point.
Senior Editor Nick Gillespie and writer Steve Kurtz talked with Carey over lunch at the original Bob's Big Boy (his choice) in Burbank, California. Here's a condensed version of their wide-ranging conversation.
Reason: Much of your humor pokes fun at liberal Hollywood sensibilities. What kind of response does that provoke from your peers?
Drew Carey: People look at me like a drunk uncle: "Oh, that Drew!" Everybody in Hollywood loves symbolic gestures. Have you been to the Hard Rock Casino in Vegas? There's nothing save-the-planetish about it. Hollywood people are filled with guilt: white guilt, liberal guilt, money guilt. They feel bad that they're so rich, they feel they don't work that much for all that money–and they don't, for the amount of money they make. There's no way I can justify my salary level, but I'm learning to live with it.
I've got to say that I don't see myself as some sort of political type like Alec Baldwin or Barbra Streisand. I don't want to come across like that. I'd be embarrassed if that was the way I came across. I should watch what I say about Streisand: She could call a congressman, not have my garbage picked up anymore, change my zoning laws, totally screw me over.
When I did Comic Relief, I did it to be on the show; it's a badge of honor as a comedian to do that show. Comic Relief does a lot of good, but homeless people really bug the hell out of me. They're smelly, they're always asking me for money. I mean, I like to help out, but I also do this in my act where I say, "I don't know how much money we raised to help the homeless tonight, but the food backstage was great." And it was: all gourmet-catered, all the drinks were free, not a homeless guy in sight. Everyone in Hollywood comes to these things and then says, "Look how we cured homelessness." They feel guilty if they party and there's not a good reason for it. If you had the same show with all the best comedians and no charity involved, they'd be like, "Uh-oh, can't do that." They want to make themselves look good–a lot of it is about feeding egos. My publicist always calls me with charity appearance requests, and I turn them down now. I told her I'm not doing any more charity where I show up and say, "Hi, I'm Drew Carey for the American Cancer Society."
Reason: So you're in favor of cancer?
Carey: No (laughs). I'm in favor of not inflating your ego, of only doing good deeds to pump yourself up. Which is about as anti-Hollywood, as anti-celebrity as you can get.
Still, I wish there were more organizations like [Comic Relief]. Then the government wouldn't step in all over the place. Then you could decide for yourself to help the homeless or not help the homeless.
Reason: What's your basic attitude toward government?
Carey: The less the better. As far as your personal goals are and what you actually want to do with your life, it should never have to do with the government. You should never depend on the government for your retirement, your financial security, for anything. If you do, you're screwed.
Reason: But you were in the Marines reserve, weren't you?–
Carey: That's all the government should be: Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines (laughs). P.J. O'Rourke once said the government has passed enough laws–it should just stop. It oversteps its bounds so often. Giving it a little bit of power is like getting a little bit pregnant, or thinking that a little bit of sex will do you for a long time–it just doesn't work that way.
Reason: Is that the case with TV content ratings?
Carey: I'm not against ratings per se. I think more information is always good. But I certainly don't think the government has to step in and set guidelines for how shows should be rated.
Reason: Former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), one of the main forces behind ratings, said that if TV people didn't "clean up its act," the government would have to do it for them.
Carey: He's a bowtied prick. What right does he have to tell me what I can and cannot watch? Change the channel if you don't like what's on TV! The government is really into "protecting" people. The FCC says you can't broadcast certain words and certain pictures. It says it's protecting citizens. But I'm sitting in my home with DirecTV and can watch whatever I want. I can afford the best pornography–laser-disc porn! The government's not protecting me from anything.
All the government's doing is discriminating against poor people. It thinks poor people are like cows, that poor people can't think straight: If we let them hear dirty words or see dirty pictures, there's going to be madness! If you're poor and all you can afford is a 12-inch black-and-white TV and can't pay for cable–you're so protected! You'd probably be happier if you could see some pornography, a pair of titties, once in a while on free TV. But a pair of titties on free TV? The government figures if you saw that, you'd just explode!
Reason: You devote a chapter of your book to ABC's own network censor, filled with examples of what was and wasn't approved for your show. The focus on particular words is both pathetic and hilarious: In one case, he asked you to change dwarf to little person; in another, he asked you to substitute hooker or prostitute for whore; in a third, he passed on butt wipe but OK'd butt weasel.
Carey: People who have read the book have said that's their favorite chapter. You just don't normally get that sort of inside look at the process.
Reason: Do you ever catch the censor cursing?
Carey: Yes, yes: "What the fuck's going on? You can't say that!"
Reason: Would the use of blue language make your television show better?
