In 1982, the 20-year-old Jim Carrey was on the cusp of fame.
Working on my recent series on classic comedy specials, I got to wondering why homegrown Toronto comic Jim Carrey had never done one. There was a 1981 appearance on An Evening At The Improv, but there was no Just For Laughs headlining set, no Comedy Now! (begun in 1987) taping, and no HBO special.
When I read our cover story on Carrey from April 1982, I pieced together one of the reasons.
At 20, Carrey had wowed Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s (then located in Yorkville) with his act—mostly impressions—but he had also done a lot of work in the U.S., where he opened regularly for well-known comic Rodney Dangerfield. As writers Daryl Jung and Shari Hollett point out in the story’s lead, Carrey had an early shot at a spot on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, but he decided to hone his acting and writing skills back home.
They frequently mention him taking control of his career. And I guess taping a comedy special wasn’t really a priority when he had his sights set on bigger things. His main goal was to get on the Tonight Show, which was a given. In the story he mentions the possibility of taping a sitcom in Ottawa called Adam And Eve; there’s no evidence that exists.
Throughout his early career, he repeatedly auditioned for Saturday Night Live, but he always got rejected. Instead, he had small roles in features like Once Bitten and Peggy Sue Got Married. His TV break came when he got cast in the sketch series In Living Color (1990-94).
In the story, Jung and Hollett mention Carrey’s energy, saying “he clearly has a reservoir of imagination that has yet to be tapped”. So true. In just over a decade, Hollywood would finally figure out what to do with him and his malleable face and body. Blockbusters like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb And Dumber (all, incredibly, released in 1994) would make him a household name.
While making more high-toned comedies, he would continue to stretch himself dramatically in films like Man On The Moon (1999) and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004). In 2017, he was the subject of two documentaries, one about the shooting of Man On The Moon. And last year, in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election, he played nominee Joe Biden.
But it’s fascinating to read about Carrey nearly 40 years ago as he discusses “the most creative and productive time of my career,” drinking beers, enthusing about grilled cheese sandwiches and biding his time.
Below is Daryl Jung and Shari Hollett’s cover story, Jim Carrey prepares for fame, republished from the April 1, 1982 issue of NOW Magazine.
Carrey prepares for fame
By Daryl Jung and Shari Hollett
Toronto comic Jim Carrey finally got his big break—a guest spot on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. But he didn’t do it.
This gives you an idea of what he’s all about. Carrey is a hot property these days and things are happening fast. Aside from gaining a solid Toronto following with his four years of stand-up impersonations at places like Yuk-Yuk’s and Cafe On The Park, in teh last eight weeks he has opened for Rodney Dangerfield, the Pointer Sisters, and Ian Tyson, and done club dates in Las Vegas and Southern California. But the biggest breakthrough came when Tonight Show talent co-ordinators Bud Robinson and Jim McCauley caught his act one night at the Improv in L.A.
“They saw the act and asked me to do Johnny Carson. So we went and did it,” Carrey told NOW. “But there’s a misconception that being on the Tonight Show is the ultimate experience for a comedian. Yes, the kind of exposure you get opens a lot of doors for other areas, sitcoms, movies. But the timing has to be right. There’s no hurry to do it, and we can always do it. It’s there for me. But on their advice I decided to come back to Toronto and develop my talent in other areas, like writing and acting, which you can’t really do in L.A.”
This decision is indicative of the caution Carrey takes in maintaining control of his career. He is multi-talented—a fine mimic, a singer, a personality—and he writes 90 percent of his own material. So Toronto is the perfect choice for developing diverse talents and new material, rather than the hungry-comedian-saturated L.A. where a guy is lucky to get a mike at amateur night at the Comedy Store.
“This is the most productive and creative time of my career. I’m really interested in maintaining overall artistic control. You used to be able to get by with writers who came up with straight jokes but now everything is geared to the individual personality of the performer. And who knows my personality better than myself? Often this leads to a little discontent among other actors I work with but I really think everyone should look out for themselves.”
The ease, presence of mind and casual confidence Carry possesses about his career and where he wants it to go is carried over to his on-stage persona. At 20 years old he’s remarkably cool and affable. He’s rapid fire with his ad libs, and he makes the audience part of some of his bits. He does a mean Johnny Mathis. But the most amusing, certainly the most endearing, part of the act is Carrey’s slightly warped sense of humour within the various bits. Ronald Reagan talking to Nancy, who is in bed with Alexander Haig, over the intercom. James Taylor singing "You’ve Got A Friend" retitled "I Don’t Want to Get Involved" (“You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I’ll just stay there…”). Mick Jagger singing "My Way". After a manic Elvis impersonation, a woman yells “Hound Dog! Do Hound Dog.”
