Although Drew Carey is arguably best known for his stint as the titular character in The Drew Carey Show or his current gig as the host of The Price Is Right, once upon a time he was merely a struggling stand-up comedian. Carey’s life and career changed immeasurably, however, after his inaugural appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Not just because of his set, but because Carson also offered him the honor of all honors for any up-and-coming stand-up: inviting him over to the couch for a chat after his routine. Carey spoke with The A.V. Club in connection with the DVD release of American Masters: Johnny Carson, a behind-the-scenes look at the late-night legend, for which he was interviewed. Carey discusses his Tonight Show experience, life in the sitcom trenches, learning the ropes of improv, and stepping back into stand-up.
The A.V. Club: Do you remember the first time you actually watched The Tonight Show? Did it stand out for you at the time?
Drew Carey: Wow, the very first time I watched it? Man. No, but I remember it seemed like I always watched it. But I also remember that I only watched it when there was a comic on. If it said in TV Guide that such-and-such comedian was going to be on, I’d watch. But if it didn’t say there was a comic on, I wouldn’t.
AVC: So would you say it was directly responsible for you wanting to be a comedian?
DC: Um… more tangentially.
AVC: What was responsible, then?
DC: I don’t know. I just liked stand-up comedy so much. I used to memorize Bill Cosby albums and other people’s albums, George Carlin, Flip Wilson. My friends and I would always look at National Lampoon [magazine]. I don’t know, it just seemed like a natural thing. I always loved comedy, and I wanted to try it. There was a place in Vegas, the Sahara Hotel, and they had a thing called the Sahara Talent Showcase that was at the lounge. All you had to do was sign up, and you could go up there. Anybody could just show up and sign up. It was either Sunday or Monday nights at the Sahara. So I went up there, that was the very first time I ever tried to do stand-up, and I was awful. [Laughs.]
Maybe there was a talent show in college where I tried to do stand-up, too. I just thought about that. But I was always the guy at parties in college who knew all the jokes. Like, joke jokes. I’d buy joke books and try doing them at school; I always had jokes. That would be my go-to thing at parties: I’d be able to get through them if I just told enough jokes. Otherwise I wouldn’t end up talking to anybody. In fact, that probably had a lot to do with my becoming a comedian, actually.
AVC: If you were so awful when you went onstage at the Sahara, what convinced you to keep at it?
DC: I tried to do it a couple of times, actually, and I was still really awful, so I was just gonna stop. I was like, “Okay, well, this is something I wanted to try, and now I’ve tried it. And, yeah, I was really bad at it, but at least I got it out of my system.” It’s like somebody who’s just learning how to play guitar trying to get a band together with their friends, and that’s when they find out they’re actually pretty awful, so that’s the end of that.
I was working as a waiter around that time, and a friend of mine—who I’d met when I first started with the comedy—was a DJ. I was having trouble at work, and he said, “If you ever think of any jokes for my radio show, I’ll pay you.” And I was really not doing great with the waiter thing, so I asked, “How much would you pay me?” And he goes, “I’ll give you $10 or $15 a joke.” So I figured I could make a couple of hundred dollars a week, except I didn’t really know how to write jokes. I just kind of wrote down anything I thought of. I didn’t know there was a structure to it. Then I went to the Cleveland Public Library and found a book on how to write jokes, and when I saw it, I was like, “Oh, shit! This is how you do it?” It was like a door opening for me. There was all this structure laid out in the book, all of these exercises and tools. It was a toolbox, basically, that said, “This is how you do it.” And I was really energized by that.
I found that book in October or November of that year, and it was my New Year’s resolution to try out those jokes on Amateur Night at the Cleveland Comedy Club. I used to go to the Cleveland Comedy Club all the time. If there was a comic I liked, I’d go see him two or three times that week. Bob Saget was one of those guys. I’d go once by myself, once with a friend, once with a date. I just loved watching the comics. I’d think, “Well, I can’t do it, but I love watching these guys.” They’d be so good, and I could imagine myself—if I had talent—doing that, the way an amateur guitar player watches Eddie Van Halen or somebody. “Oh my God, if I had talent, I could be like that.” You always put yourself in their shoes. And then when I found out there was a trick to writing jokes, I was like, “Oh, shit!” [Laughs.] I wanted to try it out, so I went to Amateur Night, and I won. I kept coming back with new jokes, and eventually they hired me as an MC, and I got to know the other local comics. I met a couple of guys from Chicago who used to come in, so I’d drive up to Chicago and work the clubs there and try out new material. And it all kind of started from there.
AVC: Having Johnny Carson call you over to the couch after that first set was a dream come true for you, as it was for many young comics, but even before that first Tonight Show appearance, you’d already had a close encounter with Ed McMahon.
