SUMMER SNEAKS '94 : Unmasking the Masked Maniac : How did Jim Carrey, zany guy that he is, blast out of 'Ace Ventura' into 'The Mask' and then right into mega-millions?

Michael Walker is a regular contributor to Calendar

The night of the Rodney G. King verdicts, Jim Carrey was onstage at the Laugh Factory, caroming through one of his theater-of-the-bizarre stand-up routines. Outside the club, an angry mob was working its way up Sunset Boulevard. "I was amazed that people were even out," Carrey marvels on a recent afternoon, lounging on a divan in the club's antiquarian green room.

Thus was Carrey confronted with what, in the stand-up world, passes for a wrenching dilemma: Ignore the riots? Or court Extreme Bad Taste by making fun of them? For Carrey, progenitor of the scar-tissue-faced Fire Marshall Bill on Fox TV's "In Living Color" and other surreally repellent characters, there really wasn't a choice.

"I kinda wanted to fool around and comment on it," Carrey says. "See if I could get away with it." So he told the nervous audience: "You're safe in hee-r-r-e."

They probably didn't feel much better, but Carrey had, as is his custom, walked the line of propriety--and survived. "That's the art of it," he says, "trying to find a way to do it that's not going to make the audience, you know, hate you."

Nobody seems to hate Jim Carrey these days. Two years after that edgy night at the Laugh Factory, the 32-year-old comedian exploded into stardom with the improbable vehicle "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective." The movie, ostensibly about a private eye searching for the kidnaped mascot of the Miami Dolphins, but mostly about Carrey's weirdly compelling comic riffing, stunned the industry by taking in $12 million its first weekend of release in February. The movie has since grossed nearly $70 million--more than "On Deadly Ground," more than such supposedly sure-fire sequels as "Sister Act 2."

Carrey was in Chicago for a stand-up gig the night "Ace Ventura" opened. "My whole management team and I were sitting around, waiting for the numbers to come in. It was like Election Night. Then the next morning they said it had gone completely past the projections. That was a great moment."

The now-eminently bankable Carrey, whose most notable film appearances before "Ace" were sideman roles in "Earth Girls Are Easy" and "Peggy Sue Got Married," is awash in movie offers. The inevitable sequel to "Ace Ventura" is set to start rolling in January. Later this afternoon, Carrey will decamp for Colorado to begin shooting "Dumb & Dumber," a buddy movie for which Carrey sports a pudding-bowl haircut and a chipped front tooth, giving his famously elastic face a serenely dopey Howdy Doody-meets-Detective Wojohowitz cast. (The chipped tooth is the real goods, courtesy of a grade-school misadventure, which Carrey thought made him look cool "until I turned 13 and my penis said to me: You might want to get that fixed.")

Then there is "The Mask," which opens July 29. Filmed last year immediately after "Ace Ventura" wrapped, the $20-million special-effects-laden movie is the second installment in what would have been Carrey's slow build in films but is now, for obvious reasons, freighted with enormous commercial expectations.

Carrey plays Stanley Ipkiss, a Walter Mitty-esque doormat for women, bosses, even his dog, until--did someone mention high concept?--he blunders upon an ancient Viking mask that confers on its wearer explosively charismatic powers. While Carrey and "Mask" director Charles Russell ("Nightmare on Elm Street 3") both earnestly extol the movie's up-from-"Ace"-elements, such as a coherent plot and a somewhat more complex character for Carrey to play, "The Mask" is in fact an outrageous romp for its star, flattering his absurdist tendencies and cartoonish physical humor--or "Fred Astaire on acid," as Carrey puts it. Russell estimates that Carrey's "alarming physical abilities" shaved $1 million off the film's special-effects budget.

"The universal element that makes certain stars exciting is a sense of danger--that anything can happen," says the director. Carrey, he adds, "is fearless in performance--a lot of people don't realize comedy takes courage, to be that free in front of the camera."

The success of "Ace Ventura" has brought Carrey big money. Make that really big money. New Line Cinema will pay the actor, who received $450,000 from the studio for "The Mask," an awesome $7 million to star in "Dumb & Dumber," and a reported, even more awesome, $10 million for the "Mask" sequel. The money is a sensitive topic within Carrey's camp.