“Only if I can use you as the tree.”
But the delivery of this type of off-colour remark is softened with a sense of open-eyed innocence. It’s obvious Carrey loves his work and that his main concern is that everybody in the house have a good time. And they do. There really is something for everyone and Carrey isn’t out to intimidate or offend anyone. His favourite comedian, he adamantly states with some regularity, is Dick Van Dyke.
“Everytime I watch him I’m rolling on the floor. The guy is a genius. He’s charming and so funny! But the important thing is that he has a good aura about him—he generally seems like a very nice person.”
Canadians have had a good track record in the comedy game over the years. The list is long—Wayne and Shuster, Rich Little, Dan Ackroyd, David Steinberg, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis, indeed the whole Second City outfit has been able to make a smooth transition from Canadian obscurity to American television stardom. Now Jim Carrey can be added to the list of people who stand to enjoy this type of success Stateside. Could there be a trend being noted by L.A. producers?
“I don’t think they notice any real trend. But they love the fact that there is good stuff coming out of here. Nationalism has so little to do with anything in this particular business. I love the fact that I’m a Canadian and it’s nice when it gets noticed, but if you’re good enough and work hard enough nobody cares where you’re from. They’ll still tell you what they think. If they like what you’re doing they’ll be helpful.”
Rodney Dangerfield is a big star on TV in the States and runs one of the few real, traditional stand-up comedy clubs left in New York. Did he like you enough to be helpful?
“Being on tour with Rodney was a great time. And he was very helpful. Really took me under his wing, actually. Pulled a real father routine. One night over a couple drinks he told me I should get married and settle down. What a character. But he thought I made the right decision about doing the Carson show. He said it’s better to have four or so shows under your belt and then go on. He’s seen a lot of guys go on once and not go over very good and then disappear.
“He thinks what I’m doing now, you know, what I call going back to ‘school’ is a wise idea. I still have a lot to learn. I want to develop my nightclub act. Smooth it out, make it more solid. But I also want to write, write, write. Right now it’s almost certain that I’ll be doing a sitcom out of Ottawa called Adam and Eve. I play Adam. And I have full responsibility for developing that character. Also I’ve been writing songs. I don’t play an instrument or read music but these songs started popping out of me. It’s crazy but I love it.”
So Carrey likes to keep busy. But it seems like an awesome workload for a Newmarket kid whose first gig was taking off his shirt at his parents’ parties and sucking in his ribs.
The world of the comedian has a very dark side to its mythology. Gifted young men like Freddie Prinze, and recently John Belushi, have succumbed to the pressures that come from being in the situation where you have to be funny all the time. And there’s the old adage that sadness always lingers behind the clown’s mask. Also sheer volume of work and erratic hours and drugs can become sources of pressure and danger.
“My best friend and my manager saw Belushi at the Improv two nights before he died. There was a case of trying to do too much in too little time. He was wasted and nodding out. Demanding coffee, not more drinks. My friend remarked that the guy looked like he was literally about to collapse. Death written all over his face. Then two days later…
“But the point is I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. I have a built-in mechanism that tells me when I’m neglecting important things—like staying alive for one—because I’m having fun. I love all the things that are happening. I want to do everything, keep on going. The last thing in the world I want to do is to stagnate.”
This doesn’t seem too likely. Carrey is a bundle of energy on stage and off and he clearly has a reservoir of imagination that has yet to be tapped. And as more original material emerges from him the better his stage show will become as he adds more characters to his current stable of about two dozen (which you can catch through April 4 at Cafe On The Park).
“I stay up late at night walking around the house just trying to come up with ideas. I’ll get a pinch of excitement and just scream at the top of my lungs until I get what I want.”
Jim Carrey has what he wants for the time being. To dedicate himself to perfecting his craft is all that he needs. The rest will come when he decides to take it.
“In conclusion I would like to say one thing,” says Carrey as we finish off our beers. “I love grilled cheese sandwiches. Two at a time on a plate, half a bottle of ketchup on the side. That’s where it’s at for me. I can wear a tuxedo and eat them and feel like the classiest guy alive.”