Jim Carrey wants to talk to you about death. He wants to explain to you his grief. His sense of loss. His sadness. He wants you to feel it, too, all your sadness, and know it’s OK.
It’s all part of his astounding performance as a children’s TV host reeling from the death of his son—a disturbing, if in other respects inspired alt-universe Mr. Rogers—in the new Showtime series, Kidding, which premieres Sunday night and marks Carrey’s first scripted TV role since 1984’s The Duck Factory. But it also seems to be stemming from Carrey, the person, too.
This is a movie star who once hauled $20 million per film, who has instead spent the last few years off-screen and blinded by rage at the state of the world, finding catharsis as an anti-Trump administration political cartoonist. His reluctant return to acting in a piece that urges us to engage with dark thoughts and which captures the frantic, hopeless grasping for healing is a career choice as inspired—and as seemingly personal—as his performance.
As Carrey told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this summer, “I’m not back in the same way. I don’t feel I’m little Jim trying to hang on to a place in the stratosphere anymore—I don’t feel like I’m trying to hold on to anything.”
Kidding reunites Carrey with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry, who also directs and executive produces the series, which was created by David Holstein with Carrey in mind to star.
When we meet Carrey’s Jeff Piccirillo, he is about to appear on Conan to promote his modern-day Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood show, Puppet Time, which he hosts as Mr. Pickles.
It’s the one-year anniversary of his son Phil’s death. A producer warns Conan not to bring it up. The talk show host doesn’t, instead introducing (in a canny move to breezily get through exposition) Mr. Pickles’ legacy as a beloved host and children’s mental health advocate of 30 years. Soon, Mr. Pickles has pulled out his ukelele and is leading the Conan audience in a sweet rendition of a clearly indelible song, “You Can Feel Anything At All.”
The Mr. Rogers comparisons are meant to be obvious.
The song, both in tone and the message it telegraphs, mirrors those Fred Rogers would sing: “It’s You I Like,” “It’s Such a Good Feeling,” or “Many Ways to Say I Love You.” His argument that children’s feelings should be dignified and validated spawned an entire children’s education philosophy and empire. There’s even a scene in which Mr. Pickles testifies before Congress about the value of children’s programming.
As the Kidding premiere goes on and Jeff crusades to make an episode of Puppet Time about death, in which he would talk to viewers about his son’s passing and how he’s dealt with it, the parallels with Rogers continue. He famously insisted on airing a special explaining what an assassination was after Robert Kennedy was killed, and returned from retirement to film reassuring testimonials for PBS following 9/11.
But unlike the Mr. Rogers narrative we know, and what makes Kidding a fascinating portrait of grief through the prism of this Mr. Pickles avatar, is a dose of very modern cynicism. Everyone is reluctant to allow Jeff to converse with his young audience about death, lest he tarnish their warm, fuzzy feelings about him and, more importantly, his lucrative brand.
“You need to understand something,” lectures Jeff’s producer, Seb (played by Frank Langella), who is more emotionally invested in Jeff than you at first think.
“There’s two of you. There’s Mr. Pickles, the $112 million licensing industry of edu-taining toys, DVDs, and books that keep the lights on in this little charity of ours. And then there’s Jeff, a separated husband and grieving father, who needs to hammer out a few dents in his psyche. And trust me, never should the two meet, to prevent the destruction of them both.”
Jeff needs to heal. Mr. Pickles is fine.
The personal toll the demand of celebrity takes on someone desperate for real connection. An audience’s insistence that the connection they have to someone on TV is real, and can’t be shattered. They are provocative, meta conversations raised especially by having Carrey in this role, and they elevate the show even as its quirkier dramedy subthreads begin to run amok.
There’s something about Carrey’s performance that keeps you on edge, like he’s about to become unhinged.
Maybe it’s the slightly too-wide glint in his eyes. Maybe it’s the haircut, a bizarrely juvenile and, in turn, menacing pageboy styled bluntly down to his shoulders. Surely it’s the circumstances of the character, who is spiraling from a loss. But maybe it’s also because, well, it’s Jim Carrey.
For so much of his career, both on- and off-screen, there wasn’t so much a threat of lunacy or mania in a Jim Carrey performance—a Jim Carrey existence, really—as there was a constant assault. But Carrey hasn’t been on-screen lately, save for a handful of unsettling TV interviews that went viral for perhaps not the greatest reasons. As such, all that historical baggage follows him to Kidding, to surprisingly great effect.
Carrey’s Jeff Pickles seems to exist in the quiet space between the extreme peaks he scaled in his biggest, broadest performances, be it Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, or Bruce Almighty. Each time Jeff walks into a room, it’s as if he’s just exhaled, expelling all the energy from the work it takes to just be Mr. Pickles, the Personality. Like he can now focus on the task of understanding and being just himself.
You wonder if a performance like this, coming at a time in Carrey’s career when he has these attitudes towards fame and the industry, is art imitating life in the same way.
For all the great dramatic work Carrey has done in films like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine and for the Herculean, if under-appreciated acting feat that was Man on the Moon, there’s something so quietly settled about his performance in Kidding, as if it’s coming from his own clear-headed vision of himself for the first time.
Perhaps in this time when we cheer the wholesome, sunny entertainers and TV shows that distract from the darkness and depravity of the world around us, there are those who might have craved Carrey going full Ace Ventura in his splashy new series. There’s something bold about his refusal to do that, and to instead bring this portrait of a man whose existence, ravaged by sadness, is directly at odds with the one people want and expect him to be: a stainless source of security and hope.
But what this series and Carrey, in his public remarks and art off-screen, stress is that, should we resign ourselves to the delusion of that security, hope, and comfort—well, we’d all just be kidding ourselves.