Says the $7-million man himself: "I don't want people to start thinking about me as, like, a money person. 'Cause I'm not. To me, that's a little Monopoly game that's being played in the other room. I deserve it as much as the next guy, I think, if I put the butts in the seats and I make people laugh. But I don't wake up thinking about money."

Nevertheless, Carrey adds: "I don't want the money to make me soft." Could it? "I think it does to some people. A guy like Richard Pryor, his stuff came from anger, and when you take that away, when all of a sudden you have everything you want, it's real hard to create that anger again, 'cause it's not there. But my humor has always come from wanting to put out a careless vibe. I don't have to be angry to create."

Amid all the star-is-born blather, the fact remains that Carrey is one of the most original comedians to come along since Robin Williams. He can change the topography of his face and the planes of his lanky body so swiftly, and into such appalling contortions of character, that audiences are sometimes unsure whether to laugh or flee.

"He loves to shock audiences and do stuff that's outrageous," says Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada. "What he does with his face and body--some people are in awe. They ask me: 'Did he have a plastic face on?' "

Like Williams, Carrey also appears to have nearly universal appeal. Men, women and children seem to respond instinctively to him, a handy characteristic when your movie is opening at 2,700 theaters. "He's got that edge," says Russell. "You can't take your eyes off him."

Adds Masada, who has seen his share of comedians over the years: "When he first played here, before 'In Living Color,' the announcer would say, 'Jim Carrey' and the audience didn't react. He had to prove he was funny." Since "Ace," says Masada, Carrey merely has to step onstage "and the people are applauding, screaming, for two, three minutes. I've never seen a reaction like that. He's the hottest comedian right now."

It's been Carrey's extreme good fortune to have his defining moment--"Ace Ventura"--coincide so completely with his vision of himself. The movie was the culmination of 15 years of textbook starving-artist hardscrabble, during which--with the glorious exception of "In Living Color"--the comedian's attempts to bring his demented sangfroid to an audience broader than the stand-up circuit were diluted or rebuffed altogether. With "Ace Ventura," he finally got his chance.

"When I watched the dailies on 'Ace,' I literally peed myself over some of the things that were happening. I didn't know if it was going to go over. I didn't know if it was going to be too much for people." Reminded that, based on the movie's cumulative gross, they now number around 8 million, Carrey says: "Yeah. Society is a lot more twisted than I thought.'

Jim Carrey was reared in the Toronto area, amid conditions sufficiently bizarre to lead one to suspect that Carrey invented them himself, were they not so pathetic. The youngest of four siblings, Carrey inherited his sense of humor from his father, Percy Carrey, a jazz sax/clarinetist and frustrated performer who worked as an accountant. Soon, Carrey was cutting up around the house. "It came from being wanting to be noticed," he says. "My father was really funny, and I guess it was a competitive thing with him. But a good competitive thing. It wasn't strange or anything."

At school, however, Carrey kept to himself. "I was quiet. I never had a friend in the world until the second or third grade, when I started hamming it up in the back of class. That was the turning point. I realized I could do something silly and make people laugh, make them want to talk to me."

Meanwhile, life was mostly sunny, if a bit bent, around the Carrey household. "We were the wildest family, I swear to God," Carrey says. "If you came over for dinner, it was only a matter of time before somebody got half a pound of butter smeared across their face. Literally, every Sunday we'd have a cherry cheesecake fight at the table. We lived in the country, and at Christmas we'd run out to the ditch and wait for people to drive by and come out with axes and stuff, stockings on our heads. And this is, like, my father too. We were insane."

When Carrey was 15, his father lost his job. His mother, Kathleen, who suffered from numerous chronic ailments both real and, apparently, imagined, took ill again.

"Oh, my mother had everything under the sun," Carrey recalls. "Just unbelievable stuff. She was a child of alcoholics"--although not, Carrey says, one herself--"and she had a lot of problems as far as, like, the illnesses were her medals. That's all she talked about. It was desensitizing. I have a problem with that still, sometimes, with the people I'm with. When my wife"--actress Melissa Womer, now separated from Carrey--"would get sick, if I didn't see physical evidence, it would be really hard for me to believe. Because, after a while, with my mom, we'd be at the dinner table and she'd say, 'I have cancer,' and we'd go, 'Great, pass the salt.' Because you heard it every day."

