A few months back, GSN gave me the opportunity to head down to Las Vegas, make ten dollars on penny slots (true story), balk at lions enclosed in a glass case of emotion for all the tourists to appreciate, and double down at the MGM Grand's free-for-me buffet so hard that I quickly grew into a larger waist size As priceless as these experiences were, the highlight of my trip to Vegas was what I was sent there for: to meet television icon Drew Carey.
Now I'm not really much of an interviewer, and really all I asked the guy were some things about improv (always say "yes") and what his favorite cartoon character was (Bugs Bunny).
Most of what I saw in Drew Carey that night though was pretty much what I could have seen from afar: one of the few living TV personalities out there that can actually be called a microcosm, and probably the most underappreciated. It would be unfair not just to Carey, but of all those in his corner, if daytime game shows become his legacy, and I'm sure he's right there with me hoping that that the upcoming Improv-a-ganza will change that.
The first time anybody really saw Drew was on Star Search. His delivery was dry, kind of snarky, and a little stand-offish in relation to the encompassing crowd. But he had a look, "the human cartoon" some called him, and it wasn't long before he showed up on the successful Drew Carey Show.
The Drew Carey Show
This was a time when a lot of us late twentysomethings romanticize as the golden age of television. A time when The Real World was the only reality show anyone ever gave any credence to. It may not have had the audience of a Seinfeld or a Cheers... but I'm still baffled that it's not a show I see in reruns and still "The Nanny" shows up on screen from time to time... something blasphemous in that if you ask me. Carey's show was the kind of program that would inspire shows like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia where characters didn't have to look pretty or talk with condescension about non-urban professionals. And they did some crazy, dare I say groundbreaking(?) things, including the airing of a live episode full of improv moments and writing in a transvestite supporting character. Cleveland rocked as far as I am concerned.
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Then came Whose Line, a show that was much beloved, but also seemed to have a dangerous formula. While Drew's sitcom could be molded to integrate a song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show into a narrative about beer bringing two love interests together. Whose Line could only do such a thing within the context of a live audience ready to succumb to the suspension of belief, and it worked. It worked so well that celebrities like Robin Williams would stop by and future celebrities like Stephen Colbert made their way through the rounds. Characters like Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie would become ingrained in the culture's minds in a way their bit parts in other areas never did. But eventually it sort of fizzled away like a pop song we put on repeat one too many times. The audience that seemed to hold to their guns the strongest were the middle aged women who thought that Wayne Brady was so gosh-darn adorable.
The Price is Right
And then, it seemed, the Drew Carey collective had sort of melted away into oblivion through no fault of anyone but the television audience that was no longer a collective group. The zillions of niches that came along with hundreds and hundreds of 24 hours cable station cycles forced guys like Frasier Crane into sitcoms with laugh tracks that now alienated the viewer, it had Seinfeld producing the much-hated-by-anyone-under-the-age-of-50 Marriage Ref. And Drew? Drew was hosting The Price is Right and he looked good. Too good. Where was the human cartoon? The everyman that had gotten his own show, the relatable guy that warrented cheers when he went on Stern talking about great looking strippers giving him the light of day? He had finally grown up, and only the grown ups cared to continue watching him...
But it seems Drew, while now a responsible father and responsible eater was still holding onto something from the early days. With cameos on shows like Family Guy (watch here) and Community, Drew's hunger seemed to be coming back (metaphorically) and perhaps the Price is Right, while I imagine it pays very well, wasn't fulfilling all of the comic's emotional responsibility not only for his fans, but for the guys that brought improv itself into the main stream.
And now, Drew is back at the hosting helm. Instead of an overcrowded ABC studio, I was able to sit and watch the show front-and-center at the MGM Grand theater in Las Vegas and see all the guys I used to laugh my ass off at before ABC Family had rebranded them as Sesame Street characters. The cycle had come back around, and the postmodern world where Drew Carey was a thin, Evian drinking Bob Barker disciple was forgotten. Even Wayne Brady seemed more like the guy from my favorite Chapelle Show skit than he did the black Monty Hall. Maybe these are just the words of a guy that's nostalgic for the 90s, and maybe I was just a wee bit intoxicated, but these improv olympians (Ryan, Colin, Kathy, Greg, Brad) haven't lost the knack to make people laugh. And they make us laugh outside the niche computations of "what kind of audience member is watching this channel at this time slot?" that makes up the bulk of televised programming these days. My only question now is, whatever happened to Oswald and Kate?
Drew Carey's Improv-a-ganza premieres tonight on GSN at both 8pm and 11pm. Check your local listings.