December 29, 1997 12:00 PM

HOLD THE LATTE AND THE CAPPUCCINO. THIS beer-guzzling, pool-shooting slug of a man can smugly survey those Friends through his unfashionable black-rimmed glasses. The Drew Carey Show, after making a dismal debut in 1995, emerged this year as a solid Top 20 hit, one of the brightest spots on ABC’s struggling schedule. Clearly, Carey’s cubicle-dwelling, department-store worker—a sort of live-action Dilbert—has scored with a downsized and cynical American workforce grown weary of pretty, polished urban characters in impossibly glamorous jobs. “Nobody represents the people that we do,” says Carey, “unless they want to make fun of them.” The comedian’s show, agrees former network executive Lew Hunter, “treats working-class people with respect. Drew Carey represents every person, not just every man but every woman too.”

Maybe—if every woman wants to dance the shag in front of a national audience. This year a series of production numbers has the cast shimmying to rock music and gallivanting through the streets of Cleveland, where the show is set. “We’re finding a wacky side that is pure entertainment,” says coexecutive producer Bruce Helford. “We’re constantly breaking the mold.”

Now Carey, a Cleveland native (he still keeps the one-bedroom, A-frame house he grew up in) and onetime Marine who spent five years doing stand-up before breaking into TV, must deal with fame’s trappings. On the downside, he complains, the tabloids are obsessed with his party-animal antics. (In fact, says the never-married comic, with his 40th birthday looming he’s drinking less, eating better, exercising and has shed 17 pounds.) On the upside, he got $3 million to write Dirty Jokes and Beer: Stories of the Unrefined, a generally funny collection in which he reveals—almost in passing—that he was sexually molested as a child and discusses his two suicide attempts. Carey won’t give details of his abuse and insists others have endured worse. “But it happened,” he says, “and I shouldn’t be ashamed of it.” His writing about the assault, he believes, “will help other people.”

The trauma may also have fed his formidable talent. Because Carey’s in touch with his emotions, says Helford, he’s “a far better actor than the guys who can just deliver punch lines.” And, to his fans, far more accessible: someone flawed, someone getting by—someone just like them.

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