Moon over Parma, bring my love to me tonight…
In the 1990s, sitcoms were huge, and they were mostly of two types. There were series based on the works of a single stand-up comedian, like Seinfeld, and there were series based on a group of good-looking single 20-somethings like Friends. At first, The Drew Carey Show seems to fit easily in either category, as Carey was a rising-in-fame stand-up comedian at the time, and TV Guide called the show a Friends clone during its first season. But the show found its own identity and succeeded, lasting nine seasons, far more than most other, similar ’90s sitcoms. As ridiculous and cartoony as the show gets at times, its emphasis is on everyday folks living their everyday lives, not on glamorous model-looking singles residing in impossibly palatial New York apartments.
Meet Drew Carey. He’s single, lives alone in his parents’ former home, is and stuck in middle management as Assistant Director of Personnel at the Winfred Lauder department store in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. It’s not exactly his dream job, and he longs to earn a promotion someday. Making the workday tougher to get through is his coworker Mimi Bobeck (Kathy Kinney, Arachnophobia), who’s known for her garish makeup, outrageous outfits, and a seething hatred of Drew. But life for Drew isn’t so bad. He gets to hang out after work at the Warsaw Tavern with his friends—the tomboyish Kate (Christa Miller, Scrubs), the bizarre Lewis (Ryan Stiles, Whose Line is it Anyway?), and the dimwitted Oswald (Diedrich Bader, Napoleon Dynamite). Drew also catches the eye of the lovely Lisa (Katy Selverstone, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood)—but she works at the store with him, and there’s a strict policy about management dating employees, so they must pursue their romance in secret.
Comedy is one of the trickiest subjects for a critic to tackle, because it is arguably the most subjective genre. What’s funny for one person just isn’t funny for another. During the years that The Drew Carey Show was on the air and afterward, I’ve heard many complaints about it, with people criticizing it for being juvenile, or for having unlikable characters. I can almost see the latter, but it doesn’t bother me. The bottom line is that this show makes me laugh. A lot.
The main reason for this is, obviously, some witty writing and sharp timing by the cast. Producer Bruce Helford (Roseanne) helped surround Drew with a group of actors who were not only skilled laugh-makers, but who also had great chemistry with each other. I really can believe these four people are longtime pals who hang out with each other all the time, something I never believed when watching Friends.
Another reason for the show’s success, I feel, is that we can relate to the characters. That might sound odd when you take a look at Mimi, or see some of the pranks she and Drew play on each other—but I’m talking about “relating” in an overall sense. Here’s Drew, living paycheck to paycheck, working a go-nowhere soul-crushing job, and the only thing he really has to look forward to is hanging out with his buddies at their favorite watering hole on the weekends. No matter how goofball the comedy is, the show sticks to this “everyman” theme throughout.
This is best represented by Drew’s infamous pool table, which he keeps outside in his back yard. Maybe it was once a nice pool table, but now it’s hammered, covered with leaves and dirt, and is rained and snowed upon throughout the Cleveland winters. Why is it outdoors? The “official” stories about this vary, but I believe the general idea is that there’s no room in the house for it. Thematically, the pool table represents Drew’s longing for a better life. He’s always wanted his own pool table, but the house isn’t big enough. Well, he found a way. Throughout the series, life just keeps stomping on Drew, but he finds a way to make the most of what few successes he’s had.
Drew’s friends also inhabit a blue-collar world. Kate bounces around from job to job until Drew helps her out by getting a position for her at the store. Lewis is a janitor for DrugCo; he usually has some odd anecdotes about what goes on behind closed doors in the drug testing labs. Oswald starts off this season as a DJ for hire, but then gets a job for Global Parcel, accidentally dropping fragile packages and leaving ticking boxes at the airport. It’s the simple things in life that keep these guys going, just as they hope to finally land that perfect job with that huge paycheck, someday, somehow.
Before you start thinking that this show is nothing but a downbeat “haves vs. have nots” melodrama, let’s talk about the comedy. These are real raucous laughs. The writers aren’t afraid of offending anyone, and they’re willing to go to any length just to elicit a roar from the audience. The show could easily have relied on formula—Drew makes fun of Mimi’s makeup, Mimi makes fun of Drew’s weight, Lewis has to make one DrugCo joke per episode, Oswald always has to say something stupid, and so on. Luckily for viewers, the writers never fall into this trap. Instead, they keep the jokes fresh throughout. Even though it’s the same types of joke in every episode, they never feel repetitive.
