The Stand-up Special That Predicted Jim Carrey’s Imminent Movie Stardom
You don’t need to look up Jim Carrey: Unnatural Act on IMDb to determine what year it was filmed. All you really need to do is check out his shirt, a piece of wardrobe that screams 1991. He’s practically wearing the In Living Color logo.
Yep, Carrey prepped this Showtime stand-up special (co-produced by Judd Apatow because, once again, this was 1991) as he was filming Season Two of In Living Color. He wasn’t quite yet a star — in his words, he was in the process of transitioning from the show’s White Guy to the show’s Funny White Guy. But the special, dedicated to his mother who had recently passed, was a dead-on Ouija board when it came to predicting the big-screen success that was in Carrey’s not-so-far-off future. No, you wouldn’t have guessed that this rubber-faced goof would eventually make Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or The Truman Show. But Unnatural Act practically serves as coming attractions for the triple-slam he was about to hit in 1994: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber.
There’s a temptation to write this essay entirely with pictures, as Carrey shows off the most impressive slapstick comedy skills since Jerry Lewis? Lucille Ball? The Three Stooges? Words are besides the point, as with filmed interstitials between the stand-up bits that feature zero dialogue whatsoever. It’s Carrey high-kicking it over parking meters. Reversing the traffic arrows on construction signs. Playing hockey in an unfrozen lake. Slamming his face into half a watermelon in front of bewildered grocery shoppers.
Sure, he talks during the stand-up, which makes up the lion’s share of Unnatural Act. But while the audience members are practically falling out of their chairs, it isn’t due to jokes written on the page. The topics he covers are mundane, the subjects amateurs cover when they’re doing their first open mic — irritating parents, the bathroom habits of married couples, those crazy TV evangelists. But none of that matters because none of the comedy is about words.
Take, for example, a section of the show where Carrey trots out his celebrity impressions. That’s not so exciting in and of itself, as plenty of comedians do impersonations, especially Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, two of the ones Carrey pulls off here. But he might be the only comic to attempt them without the use of his voice at all — he just morphs his face and posture until he becomes someone else. For instance, here’s his Nicholson playing the Joker:
And Carrey as Eastwood:
And Carrey as cool icon James Dean:
His ability to manipulate his face into a mask suggests, well, The Mask, where it was Carrey’s elastic facial expressions, not CGI or makeup, that truly transformed him into a weirdo hero. (Okay, okay, there was CGI as well, but I’m not sure Carrey needed it — the guy’s a walking cartoon.) His real acting in that movie was playing mild-mannered Stanley Ipkiss; when he puts on the magical mask, the Unnatural Act version of Carrey is unleashed.
In all three of his 1994 comedy blockbusters (a three-peat no one has pulled off before or since), the scripts didn’t matter, or at least, not the jokes. Carrey’s physicality was the punchline, the engine that propelled the laughs. Part of the audience’s awe was that what his body was doing seemed impossible. Mask director Chuck Russell told The Ringer that he remembers Carrey saying, “You know, sometimes if I can just imagine it, I can make my body do it.”
Like all comedy specials from 1991, there are parts that don’t age well — Carrey does an extended caricature of Middle Eastern pop stars that wouldn’t fly today, for example. But slapstick generally ages better than spoken humor. There’s not much topical going on in Unnatural Act (besides Carrey’s shirt), so his goofy Gumby act still holds up.
If anything, you might find Unnatural Act exhausting since Carrey refuses to let up, even for a second. He imitates a guy who sings so much like a histronic Michael Bolton that his brain explodes. He humps the stage in a happy, orgasmic escape from reality. At one point, he jumps up and down waving his arms for the simple reason that he won’t be able to do it when he’s old. (I suspect 2023 Carrey could still pull it off, though probably not for 45 minutes.) It makes the special as much of an athletic spectacle as stand-up comedy showcase. Thirty minutes in, Carrey is absolutely drenched in sweat:
And when the audience calls for an encore, he whips off his soaked shirt and throws it into the stands like a triumphant NBA player after a playoff win. (For some reason, this scene is in an alternate cut of the show.)
Carrey ends the show with a “nervous breakdown,” his most honest bit of the night even while he’s throwing his body around the stage like a professional wrestler. It’s the only part of the special where he reveals anything about the real Jim Carrey, confessing that he stopped doing drugs eight years prior not because it was ruining his life but “because it made me more normal.” Only reality can do this, he says.
Carrey concludes with a panicked look in the theatrical mirror, leading to a series of cosmic spasms that end with his exhausted body sprawled on the stage, finally lifeless, but only for a moment. There’s nothing left to do but grope the floor for the microphone, stagger to his feet and deliver one last wish for his audience: “I wish I could have done some really weird stuff for you guys.”