DC: I did. I was on Star Search. In fact, that’s what helped me get on The Tonight Show in the first place. So when I did The Tonight Show, I looked over at him and said, “Hey, Ed,” and I kind of laughed. Then he said, “Hello,” and I said, “Remember me? I was on Star Search!” And he looks at me like [Offers a completely blank expression.], then he finally goes, “Oh, of course!” He was trying to be nice, but he clearly had no recollection of me whatsoever. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’d been doing stand-up for years before ever doing The Tonight Show, but was that always the dream you were working toward?
DC: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, I’d had a chance to do The Tonight Show earlier, actually. I auditioned and got the show. I was living in Cleveland at the time, but I was out in L.A., and while I was there I got a call to do the show, but I missed it. I was on that short list of fill-in people—somebody had fallen out and they wanted me to fill in—and I missed the call. I was working at the Comedy [&] Magic Club, and I’ll never forget, because I walked into the club, and the MC met me, and he goes [In a sad voice.], “Hey, man, how ya feelin’?” And I go, “I’m okay. Why, what happened?” I’d been gone all day, so I had my suit and my shaving kit. I’d been to see a taping of Full House. [Laughs.] I’d been to see my friend Kevin Pollak’s show; he had a show at the time. So I’d been to see both those shows, that’s what I was doing all day, and no one could get a hold of me, because there were no cell phones back then. So I go, “What happened?” And he goes, “Oh, man, I don’t want to tell you if you don’t know.” I go, “What, did my mother die? Just tell me what fucking happened!” And he goes, “Uh, The Tonight Show was trying to call you all day to do the show, and they got—” I forget the guy’s name, but they got someone else instead. And I’m, like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Jesus Christ! And I’m at fucking Full House?”
So then I went on and did my set at the Comedy Magic Club, and I said, “I was supposed to do The Tonight Show tonight, they called me, I didn’t get on, so here’s my set.” And I did my act for the Comedy Magic Club audience, and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I really wasn’t good enough to headline then. I was an opening act at the Comedy Magic Club, and at the time I just stood behind the microphone. I didn’t move around the stage, really a whole different style. My style hadn’t developed yet because I was so new. So then I talked to the dude on Monday, and I said, “I’m really sorry I missed your call.” And he said, “Don’t worry about it, but I want to see you again before I schedule you for another appearance.” So I said, “Okay,” and he went and saw me again, and he said, “I think you’re gonna have to wait a little while. I don’t think you’re ready.” He made me wait, and it took me three years to get booked back on the show.
DC: Yeah. I lived in Cleveland, so I said, “Fuck this, I’m moving.” Because now all I thought about was being on The Tonight Show. So I moved from Cleveland to L.A. with a girlfriend, we broke up, and I lived out of my car for a year and a half, on the road with nothing on my mind but getting my act good enough to be on The Tonight Show. I thought, “When I’m done with this test of my will, I’m gonna go back to L.A. and get on the fucking Tonight Show.” And when I got done living on the road, I came back, and the first thing I did was call [Tonight Show talent booker] Jim McCauley, and I said, “Hey, I’m Drew Carey. Remember me?” And he said, “Yeah!” I said, “Well, I think I’m ready to audition again.” And he came to see me at the Improv. I was really strong then. He came to see me, I did my act, he met me afterward, we sat down, and he said, “You got the show. You’re back on. I’ll schedule you.” Also, the HBO Young Comedians people were there, they were auditioning, so I got the HBO Young Comedians Special that same night, from doing that same set. I smoked ’em when I did my set that night. I think people were chanting my name when I got done. [Laughs.] And then—that was in the spring or something—I had to wait until November, so it was almost three years to the day when I got called back. I was in Chicago, and they said, “Come out and do The Tonight Show.” I was living in L.A. but working in Chicago. But I got to do it with Johnny and Ed and Doc [Severinsen], just like I wanted, and I was already headlining, so I was ready. My act was so strong then. I was killing everywhere I was going. I’m not trying to brag…
AVC: Well, you’d been honing it for three years, after all.
DC: Yeah, and when I was living out of my car, I was doing nothing but thinking of my stand-up. I was of a mindset that… basically, I was crazed at the time. If I did a bad set, you couldn’t even talk to me. I was miserable. Because that’s all I had. And then the next day it’d go good, and I’d be like, “Okay, I’m back to normal.” But you couldn’t hang out with me, you couldn’t talk to me, because I’d be like, “Ugh, sorry about my set last night. It didn’t go so well.” For a year and a half I was like that. Just living out of my car, waiting to go on stage that night, and however I did that night was how I would judge my worth. I’m not kidding you. I was like, “I’m going to judge my worth on how I do the next hour, and that’s going to determine how the next day goes for me.”
AVC: This provides a bit more of a frame of reference to why, during a panel for American Masters [during the Television Critics Association press tour], you described being called over to the couch after your act as being like a religious experience. For a stand-up, that must’ve been like achieving comedic nirvana.