Carey: There'd be more stuff to joke about, and it would make the show funnier. As it is, there are certain parts of life you can discuss and certain parts you can't. If my character stubs his toe really bad, he can't say, "Aw fuck, I stubbed my toe!" He has to say, "Ooch, ooch, ooch."
Reason: Why is cursing funnier?
Carey: It's not always. But comedy's all about exaggeration. To do that sometimes you need the strongest words you can use. In the book, I tell this joke about a man and a woman who meet in a bar. They're both divorced because their spouses thought they were too kinky. So they go back to the woman's place and she goes to her bedroom and puts on black leather boots, a miniskirt, comes out with a riding crop and some handcuffs. The guy's putting on his coat and heading out the door. "Hey, where you going? I thought we were going to get kinky," she says. "Hey," he says, "I fucked your dog, I shit in your purse. I'm outta here!" That just isn't funny if you say, "I had sex with your dog and defecated in your purse."
Reason: What do you think about comedians like Bill Cosby who crusade against dirty comics?
Carey: He has a market and I have a market. I don't care if my jokes are appropriate for a kid.
Reason: While you're Cleveland's favorite son, you write longingly of your years living in Las Vegas, a city which many people see as the embodiment of vice and excess, of everything that's wrong with America. What do you like about Vegas?
Carey: Vegas is everything that's right with America. You can do whatever you want, 24 hours a day. They've effectively legalized everything there. You don't have to gamble if you don't want to. There's tons of churches in Vegas, too: You'll see a church right next to a casino. But a lot of people like gambling, so they make money off it. Nobody forces you to put money in a machine and pull the handle. But the fact is they allow it. Nevada's one of the most conservative states in the Union, but you can do what you want in Vegas and nobody judges you.
And they've got great schools in Vegas (laughs).
Reason: So why do so many people dump on Vegas?
Carey: I think a lot of people are afraid of freedom. They want their lives to be controlled, to be put into a box: "Be here at 9, leave at 5, we'll take care of you." People like that cradle-to-grave concept because it says you don't have to think too much, you don't have to worry too much, because someone else is looking out for you. But that also means you can't do as much as you want. You have to do what someone else says is right, what someone else thinks you should do. Why should someone else put a limit on how much fun I can have, how much I can accomplish?
Reason: You write about the 1970s–something else people heap scorn on–in a similar vein.
Carey: Again, a lot of people don't like people having fun. And the '70s were all about doing as much debauchery and having as much fun as you possibly could: Fuck anybody you wanted, do any drug you wanted to.
Reason: I take it you favor drug legalization?
Carey: Yeah. But every time you bring that up, people always ask, "Oh, you think they should sell heroin and crack in stores?" Sure: Smoke crack, die, get out of my way. As long as I don't have to pay for it (laughs). There's always the argument that not everyone is as responsible as you are, that we have to protect everyone from people who would smoke crack and not be responsible. Like we're doing now, right? Liquor prohibition led to the rise of organized crime in America, and drug prohibition has led to the rise of the gang problems we have now.
Reason: Prohibition also leads to another topic: the Kennedys. In an earlier draft of your book, you had an entire chapter devoted to that brood. What is it that you hate about them?
Carey: There were a lot of questions about language in the book. I said, "Look, give me some of the bad language, and I'll take out the whole Kennedy chapter." Plus, the publisher wasn't sure it would pass the lawyers. I read in USA Today that a Kennedy has never lost an election in Massachusetts. I wrote about what it would take for a Kennedy to lose one: They bust into a bank, pistol whip the manager, fuck the teller up the ass, take turns posing for pictures. And nobody would say a thing: "Those Kennedy's are great, aren't they? I can't believe a Kennedy fucked me up the ass!" They can get away with anything.
Reason: Your comic persona and TV show successfully blend a working-man shtick and a willingness to play with dramatic conventions and audience expectations. What's the appeal of those things?
Carey: I try not to lose touch with [working people]. I go back to Cleveland a lot. I love the normalcy of Cleveland. There's regular people there. I like [the TV show] King of the Hill because it's about normal people. I don't miss the economic insecurity, the living paycheck to paycheck. Twice when I was living in Vegas, I almost lost my rent money playing blackjack, got down to my last two dollars.
I'm glad I don't have to deal with that anymore. But I don't want to lose touch with things like eating in Bob's Big Boy. I feel comfortable here.
The show is very easy to relate to [in that way]. I wanted to do a show based on what my life would be like if I had never become a comedian. I would have had some bullshit degree, some general job, going nowhere. People laugh to forget their troubles, and to forget their troubles they like to look at people who aren't doing better than they are. Nothing's funny about someone who's successful. People who are happy and adjusted just aren't funny. Even when people are rich and successful on TV shows, there's always some trouble–you have to poke holes in them, throw them out of a job, put a pie in the face.