The situation inevitably skewed the dynamic of the family. With Carrey's father cast in the role of nurse and caretaker, Carrey coped with the problem tellingly. "I would make her laugh," he says quietly. "When she was sick--really sick, really in pain--I used to come into the bedroom in my underwear and do my praying mantis impression."

Meanwhile, to make ends meet, the entire family went to work as janitors and security guards in a tire-rim factory. The family's fortunes were at such a low ebb that at one point they lived in tents.

"It was horrifying," Carrey says. "It made me mad. I used to lie in bed at night, or wherever we were, and plot how I was going to kill certain people in certain ways. Just seeing my Dad do that kind of work after being the controller of a company really tore me up."

At night, having dropped out of high school to help support the family, Carrey roamed the factory, furious. "I used to literally carry a baseball bat on my cleaning cart because I just wanted rip into somebody." Did he? "No, but I broke a lot of machines and a lot of furniture. The bosses would come in the next day: 'What the hell is this hole in the wall?' And I'd go, 'Aw, that ol' buffing machine got away from me.' "

Finally, says Carrey, "We just decided to quit. We had nothing to go to at that time. But we were happier in a Volkswagen camper than we were doing that. Immediately, we changed back to who we really were, which was basically a pretty loving family.

"It was 'Grapes of Wrath,' for a while," Carrey continues. "I learned a lot from that. Whatever life does to you, you have to see that light at the end of the tunnel, because if you don't you're dead." On a less philosophical and perhaps more accurate note, Carrey adds: "It's an interesting thing, how your surroundings can really affect you. It makes you work real hard not to ever have to go back there."

For Carrey, the road out began at Toronto's Yuk Yuk comedy club, where he performed routines written with his father, who squired him to the shows. "He used to come down with me every night, and then I started hanging out with the guys, and I had to have That Conversation with him, which was painful: 'Y'know, Dad, sometimes it's not cool to have your Dad hang out with you.' " Carrey was savvy enough to realize that Percy Carrey, with the best of intentions, was projecting his own thwarted ambitions onto his son. "It was his dream too, you know. He should have been a comedian."

Soon, Carrey had molded a successful act built around killer impressions. "I could have stayed up in Canada and made a real good living doing stand-up, but I always had people going, 'You're too good to stay here, you gotta go to L.A., go to L.A., go to L.A.' When I finally did, it was a real hard decision, but the main thing was knowing my father, who was a really good musician, never made the move, and it dwindled and faded and he became an accountant, which is not his love. To me, that was the benchmark. I wasn't going to let that happen."

Carrey moved to L.A. in 1981. The usual pressures of starting anew in a strange city with an erratically paying job were multiplied by the fact he was supporting his family back in Canada. "My dad had lost heart. He was kind of beaten down by everything that had happened. So I really had to kind of tow the boat there. Now it's not a problem, but a couple of times it broke me financially. I had to call them up and say, 'I don't know what you gotta do. Get on welfare or something, 'cause I have no more money.' "

Finally, Carrey took stock of his career and admitted to himself "that I was doing it for my parents. I wanted to provide, do the Elvis fantasy and give them a big house with pillars and all that. At a certain point I literally started having bad dreams about my parents. Then I started to realize I was angry at them. And I needed to do something--go my own way."

Carrey took a sabbatical from stand-up and took acting lessons. When he returned to the stage, he pointedly ditched the impressions that had been his mainstay. "I could have been one of the top impressionists, but I didn't want that to be my legacy. Where everybody just sits around and goes (imitates unctuous fan): 'He's very cute.' When I went back to stand-up, it was with what nobody wanted me to do, which was ideas."

Make that unscripted ideas. Carrey would prowl the stage, hurling at the audience whatever came into his head. "I'd seen guys like Robin Williams do improvisation, but he always had set things he could go to if things weren't going well." Carrey worked without a net. "I created some really fun stuff out of that, but it was horrifying. Sink or swim. It was like learning how to do a slap-shot with some weight on your stick so that when you do it without--when you finally get up there with some (prepared) material--you're that much looser. You're not afraid."

