How a geeky fat guy turned his show into one of the few ratings picnics in a hit-starved season

Drew Carey is doing the Time Warp again. And again and again. It’s the rehearsal for The Drew Carey Show‘s trippy, Rocky Horror-inspired, season-finale dance number, and the big-bellied star has been jumping to the left, stepping to the right, and generally working his ample butt off for a couple of hours now.

Only when the music clicks off does Carey spot a goateed visitor who has slipped onto the soundstage for a sneak peek. The intruder: Matthew Perry, the star of another little sitcom that shoots on Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot.

”Come on up here!” dares Carey, 39, bouncing on the balls of his feet and making taunting kissy-kiss noises. ”Show us your moves! Show us what you got! Let’s go, son! And bring your boys with you!”

If Carey is full of bluster, he’s got a right to be. His sitcom about a cubicle-bound, brew-guzzling Everyshlub may not pull Friends-size ratings yet, but it did have a heck of a year: Drew broke out as a bona fide hit — the only sophomore show on any network to do so — leapfrogging from 48 to 18 in the overall rankings, and establishing itself as one of the few jewels in troubled ABC’s crown.

Last year’s threat of cancellation is a hazy memory. No longer do execs pepper Drew with nervous suggestions: Lose the dorky horn-rims. Nix the Eisenhower crew cut. Jazz up the low-key delivery. Sprinkle some pretty faces into the defiantly Regular Guy mix. In fact, ABC is now gushing about the very things that once made the show seem risky: ”So many sitcoms seem to be about single attractive women struggling in big cities,” says Jeff Bader, ABC’s VP of scheduling. ”This is as far from that as you can get.”

It’s almost too appropriate: Carey has chosen to be interviewed at the calorie kingdom known as Bob’s Big Boy. But as he takes a chomp of his double cheeseburger, TV’s very own big boy makes a shocking announcement. This summer, he’s going to slim down. Drop some of those famous 218 pounds. Eat healthy, exercise, the whole shebang. ”A new Drew,” he promises with a grin. ”A bright, bold prince.”

Drew sans paunch? Isn’t that like Seinfeld sans neuroses? Tim Allen sans tools? Fat jokes, after all, have been this show’s bread and butter, with Drew getting called everything from ”Midwestern corn-fed lard ass” to ”Chief Rubbing Thighs” to, simply, ”Pig.” Not to worry, promises the comic, chewing another mouthful of beef. There are still plenty of roads to humiliation: ”My haircut. My glasses. I’m a loser with women.” And anyway, says executive producer Bruce Helford, ”we can always pad him.”

Most of Drew’s ego whipping occurs at his Dilbert-like job — as personnel manager of a Cleveland department store — where he trades barbs with Avon-abusing secretary Mimi (Kathy Kinney). ”She really doesn’t like Drew,” promises Kinney. ”It’s not a Moonlighting thing.” This season, Drew got a new nemesis: a British, layoff-loving boss named Mr. Wick (Craig Ferguson). ”The producer wanted him to be a real a–hole,’ ” remembers the Scottish-born Ferguson. ”I said, ‘Okay, he’ll have to be English, then.”’

The Drew Carey Show
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