The Hollywood Reporter
May 26, 1999
DREW'S DUE – As 'The Drew Carey Show' hits the century mark, it continues delivering viewers – and ad dollars – for ABC. By Barry Gordon
For a while, it seemed like the only buzz about "The Drew Carey Show" was the name of the coffee-flavored beer produced in Carey's garage microbrewery. When the figures were in for the 1995-1996 season, the freshman comedy was in 46th places, barely good enough for a second season commitment. The prospect of a 100th episode, which will be broadcast this month, must have seemed about as likely as, we, Carey himself becoming a national superstar.
But Carey had his supporters. Early on, critics toasted his comic genius and the savvy of fellow executive producer Bruce Helford, as did others whose job is to keep an eye peeled for new hits. "It is interesting," says Alec Gerster, executive vp and director of media and programming services for Grey Advertising. "Occasionally, as the fall season premiers, or soon after that, you will see a show and you just go, 'Oh, yeah.' You just looked at it and you said, 'OK, I get it in episode one, and I can see why I would get it in episode 13.' "Then, what usually happens in these things, " Gerster continues, "is that there's enough substance to begin with and various things happen serendipitously as far as the characters go. You get secondary character development over time that keeps going."
And go "The Drew Carey Show" did. With growing word of mouth, increased promotion and one addition to the cast; Craig Ferguson to play Drew's boss, Nigel Wick; the show took off. When the second season numbers were talllied, it was a bona fide Top 20 hit and ABC's third most profitable comedy behind "Home Improvement" and "Spin City."
It might have taken viewer time to find Carey and his friends, but when they did, they liked what they saw. "He's not your usual leading man," says Paul Shulman, president of Shulman/Advanswer NY. "He's a very refreshing comic with a very different style. And the case is a great ensemble that people really have sparked to."
At his TV home, Carey is surrounded by fellow singles: amiable Lewis (Ryan Stiles), loopy Oswald (Diedrich Bader) and tomboy Kate (Christa Miller). Stiles is a former stand-up comedian and alumnus of Toronto's Second City comedy troupe. Bader has a succession of TV guest star roles before joining the show and Miller was a fashion model who turned exclusively to acting after moving to LA in 1990.
At his TV job, Carey play opposite Kathy Kinney, whose obnoxious and garishly clad Mimi Bobeck provides a worth and popular opponent in a weekly exchange of lethal insults and put-downs. Finally, there's Scottish-born Ferguson, a former rock musician and stand-up comic who plays self-serving boss Nigel Wick.
Even the show's setting was a welcome change of pace. "Yes, it's Cleveland, and I think that's one of the edges the show has," Shulman says. "Just about every program on the air right now has to be not only good but different. This show is good and it has a hook. The hook is, it's Middle America; it's Cleveland. It's not the kind of city you usually see for a sitcom. The show is very well done, very well written, and I think, most important is Drew. He's just very special."
It's hard to know exactly when Carey realized he was special. A former high school geek and ex-Marine (the derivation for his trademark dark-framed glasses and short hair-cut), he began his career as a comedian at a comedy club in his native Cleveland in 1986. Two years later, he made it as far as the second round on "Star Search."
In 1991, he was part of HBO's "14th Annual Young Comedians Special." More significantly, that was the year he was awarded a coveted seat on the couch when he made his debut on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."
He might have though he was special when he struck a development deal with Disney that led to a regular role on "The Good Life." The ABC sitcom was a mid-season replacement in January 1994 and never went beyond its original order. But it gave Carey sitcom experience and introduced him to producer Helford.
Helford, a Chicago native, tried his had ant acting and stand-up comedy before he turned to writing. Once, he was rejected by a company for a job writing horoscopes for little astrology scrolls old at convenience stores. Later though, he sold a script to "Family Ties."
In 1992, he was hired as executive producer of "Roseanne." Any lingering doubts about Carey being special were removed during the third season (1997-1998). Estimated ad revenue for the show rose from $67.5 million the previous year to $92 million. It had become the sixth best revenue producer of all ABC shows and second only to "Home Improvement" among network comedies.
Eager to keep the show around, ABD renegotiated with producing studio Warner Bros. Television. As a result, the license fee for the show went up from $630,000 last season to as estimated $3 million this year. Concurrently, Carey's salary went from $60,000 an episode to more than $250,000. The deal binds the show to ABC through next season.
After that, assuming Carey continues with the show, he is to earn more than $300,000 an episode. Even before the deal was signed, Tony Jonas, then Warmer Bros. Television president, presented Carey with a new black Porsche 911. Characteristically, Carey gave his old Mazda Miata to a production assistant whose car had been stolen.
Earlier this year, Helford closed a four-year production deal with Warner Bros. Television reportedly worth at least $20 million. Even with the higher license fees, "The Drew Carey Show" is no loss leader for ABC.
Reports last March indicate that a healthy advertising market was allowing the network to ask as much as $500,000 for a 30-second spot on the scatter market, as much as 50% to 100% more than it got in last year's upfront sales.
"It is one of the highest-priced shows on ABC," Shulman says. "Its demographics are excellent. It's a very salable show for ABC." Being on Wednesday night, the show is especially popular with movie studios, he adds, because they can advertise films that will open two nights later.
Looking ahead to next fall, the combination of "The Drew Carey Show" and "Dharma& Greg" give ABC the tent poles to attract viewers to new sitcoms and virtually assures an ABC victory on that weekday.
"Right now, an advertiser will be drawn to any program that's succeeding," says Grey's Gerster, explaining the show's popularity with sponsors. "If the program is succeeding, there is till a general feeling that the program is connecting with the audience at a higher level, which means that, hopefully, your client can connect at a higher level."
Creatively, the show appears as strong as ever. Memorable shows this season included a November sweeps episode in which Carey and the entire cast danced their way through scene after scene, paying tribute to pop culture from the days of the hula hoop to the dance scene from "The Full Monty." Another imaginative episode poked fun at unregulated genetic research by having Drew and his friends pay a clandestine visit to the pharmaceutical firm where Lewis is employed and where Drew's dog was being held.
Then there was the April Fool's day episode, a TV tradition in the making, in which the viewers are invited to find and send in as many mistakes as they can catch. It doesn't take long before lists of errors spring up on dozens of Internet sites dedicated to the show.
The show has also changed its theme song from time to time, a novelty for a TV series. Initially, the show opened with Carey singing "Moon Over Parma, " a catchy ditty famous for its inclusion of the names of about half a dozen Cleveland suburbs, including the one in the title. The second season we saw a switch to "Five O'Clock World," a rock classic by The Vogues. Later, the opening sequence and song became the more boosterish "Cleveland Rocks."
Considering its slow popularity build, its strong writing, it willingness to build episodes around pop cultural phenomenon, the show has invited comparisons to "Seinfeld," the last great comedy superhit. Could "The Drew Carey Show" ever reach that level?
Probably not, Shulman says. This is less reflection on "The Drew Carey Show" than recognition of the power of NBC's Thursday night lineup and the growing fractionalization of viewers.
All indications point to a strong and successful afterlife for "The Drew Carey Show." Although it won't make its syndicated debut until this fall, it wrapped up sales in most major markets nearly two years ago. Estimates are that the sitcom will bring in a hefty $2 million an episode in syndication. In addition to broadcast sales, "Drew Carey" has been sold to TBS beginning in 2002.