DC: Yeah! And I’m like, “Oh my God, this is all happening just like I—” I mean, I wanted it so bad. I’d had a taste of it three years before, and it got taken away from me, and I was like, “Fuck it!” I was like Rocky, man. I just worked and worked and worked, then I got my shot at the title, and I won the fight. It was just like that. I couldn’t believe it happened to me. And it’s been downhill from there. [Laughs.] I’ve never been funnier than those seven minutes I was on The Tonight Show. I actually have my notes framed. Because there were parts where, if I was running long and I’d have to cut part of it out, I’d be like, “Okay, cut this out.” And I had notes on the side like, “Enunciate!” I mumbled a lot, and I knew I did, so I wrote, “Enunciate! Speak clearly! Have fun! Don’t worry, you’re funny!” [Laughs.] I wrote all that stuff on this piece of paper to remind myself that I was good enough to be there. I thought I was on later, and Jim McCauley called me over to take me backstage, but I thought I was on after the next guest. But he says, “Are you ready?” I hadn’t even looked over my notes yet. And I said, “Yeah, but… wait, am I on now?” He goes, “Yeah, you’re on next.” And I went, “Well, guess I don’t need this,” and I took all my notes and threw ’em on the floor, and I was like, “I hope I remember ’em.” I’d been over them so many times that all I was gonna do was just stare at them one more time before I went out, but I didn’t get to do that. I heard the introduction, the curtain opened up, I walked out, and… it was like a dream.
AVC: When I interviewed Vince Morris last year, he said, “I believe the only way stand-up comedy can have the same kind of cachet and power that it did when [Johnny] Carson was around would be if Oprah spotlighted stand-ups.”
DC: Yeah, but then she’d have to have—don’t forget Jim McCauley, man. Jim McCauley picked all the comics. I hope he doesn’t get left out of the story, because when you were doing stand-up back then, and you heard he was in the room, everybody’s asshole tightened up. [Laughs.] It was like, “Oh my God!” Because he was the guy who picked whoever was on The Tonight Show. People auditioned for McCauley. That’s all you heard: “Man, I’ve seen McCauley 10 times, and he won’t let me on.” Jim McCauley this and Jim McCauley that. He was the gatekeeper to what comic got on. So if Oprah did it, she’d better have somebody picking somebody funny, especially new people, because a lot of times, they’ll pick guys—even Comedy Central—they’ll have their regular old spotlight specials or whatever they’re called, where you know it’s not a main guy, and you look at the special and go, “This guy’s not ready for a special!”
To make it nowadays, you have to be like Kevin Hart or Louis C.K. or somebody, where you can do an hour on HBO or Comedy Central that’s so killer that you can’t be denied. That’s the only way that that can happen. Or you have to be like Dane Cook, who just works it so hard that, the next thing you know, you’re doing 2,000-seaters and people are like, “Who the fuck is that guy?” “Oh, he’s been networking on MySpace or Facebook or whatever, and now he’s got this following.” Even Larry the Cable Guy did that, where he just worked it and worked it, got on all these radio stations, and built up his audience until he became Larry the Cable Guy. There’s ways to do it without going on The Tonight Show nowadays, but you really have to get out there and bust your ass. But there’s guys on YouTube who have their own YouTube channel and do funny interviews on the street that aren’t actually funny. [Laughs.] They’re like, “Hi, I’m snarky, blah blah blah,” and they do that, and they’re making fucking millions of dollars a year. It makes you want to hang yourself. You know what I mean?
Back then, none of this other stuff was around, so The Tonight Show was it, and McCauley was a really good tastemaker. He knew when people were ready and when they weren’t, and he knew Johnny’s taste, what Johnny wanted, and what he would like, so he’d pick ’em. It was like Johnny would give McCauley a present if he brought him a really good comic. But the idea that Johnny picked the comic? Forget that. It was McCauley who did it. Johnny just enjoyed it. He’d be like, “Oh, man, I can’t believe McCauley picked this guy. He’s great!” It’d be like someone handing you a CD and saying, “You’re gonna love this band,” and you listen to it and you’re like, “Fuck! This is the best band ever!” If it was a guy who always gave you good stuff, you’d hire him. And every time he’d put something into your trembling hands, you’d be like, “Oh, I hope this is a good one.” Sometimes it’d blow you away, sometimes it’d be okay but still good, but you’d always be happy with whatever this guy gave you. And Jim McCauley was that guy. Nowadays, it’s a whole other ball game with The Tonight Show. I mean, you can still do the talk shows, but nobody’s got that kind of power. There’s so many of them now, whereas Johnny used to be the only one. There was no other place to do your stand-up and no other place to advertise it. No Facebook, nothing. Johnny was the man.
AVC: After doing The Tonight Show, you got your own stand-up special for Showtime in 1993, Drew Carey: Human Cartoon, which won a CableACE Award.
DC: Okay, if you say so. [Laughs.] I always forget when I did that.
AVC: Do you remember if there was any crossover between the Tonight Show material and that special?
DC: I don’t know. I’d have to look at my notes. But I don’t think there was any crossover. I will say, though, that I’d bet if you looked back at my Tonight Show appearance and the Young Comedians special, there was probably some there. After doing that, I think my manager started to explore the idea of me getting my own special, and I think that’s how Human Cartoon came about. I’m pretty sure I threw together 30 new minutes of material for that.