Carrey's new direction was greeted with intense skepticism. "Everybody told me I was (expletive) nuts. Everybody. (Comedy Store doyenne) Mitzi Shore used to say, 'You're the king of impressions! What are you doing? You're throwing it all away!' Then comics would come up to me and say, 'Man, I used to do a thing that was really great and I threw it away and I've regretted it ever since.' "

Carrey ignored the Cassandras, and, in 1982, picked up what seemed like an unbelievable plum: star of the NBC comedy series "Duck Factory." The show fold after 13 episodes, but movie work was dribbling in: "Once Bitten," "Peggy Sue," "Earth Girls." Finally, in 1989, Keenan Ivory Wayans, brother of fellow "Earth Girls" alumnus Damon Wayans, hired Carrey for the cast of "In Living Color."

Besides being a white face among the comedy show's mostly black cast, Carrey distinguished himself with such indelible characters as Fire Marshall Bill and the steroid-pumped female body builder Vera de Milo. Here, at last, was the chance for Carrey to revel in the weirdness he'd cultivated since dumping the Jimmy Stewart impressions--a show that aggressively spoofed everything from P.M.S. to the disabled. Carrey the comedian and anti-authoritarian found the freedom liberating; Carrey, the semi-lapsed Catholic, occasionally had twinges of guilt.

"The first time I did Fire Marshall Bill, I went home feeling like I was going to go to hell. Then I sat back and looked at it and kind of went, 'You know, it's not that bad. Was the original impulse to do that evil, or what it coming from a good place?' I just wanted to make people laugh." Nevertheless, he snorts, "If somebody else wrote it, I'd probably think it was disgusting."

Carrey eventually discovered a theme running through many of his characters, which was: "Guys who think they're in control but aren't. Just the people who are, you know: 'Don't worry! Count on me!' And they have no idea what they're doing." From there, it's hard not to make the connection to Carrey's tumultuous upbringing, to the nights in the tents, to the weary, broken father. "Exactly," Carrey says. "There is no control. Anybody who says they're in control is full of (expletive)."

Carrey is hunched over a cigarette at the Laugh Factory, piecing together the last year, the best of his life--the year he made "Ace," the year, ironically enough, his marriage collapsed. "It's so cliched," he sighs. "Another Hollywood cliche. But there's reasons for cliches, I guess. It's weird, because during 'Ace,' my marriage was falling apart. Meanwhile, I'm doing what I've always dreamed of doing.

"Living with me this last couple of years is like living with an astronaut--it's not the most rewarding experience," Carrey continues. "It's like, I just came back from the moon, don't ask me to take the garbage out. I can relax, but not at the prescribed times necessarily, and when you're married you've got to have time for this and that and it's just . . . impossible. (Imitates bright, encouraging woman) 'Why don't you sit around the house and work on something?' (As self, manic whispering) 'You don't understand. I've just touched the face of God .' It's that excitement. You can't get that sitting in your living room."

Carrey now lives in the Westwood area. His 6-year-old daughter, Jane, stays with him three days a week. Although Carrey says he likes the everyday attention that fame has brought him--"I don't know if I believe anybody who says they don't"--it's made fatherly outings problematic. "I'd love to take my kid to Disneyland, but I can't. I tried it, and it was not good. I got the VIP treatment and everything, but it was, 'Hey, man! Do that face you do!' I try to stay away from that when I'm with my daughter, because I don't want her to be jealous of that attention."

In the meantime, Carrey is grappling with another Hollywood cliche: Will the suddenly successful movie star ditch the TV show that launched him? "I don't know yet," Carrey says. "I'm scheduled to go back. It's difficult, because I'm getting so many offers to do things that I'd love to do. One is kinda coming up in the space and time that would be for 'In Living Color.' But if I'm there, I'm gonna be there, be into it. I don't want to forsake that form, because that's what got me all this stuff. I don't want to screw those guys, either--I'm not into that. It just gets, like, you just do what you can."

Carrey stubs out his cigarette. By tonight, he'll be in Colorado, ridiculous haircut and gap tooth at the ready, a movie star putting a little more distance between himself and the disappointments that shaped his ambitions. Still, he says, "My life is a string of embarrassing moments. I've gone to premieres and tried to make the cool-guy exit, and the limo driver locks the keys in the car, and it's running, and he's trying to pick the lock while I'm standing there and the whole theater is emptying out.

"I call it the Eugene Syndrome," Carrey says, "because my middle name is Eugene. I always figured my parents named me that to keep me humble. You can never get too cool with a name like Eugene."*

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