In the world of sad clowns, there are the ones who hide how much they’re crying on the inside, because they want to give the people what they want. And then there are the ones who let their inner darkness out as early and often as possible.
Jim Carrey belongs to the latter group. He rose to TV fame playing comic grotesques like burn victim Fire Marshal Bill and steroid abuser Vera de Miloon on In Living Color, then became a movie sensation with the 1994 trifecta of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. But every chance he’s had, he’s gone for dramatic work, apparently adopting the “one for them, one for me” career philosophy, not always to stellar effect. His first extracurricular job during the sketch comedy days was a weepy family TV-movie called Doing Time on Maple Drive, in which he played an alcoholic. At the time, the notion of him playing serious seemed so far-fetched that I first mistook an ad for it to be an In Living Color parody trailer that was taking too long to get to the punch line.
Soon, that creative whiplash would be an accepted part of the deal. Carrey followed the Ace Ventura sequel with the strange anticomedy The Cable Guy. He followed Liar Liar with both The Truman Show (a melancholy takedown of reality TV) and Man on the Moon (an Andy Kaufman biopic for which he became so immersed in the role of performance artist, a documentary was made about the craziness of it all). Some of these dramatic leaps worked (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remains one of the best films of this century), while others didn’t (The Majestic, anyone?). But it was clear Carrey’s heart lay more with them than with the sillier projects that paid the bills, and that he had the chops to do great things with the right role. Last year, he returned to TV in a way as a producer on Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here, a story about ’70s stand-up comedians that, true to Carrey’s taste, is almost wholly dramatic in depicting how miserable the business makes everyone.
So the fact that his first regular TV role in close to 25 years is an utterly tragic one shouldn’t be a surprise. Nor should the fact that he’s superb in Showtime’s Kidding (it debuts September 9; I’ve seen four episodes) as a beloved PBS children’s show host struggling to cope with the death of a son. It feels like no accident that Carrey’s returning to the spotlight as a character who just wants to be sad, if only his adoring public would let him. It’s the part he was born to play, baby.
Created by Weeds alum Dave Holstein, with the first two episodes directed by Eternal Sunshine‘s Michel Gondry, Kidding casts Carrey as Jeff Pickles, who is basically Mister Rogers, only a generation younger and with longer hair. For 30 years, he has delighted and comforted children (and children at heart) with the help of his puppet pals and songs featuring lyrics like, “It’s you who’s doing the feeling, and that makes it OK, and if you don’t know who you are yet, you can feel it anyway.”
But if Jeff provides solace and wisdom to his audience, he has no one to return the favor after the death of his son Phil (played, as is a surviving twin brother Will, by Cole Allen), which ended his marriage to Jill (Judy Greer). (Yes, Mr. Pickles is the kind of guy who gives his kids names that rhyme with their mother’s.) He wants to use his show to both work through his feelings and prepare kids for tough concepts like death; his producer Seb (Frank Langella) doesn’t want him to do anything to disrupt the merchandising empire Jeff has inadvertently created.
“Kids know the sky is blue,” Jeff argues. “They need to know what to do when it’s falling.”
Carrey is wonderful, making Jeff feel like a fully-realized person, even as Holstein and the other writers can’t always decide where the naive children’s show host ends and the man playing him begins. (There are times when Jeff seems utterly clueless about sex, drugs and other aspects of the modern world — as if he’s from the same era as Fred Rogers, who was an ordained minister before moving to TV — and others where it’s clear he’s sharper than he seems, but is just reluctant to break character.) Shows about grief are nearly as tough a sell to adult audiences as Seb fears they are to preschoolers (shout-out to the other 12 Leftovers fans!), but Carrey is compelling throughout, equal parts haunted and sweet, inappropriate and generous. He makes you understand how important Mr. Pickles is to the audience, and how much it’s killing the host to maintain the role as his world is unraveling. The two Gondry-directed episodes in particular find lovely visual ways to underline Jeff’s growing isolation, such as a sequence where he quietly watches Jill from the empty house next door, the two of them physically just feet apart but emotionally nowhere in the same zip code.
The rest of the show is a mixed bag, much of it feeling like the Showtime quirky dramedy formula (see also: United States of Tara, SMILF, etc.) on full blast. Langella is pitch-perfect and hilarious as Seb, who has no filter when it comes to telling Jeff what’s what. (When Jeff wants to change one of his most famous — and lucrative — puppets from a boy to a girl to teach a lesson about gender fluidity, Seb replies, “It’s an expensive vagina you’re adding. That is a $4 million otter twat.”) But both Greer and Catherine Keener (as the show’s head puppeteer Didi, whose own marriage has big problems) are largely wasted — Jill has little to do but scold Jeff, while Didi is stuck in the show’s broadest and meanest subplot. And stories of Will acting out and joining a group of stoners are the ones that most often shine a light on how inconsistently written Jeff is. (Will to his dad: “Do you always have to talk to people like they’re four years old?”)
Carrey’s worth the price of admission, though, even if it’s not the TV comeback vehicle many of his fans would want. Heck, he’d probably be a huge hit just hosting a full-length version of the show within the show, rather than this version that only gives us innocent glimpses amidst all the mourning. But like Jeff Pickles, Carrey wants to lean into the harder parts of life. More often than not with Kidding, he succeeds.