AVC: And it was after that when you began to make your way down the road to sitcom success, starting with The Good Life.
DC: Yeah. That was all back to The Tonight Show, too, because I did The Tonight Show in November, and right away I got a development deal with Disney. That pilot season, I really wasn’t developing anything with anybody, and this guy wanted to do a show with me, and I didn’t want to do a show with him, but Disney kind of forced me into it. They were like, “We’re paying you this money, so you have to do something.” So I started in with the deal and, uh, I got fired from it. It was called The Drew Carey Project, and I got fired from it. [Laughs.] And that was the same week as the Rodney King riots, so I’m driving home from Burbank, just thinking, “Oh, shit…”
The riots came all the way to my neighborhood. Well, they kind of ended in my neighborhood. But there was a guy I knew who was on the roof of my apartment building with an AK-47 with a bunch of other people, and they scared away some guys that were going to burn down the Ralphs [supermarket] that was a block away from me. There were guys coming with gasoline cans to burn the place down, and my friend with his AK-47 was screaming at them and brandishing his rifle, so they got in their car and took off. There was a liquor store right down the block from me, and it got looted and broken into and all smashed up. There was an appliance store three blocks away that got all smashed up and looted. A guy got shot in front of Hollywood High School, which was a five-minute walk from my apartment. It didn’t go that much farther than where we were, maybe a couple of blocks. But I remember being really fucking scared a couple of times. The riots are going on, and I have to drive back from Burbank after practically having my entire career go down the tubes because of being fired from my own project. That, uh, was a bad week. [Laughs.]
So because of that, I thought, “Well, I’m done with sitcoms.” But another person that my managers managed, John Caponera, got a Disney pilot. And I was like, “Well, that’s great, but I’m never doing business with Disney again.” Because of my experience, I’m like, “Fuck Disney, I’m not working with those guys.” Disney TV, anyway. But then it’s a year later when my manager goes, “Hey, we got a part for you, to play John’s best friend in his pilot.” And I’m like, “Ah, I don’t know…” But they were offering pilot money, which was really good back then. I don’t know what it is now, but then it was like, “Shit yeah, I’ll do it.” I didn’t know if the pilot would ever get picked up, but the money was so good that I couldn’t say “no.” [Laughs.] So I did it, the pilot got picked up, and I’m like, “Fuck!” Part of me was happy, but the other part of me was, “Oh no, I’m gonna play the best friend for the rest of my life!” Because I had the chance to star in my own thing, I got fired from it, now I’m playing the best friend. But I figured, “Eh, if I’m gonna play the best friend, I’ll make the most of it.”
And The Good Life got cancelled pretty quick, but I made friends with the writers on the show, and there was this guy named Bruce Helford who was consulting on the show. He was putting together a show that I was working on, but then he got fired from that… [Laughs.] That was only on the air for six episodes, and they wouldn’t show the pilot. After that was over, though, I hooked up with him again and said, “Hey, I want to do my own show, and here’s my idea.” Then he had a couple of ideas that were really good, so we created The Drew Carey Show out of that. And that did all right.
AVC: So the show that Bruce got fired from, was that Someone Like Me?
DC: Yeah. He got fired, but I stuck it out. I didn’t write the whole series, because I said I’d write on it, but only this many episodes, and then I’d go and start doing stand-up again. So I actually left before it got cancelled. I always joked with the other writers that it was like leaving my friends behind in Vietnam. [Laughs.] It was just so awful. I was like, “Okay, good luck, you guys…” I felt guilty driving away and leaving them behind to do what ended up being the last two episodes.
AVC: Well, if nothing else, The Good Life served to provide you with a wealth of big-dick jokes.
DC: Yes, it did. [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s how that whole list [in Carey’s book Dirty Jokes And Beer] got started. Caponera came in one day with a “my dick is so big” joke, and we started trading back and forth, so when I started writing the book, I ended up coming up with “101 Big Dick Jokes.” Actually, though, The Good Life is where the idea of doing musical numbers on The Drew Carey Show first originated. John Caponera and I were joking around about how wouldn’t it be fun to come in and do a musical number at Out Of State Security, where his character worked, and we were, like, “Oh, man, that would be hilarious!” We imagined having a camera above and doing a Busby Berkeley thing where everybody’s legs were kicking around in a circle or whatever. We even went to the guys who were running the show with the idea. But they were like, “Uh, yeah, slow down…” [Laughs.] I don’t think it was that serious a thought. It was more a case where we were just joking around one afternoon and had that idea.
And then Bruce Helford and I used to go on a cross-country drive every summer in-between Drew Carey Show seasons—he didn’t drive—and we’d spend the days listening to music and talking about the show, what we could do for next season and stuff. They were really great. We really got to know each other, and that’s how we’d plan out our ideas for the whole next season, on these drives. And we were on the drive after the first season, and I was like, “Hey, remember when we had the idea to do the musical number on The Good Life?” He was like, “Fuck, that’d be great!” So that’s where we came up with the idea for The Drew Carey Show of opening the seasons with a musical number.
