With its anger and self-loathing reaching a peak, the family quit the factory and set themselves adrift in a VW camper van. "It sounds sad," Carrey says. "We went to a couple of campgrounds, and we pitched a tent on my sisters lawn, and we lived like Gypsies, but we were so much happier than we'd been being those people we didn't like. We didn't have a place to live, but it was like somebody lifted a goddamned burden off our shoulders, and we became loving, happy, laughing people again, people that had food fights every Sunday." Carrey leans in, both sheepish and proud: "The first time my brother brought his fiancee to dinner, she got like a half a pound of butter stuffed down her bra."
Sitting by campfires with his future brother-in-law Al, Carrey took lessons in sexuality ("Al would say, 'First you massage the nipples . . . ' "). "When I turned 15," Carrey says, "I said to myself, 'I'm not going to reach 16 without losing my virginity.'" He went with his older brother and sister to a party where "we got totally fried, which is what you did up there," and was invited upstairs by a 25-year-old. Using Al's techniques, Carrey came of age: "Me and this really skinny girl. And I remember Styx's 'Grand Illusion' was playing. Oh, it's pretty frightening, isn't it? And then, of course, I never saw her again."
Meanwhile, his father helped Jim find outstage outlets for the comic antics that had outgrown the living room. "My dad used to say, 'He's not a ham, he's the whole pig,'" Carrey recalls. "He always pushed me, since I was a little kid, like a stage mother. I still have the disease – all I can think about is the frame and how to fill it"
Part of Carrey's success has been his grasp of what the media need. He knows how to feed the seals, from duck-walking through infotainment-show visits to much quieter reminiscences like this one. The stories are scarily true, the aspirations just a tad hyperbolic: "I just want [Ace II ] to be killer funny, you know?" says Carrey. "Kick-ass, piss-your-pants, run-out-of-the-theater, rip-your-dick-off-and-throw-yourself-into-traffic funny."
At a club called Yuk Yuk's, in downtown Toronto, Carrey cajoled his muse. He had the stomped-down bitterness of all great comics; he had his comically limber body and frighteningly mobile face; he had a true gift for mimicry; he had nothing to lose. Getting over with the crowds but stymied by the limitations of being the funniest guy in Toronto, the kid who had sent his resume to The Carol Burnett Show at age 10 – and who is still an avid consumer of things Hollywood (first film seen: "Either The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes or Blood Beast From Outer Space") – headed to Los Angeles.
"I was 17, I'd saved my money, and I came down to get on at the Comedy Store," Carrey says. He ended up "looking like some choirboy – at Sunset and Vine." He was impressed by the palm trees, by the women in lipstick and pumps who approached him as if "it was Sadie Hawkins Day – 'You wanna date?' I didn't know from a hooker. I had no idea what the hell that was about."
Carrey soon retreated to Toronto, not to return to Los Angeles for two years. At Yuk Yuk's the MCs would nail him with the typical provincial joke: "Our next act just got back from the Comedy Store, in L.A. – where he had great seats." By 1981, Carrey had honed his stand-up act, building on such barbed impressions as a zealously smiling Michael Landon, Gandhi sneaking potato salad during a hunger strike and (more reverently) Jimmy Stewart displaying his relentless positiveness: "Well, I guess we're gonna have ourselves a nuclear holocaust" Tommy Davidson, who was later to work alongside Carrey on In Living Color (and the Ace sequel), remembers his fellow comic's arrival on the local stage when Carrey hit L.A. for good at age 19: "We were very critical, watched a lot of comics all the time, but he was just plain good. The first time we saw him, we were in awe of the things he could do."
Judd Apatow, then a stand-up and now a consultant to The Larry Sanders Show, instructed his manager, Jimmy Miller – brother of comic Dennis – to see Carrey ("He's freaking people out"). Carrey would do his "post-Armageddon Elvis," tucking in his arms and making little flippers of his hands. "Then," Apatow recalls, "he would sing an Elvis song, do all the Elvis karate moves but with these little arms. Sometimes the place would go nuts, and other times people were frightened."
What scared Carrey was the idea of opening for Vegas lounge acts 10 years down the road. Even as new manager Miller was ready to book him in bigger venues, Carrey dug in his heels and scrapped his impressions. "I deleted that program," says Carrey. His good looks and comic zest got him a leading role on an NBC series called The Duck Factory, but the sitcoms stories of life in a cartoon shop didn't last. It was at this point that Carrey, perhaps too impulsively, addressed his old family obsessions. "From about age 19,I became the parent in my family," says Carrey. "When I got Duck Factory, I decided to be the hero son – 'OK, I've got a big show on NBC, I can move you down to live with me.' They lived with me for a while, until I ran out of money."
Carrey pauses. It's hard to know if his honesty is unwavering; it is often compulsive. He starts over: "I didn't run out of money – I ran out of patience, and I had to move them back to Canada. I was having bad dreams – I was strangling my mother in my sleep." Carrey the seasoned absurdist seems to be talking – but his expression shows he's now in touch not with his humor but with its dark roots. "I still supported them until I ran out of money. I went bankrupt."
Smoking, snorting and slacking off (until a pal told him he'd become a creep), Carrey marked time. He missed a few chances at solvency in those early '80s. Linda Ronstadt came to the Comedy Store in search of an opening act and ended up with a temporary boyfriend. Was this affair the end of Carrey's adventures with older women? "Well, you know, I felt I had things to teach her," he says. "And, no, there was the thing with Ruth Gordon."
Carrey would often chat with Melissa Womer as she waited tables at the Comedy Store. An aspiring actress who'd moved from Arizona to L.A. at 17, she saw his knack even in his offhanded repartee with fellow comics. "The dude is no flash in the pan," says Melissa Carrey in the California argot that pokes through her earnest philosophical bent. "He is what legends are made of." Sadly, she will be seeing the legend mostly on billboards once the dust from their contentious divorce case clears. Her spin on their early days is doomed to seem self-serving, but it's more out of sorrow than anger. "I miss him very much," she says. "I still love him with all my heart. I'd take him back in a second, because he's my friend and he has just lost his way."
From the time of their first brief exchanges at the Comedy Store, it took almost two years for the romance to flower. Carrey had abandoned his successful onstage guise, watched his sitcom tank and was stewing over his direction, getting ready for his Dada stand-up phase. "He was in a deep depression," Melissa says, "in front of a TV, eating potato chips and Häagen-Daz." Then-roommate Phil Roy, who has watched his "Heaven Down Here" songwriting collaboration with Jim become a hit for Tuck and Patti, recalls "chili and white bread every single night" as Jim's only choice for a hot meal in those days. Melissa recalls the wedding on March 28, 1987, as "an absolutely perfect day," ending with the couple sitting over untouched mahi-mahi at sunset in a hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., "bawling like idiots" at their happiness.
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