“I Get Angry at Myself When I Play It Safe”: Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen and The Hollywood Reporter Comedy Actor Roundtable
Jim Carrey, Henry Winkler, Ted Danson, Don Cheadle, Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Simons open up about why comedy should be dangerous, Hollywood’s former drug culture and moving on from indelible roles in The Hollywood Reporter's Comedy Actor Roundtable.
Gather six of the funniest actors on TV today and it becomes next to impossible to keep a straight face. At least twice during THR‘s Comedy Actor Roundtable — which included such heavyweights as Barry‘s Henry Winkler, 73, The Good Place‘s Ted Danson, 71, and Black Monday‘s Don Cheadle, 54 — Jim Carrey, 57, now of Showtime’s Kidding, physically hoisted himself onto the table for comedic effect. Other highlights of the boisterous 90 minutes at Hollywood’s Line 204 Studios: The sextet broke out in a rendition of the Happy Days theme; the veterans in the group spoke candidly, if comically, about Hollywood’s former drug culture (as relative newbie Timothy Simons, 41, of Veep listened in disbelief); and the typically press-shy Sacha Baron Cohen, 47, had five jaws agape as he recounted, among other shockers, the game of cat and mouse he played with the Secret Service while filming Showtime’s Who Is America?. Yeah, these guys will do anything for a laugh.
Let’s start with an icebreaker. Complete this sentence: I act because …
TIMOTHY SIMONS Because there is no ceiling to the amount of attention I need, positive or negative, and this is a business that provides that.
SACHA BARON COHEN Because I can do nothing else.
DON CHEADLE You write.
COHEN Yeah. Apart from writing.
CHEADLE And direct.
COHEN Occasionally. Very rarely. OK, apart from writing and directing. (Laughter.)
CHEADLE I act because if you did what we do anywhere other than a place where they pay you to do it, they’d arrest you.
JIM CARREY I act because I’m broken in a lot of pieces and acting gives me a chance to reconfigure those pieces into a thousand different things that are positive for people to watch. And eventually I will be ground down into a fine powder and …
CHEADLE Snorted? Is that how you want to go out?
HENRY WINKLER For those of you who are watching [this discussion], there is a guide that you will get in the mail for Jim’s answers.
TED DANSON That was clear as a bell. And remarkably truthful.
CARREY We are all broken, let’s face it.
DANSON I’m with everyone else. A little bit broken, not badly, and wouldn’t know what else to do, literally. And, hey, [acting is] a noble fucking profession. I do think we’re curing cancer. It’s an amazing thing to make people laugh.
What do you guys wish you knew about navigating fame and success when you first were starting out?
CHEADLE I wish that someone had told us about how much of it has to do with that, navigating the business of it to the point where you get to do the thing that you love to do. And how it can really be an education that you didn’t know that you needed in how to manage your time, your relationships and your family and how to do all the things that you need to do to stay a whole person while you’re trying to continue to give all of that out when you’re on a set.
CARREY I’m sorry, man, I went blank halfway through that …
CHEADLE Which part? As soon as I said, “I”? (Laughter.)
WINKLER I wish I knew how to not worry as much. To navigate to where I wanted to go, where I dreamt of going, without eating myself alive from the inside. I was worried about everything — about losing it, about not getting it, about not being good enough. I was like a bowl of Jell-O before it went into the refrigerator.
DANSON I like the comfort level I’ve gotten, either because I’m 71 or had some degree of success. I like that I am actually having fun at a table like this; whereas years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to. I would’ve been too full of ego, too full of embarrassment.
COHEN I was scared of becoming famous, really. And I managed to get away with it because I was lucky enough to have my characters be famous in England, but no one knew what I looked like. I was able to have the success without any of the … can I call it hassle?
COHEN Because I couldn’t really see the great upside other than if you were single as a guy you’d generally be able to date girls who were better looking than you should’ve been able to date. But apart from that?
Jim, what about you? You experienced success on such a grand scale, every paycheck, every girlfriend, every everything became public …
CARREY And 90 percent myth as well. So that’s a tough thing to deal with. People create your life. They take elements that are true and they put it in an article so that article looks legit, and yet there’s so much of the article that isn’t true. So that’s something to teach you that, “Hey, you know what? In order to go forward, I have to let go of what this creation is.”
How do you do that?
CARREY Well, I ultimately found that even the me I created wasn’t real, so that left me in an odd situation. Many of the things I do have to do with the disappointment of creating a winning personality in the world and then, eventually, for your own sanity and freedom, letting it go. I mean there’s The Fonz sitting right here who can speak to that.
WINKLER What you’re saying is exactly right. And people come to you thinking you are other than you are. And it’s like a drug, you want to believe you can walk on water. You have to just hold on and realize you are not any taller, you don’t know math any better, you are not smarter because people think you are wonderful on TV or in the movies.
DANSON But you still have to host their opinion of you graciously. You can’t go, “No, you’re wrong.”
For you, Tim, it’s all more recent …
SIMONS Yeah, and I don’t have that level of notoriety. I’ve seen some parts of the bad version of it, but mostly it’s somebody stopping me at the grocery store to tell me they like the thing I’m working on. I’m like, “Oh, cool.” But it’s strange, that thing where your brain just tells you to believe them.