AVC: You also did annual April Fools’ Day episodes, which Diedrich Bader said were fun to watch but a complete pain in the ass to film.
DC: Yeah, they really were. A real pain in the ass, because we had to always stop and have the prop guys come in and change things around, change the time on the clock or switch stuff on the desk. Whatever they were trying to do. [Laughs.] And it was all because of Bruce Helford. They used to do things in comic books when Bruce was a kid where they’d have April Fools’ issues where they call Superman “Superboy” or something, and you’d have to spot all the mistakes and write in with them. Yeah, those episodes were a pain in the ass. They were fun, but we always knew it was gonna be a long day. [Laughs.] We’d always do two or three takes of every scene anyway, because we’d fix or tighten up jokes. But instead of being able to go right back to it… They were tricky, but they were fun.
AVC: Do you have a favorite of the bunch?
DC: Of the April Fools’ episodes? Nah. They were all the same to me. If I had to pick, I’d say the first one, because no one had ever done that in a sitcom before, so I was like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea!” And, you know, we did our live shows, which we were always really proud of. We did a lot of stuff that nobody ever did before that we were pretty happy about.
AVC: And yet only the first season is available on DVD. Come on, man.
DC: Yeah, I don’t know what it is. I don’t think Warner Bros. ever… You know, that’s a Warner Bros. Television thing. Honestly, I don’t think they ever liked the show. I mean, I know I sound crazy, because The Drew Carey Show made them so much money. But it was on at the same time as Friends and ER, and we were all on the same lot, so even though the show was successful, it wasn’t Friends, their top sitcom, or ER, their top drama, which they were always on about. We were the ugly kid. I don’t know if anybody’s got an older sibling or just a higher-achieving brother or sister where no matter what you do, it doesn’t matter. You get a Masters, they get a Ph.D. Or you get a Master of Arts, and they’ll get an MBA and make more money. [Laughs.] So I don’t think they ever liked us.
In fact, when we got sold into syndication—and we made a lot of money in syndication, because we got a really good deal—we were supposed to do a day’s worth of taping for commercials for the syndication market. And we got the scripts from somebody in Warner Bros. marketing who wrote these things, and they were just so bad. We re-wrote them all. I mean, we couldn’t believe a professional had written them. They didn’t even have Mr. Wick’s name right! His name was Nigel Wick, but they called him something else. It was like they said to somebody, “Here’s a couple of episodes of The Drew Carey Show, go write some syndication stuff.” The executives at Warner Bros. weren’t fans of the show, the people in the offices didn’t watch, and so they didn’t know all of the characters or even what went on. They just knew it was a show they had. So if they wanted to talk to us, they had to either brush up or fake their way through the conversation. I always got that feeling, anyway. So it’s not surprising to me that it’s not on DVD or that they don’t care. Same with Whose Line Is It, Anyway? They don’t give a shit.
AVC: When you and I discussed it before, you said that even if they did release more seasons of the show, you wouldn’t be doing any commentaries.
DC: Yeah, I didn’t want to do the commentary anyway, but now it’s like, “Well, fuck ’em. If they don’t even want to [release] it…” Besides, there’s other people who could do commentaries. We had plenty of great writers. But if Warner Bros. doesn’t care, then I don’t care.
AVC: During that conversation, you also said, “You’ve got to have some Russian billionaire, Chelsea-team-owning money to get me to do another sitcom.”
DC: Yeah. [Laughs.] And that’s even for guest-star spots. I did a bit on Community only because Dan Harmon’s a friend of mine, and even then I was like, “Yeesh…” I liked doing it. Everybody was great, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t want to do any of that stuff anymore. I’ve already done it. There’s other stuff I want to d, that I’d rather do. I’m actually going back to doing some stand-up, and I’d much rather do a week’s worth of stand-up than do an appearance on a sitcom, even if the money was better. Creatively, it’s more fun to do the stand-up.
AVC: Wow, so you’re actually going back to stand-up?
DC: Yeah, I’m doing a little tour right now with a bunch of sketch comics, but I’m kind of trying to revive my stand-up career.
AVC: How long has it been since you were doing it regularly?
DC: Oh, man, it’s been years. I don’t even know. On a regular basis, it’s been years and years. It was before The Drew Carey Show when I was still going out regularly. I’d still think of stuff I could use, a couple of things I’d thought of in the meantime, but the amount I was producing was getting smaller and smaller, so I thought, “Well, I want to start doing stand-up again.” So I went to the Improv, and I tried to do all of the material I could do, and it turned out I had, like, all of 15 minutes. I went, “What the fuck? This is gonna be rough.” [Laughs.] So I’ve been writing, doing local sets, and I’m up to about 35 minutes of new material now, which is pretty great. I’m pretty happy with those 35 minutes, and I think by the end of September, I should have about 45 with no problem, which should be enough to go out and do a Drew Carey And Friends tour, and then I can keep working it up from there. But I really enjoy stand-up. Of all the things I do, I still think that’s what I do best. Until you can get paid to masturbate. [Laughs.] God, that’d be a great day, wouldn’t it? There’d be a lot of guys who were broke suddenly making a great living. “How’d you get to be a millionaire?” “You know, it was really easy once they started paying me for the one thing I’m good at…”
AVC: Jumping back to Community, do you even get approached by people who ask to see the hole in your hand?
