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Jeff Simon: Jim Carrey returns to TV in Showtime's 'Kidding'

Jeff Simon

The funniest moment by far in Sunday's 10 p.m. Showtime premiere of Jim Carrey's sitcom "Kidding" doesn't come from Carrey.

He's in the scene, of course. In anything Carrey stars in for TV or movies, he's the franchise after all. But the big laugh that bursts from your belly is a hilarious drollery written by series creator Dave Holstein and delivered by child actor Cole Allen, playing Carrey's young son.

If you are at all familiar with the long, strange star trip of Carrey through many hundreds of million dollars, you will not be surprised by that misdirection in the slightest. The funniest moment, by many leagues, in"Bruce Almighty" -- in which Carrey played a Mike Randall/Don Polec-type features reporter at a Buffalo TV station -- came not from Carrey, but from his co-star Steve Carrell mimicking him.

One of the more foolish and slanderous delusions maintained for many years by people envious of Carrey's earth-moving success is that he is a megalomaniac whose ego swallows every project whole for the most paltry diva-esque reasons.

Uh, uh. Not even close. The truth is a vastly different -- and infinitely stranger -- than that. Crucial to remember is how unusual Carrey's background is for a comic. He didn't grow up in a middle-class world, but rather a harrowing lower-class world where homelessness was no stranger and where his family worked late nights together cleaning skyscraper offices in Toronto.

Carrey is a comic idealist, an artist looking for laughs wherever they're to be found, to be sure, but more importantly, looking for art and wildly creative and emotionally moving acts of imagination, too.

Anyone expecting him to be a rubber-faced maniac all the time or to constantly go for broke for laughs by talking out of his posterior has completely lost the plot of his life story.

He's a different guy. But then he always was. People who know only zillion dollar stars and indomitable comedians to be egomaniacs feeding some godawful greed and need the rest of us couldn't possibly understand miss completely what, I think, motivates Carrey.

He's a comic radical and a hugely ambitious performer. At his current stage of life (he's 56), he's been a grandfather for more than a decade and doesn't hide it. His days of contentment with "dumb and dumber" shtick and comic orations from his posterior are, no doubt, only to be hauled out of his career footlocker when his accountants insist.

"Kidding" isn't kidding. It's his first major TV project since he helped create "In Living Color" all those years ago (where his character Firemarshall Bill was, I'd submit, the most radical comedy creation any sketch comedy show ever saw). He co-created and co-produced Showtime's series, "I'm Dying Up Here," but appearing in a weekly TV show is another matter entirely.

Its timing is perfect.

We are, at the moment, living through the apotheosis of the reputation of Fred Rogers, of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." Rogers-worship is everywhere. Morgan Neville's documentary of his life "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" was an arthouse smash hit at the movies. A lavish new biography of the late Mr. Rogers is coming out any minute now from writer Maxwell King (published by Abrams Books, 416 pages, $30). We're seeing the final consecration of a true pop cultural hero if not quite the beatification of a pop culture saint.

"Kidding" asks, in fictional form, the following question in a weekly half-hour sitcom:

What if a saintly TV figure like the late Fred Rogers were really a depressed husband and father trying to cope with the death of a 12-year child in a car accident and the subsequent marital dissolution that accompanied so much blighting despair?

The secret lives and lies of kids show hosts have been both comic and dramatic fodder ever since there have been televised kid's shows. It's an ancient trope. What dedicated mischief-maker could possibly resist throwing stinkbombs at a show business grandee who climbed to the top of the mountain by stepping on the sensitivities and naivete of manipulated children?

But that would be the cliche, the quick and stupid gag. Carrey is not in the cliche business. "Kidding" is more surprising -- and richer -- than that. The co-creator of the show is Carrey's director in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Michel Gondry (the title of Phil Kaufman's script, by the way, was taken from a poem by Alexander Pope).

"Kidding" isn't out to "out" Jeff Piccirillo aka "Mr. Pickles," the beloved kids show host of the Fred Rogers class. This guy isn't just an infinitely exploitable "brand" as his producers insist, he's a sensitive, permanently wounded soul who wants to be a source of solace and guidance to tender lives, both old and young.

His own trauma -- the death of his young son in a traffic accident caused by a broken spotlight -- immersed him fully in the world's ongoing daily misery. It's his nature to want to bring his angst into the show and to want to use it to personify and explain death to his pint-sized viewers.

He knows it is a universal human occurrence in families -- whenever it happens -- and he wants, in the gentlest way possible, to give kids a way to think about the unthinkable.

But remember this is a show starring ambitious actor and humanist Jim Carrey. So the kid show's producers are actually the host's father and sister. They understand him. But they understand his revenue stream as much, if not more. They are played by formidable actors who, undoubtedly, know just how ambitious a performer Carrey is -- Frank Langella and Catherine Keener. Judy Greer plays "Mr. Pickles'" estranged wife, who is secretly spied on by "Mr. Pickles" from the house next door. (If any of this sounds like "The Larry Sanders Show," it ought to.)

So it's sensitive, of course, but wildly un-cliched in its tale of unhappiness in a man whose life calling is to make children happy and ready to handle whatever life dishes out. There isn't an ounce of maudlin Jerry Lewis schlock and condescension to any of it.

Carrey couldn't have begun to play this role in a feature film any more than Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman could have convinced anyone that a single theatrical feature of  "Big Little Lies" is what their respective audiences wanted. For that matter, it's as unlikely as it would have been for Amy Adams to have convinced powers that be in the world of theatrical movies that audiences wanted to see her in a movie as dark and dire as "Sharp Objects" was on TV.

These lessons about what TV offers stars haven't been lost on movie stars of large commercial expectations, like Carrey.

Jennifer Garner, whose roughneck revenge flick "Peppermint" opens this weekend, will star, in mid-October, in an HBO comedy from Lena Dunham called "Camping."

As if that weren't enough big screen dazzle to hit small screens this season, Julia Roberts, no less, is actually leaving the comforts of home to be in Amazon's thriller "Homecoming," which is from Sam Esmail, the brilliant creator of the series "Mr. Robot."

We're not even going to talk about George Clooney's plan to bring to premium TV a version of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." Let me freely admit that, sight unseen, it seems to me to be a thoroughly lousy idea. But it behooves us all, I think, to give Clooney half a chance. Heller's novel is an uncommonly rich and full modern masterwork, which is why Mike Nichols had no business reducing it to the entirely inadequate size of his movie starring Alan Arkin and Orson Welles.

It is, at the moment, nothing but sensible for huge movie names to climb off big screens and find, on premium TV, the kind of stories that agents and moguls, in another era, would never have preferred them in. (Too much intimate audience satisfaction; not enough money.)

Carrey, I think, has never been quite the same since he played Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon." He learned, perhaps too well, how every much was required sometimes from performers who go -- as Robin Williams immortally put it -- "full goose bozo."

When he's tapped now, I think, to appear in a project without ambitions, I think he finds it hard. He's too old to be yesterday's infantile comic lunatic. He's also the guy, after all, who made "The Truman Show" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

"Kidding," for Carrey, is probably the exact right sized project at the exact right time.

Of all the huge movie stars finally making their way to TV, Carrey, for me, is the one I'm happiest found his way there.

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