Like I said, all comedy is based on exaggeration, big or small, whatever you can get away with. In a promotional bit for the show, Mimi [a character from the show] and I are walking down a dirt road with fishing poles, like Andy and Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. The original script was that she would push me in the water and I'd be floundering like I couldn't swim. When we did the filming, I said, "Wouldn't it be funnier if I just floated like I was dead?" And it's funnier that way because it went the extra mile.
What also helps our show is that we never take ourselves seriously. Here's a show that can wink at itself. Everyone involved knows we're just a sitcom. You'll never see a "very special episode" of the show. The episode featuring Speedy the Crippled Dog is the most we're going to do.
Reason: Your book is different from most celebrity tomes. It's not simply an autobiography or a reprinting of your stand-up routines, although it has some of both. You've got a half-dozen short stories, a section on how the network censor operates, an entire chapter devoted to penis jokes, and then some. How did the book's form come about?
Carey: I didn't want to do what every other celebrity does. I couldn't imagine sitting down and writing my thoughts on the universe. Who cares? Really, who gives a shit what a comic thinks about life in general?
I only wanted to do short stories. I loved the old stories in National Lampoon, like the original story the movie Vacation was based on. I used to laugh at them until I cried. I like short stories, and I don't think I'm good enough to write a novel (laughs). The publisher was hoping to get Drew on beer, Drew on dating, that sort of thing. I wanted to do the stories, and I wanted to do a chapter on how ABC's standards and practices works. So I gave the publisher some of the other stuff to make them happy. The important thing is that it's all meant to be funny.
Reason: You cast aspersions on celebrities who unveil dark secrets, but you also mention that you were molested as a boy and that you tried to commit suicide during your Vegas years.
Carey: The reason I mentioned that stuff is that I wanted to tell people that you can get over it, that you don't have to be embarrassed by it. I mean, I'm very well-adjusted in real life. Well, pretty well. Most parts, anyway. You could ask my girlfriends (laughs).
What I don't like are celebrities who use it as their crutch all the time, who use it as a calling card: "Hi, I'm fill-in-the-blank and I was molested." Shut up already, man. It's one thing to mention it and move on. I have two pages on being molested when I was 9 in the book, and The Globe had this big story: "Drew Carey Bombshell!" They didn't mention one thing about the chapter called "101 Big Dick Jokes."
Reason: You have the only hit show on ABC in recent memory, but you've also been quick to point out that network shows are nowhere near as big as they used to be. Why is that?
Carey: DirecTV, maybe. The network shows are fine; it's just that there's so many other things to watch. We'll never see national shows with 45 shares again. Before, you never had a choice. You had to watch M*A*S*H, or whatever was on the three big networks. Now, if I don't come across a regional sports show or a history special I want to watch, maybe I'll watch M*A*S*H, or whatever's the best of what's broadcast. I don't even watch the local affiliates here in Los Angeles anymore. When I first got DirecTV, the installer told me I needed an antenna to pick up the local broadcast channels. I had him put one in, but I never turn them on.
Reason: How are the networks responding?
Carey: They can't assume everyone is going to watch the new "fall season," that people will tune into something right when it goes on the air. My show was like that. You have to get used to it; some people still don't [like the show], which is fine with me. We had kind of a slow growth in audience. The TV season is a year-long thing now, and the networks are starting to look at it that way, thanks to cable, satellites, and competition.
Reason: A lot of people in your position must hate the competition. Since viewers have more options, they're tougher to hold onto.
Carey: Some people don't like competition because it makes them work harder, better. I'm competitive at everything. When I play poker, I don't like losing the pot. The first Monopoly game I played with my brothers, I hated losing so much, I just had to beat them. I love beating people (laughs). But it's a natural driving force, a way of testing yourself, of measuring how you're doing. It's insane to [hate competition]. How can people not know that competition makes everything better?
Reason: You've got the book out. The show's starting its third season. What's next on your plate?
Carey: I'll tell you what's going to be the most depressing day in my life: when my book gets thrown in the discount bin with a "50 Percent Off" sticker on it. This year, I'm going to try an experiment with my creative process. When the show's in production, we work for three weeks at a time and then take a week off. When I'm working, I'm going to avoid all media. No newspapers, no magazines, no movies, no radio, no TV. I'm just going to do creative work. During the week off, I'll catch up. When I read a headline like "Mideast Talks Stalled by Bombing," I wonder what the hell I could possibly miss: Talk about the '70s! They just keep that headline handy; they probably even just use the same photo.