1994 saw whirlwind stand-up Jim Carrey rocket to comedy superstardom with increasingly unhinged turns in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber and The Mask. The cumulative trio brought the recognition and fame he’d sought since fleeing Toronto for Los Angeles at age 21. Carrey had stalked the halls of Sunset Strip’s famed Comedy Store alongside Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. He earned specific comparisons to the latter. Like the improv virtuoso who’d chased fame before him, Carrey was buoyantly impulsive onstage, yet pensive outside the spotlight.
Carrey’s most recent venture—aside from conservative-baiting impressionistic paintings—has been exec-producing two seasons of Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here, an anti-comedy reimagining the turmoil spurring 1979’s real-life Comedians for Compensation strike against Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore. He knew from experience just how unfunny it felt to identify stand-up as less an “art” than a psychological lifeline.
As a man whose belief in basic goodness is shattered, Carrey’s dialogue remains flat and resigned, his face creased and pale. Pickles dutifully puts his audience’s emotional needs ahead of show sponsors, only to be chided, “Don’t say 'friends' when you mean 'viewers.'” Intertwined family members Catherine Keener, Frank Langella and Judy Greer grow progressively less so. Offering the charming anachronism, “My family is shriveling up like a Polaroid in a puddle. I need to pull it out before it falls apart,” Pickles realizes there’s nothing lonelier than being surrounded by those grudgingly obligated to love him. His personal life deteriorating, soon the public persona is all that remains. “You’re a minted image; you’re a trusted brand,” he’s reminded. “You’re in a fickle business ruled by an unwritten contract with the audience. You are not a real person. You’re a man in a box.”
With a fictional kids’ show standing in for social media, Kidding scrutinizes the stark clash between public branding versus real life.
Like Pickles, Carrey has been shaken by the departure of loved ones. In September 2015, ex-girlfriend Cathriona White fatally overdosed on a mixture of pills stolen from under Carrey’s sink. A suicide note in part said, “You are my family.” Pickles’ hollow eyes reflect the actor’s own grief when he admits, “We’re swimming with stones in our pockets. We need to take them out, or we’ll never get back to the surface again.” Much like Pickles’ “man in a box,” Carrey wrestles with duality. The hopeful young comic who achieved all his dreams wouldn’t likely recognize himself in the withdrawn celebrity figure he voluntarily became.
Society’s current lionization of Mr. Rogers belies an absence of calming, decent certainty. Screaming into the widening void of reality requires high volume, and erodes a sense of humanity in the process. As a citizen activist, Carrey knows his button-pushing paintings can only convey so much. There are deeper conversations to be had, and he doesn’t miss the irony of prompting them through a character who is denied the same options. With a fictional kids’ show standing in for social media, Kidding scrutinizes the stark clash between public branding versus real life. Carrey has lost others in his life to the universal fray. Gripping, ambitious and ultimately defiant, Kidding is his commitment to continue the fight.