Jim Carrey's lasting impressions
Before he became a comedy superstar, Jim Carrey was just another kid from Canada with a crazy dream: to make Johnny Carson laugh on The Tonight Show.
That was back in the early ‘80s, when the stand-up scene was at its peak and the way to Carson was through The Comedy Store. On any given night, a trip to the fabled Sunset Strip playhouse was a chance to see, live and up close, the biggest names in comedy. Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman all popped in to occasionally work out new material at the club, as did even more outrageous comics such as Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison and Andy Kaufman.
Carrey was barely 20 when he first moved to Los Angeles. He immediately became a favourite of club owner Mitzi Shore who declared him her hottest find since Robin Williams. “Mitzi became my champion,” confirmed Carrey. Eventually he did get that Carson gig. Breakout TV and film roles followed and he was soon earning $20 million a picture.
Except it wasn’t nearly that simple. There were setbacks along the way, some of them painful.
It’s all in, “I’m Dying Up Here: A Sit Down About Stand-up in the Seventies”. The Showtime series premieres in Canada on CraveTV in June. “I’m Dying Up Here” looks at the stand-up comedy scene in the ‘70s, slightly before Carrey’s time. Oscar-winner Melissa Leo plays Goldie, a club owner who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Comedy Store’s Mitzi Shore. Contemporary club comics Ari Graynor, Erik Griffin and Al Madrigal perform in the series.
Some of the stories are lifted directly from Carrey’s own experiences. “That closet that Larry and Eddie live in is my closet,” said Carrey, referring to two naive, out-of town characters on the series. “I met somebody at the Improv who said they had a room, and it turned out to be a closet. So for the first year or so I was here, I lived in that closet.”
Carrey says he woke up the very first morning, emerged from the closet, walked into the kitchen and there was, “a beautiful young girl making bacon with no pants on. And I went, ‘Wow.’”
Another storyline shows an up and comer screwing up his “Tonight Show” appearance. It was a sin Carrey committed when he bragged to friends he had a booking and then had to make excuses when Tonight producers deemed his act wasn’t quite ready. (He eventually went on with Carson and killed it).
Carrey joined the stars and other producers of the series earlier this year in Pasadena, Calif., at The Ice House, one of the oldest comedy clubs in the United States. These days, he’s far from the fresh-faced young kid from Canada who wowed audiences as an impressionist. At 55, Carrey sports a grey beard that makes him look more hobo than hipster; more “Duck Dynasty” than “Duck Factory” (the sitcom he did for NBC in the early ‘80s). Still, there’s the same twinkle in his eye when he talks about the good old days in the clubs.
“I, for a very long time, have wanted to do something about this era,” says Carrey. “I have the greatest respect and love and admiration for the people whose ministry it is to free the world from concern. And I think it’s really important to recognize it.”
Carrey’s comedy baptism occurred before he hit the big time in LA. Growing up north of Toronto, he wowed crowds as a teenager at Yuk Yuk’s and to this day is quick to credit club owner Mark Breslin for his first big break. Already a master impressionist, Carrey could twist his rubbery face to look like Sammy Davis, Jr., or Bruce Dern. He’d do singing impressions of both Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder on “Ebony and Ivory.” He’d do all the leads, including Katharine Hepburn, of “On Golden Pond.”
In the early ‘80s, before his move to LA, I had a front row seat as Carrey established himself as the house comic at Tickles, a comedy club in Barrie, Ont. Together with my high school pal Pat Bullock, I was part of a comedy duo at the time. Bullock & Brioux worked three or four weekends at Tickles with Carrey top of the bill.
Carrey set the bar so high at such a young age it seemed pointless to us (and to both our fans at the time) to continue in the comedy business. He did an hour-long set that never lagged. Our 20-minute set just seemed like an hour.
Carrey did not coast on his success as an impressionist once he got established in LA. He took the daring step of abandoning his act and improvising new material, night after night. Shore, for one, was horrified. “She came to me and said [imitating Shore’s nasally voice], ‘Whaddya doing? – You’re the king of impressions, you’re the man of a thousand faces, you’re gonna be the greatest!’”
Carrey told her he didn’t want to spend his life doing other people’s material and other people’s characters. “And so I started experimenting with my own characters, my own stuff in my own way.” Carrey calculates that he spent at least six months “without repeating a word I said the night before.”
There were nights when audiences were baffled. Around the same time, there was another setback: Carrey auditioned for “Saturday Night Live” but was rejected. (He’s since hosted three times.)
The process was painful, but it led to Carrey finding his own voice. What followed was his breakthrough success on the Fox comedy sketch series “In Living Color” and eventually hit films such as “Dumb & Dumber,” “Ace Ventura” and “The Mask.”
Asked what gave him the courage to make such a commitment, Carrey shrugs it off, suggesting, “I’ve just been kinda nuts that way.”
His hard, early years, however, watching his father suffer through job losses and family displacement steeled him for the road ahead. At a commencement address, Carrey once told a graduating class to go for their dreams and not to settle for anything less. You can get fired from the job you don’t want, was his warning.
That lesson is ingrained in “I’m Dying Up Here.” Carrey wanted to show the struggle behind the fame. It’s what drives him to reinvent himself to this day.
“I’ve always had a philosophy,” he told me outside The Ice House. “You have to take a leap of faith every 15 or 20 years in your life, you know? You have to take the layers away and you have to dive into the abyss and see where you come out on the other side.
With his film career having cooled from those spectacular boom years, is Carrey taking a leap of faith now with this venture into television? “Yes,” was Carrey’s quick reply.
“Soon there’ll be nothin’ left of me!”