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The Ecstasy and the Anxiety of Jim Carrey

Forty years after wandering onstage at a Toronto comedy club as a teenager, the rubber-faced actor has lived every cycle of stardom. He reemerged recently after a long hiatus. Now what?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Last week, Jim Carrey made his first public appearance in many months on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Something was not quite right.

When Carrey walked onstage, he stepped forward and stood before the crowd for 37 sustained seconds. He gazed into the audience, a look of bemusement and strained wonder on his face, like he’d just seen the future and it wasn’t terribly promising. Wearing Odin’s beard, Carrey lapped up the applause as Kimmel tried to get his attention, to no avail. Finally, Kimmel tapped him on the shoulder. Carrey looked and quickly returned to the audience. This felt like a familiar Jim Carrey Moment for an actor who has often served as an activating agent on talk and award shows, disrupting otherwise dull settings with droll, anarchic, or downright subversive shtick. Here he was gently upending the proceedings, as usual. But when he spoke on Kimmel, there was something different about his voice — it was a little tender, a little agog, a little quiet. He was in control, but awkward. You could hear the Canada in his accent. Then Carrey finally sat and began a rather sober conversation with Kimmel, discussing his hiatus from the spotlight in recent years.

I don’t quite know what this means, but it felt not at all like the rubber-faced gag machine relentlessly questing for laughs for four decades. There was something Zen but also wounded about the 55-year-old actor. Then, about 20 seconds later, as if sensing he had waded too deep into existential waters, he made a joke about shaving his testicles. There’s Jim Carrey!

Carrey has been making the rounds because there is a project that has brought him back to the start of his professional life. On June 4, Showtime will debut I’m Dying Up Here, a lightly fictionalized adaptation of William Knoedelseder’s book of the same name, which chronicles the rise of the stand-up comedy scene in ’70s Los Angeles. Carrey, who is an executive producer on the show, made his name in that scene after working through Canadian comedy clubs as a teenager, and he is sentimental about developing his persona at places like the Comedy Store during that period.

"It was an idea rolling around in my head for a long time and I wanted people to see the comedy world as it was, and the extraordinary experience I was lucky enough to have. It was an explosive, inventive, alchemical invention coming from so many wonderful, extraordinary souls and desperate, desperate motherfuckers," Carrey said this week at the premiere screening of the show. "It’s a beautiful thing, an extraordinary thing that happened in the ’70s. It was the big bang of creativity. It happened at a time following Vietnam, with Nixon and Watergate. What happens is when these extraordinary times politically happen … comics are the last line of defense. We tell the truth and we make something beautiful out of it."

This is grandiloquent talk for a docudrama in which one of the primary tensions is that two aspiring comedians are forced to share a closet-size bedroom with a kitty litter box. And yet, I’m Dying Up Here is an intriguing portrayal of a time that is often lionized but rarely actualized. As EP, Carrey’s role on the show was largely to translate his experiences and memories into adaptable dramatic text. Carrey actually slept in that kitty-litter-box closet. But his wistfulness has likely been informed by a complicated few years, including the death of his then-girlfriend Cathriona White from a drug overdose in 2015. (White’s ex-husband and mother are suing Carrey over a wrongful death claim; a trial date was set this week.) Since White’s death, Carrey has been largely absent from movies and TV, popping up only to share slightly discomfiting personal messages and expressions of anxiety about the state of American politics on social media, signing off with inscrutable symbological trademarks such as "?;^J}}" There isn’t much to ascertain beyond: Jim Carrey does not like Donald Trump, Jim Carrey misses Barack Obama, and Jim Carrey truly loves Adele.

Contrast this with the dependably antic, clean-shaven, somewhat incomprehensible routine that Carrey unfurled the last time he was part of a proper PR blitz, in 2014, once again with Jimmy Kimmel.

That was in support of the disappointing sequel Dumb and Dumber To, only the fifth starring role for Carrey in the past decade. This is a turnabout, far from the 14 starring vehicles he made between 1994 and 2004. During that period, Carrey was a movie star the likes of which we do not have anymore, metronomically successful and invariably himself. Not every Jim Carrey movie was the same thing, but seeing a new Jim Carrey movie always meant something.

Four years ago for Grantland, Steven Hyden wrote, "Carrey was following the Hollywood playbook: Be a comedian who gets on a TV show, be a TV star that gets his own movie, be a comedy movie star who becomes a movie-movie star, be a movie star who becomes an award-winning movie star. Every step of the way, Carrey was able to locate the next ‘To what?’ destination." One year later, in the sixth edition of his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the historian David Thomson wrote this lightly tragic encomium of the actor: "He has U.S. citizenship now, but no Oscars — he also holds a strange place, almost ‘failed genius,’ a phenomenon, but so often disappointed and depressed at what he has done."

There is something sad about Jim Carrey now, the crow’s feet deepening around that Silly Putty face, the twinkle in his eye slightly dimmed. It’s hard to overstate just how famous and omnipresent he was in the mid-’90s, a clown prince in a court of his own design. Thomson compares him to Jerry Lewis, without the self-created mythos of a writer-director. Carrey has long been a hired gun, chosen for his manic energy and indomitable spirit more than his creative vision. You can hear it in the way Yuk Yuk’s founder, Mark Breslin, recalls a 14-year-old Carrey walking into his Toronto comedy club cold. You can feel it in his early impressions, where he’d often introduce himself as "a singing comic impressionist." And you can see it in the operatic juvenalia of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the ghoulish self-hate in The Cable Guy, even the shrieking hackery in Carrey’s last major comedy hit, Bruce Almighty in 2003. He’s an inhabiter, a channeler, a pliable vessel. The past 15 years have presented challenges for him, though. Since the critical success of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — perhaps his best film and easily his quietest performance — he’s sought supporting roles, kids’ movies, intellectual property, and edgy black comedies to supplant the "Smokin’!" His movies are almost never failures. But something is amiss. On the one hand, it must be baffling to have once been the center of the comedy universe and now to be not that at all. On the other, look at the subdued, nothing-to-prove slackness in this episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld from 2015. Jim Carrey was the first guy to make $20 million for a movie. He did so for a decade. If he wants to go off book, now’s the time.

"Kathy Griffin: Hold up a severed leg. I don’t think the joke is the problem — the subject of the joke is the problem," Carrey said at the I’m Dying Up Here premiere, defending his fellow comedian after her controversial Donald Trump severed-head photo shoot. He closed his remarks with what sounded like the nihilistic wisdom born of an awakening.

"Don’t worry for your existence. All this is meaningless."