DC: A couple of people. It’s always a joke, thankfully. But not that many people watch Community, anyway, so somebody has to be a real fan to come up to me and say, “Hey, lemme see the hole in your hand.” “Ha, ha. Good one. Good for you, hipster.” [Laughs.] No, I get that. I’ve always got stuff in my head in case I meet somebody like Steven Spielberg or someone like that, where I can hopefully say something to them that nobody else has ever said and get a laugh out of them. Did you ever see the video on YouTube of the guy trying to tell a joke to the Dalai Lama? It’s really funny. It’s an Australian guy and I dunno, it looks like a morning news show, because they’re on a couch or something, but he gets to interview the Dalai Lama, and he says to him, “I have a joke for you.” It’s the one about the Dalai Lama ordering a pizza and says something like, “Make me one with everything.” Something stupid like that. But the Dalai Lama doesn’t get it, so he has to explain it, and it’s really awkward. [Laughs.] But you just know that the guy spent years saying, “If I ever meet the Dalai Lama, I’m gonna tell him the joke,” so now he’s going, “It’s finally happening, and I am not missing the opportunity.” So if I ever meet Steven Spielberg or somebody, I’m just gonna go, “Here’s what I’ve been saving for you, maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t…”
I always said that—this is a joke, and I would never do it to him, but as a joke, I always thought it would be funny. I’d have to be drunk, and we’re talking smashed out of my mind—if I saw Steven Spielberg, I’d poke him in the chest and say, “Spielberg…? Never heard of ya. That’s a Jew name, innit?” [Laughs.] And I always imagine myself as a businessman, like a conventioneer, with a loud jacket, and I’m drunk and my nose is all red from drinking. You’d have to go all the way and just act like you don’t even know who he is. The joke was like, “That’s how rich I want to be one day: where I could do that and it wouldn’t harm my career.”
AVC: Out of curiosity, when you’re doing an interview like, oh, say, this one, do you ever find yourself saying something and then think, “Gee, Bob Barker probably wouldn’t have said that”?
DC: Oh, all the time. [Laughs.] Yeah, but I don’t worry about it, because I’m not Bob Barker, so it doesn’t matter. When I got hired, they knew. It’s like a different day… in TV, anyway. Look at all the stuff that Steve Harvey gets away with on Family Feud, just because it’s syndicated and on at 4 p.m. or 7 p.m. or whenever. He just gets away with murder. Like, I would never be able to say that stuff on The Price Is Right. And 20 years ago, they wouldn’t have hired him. They never would’ve done that on that show.
But, everything’s different now. The idea that they’re hiring comics to do these game shows—when I first got hired on The Price Is Right, I was retired for all intents and purposes. I didn’t want to be on TV anymore. I didn’t want to do anything anymore. But I had done a video for the Reason Foundation, because I’m on the board of directors. I helped them start this thing called Reason.tv where they do videos, and the first one I did was about medical marijuana reform and all the DEA raids of the medical marijuana clinics in L.A. I’d already taped it, and then I got hired to do Price Is Right, and, like, the week Price Is Right started, they released that video. There I was, going to a medical marijuana clinic, and I think my big quote was, “Smell that smell? That’s the smell of freedom.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Then you also had a quote on [The Late, Late Show With] Craig Ferguson about how a libertarian is just a conservative who still gets high.
DC: Yeah, I do stuff like that all time. So it doesn’t matter. Everybody knows The Price Is Right is separate from everything else I do, and I don’t think anybody’s worried about it. Plus, as far as the marijuana stuff goes, all you’ve got to do is go back to the 420 guy, anyway. [Laughs.]
AVC: In our recent Random Roles with Brent Spiner, one of the complaints made against the piece was that we never asked him about Geppetto. Perhaps you could offer some insight into that production.
DC: Oh, God. [Laughs.] That’s because me and Brent Spiner are both like, “Yeah, let’s just forget about Geppetto.”
AVC: What leaps to mind when you think of that experience?
DC: Oh, I was really happy with it, but that’s another thing I fucked up. When I got the first draft of the script, it was full of really formal English and stuff, and I just didn’t think I could pull it off, so I, uh, Cleveland-ized a lot of the lines. And another thing was that on a lot of the takes, we were just in a hurry, so… fuck, what are you gonna do? [Laughs.] It was a good idea at the time. I’m happy I got to work with everybody, though. That’s the thing: When you make a movie, you’re like, “Oh, man, I had fun working with everybody, and it was fun making it.” When I was doing it, I liked it. I never thought the reviews for it would be that bad. “What? It can’t be that bad!” [Laughs.] But, hey, kids liked it, so whatever.
