The Show That Set Up Jim Carrey's Entire Career
For a guy whose comedy movies have made nearly five billion dollars at the global box office (could this week's Sonic the Hedgehog 2 put him over the top?), not everything always went Jim Carrey’s way.
He auditioned for Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, but before he even got to the stage, there were bad omens. “I got out of the car in the parking lot, and there was a person trying to work up the guts to commit suicide on the building on NBC in Burbank, and I walked into the building not knowing whether he did it,” Carrey says. “All the new crews were gathering around the building. I went, That’s not probably a good sign.”
He did get his own sitcom, The Duck Factory, a few years later, building on his early stand-up routines that included plenty of impressions. For some reason, NBC showed the episodes out of order and it only lasted three months.
But the big break was coming. Carrey was working the stand-up stages at the same time as a young Damon Wayans and “we were always kind of clocking each other. He kind of admired what I was doing onstage,” says Carrey. “He told me, ‘Hey, crazy man, what do you think about coming in to audition for this thing? Come and meet my brother.’”
“This thing” was In Living Color, a show that would change the lives of many of its cast, including Carrey, the Wayans family, David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson, and Fly Girl Jennifer Lopez.
Like SNL, In Living Color was a sketch comedy show -- but the cast was much more diverse, the comedy more outrageous. If Carrey was possibly too weird for Saturday Night Live, he was a perfect fit here.
Carrey met Damon’s brother Keenen Ivory Wayans, who “actually hired me because I was so disrespectful to him when I went into my audition.”
“I told him I loved him and then pretended to assassinate him in front of everybody,” Carrey remembers. “And for some reason, that’s what got me the job. But I was definitely committed to Keenen and the joy—beyond belief—from the first time I met him.”
While a young Carrey was known for his impressions of Elvis Presley and other celebs, In Living Color gave him a crack at original creations. “I had never created characters before that show. It was a whole new process to me,” he says. “And those guys, that incredible cast, were on their feet, never doing the same take twice. It was really just like Second City training.”
That cast also wanted to take comedy risks, pitching sketch ideas that had little chance of making it to air on network television in 1990 and maybe even less chance today. A sketch about an abortion rally ventriloquist? Good luck finding the advertiser who wants to run a commercial alongside that.
“We came up with a sketch called “Make a Death Wish Foundation” about a dead kid whose posthumous wish was to go to an amusement park. That did not make it on air, either,” says Carrey about early sketch pitches. “But I came up with the face of the kid, and it eventually turned into the “Fire Marshall Bill” face.”
What if this was as high as I was going?
The show blew up and so did the cast. It’s a show biz story as old as time -- be careful of success.
“Sometimes I’d talk to Damon Wayans, who by year three had started getting a lot of opportunities and was on the way out of the show. He was tired a lot of the time and I’d say to him, ‘But this is it, man! We made it already.’”
“I was aware that this was a rung on the ladder, but I wanted to enjoy it,” says Carrey. “What if it wasn’t? What if this was as high as I was going? So I worked it to the very last show. Probably a little desperately.”
But Carrey had more rungs to climb. Even when Kenan Ivory and Damon left the show, he stayed with In Living Color through his contracted five years. But at night? He was working with Steve Oedekerk on a little project called Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The character work he’d honed during his five seasons was about to pay off big time.
“We’d stay up until four in the morning. And David Alan Grier used to rub it in during tapings,” he says. “He’d go out to the audience and say, ‘I don’t know if you people realize it, but Jim Carrey is about to jump off in a movie called Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.’ He meant it facetiously. He was making fun of me for the silly name of my movie.”
Carrey couldn’t blame him -- even he didn’t believe in the movie, at least not at first. He took the job, figuring ‘I’ll rewrite it if I don’t like it. As long as I have a trap door and I can get out—it’s cool.’”
But by the end of the rewrites, Carrey and Oedekerk were convinced they had something hilarious, and “there was no way I was not gonna do it.”
David Alan Grier continued to poke fun at Carrey during audience warmups but after the movie came out -- and hit huge -- the tone changed. “David was like, ‘Hey, everybody, let’s hear it for Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It’s really nice to see! Congratulations, Jim!’ And he gave that David dejected face that he does so well. So yeah, its success was a shock to everybody.”
The thing that blew Carrey away was the response from other comics. Jerry Seinfeld called to tell Carrey he’d never laughed that hard in life. Steve Martin let Carrey know that he’d been feeling reclusive and friends had to convince him to leave the damn house and see Ace. “He decided to go out, begrudgingly, and he said it made him believe in the world again.”
Ace Ventura was just the beginning but Carrey credits all his future success to the foundation laid by In Living Color. “It was fantastic because they had a complete belief in me and gave me the greatest opportunity of my life to be seen in a way that would be beneficial to me,” he says. “It was a wonderful opportunity, and I feel graced by it, for sure.”
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Top image: 20th Television