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A Working-Class Comic : Drew Carey Is a Semper Fi Kind of Guy With His Own Show

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“There are so many shows about New York yuppies. I’m so sick of them!” comedian-actor Drew Carey exclaims with a laugh that only partly mutes his distaste for the current avalanche of sitcoms about hip, single friends looking for love in the big city.

Indeed, with his trademark crew cut, horn-rim glasses, beer belly and Everyman demeanor, Carey appears as if he’s been cast as the quintessential anti -yuppie.

So it’s understandable why the usually congenial funnyman tends to boil over when critics lump his new ABC comedy, “The Drew Carey Show,” with more trendy urban sitcoms such as “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”

“We get compared with those shows because all our characters are single and we don’t have kids,” Carey observes during a rehearsal break at the show’s Warner Bros. home in Burbank. “We are going for the same [18-to-49] demographic. So I am guilty of that. But comparing us with some of those other shows is like saying ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ are the same because they both took place on a ship.”

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Co-created by Carey and executive producer Bruce Helford, “The Drew Carey Show” does possess an earthy, working-class sensibility lacking in most other sitcoms about single people. His character is based largely on the real Carey and what type of life he would be living today had the former waiter and Marine Corps reservist not ventured into stand-up comedy in 1986.

Carey plays an assistant director of personnel at a department store in his actual hometown of Cleveland. It’s a “gray-collar” job that carries with it a semi-impressive title but little power or financial reward. Basically, this good-hearted soul with the sharp wit is like any other working stiff.

An ideal night out often means time spent at the local watering hole with buddies, which in this case includes office-mate Kate (Christa Miller), janitor Lewis (Ryan Stiles) and disc jockey wanna-be Oswald (Diedrich Bader).

“I swear a lot more in real life and I’m wilder than I can be on TV,” Carey cracks in explaining the differences between the fictional and real Drew. “I’m still pitching a show where the gang stays up all night at the bar just drinking and getting smashed!”

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Carey comes across as unpretentious and forthcoming. He isn’t at all reluctant to respond with boyish delight when asked about his reaction to his expanding celebrity. He seems genuinely tickled when relating a recent experience signing autographs and posing for photographers at the star-studded Planet Hollywood party in Beverly Hills.

He’s equally unafraid to take public aim at the haughty detachment that he sometimes finds in the entertainment business.

“Elton John was playing [at the Planet Hollywood party],” Carey recalls. “He’s playing ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,’ one of the rocking-est tunes he’s ever done, and all these rich idiots are saying, ‘Hey, he’s pretty good, huh?’ These celebrities just stood behind the stage and wouldn’t come around to see him perform. I thought that was kind of insulting and rude. . . . I wouldn’t want to be like that. I mean, Elton John is playing for free and you don’t want to come to the front of the stage and dance? What kind of snooty people are these?”

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Carey began performing as a stand-up comic in Cleveland soon after he started writing jokes for a disc jockey friend. But his performing career crawled along for about five years. He missed out on a much coveted opportunity to appear on “The Tonight Show” in 1988 when he didn’t receive the program’s last-minute invitation in time. His subsequent relocation to Los Angeles did little to jump-start his career. Carey’s first few years living in California were marked by depression and frustration. For a while, the thirtysomething comic even lived out of his car.

“If you ask anybody who worked with me at that time, they would tell you that I would just sit by myself [before shows],” Carey says. “I didn’t talk to anybody. I was out here in L.A. I lost ‘The Tonight Show.’ I broke up with my girlfriend. I didn’t have a place to live anymore. All I had was my stand-up act. . . .

“I was so depressed that I would spend every dollar I made trying to entertain myself. I used to go to arcades and spend 50 bucks in quarters. I would play video games all day.”

In 1991, Carey received another chance to appear on “The Tonight Show.” He took full advantage of the opportunity. The comic’s retro ‘50s look and sly humor had the studio audience and host Johnny Carson in stitches.

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“You can’t do much better than that,” Carson told him. “You’re funny as hell.” (This performance is included on the “Best of Carson” home video.)

Carey’s “Tonight Show” triumph helped to turn his career around. In 1993 his comedy special “Drew Carey: Human Cartoon” aired on Showtime. A year later he landed a supporting role on the NBC sitcom “The Good Life.” Carey proved to be the most memorable component of that porous mid-season replacement show, which quickly faded into obscurity.

Following the demise of “The Good Life,” the Hollywood-based comedian learned the craft of sitcom writing and hooked on as a writer for NBC’s “Someone Like Me,” which Helford was producing. That series also fell by the wayside amid intense internal bickering.

But what Carey really wanted was a show of his own. He and Helford made appointments with ABC, Fox and CBS to discuss the possibility of establishing a sitcom around the comedian. After hearing their pitch, a smitten ABC persuaded Carey and Helford to cancel their two other network meetings. Carey recalls: “I thought it was going to be this big wrangle to get [ABC] to buy this idea. But they said, ‘That’s great. Come up with a story idea.’ That was it.”

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Carey would eventually like to make the leap to the big screen as an actor, writer and producer. But he also claims that he would be equally satisfied with an extensive run on TV with “The Drew Carey Show” and then a life of leisure back in his beloved Cleveland.

“If this show is a hit, I don’t care what happens after that,” Carey, who recently purchased his childhood home in Cleveland, says with a laugh. “I could just disappear. Jeff Foxworthy [another stand-up comedian with a new ABC sitcom] said the same thing. I would love to just hang out and sleep all day and go to Indians and Browns games.”

* “The Drew Carey Show” airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC (Channels 7 and 3). Carey will perform live at the Irvine Improv Comedy Club on Saturday at 8 and 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 8 p.m.


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