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Carrey on T.O’s wayward son

Part two of a two-part series

By Leatrice Spevack

“Up, up goes a new comic star,” ran the top-of-the-front-page headline of the Toronto Star’s entertainment section during February of ‘81.

Recounting Jim Carrey’s stint at Yuk-Yuk’s, Bruce Blackadar raved, “I saw a genuine star coming to life and that happens so rarely it’s worth shouting out the news to the world.”

While the other dailies followed suit, it was that singularly sagacious review that marked the beginning of Carrey’s “big break.”

In a smart and profitable move, Yuk-Yuk’s quickly cancelled the comedian scheduled for the following week and held over the increasingly marketable Carrey.

The problem, though, was that Blackadar couldn’t shout “the news to the world.” He could only shout it to Toronto. And Carrey held hopes that surpassed the city limits.

His now-deceased dad put on the pressure to keep the momentum mounting.

New York was a near and reasonably-well-known quantity. Its three comedy clubs – the IMPROVisation, the Hell’s Kitchen home to such luminaries as Robin Williams; Catch a Rising Star; and the Comic Strip – played host to audiences populated with producers, agents and the rest of the big players. 

The publicity packages went out and I called in what few favours I could.

But in NYC, hundreds of American comics vie for the five-minute 2:00 a.m. spots and they don’t cotton to small-town Canucks treading their turf. Who can blame them? The stakes are high: sitcom stardom, SNL writing, and the coveted Carson shots. The competition: cutthroat. 

With a promo kit the size of War and Peace, Carrey’s trump card was the video tape of his Yuk-Yuk’s show.

While the still-dubious club owners were duty bound to deliver stage time to their own performers, they eventually relented and relinquished a motley few of the prized unpaid-for slots to Carrey.

Because the goose had yet to lay the golden egg, financing such a venture was almost prohibitive despite the obvious opportunity it presented. The Carrey posse had yet to find a paying gig.

It was found, nevertheless, at Dangerfield’s, a tourist trap where one wouldn’t be surprised to see the likes of John Gotti sitting ringside.

In June, the wide-eyed Carrey cartel was ready to take a bite from the Big Apple. Sheet music was arranged for Dangerfield’s house band, relegating Carrey’s loyal cassette accompaniest, Avi, to being Boy Friday and baggage handler. In tow too, was London Free Press reporter Dennis Kucherawy, ever-eager to spin the media web.

The audiences at Dangerfield’s were warm, but the response unspectacular. The spell that Carrey had woven seemed at first to be breaking until Rodney showed up one night. And Rodney liked Jim. A lot. A whole lot.

However, it was the other clubs, those Holy Grails of guffaws and, maybe greatness, that still had to be squeezed between Carrey’s 3-shows-nightly contract obligations at Dangerfield’s.

Catch a Rising Star was the room to be seen in and consequently, the spots there, more valued. Carrey waited to go on. And waited.

“You’re on after Sandra,” he was told. By then, a mere dozen or so remained and whatever goodwill, what withering energy that remained among those few comedy diehards, was soon sucked dry by the malevolent mouth of songstress and aspiring comedienne Sandra Bernhard. When Carrey took to the microphone with his impressions of Kermit the Frog no one was in mood to be nice. The famous Carrey had, unfortunately, struck out. 

And although Carrey charmed the crowd at the Comic Strip, club manager Lucien Hold’s interests lay elsewhere. Hold was busy cultivating the career of then-unknown Eddie Murphy, a Strip regular.

For Carrey, the city that never sleeps saw highs and lows.

It was the stunning set at Silver Freedman’s (ex-wife of Evening at the IMPROV’s Bud Freedman) IMPROVisation one night that finally caused New York to do a second take. Surveying the scene from the back of the club, veteran comic Uncle Dirty grinned at me and with a sly wink, he said “He’s not Lenny – but he’s money.” Indeed.

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