AVC: How about your appearance on Lois & Clark?
DC: Well, you know, that was one of those things. When Warner Bros. says, “Hey, do this thing, you feel bad about saying ‘no,’ so I said, ‘What the hell.’” You never know how something’s gonna go until you try it. I was also on The Weird Al Show around that time. And I did the video for “All About The Pentiums,” too. I met him at the Playboy Mansion, believe it or not. Isn’t that weird?
AVC: It is a little incongruous imagining Weird Al at the Playboy Mansion.
DC: Well, it’s probably not that much easier imagining me there. But then imagine me and Weird Al at the Playboy Mansion, and the most exciting thing that happened to us was meeting each other. [Laughs.] It was actually the highlight of my day there. When I got home, everyone was like, “How was the Playboy Mansion?” “How was it? I met Weird Al!” “What about the half-naked girls?” “Oh, yeah, they were there, too. But… Weird Al!”
AVC: You touched on Whose Line Is It, Anyway?, a series that originated in the UK. How did you come to do an American version?
DC: I had this time where I was bored with my act and not really writing anything. When I started The Drew Carey Show, everything I thought of that was funny just went into the show. I wasn’t writing any jokes for me, it was all for the show. It’s not like I would go home and say, “Oh, now I have to write stand-up.” Not after rehearsing and writing on the show all day. I’d just be burned out. So that’s kind of how my stand-up career went away, by trading it off. But Ryan [Stiles] was always going out and doing improv at the time, and that always scared me, that whole idea. There were some guys in Chicago that did improv, and I remember trying it out once there, but I was terrified and I ended up being really terrible.
But I was still intrigued with the idea of learning improv, because I’d still always wanted to do it, so I remember I told Ryan, “Hey, we should all go out and do improv once a week.” And I remember asking the people who managed the Improv—God, I’m so stupid. [Laughs.]—I asked, “Hey, would you mind if me and the rest of the cast of The Drew Carey Show came here on Thursdays and did improv?” And they were like, “Yeah, sure!” Like they’d mind, right? I should’ve walked in and said, “Hey look, Thursday nights, we’re coming in, and this is what we’re gonna do.” But, no, I’m like, “Would it be okay…?” It just seemed so weird to me. But I gotta tell you, one of the reason I wanted to do it was as a “fuck you” to all the other shows that were on the air, because we never got any great reviews. I mean, we got some good reviews, but we were never a top show with critics. So I was like, “Yeah, the cast of The Drew Carey Show is gonna do an improv show every night. I’d like any other TV cast to do that without their writers there!”
It’d be me and Diedrich and Ryan and Kathy Kinney, who played Mimi, and Craig Ferguson. Even Krista Miller. We’d all go and do improv every Thursday, and they were able to put together an improv set where Krista and I wouldn’t get hurt. [Laughs.] They had to pick games that we could do, too, and Krista and I would be, “Oh God, here we go!” Eventually Krista stopped doing it, but the rest of us kind of formed this core group that would do it all the time. Not everybody would do it, because that was an extra burden on Thursdays. We didn’t get paid, we just did it for fun. But me and Ryan, we always did it. We just kept on doing it the whole time. We did that for a couple of years. Every Thursday, we’d be there. And it was quite a scene. It was always packed. That was the night where you wanted to be the guy doing stand-up before we went on. Guys like Mitch Hedberg would come in and play that night, all these really funny guys, and then we’d come up. [Laughs.]
Anyway, one night… I was reading an article in the paper about how nobody on TV had anything in the summer and how viewing was down, and I was like, “Yeah, they should have original programming in the summer!” Because I remember how, when I was a kid, they’d have summer shows, stuff that would run for, like, six episodes and never make it to the fall. Some of my favorite shows were summer shows. And I remember we were sitting at the bar after improv one night, telling Ryan, who was still flying over to England to do the original show in the UK, and I said, “Hey, we should do Whose Line Is It, Anyway? for ABC as a summer show. I bet we could sell them on that idea.” And he said, “Oh, you should talk to Dan Patterson because he created it, and he’s in town right now trying to sell it!” He was trying to sell it into syndication, but the next week Dan came out to the Improv to see us, and we sat at the bar and hashed out how we could do an American version. I think the week after that we had the ABC executives come out and see us do improv, and we gave them copies of the original Whose Line. I don’t remember if we had a meeting after that. Ryan and I have different memories of that. But I think they bought it right after that. It was a really quick sell. ABC realized they could have a cheap show that was really funny, and the only argument we had was about—actually, it wasn’t even really an argument—but there were discussions about how they wanted there to be stars on the show, and we were like, “No, if you make the show, all these guys will become stars. And then you don’t have to pay anybody extra.” [Laughs.] “Better to get the funniest people, otherwise the show’s not going to work. And then they’ll become stars on their own.” Which they did.
AVC: Was there anyone you wanted to get for the show that you weren’t able to get?
