A chameleon comic adapts to success

Val Ross April 9 1984

A chameleon comic adapts to success

Val Ross April 9 1984

A chameleon comic adapts to success


Val Ross

It was another late night at the end of a 14-hour working day. The cast of The Duck Factory, NBC’s new comedy series, was exhausted. Tempers at Los Angeles Studio City Sound Stage 8 neared the breaking point. As executive producer Allan Burns was about to send everyone home, he was surprised to hear the voice of the usually gentlemanly actor Jimmy Stewart cursing bitterly. By the time Burns realized that he was in fact listening to an impression by the show’s 22-year-old Canadian star, Jim Carrey, a babble of voices had chimed into the cavernous gloom trying to duplicate the impeccable imitation of the young comic from Jacksons Point, Ont. Said Burns:

“Carrey kept us loose and laughing.” The Duck Factory, finally ready for its premiere next week, may or may not win the audience that NBC, thirdand lastranked commercial U.S. network, so desperately needs. But some of Hollywood’s sharpest talents are banking on Carrey—and his multitude of faces and voices—to keep people laughing for years to come.

For the moment, network executives have high hopes that the adventures of Skip Tarkenton (Carrey), a wide-eyed newcomer to a dilapidated Hollywood animation studio, will enchant viewers with the same ingenuous charm that Mary Tyler Moore displayed in the 1970s. To re-create that sort of magic, MTM Productions, responsible for Mary Tyler Moore, Hill Street Blues and Lou Grant, has tapped the most respected talent in the business: Burns made his reputation producing Mary and Lou Grant, director Gene Reynolds is a veteran of M*A*S*H\ and Jay Tarses, who plays Skip’s cartoon scriptwriter colleague at the Duck Factory, was executive producer of The Bob Newhart Show and

Buffalo Bill. MTM has spared no expense in putting the new show together. At a cost of about $600,000 an episode, Burns is giving The Duck Factory a visual sophistication by complementing its already richly eccentric cast with costly animation graphics showing the Dippy Duck cartoons which the factory’s characters labor to produce. But most of all, NBC Entertainment’s president, Bran-

don Tartikoff, believes that Carrey himself could be the key to the show’s success. When he first saw Carrey’s act at the Los Angeles Comedy Store—an act that the Los Angeles Times had called “impressionism as art”—Tartikoff

turned to Burns and said, “This is the kid we have been looking for for years.” Comedy club audiences in Canada have long been aware of the marvels that Carrey can work with his toothsome, fresh-faced good looks. He can make his lanky frame go limp like a

marionette suddenly out of string or twitch his face into a likeness of Elvis Presley with his upper lip vibrating as frenetically as his hips. “The mirror is my friend,” Carrey explained. “I feel happy when I do this”—and a grave Leonid Brezhnev impression suddenly masked his face. Unlike impressionists who merely copy their subjects, Carrey catapults his victims into banal or unlikely situations. His Popeye croaks uncharacteristically sophisticated songs from A Chorus Line (Kiss Today Goodbye)', he performs Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. squabbling over their pizza order. Perfectly capturing actor Bruce Dern’s staring, psychotic intensity, Carrey’s “Dern” does a commercial for a mental health foundation: “This year one in 10 Americans will suffer some form of mental illness. With your help and support, we can get those other nine people.” Carrey’s comic gifts are firmly entrenched in the dominant pattern of Canadian comedy. The country with the perennial identity crisis is best known for such comics as Rich Little and the cast of SCTV, who win laughs by lampooning other people’s identities. Carrey wanted to be a comic impressionist for as long as he can remember. “I loved to entertain,” he said. “I hated to be hated.” Whenever his schoolmates or teachers asked, he would perform John Wayne imitations in the classroom. At home he cheered his ailing mother with imitations of a praying mantis. His recurring nightmare, he confided, was “using bad language in my act, so the audience got disappointed with me and said, ‘Aw, Jim.’”

After he dropped out of school in Grade 10 his father submitted his name to Yuk Yuk’s, the Toronto comedy club that launched the careers of such stars as Rick Moranis and Howie Mandei. At 19 Carrey had become To-

ronto’s hottest young comic and had collected enough money to head for New York. There, comedian and club owner Rodney Dangerfield saw him perform and hired him as an opening act for one of his tours. As news of Carrey’s irresistible humor spread, he won jobs opening shows for such rock stars as Sheena Easton and Linda Ronstadt. Now, if not already a household name, Carrey is well on his way to becoming one, with guest spots on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and profiles in People and TV Guide. Currently, his agent is the Hollywood firm of Rollins and Joffe, which handles Woody Allen and Robin Williams. And still, said his Duck Factory friend Jay Tarses: “He is a regular guy, and if my teenage kids come by and beg him to do his David Bowie, he’ll do it.”

But Carrey’s most unusual gift may be the affable common sense which he has apparently maintained on his youthful sprint to the top. His private life is almost perversely normal: he has moved his parents to Los Angeles and currently lives with them. He neither drinks nor smokes, and parks his unassuming Dodge Colt in the studio lot beside a fleet of Mercedes. Aware of the toll his volatile profession can exact, he says that his aim in life is “to get through showbiz unscathed.”

But no true comic escapes without

scars, and Carrey has earned many of his at the hands of fellow comics. With a shudder Carrey recalled the emcee’s voice intoning “Borrrring” on his first appearance at Yuk Yuk’s. Although he subsequently won rave reviews at that club, its owner, Mark Breslin, himself an admirer of comedian Lenny Bruce, never agreed. Commented Breslin: “I prefer comedy with a message and an edge. Carrey is a great craftsman, but to me impressions are a party trick.”

Ironically, while some cynics dismiss Carrey’s upbeat, slapstick brand of clowning—“I pattern myself after Dick Van Dyke,” Carrey admitted—his new TV show could fail because it is too offbeat. In one scene, which simultaneously pokes fun at network timidity, audience prudery and the beleaguered media, Skip returns from oral surgery to confront a group of angry parents bent on boycotting The Dippy Duck Show. As the frozen-mouthed Skip tries to convince them that his show is not violent or risqué, he presents the image of a drooling

maniac. The Dippy Duck Show’s problems could parallel those of The Duck Factory. Producer Burns commented: “TV, which has always been a crap shoot, is getting tougher. Sophisticated audiences are being pulled away by cable and cassette. A show like Lou Grant couldn’t make it today.” Carrey is fatalistic about The Duck Factory’s future—and is certain to continue entertaining people no matter what happens. While he would like to do more acting, it is doubtful that he will ever abandon the special talent he has for reflecting other people in a fun-house mirror of his own creation. When he gets an impression right—when he realizes that he is nibbling a sandwich with the squirrelly, flashing-eyed cunning of a Jack Nicholson—he says he can feel the hairs on his neck prickle in recognition. The ability to do something so well is indeed impressionism as art. Whether or not The Duck Factory flies, Carrey’s career seems destined to soar.

With Jane Mingay and Laurie Deans in Los Angeles and Dennis Kucherawy in Toronto.

Jane Mingay

Laurie Deans

Dennis Kucherawy