The actors’ chemistry with one another certainly helps bring the laughter. Drew and Mimi make for great comic foils, always one-upping each other with quips. Kathy Kinney’s role as Mimi almost never happened. She was supposed to appear only in the pilot, where Drew interviews her for a job in, you guessed it, cosmetics. But their repartee during that scene caught the attention of the producers, who saw an opportunity for bigger and better laughs down the line. Although it takes a few episodes, Mimi really cements herself as a regular, making Drew’s life that much more difficult, and therefore much funnier.
As usual, a lot of comedies have some sort of romance, and most TV shows include some sort of romantic tension. Drew’s longtime crush on Kate is mentioned here and there, even if it won’t be paid off until later seasons. Instead, the creators introduce Lisa into Drew’s world. First off, the whole “we can’t date because we work together” plot ties nicely into the cubicle nightmare world of the series. Secondly, Lisa’s presence here shows the audience that Drew really is a good guy, and not the total loser Mimi makes him out to be. Instead of Drew wallowing in sorrow while pining for Lisa, it’s actually Lisa that keeps pursuing him. She’s the one who refuses to give up on their relationship. Even when Drew has flirtations with other women, including Lewis’s sister (Lisa Amsterdam, Jerry Maguire) and a borderline insane hairdresser (special guest star Jamie Lee Curtis, True Lies) he still comes back to Lisa by the end.
As good as the regular cast is, mention must be made of two of The Drew Carey Show‘s unsung heroes. Kelly Perine (One on One) gets a lot of screen time as Chuck, the head of security at Winfred Lauder. He’s the ultimate tough guy, who seems to think he’s protecting the president and not a department store. I always look forward to his scenes. Also, Jane Morris (Raising Helen) is wonderfully quirky as Drew’s coworker Nora, selling every non-sequitor the writers think up for her.
This being the debut season, it’s obvious the creators were working out a few of the kinks. The show wouldn’t really hit its stride until later seasons, and a few of the episodes here are a little rougher than what some viewers might remember. The really crazy stuff like the musical numbers, the April Fool’s Day contests, and the live episodes wouldn’t come along for another year or two. Although this first season has laughs aplenty, the show is still finding its “voice,” and as such, there are some storylines that don’t quite work.
A three-episode arc has Drew going to court for sexual harassment after he puts what some feel is a sexually suggestive cartoon in the company newsletter. Even though the courtroom scenes are wonderfully ludicrous, the initial cartoon gag—a caterpillar trying to “do it” with a French fry—is just a little too absurd, and not really enough of a joke to build a multiple episode tale around.
Also, there’s Kate’s boyfriend Jay (Robert Torti, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical). I have no evidence of this, but it’s my personal suspicion that network executives were hovering over Helford’s shoulder, saying, “Give Kate a boyfriend.” The episode in which Jay is introduced is a good one, as it has Kate worrying that he’s “replacing” her in their group of friends. But once they hook up, Jay is given very little to do. Suddenly, he’s just this guy who’s always hanging around, with one or two straight-man lines per episode. If the creators had given their romance some complication, as they did with Drew and Lisa, it would have been much more interesting. Instead, Jay just comes across as dull.
And that brings us to Drew’s hillbilly neighbor Jules (Blake Clark, Little Nicky). Drew and company got a lot of mileage making fun of hillbillies on Whose Line is it Anyway?, but not so much here. The running gag with this character is that he owns a wide menagerie of animals, including bees, sheep, giant lizards, crap-flinging monkeys, and who knows what else. Jules just wasn’t a good “fit” for this show, and the creators must have known it, because he vanishes into sitcom limbo after the first few episodes.
All 22 episodes come bounding onto DVD in this four-disc set from Warner Bros. The picture and audio here are likely as good as the show’s ever been, with bright vivid colors and clear sound, all with few (or no) flaws in the DVD transfer. If nothing else, I do believe this is the first time the show can be seen without network logos and ads for other shows running along the bottom of the screen. The featurette is a good one, reuniting the actors and the creators, discussing the casting process, the making of the pilot, and favorite reminisces from this season. There’s also a spoof “1-900-MIMI” commercial that’s just as silly as anything else on this show.
The Drew Carey Show captures a nice balance between relatable down-to-Earth everyman humor and wildly over-the-top gags. Somehow, the mix works. Like I said above, this show makes me laugh. No matter how many times I’ve seen these episodes, they still crack me up. Based on that and that alone, I heartily recommend this set.
Drew, what did you do with that “not guilty” verdict I just gave you? Oh, wait, there it is. Mimi stapled it to the seat of your pants while you weren’t looking.