The Color of Funny

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

EVEN WITH ALL THE GUISES THAT RUBBER-FACED comedian James Carrey affects on the Fox skitcom In Living Color, one role is inescapable: Designated White Guy. Carrey, 29, is one of only two white performers among the 11-member ensemble—actress Kelly Coffield being the other. "In the beginning, [colleagues] rode me a little bit," he says. "But I'd do it back. I'd tell them I was closely linked to the head of the white race, and I could close the show down if they didn't stop it. I'd go, 'Just one phone call, man....' "

If Carrey has not always been totally in sync with the show's brand of barbed racial comedy, he has at least managed to carve out a more than comfortable niche within it, winning praise from critics and his own one-man Showtime special (Nov. 17). And in In Living Color's third season, his zingy caricatures have become series staples. Two of his biggest crowd pleasers are bodybuilder Vera de Milo, who's ingested a few steroids too many, and Fire Marshall Bill, an irrepressible multiple-burn victim who dispenses handy home-safety tips. In other words, says Carrey: "Nobody gets off the hook."

Carrey began creating his loopily offbeat personae during his suburban Toronto childhood. The youngest of four children of accountant Percy Carrey and his wife, Kathleen, a homemaker, James early on showed comic potential. In the second grade at Blessed Trinity School, for example, he "did this Three Stooges thing" for the Christmas play. "I remember looking down at the principal, Sister Mary Joan, in her habit down on her hands and knees, laughing. It isn't easy to make a nun fall off her chair."

A decade later the hilarity was interrupted when Percy Carrey was suddenly laid off from his 35-year job as a company comptroller. James quit school at 16 to work with his entire family at a suburban Toronto truck-rim factory. "We all became so angry," he says. "I was a security guard and a janitor, and I started throwing gigantic tantrums, throwing a bench against the wall or driving a forklift through the bay doors."

Searching for other work, the Carreys took to living in campgrounds around Toronto, eventually pitching tents in Carrey's eldest sister's yard. "I think that period taught me a very positive lesson," Carrey says. "My father had what was considered a safe job, and he lost it, so when people would say to me, 'You have to have a safe, real job to fall back on,' I knew there was no such thing."

In time, Carrey would learn to channel his rage. "I had to go to a psychiatrist later in life," he says. "I started sobbing, and he said, 'You're obviously in a lot of pain, yet you have a smile on your face.' I guess I had always been trying to be positive."

Or funny. At 17, Carrey took his stand-up routine on the road and eventually headed for Los Angeles. In 1984 he landed a lead in the short-lived NBC sitcom The Duck Factory. Thus launched, he went on to snare roles in the vampire-movie comedy Once Bitten (1985) and Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).

In 1983 Carrey, then 21, briefly lived with 37-year-old singer Linda Ronstadt. "I broke up with her because she was too young for me," he cracks. Two years later, during one of his occasional comedy-club appearance-, he met someone far nearer his age—Melissa Womer, an actress from Altoona, Pa., who was working as a waitress. Says Melissa: "As soon as I saw him, he seemed like family."

The two married in March 1986 and are the parents of Jane, 4. This year the family moved into a three-bedroom Hollywood home, where Carrey devotes himself to his favorite retreat since childhood: drawing. Melissa, now 31, marvels at the difference between her homebody husband and the loonies he portrays. "Some show people are always on," she says. "He isn't. He's serious and quiet, always thinking and creating."

No doubt. But so far it looks as if those warm, fuzzy trails aren't the ones that have impressed the littlest Carrey. "I think she's got the showbiz bug," says Jane's dad, invoking In Living Color's hot female dance troupe. "She told me she wants to join the Fly Girls."

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

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