DC: No. In fact, when we started doing all the stunt casting, I didn’t really like it that much. But a lot of it really worked out. Like the Richard Simmons thing was one of the funniest things ever. And I got to work with Sid Caesar? I mean, what the fuck? [Laughs.] So a lot of it I was really excited about. But the idea that you had to do that, I didn’t like that at all. I thought we were fine on our own. And a lot of it worked out, so it didn’t matter.
AVC: You also did two other improv-friendly series, Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show and Drew Carey’s Improv-A-Ganza. Did those work as well for you?
DC: Green Screen was a total experiment. I’m glad we did it, but it was just tough on that network to get it going. And Improv-A-Ganza I was really happy with, but, again, it was on the Game Show Network, and it was a bad fit. I mean, even the Game Show Network people kind of admitted, “If it was on any other network…” Because it was all game shows, and then there’s this improv show out of nowhere. I’m really glad they took a chance, and they were really easy to work with and a great group of people. I’m happy the way they turned out, but it was just tough.
Now, the Green Screen Show, that really was just a get-high show. [Laughs.] I mean, if that would’ve been cheaper to make, I think we could’ve really made a go of it. But it was super-expensive, because we had to animate every single frame. On animated shows, they can do every fourth frame or every second frame or whatever it is. You don’t have to do every single frame for an actual animated show. But on this show, you had to do every single frame, because otherwise it was all live-action, and we were animating behind it, and that made it something like two, three, four times more expensive than an ordinary animated show to make. And the taping days we did were super-long because… It was always a money thing, to try and get everybody together at one time.
I have other ideas for improv shows that I think will really work. I’m always thinking of other ideas. And Dan Patterson is back on ABC with this [improv] show called Trust Us With Your Life. That might work, because it has celebrities on it. Hey, it worked in England. So we’ll see. There’s a place for improv on TV, but I’m a big believer in taking chances, and I don’t mind failing. I mean, I mind it, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world because you can’t succeed without failing. I’ve been talking to so many writers, you’re all creative, and I’m sure you’ve written a lot of things where you look back and just go, “Ew.” [Laughs.] Like maybe a short story or something. You’ve pretty much got to be married to someone before you show them your short stories. Or your very first draft of something. “No, no, it’s not finished yet!” So you have to fail. You just have to, or you’ll never move forward. If someone’s afraid to fail, that means they’re afraid to succeed, as far as I’m concerned. They don’t want to take a chance or try something new. I worry about people like that. As long as I succeed once in awhile, I’m good. But I’m not afraid to fail, especially not on something like the Green Screen Show, where it was a chance, but it was a pretty spectacular chance. I really put it out there on that one. Even though it wasn’t commercially successful, I thought it was artistically good.
AVC: Bringing up short stories makes it easy to circle back to Dirty Jokes And Beer, which featured five so-called “Stories Of The Unrefined.” The book was obviously something that you did at the height of the popularity of The Drew Carey Show. Looking back on it, is that something that you find creatively successful?
DC: Well, it was on the New York Times best-seller list, so there’s that. [Laughs.] But I had to finish it so quickly. I’d never written a book before, and I didn’t want to pay a ghostwriter, because they wanted, like, 30 percent of my money, and I was, like, “Fuck that! I’m not paying some guy 30 percent! That’s a lot of money!” Plus, that was the money I was gonna use to buy my house. I got that [offer], and I thought, “Oh my God, I can pay off my house.” So I wasn’t gonna give away 30 percent of that. It would’ve been a much better book had I started it earlier and had, like, three more passes on it. But it still came out okay, I think. For a first time. And I realize it was on the best-seller list because it was a celebrity book, and there’s a lot of it where I’m like, “I’d really like to do that over.” But at least I wrote it.
AVC: Is there anything in there that, in retrospect, you thought, “I probably shouldn’t have put that in there”?
DC: Yeah. But I think everybody does that. I mean, name somebody. I bet they all do that. I read a lot of interviews with authors, and they all seem to be like that, where they feel like it’s never really done, but the deadline’s there, so you have to turn it in. Deadlines are the worst and best thing a writer has to deal with, because, yeah, it makes you finish, but then you’re like, “God, if I just had more time…” Especially when you’re new like I was. I felt like a sophomore in English class handing in an essay. I’d like to write some more short stories, but maybe I can just take my time and write them at my own pace. Maybe when I retire again I can do that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Somewhere you said that if you ever wrote another book, you’d go all Cormac McCarthy and get yourself a shed.
DC: Yeah. And learn Spanish. [Laughs.]
AVC: So how long do you see yourself hosting The Price Is Right? For as long as you’re contractually obligated, obviously, but how long beyond that?
DC: Ah, I don’t know. I take it a year at a time. Or a contract at a time. Right now, it’s going really well, so who knows? As long as I’m energetic and youthful and they like me, I like it. It really is a good gig. I can’t see that part of the future. I can’t guarantee that when I’m 85, I won’t still be doing it. But, geez, TV might not even be around by then. Who knows?