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Remember ‘The Drew Carey Show’?

All the little kids growing up on the skids / Go “Cleveland rocks!” “Cleveland rocks!”

Brian Taylor illustration
Brian Taylor illustration

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

Do you remember The Drew Carey Show? I thought I did. I watched a medically questionable amount of syndicated network sitcoms growing up. Cheers, Blossom, Family Matters, Saved by the Bell, Roseanne, Friends, Seinfeld, Mad About You, Suddenly Susan, maybe a little Caroline in the City — and Drew Carey. What I didn’t remember was how alternately grim and surreal it could be.

If I wanted to be very rude, I would say The Drew Carey Show is the Cleveland of television shows. (Very rude to Cleveland, that is.) I only want to be a little rude, though, so I’ll say: The Drew Carey Show isn’t usually brought up in conversations about groundbreaking television, but people forget it was the first sitcom created by and starring a potato.

And that potato had staying power! Drew Carey had endurance. The show ran for nine seasons, from 1995 to 2004. That’s just one season less than Friends, which also ran from the mid-’90s to 2004. Yet while Friends is enjoying a strange second life as a Netflix favorite for teens, The Drew Carey Show is oddly nostalgia-proof.

People lose it for ’90s sitcoms. Throwback appreciation is why Full House came back as Fuller House, it’s why BuzzFeed posts Frasier content (“If Frasier Crane Had iMessage,” “19 Times Niles and Frasier Described Your Relationship With Your Sibling”) — yet The Drew Carey Show gets no love. (The only time it appears in a BuzzFeed article is in a “15 Forgotten TV Shows of the ’90s” community post.) Why was The Drew Carey Show the exception? I decided to find out, by watching almost all of it last week.

Watching The Drew Carey Show today is logistically challenging, probably because it hasn’t had a revival of interest. You can’t stream it, and you can only buy the first season on DVD or iTunes. It’s not widely syndicated. Distributors seem to think it is cultural detritus, if they think of it at all. There’s far too much good TV nowadays to bother resurrecting a show that was never even particularly popular when it was on. I ended up torrenting it.

I do have some nice things to say after binge-watching The Drew Carey Show: There is no better program to put on a screen when you are half asleep or trying to fall asleep, not even The Great British Bake Off. The stakes don’t exist, the beige “Drew’s apartment” and “Drew’s sad neighborhood bar” sets have an analgesic quality, and the show frequently veers into surreality (in one episode, Daffy Duck applies for a job; in another, the cast turns into aliens; in another, Tim Allen, playing himself, skydives into Drew’s backyard) so if you doze off, you will not be able to figure out whether you dreamed that episode of Drew Carey or if it really happened. There are a lot of “event” episodes — three live productions, two sketch shows, one Emmy-bait spoof (“A Very Special Drew”) and one Drew-in-a-prolonged-coma story arc. The coma thing wasn’t great, but honestly, it was less annoying than the Tony-in-a-coma Sopranos episodes.

Groggily landing on any of the surreal Drew Carey episodes will make you question whether someone slipped ketamine in your Sleepytime tea.

Another nice thing I can say about The Drew Carey Show is that the theme songs and opening credits are genuinely great, especially the “Cleveland Rocks” number they introduced in the third season. I’d never visited Cleveland but The Drew Carey Show’s theme song left me with the impression that it did, indeed, rock.

Apart from the opening-credits love note to Cleveland, The Drew Carey Show is set in Cleveland in the same way that Cheers is set in Boston — barely. This is not a Sex and the City situation where “the city is a character” or even a situation like The Office, where Scranton is a symbol of mediocrity but also at least a recognizable and specific setting. Drew’s best friend turned love interest turned best friend turned impromptu resident of Guam, Kate, works at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in later seasons, but that’s about as explicitly Cleveland-y as the show gets. It’s not the city itself that matters to the show but the idea of the city — a Midwestern place, a normal place, a loser place. Middle management, cheap beer, small plans. Let me just say that I have no personal ill will toward Cleveland. I got stuck in the airport there once and they had solid chicken wings. But The Drew Carey Show is only set in Cleveland as a generic gesture toward mediocrity.

