Laugh Cure

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

WITH HIS RETRO CREW CUT AND black-rimmed glasses, looking vaguely like a porcupine reborn as a hardware clerk, Drew Carey doesn't waste time admiring his beauty. "You don't see any mirrors in my apartment except for the bathrooms," says the 37-year-old comic. "I don't like looking at myself." Still, that unhip image has become Carey's trademark, helping him land the new ABC sitcom bearing his name.

In The Drew Carey Show, he plays the acerbic but amiable assistant personnel director of a Cleveland department store. "Drew's persona, both in real life and on the series, is that of the little guy who goes out to do battle with the big guys and always returns with a shred of dignity," says Bruce Helford, the show's executive producer. "He's a happy sack, not a sad sack."

That's not exactly the role Carey has played for much of his life. For years he battled a crippling depression that he thinks may have stemmed from grief over his father's death. Lewis Carey, a draftsman for General Motors in Cleveland, died at 45 from a brain tumor when Drew was 8. At the time, Drew told his mother he thought he should see a psychiatrist. But Beulah Carey—busy working as a keypunch operator and then as a secretary to support Drew and his brothers Neal and Roger—never found time to take him, he says. Because the other boys were, respectively, 12 and 6 years older, Carey was often alone after school, watching cartoons, memorizing joke books and listening to comedy albums. He tried to use humor to gain popularity, but, he says, "I always thought my friends were funnier than me."

At Ohio's Kent State University in the mid-1970s, he switched majors several times without settling on any subject. "I felt I was just taking up space," he says. In the midst of one fraternity party when he was 18, "everybody was...having such a good time, I got so mad I could barely control my rage." He gulped a handful of sleeping pills, then told his friends, who rushed him to the hospital.

The suicide attempt did little to alter the aimless course of his life. He attended Kent State for five years, never earning a degree. At 23, he was waiting tables at a Las Vegas Denny's when hopelessness overcame him. "I remember thinking, 'All my friends have jobs now, and they're succeeding, but what am I doing?' " After popping more sleeping pills, he phoned a friend, who called an ambulance.

This time, Carey knew he needed help. His brother Roger gave him a bus ticket back to Cleveland. Carey immersed himself in self-help books like Dr. Wayne Dyer's Your Erroneous Zones and Og Mandino's University of Success, which, he says, helped him set goals. But it wasn't until 1980, when he wandered into a Marine Corps Reserve recruiting station in San Diego (he was visiting his brother Neal, who lived nearby), that Carey found a real anchor. Attracted by the discipline, Carey signed up and spent the next six years shaping up his body and mind while working odd jobs. The experience gave Carey the confidence he needed to jump-start his life. "I used to get perfect scores on my physical fitness tests," he recalls with pride.

After his 1986 discharge, Carey decided to make a career out of his childhood love, comedy. He started with a walk-on at a Cleveland club's amateur night—and bombed. But he kept working, and within months was earning up to $300 a night. His big breaks came with two 1987 appearances on Star Search and a 1991 dream gig: The Tonight Show, which led to several cable specials and a role in the short-lived 1994 NBC sitcom The Good Life.

As his career took off, his love life suffered. He now lives alone in an apartment in Hollywood. But in the late 1980s he was engaged to artist Jacquelyn Tough, 30. The two broke up—Carey blames his schedule—but remain close. "Drew has spent more time than anybody I know reading and listening to tapes on positive thinking and pop psychology," Tough says, "and he has taken all these ingredients and made his own soup out of them.... He has a really positive outlook." So positive, in fact, that he no longer cares to delve into his past—say, with a therapist. "I'm not that introspective," he says. "Now I only like to look to the future."

JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles

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