Jim Carrey Masters His Act in Kidding

In a new Showtime series, the actor delivers the same gripping performance that’s been characteristic of his career: moving, thoughtful, and maniacal.

Jim Carrey as Mr. Pickles in Showtime's 'Kidding' (Erica Parise / SHOWTIME)

Kidding, which premiered on Showtime Sunday night, stars Jim Carrey as Jeff Piccirillo, a beloved children’s television entertainer/puppeteer and one-man franchise operating under the name “Mr. Pickles.” The problem for Mr. Pickles—and the philosophical engine of the show—is the fact that one year ago Piccirillo’s son was killed by an ice cream truck. To quote Rudyard Kipling: “Oh what avails the classic bent, and what the cultured word / Against the undoctored incident that actually occurred.” I’m grateful to my respected colleague David Sims for having been the first responder to Kidding, thus allowing me the luxury of a riper, goofier and altogether more posterior take on this interesting show. So let’s see.

Sims expresses some impatience with the binary obviousness of Kidding’s central conceit: Mr. Rogers vs. the Grim Reaper; a man who tells children that life is good suddenly robbed of his own child with a brutally arbitrary swipe of the scythe. But to me this is the raw language of fairytale—and more pertinently, the raw language of Jim Carrey, who has made a remarkably consistent career out of playing just such elementally divided men. As Piccirillo/Pickles, Carrey is doing yet another variation on his theme: the self at the point of rupture, the self at war with itself. Fletcher Reede, the shyster lawyer supernaturally enjoined to tell the truth in Liar Liar, puts it very succinctly when he is interrupted while beating himself up in a courthouse restroom. “What the hell are you doing?” asks a horrified random bathroom-goer, watching a bleeding Carrey/Reede bounce his face off a towel dispenser. “I’m kicking my ass!” Reede tells him. “D’you MIND?!”

Because Carrey is a great and cosmic clown and a conductor of the naked electricity of being itself, there is a central emptiness to him, a kind of energetic vacancy. It roams his body, distorting it, seeking an outlet or a connection, and it pushes like a carrier wave through the personae he creates in his performances, one mask after another. In Mr. Pickles, bereaved and bewildered, pale and creepy-haired, wearing too-short trousers that display a lot of sad sock, the frenetic act is dialed down somewhat. But those other characters are still ghosting through, jostling for entrance: The Truman Show’s Truman Burbank with his toothy super-suburban niceness, and most of all Andy Kaufman, whom Carrey portrayed in Miloš Forman’s biopic Man on the Moon. The hanging, defenseless arms of Mr. Pickles, his strangely martyred trudge and expression of hatchling innocence are all very Andy. Mr. Pickles is a magical, gentle father/explainer for the children who watch him on TV, but with the loss of his son he becomes the agonizingly exact point at which the brutality of the universe intersects with the human need for meaning—our biological requirement. Could anybody pull this off but Carrey, moving so softly and thoughtfully but with repressed mania jangling across his frame?

At the level of the objective correlative —the physical representation of emotion—Kidding hums along beautifully. Piccirillo’s surviving son, Will, visits his brother’s grave and finds three stoner kids sprawled there. The kids are wasted, they won’t move when Will asks them to, but they are also blearily respectful: The fact that they are on hallowed ground has magnified their buzz. Highly nuanced semi-feral teen negotiations take place, and Will is offered the pipe-made-out-of-a-soda-can. At which point his father drives up, gazes upon this tableau of (to him) teenage wasteland, gives his son a look of entreaty and bottomless dad-pain, and drives away again. Later Will returns to the gravesite with a beehive in a trashbag; he shakes out the hive, puts his boot through it, and releases the swarm. Like I said: Beautiful.

Another reason to watch: Frank Langella. He plays Piccirillo’s father Seb­—office boss and captain of the Mr. Pickles industry. And everything he says, in his fierce priestly-gangsterly whisper, has a final, lapidary quality. Every word feels like the last word, the voice of the reality principle, whether he’s lecturing Jeff on the maintenance of the Mr. Pickles brand or complaining that the two actors inside the show’s pantomime horse, the front end and the back end, are having sex on the job (“Why does Snagglehorse smell like buggery?”) In a show with pronounced tendencies toward reverie, fabulism, and dreamlike driftings-away, Langella’s Seb keeps things grounded.

Michel Gondry, who last worked with Carrey on Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, is Kidding’s director, and he is a strange and beautiful artist. The Gondry vibe is very particular: The world twinkles and tinkles and softly intensifies under his lens, a little sinister in its sweetness, as when Mr. Pickles makes an appearance on Conan, takes out his toy ukulele (“Everyone knows Uku-Larry!” says delighted fellow guest Danny Trejo) and enchants the audience with a song about feelings. People nod and sway, spellbound up in the studio terraces. Trejo grins like a split rock, and the cameraman murmuringly sings along: You can feel / Anything at all  / Anything at all / It’s fine. But disruption haunts the edge of Gondry’s vision, a sense of madness teeming at the margins, of Eros gone rogue (a pantomime horse having sex with itself; I think he may have invented an archetype there) and the oncoming bumpers of killer ice cream trucks.

In conclusion, then: I’m going to keep watching this show, with its wizardly director and mythopoeic lead actor, because I’m confident that at some point it will drastically illuminate the nature of existence—yours and mine. Also (forgot to mention), Catherine Keener’s in it.