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.