I started thinking maybe we decided to forget about this show because it was incredibly mean. The Drew Carey Show was created by Carey, of course, but it has a cocreator: Bruce Helford, who helped produce Roseanne. The Roseanne influence is apparent — both shows star overweight white standups, both title characters are schlubby and barely hanging onto the lower rungs of the middle class, and both unapologetically love their modest, blue-collar lifestyles. Roseanne is also kind of mean. The key distinctions though: Roseanne is funny. Drew Carey had a more experimental bent. Unfortunately, many of its quirky plotlines are hard to stomach. In one extremely unfortunate case that doubles as hard evidence demonstrating Mike Myers’s malicious effects on culture, there’s an episode in which a person with dwarfism dresses up like Mimi and follows her around, declaring that she saw Austin Powers and now she wants to be “Mini Mimi.”

And then there’s the women.

Mimi, Drew’s loudly dressed foil, is constantly mocked for her garish makeup and bright clothes, as well as her body. Yes, she did look at all times like a Sephora employee. Still, the joke is “look at this lady trying and failing to look pretty.” It was awful, no matter how awful the writers made Mimi. Also, everyone else on the show had schlubby, boring clothes. Mimi had an undeniably loud look going on — think Nicki Minaj at an awards show in 2008 — but at least it was creative. Mimi’s rudeness was meant to excuse how cruel the show was to her. But it wasn’t her behavior that was the main object of ridicule, it was who she was. “You put Mimi in the cosmetics department? Why don’t we put Ike Turner in the complaints department?” Kate says during the first season. Strange that Jay Z’s ghostwriter for his verse on “Drunk in Love” started out as a Drew Carey writer.

In later seasons, Mimi mellows more into a friendly sparring partner. She even moves in with Drew once her marriage to his brother Steve breaks. Her relationship with Drew reminds me of the workplace antagonism between Jim and Dwight in The Office — another “everyman” show. The difference is that The Office writers made it fairly obvious in later seasons that Jim’s pranks were largely petty distractions, whereas Drew’s behavior is never portrayed as anything other than a rational response to Mimi’s awfulness.

When it came to his interactions with other female characters, Drew had Kevin James syndrome before Kevin James had Kevin James syndrome. (Nobody ever mentions that Mimi and Drew have many shared physical features — hair color, weight, skin tone, age.) Drew’s girlfriends are slender and beautiful, with one notable exception. Kate Walsh’s Nicki starts out looking like Kate Walsh, but over the course of her relationship with Drew, Nicki gains a large amount of weight (Walsh wears a fat suit). She transforms from a sane, thin woman to a gun-wielding, cheesecake-scarfing, blubbering symbol for what happens when a woman lets herself go. Drew becomes her savior, allowing Nicki to live in his house even after she attempts to kill him for ruining her life. It’s played primarily for laughs.

This, obviously, was not the first and last fat suit on TV. Friends did a fat suit too, whenever it had flashbacks to Monica’s past. It was a rancid note in a generally gentle show, but at least Fat Monica’s fatness was an outward expression of teen angst and not homicidal despair.

As mentioned, Drew’s brother, Steve, later becomes Mimi’s husband. His other defining characteristic is that he is a cross-dresser. His cross-dressing introduction is handled OK in the beginning (Drew is weirded out at first but then supports him wholeheartedly) and then dives into even more awfulness. Steve gets a job at Drew’s department store. Then, when Craig Ferguson’s Mr. Wick wants to fire him for cross-dressing, Drew comes up with a challenge called “Dude Looks Like a Lady” in which Mr. Wick has to guess which women employees are “real” and which are not. Mr. Wick is a persistent creep who leads Mimi on and generally acts like a British goblin, but he’s a minor problem.

Plenty of great comedies are “mean,” from Seinfeld to You’re the Worst. The problem is that this is a show that perceived itself as a “nice” show. It didn’t see its characters as prototypes for the Always Sunny degenerates, even though Kate came close to Sweet Dee territory many times. The show’s tone was “lighthearted romp about good, average people” but the plotlines were consistently sour, not sweet. Perhaps if it had leaned into doing one thing well, we’d remember Drew Carey more fondly. As it is, though, it’s a tonal hodgepodge. You can’t tiptoe into total mean-spirited, dark, situational humor — you either lean in, or don’t do it at all.

Though the show ultimately failed to capture any long-term interest, it has value as a cultural artifact. And obviously, it was able to stay on TV for a long time — but that was then. Right now, there is so much TV — what with the rise of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, and of smaller cable channels peddling prestige and quirk — that there are more shows than ever before, more stuff to watch. The sitcom wouldn’t have a prayer of making it past the pilot today. It could only exist in a sparser field. Drew Carey is a fossil from an earlier television era: a time when a show could be successful as long as enough people forgot to change the channel.