CARREY It’s like walking on the moon. You can want to walk on the moon all you want, but then you get up there and there’s no gravity. You can’t live there.
If you guys had anonymity for a day, what would you do?
DANSON I’d pass out. (Laughter.) I’m so used to [the attention]. I went down to the Amazon once with my family and almost passed out, and Mary [Steenburgen, his wife] accused me of being faint from no one recognizing me.
SIMONS “Why isn’t anybody here telling me I’m great?”
CHEADLE I kind of have anonymity.
COHEN Yeah, I have it.
CARREY I have it when I sleep.
CHEADLE Yeah, yours is trickier.
CARREY Even my dog makes a big deal [out] of me. (Laughter.)
CHEADLE “He’s home! He’s home!”
CARREY But I dropped the whole trying to be something for somebody a long time ago. I don’t feel there is a pressing responsibility to please everyone. I’m not unkind to people, but I would much prefer saying hello and who are you and what are you doing today to giving a selfie. Because selfies stop life. You go (contorts his face), “Eeehh.” And then it’s going on Instagram to give people a false sense of relevance. Everybody was so gaga about Steve Jobs, but I picture him in hell running from demons who want a selfie. (Laughter.)
A lot of you have played indelible roles. What’s it like to move on?
WINKLER I was on Happy Days for 10 years, and I committed hubris. I thought that I was going to go from mountaintop to mountaintop. I was going to beat the system. And then I looked down and there were grass stains on the knees of my jeans because I slid right into the valley. (Laughter.)
I dreamt of doing this thing, I did it with an explosion, and now it’s over and I had no idea how or what to do next. And my psyche hurt.
CARREY Was the show being syndicated everywhere, on all the time, was that a reminder for you?
WINKLER I didn’t need a reminder. (Laughter.)
CARREY (Singing) Sunday, Monday, happy days. Tuesday, Wednesday, happy days. Thursday, Friday, happy days.
ALL (Singing) Da-da-da, da-da-da.
What about you, Ted?
DANSON I was lucky because my character’s job [on Cheers] was to look at the crazy, wonderful, extreme characters around me. Sam was the audience’s way into the show, so I wasn’t playing such an iconic character. I think that allowed me to move on because I wasn’t “Wacky Sam.”
Hollywood likes to lock people in lanes. What kinds of roles make you just say, “Ugh, not this again”?
SIMONS I’m grateful for every opportunity, but I’ve turned down a bunch of things that are just bad versions of the thing I’m doing already. If it’s just, like, “Oh, here’s a sort of gangly guy who’s going to say sexually inappropriate stuff in an office,” I’m like, “OK, well, I’m doing that already and, also, this version of it is not as funny.”
DANSON I’ve done several of the parts you turned down, so thank you. (Laughter.)
COHEN Weirdly, after Borat — because he was the first openly anti-Semitic character since, probably, Germans in the ’40s — I suddenly started getting Jewish characters as if I was the only Jew in Hollywood. Somehow Borat being anti-Semitic made it appear that I’d be good at playing Jewish characters. I was Mr. Jewish.
What would you want to play, if only it were being offered?
COHEN When I was at university, I’d play this genre that was called tragicomedy, which is like Cyrano de Bergerac or even Fiddler on the Roof. The character starts off as really funny, and then in the second half, tragedy happens. And because the audience loves you and is engaged with you, they transition really quickly into being sad for you. My eyesight’s not very good, and I remember playing Cyrano de Bergerac and I’d see bits of white coming up. They were tissues. People were starting to cry. It’s a genre you don’t see much of anymore, but something like that.
CARREY Can I coin a phrase?
CARREY Calomedy. That’s what I look at it as. My show, Kidding, is calomedy. It’s about a calamity and it’s handled with humor and levity, and pretty much that’s what I do. Every trauma — and I could build a ladder to the stars with the things that have happened or the things that I’ve had to endure — but they’ve all turned into something really creative.
DANSON That’s true for all of us. You get to work through your life and your emotions through your art, and it’s pretty cool.
COHEN The show I just did, Who Is America? — a guy called Donald Trump got elected, and I was upset by it and that anger and disappointment, I was expressing it by sending friends emails, sharing articles, look at this and this. I was so angry, I actually had to channel it into some characters who could sit with some of those people who were his friends.
CHEADLE Exposing it.
COHEN And I didn’t really care how the show went down. I mean, Showtime’s going to be upset about this, but I said to them, “I’m not doing any publicity.” I just had to get it out of my system.
I read that you got O.J. Simpson on camera and were then disappointed that he didn’t confess to murder.
COHEN I had an absurdly ambitious aim. (Laughter.) I shot that right at the end of the show, and I had achieved some things I was surprised by. Like, I never thought a politician [Jason Spencer, then a Georgia state representative] would get his buttocks out.
SIMONS I do like the idea that a bunch of people were like, “Has anybody just asked O.J. if he did it? Has anybody just asked him?”
CARREY Just get him wrecked.
CHEADLE Shit-faced and just ask.
COHEN Well, he can’t get wrecked because then he’s violating the terms of his parole. I did try. (Laughter.) So I trained up with an FBI interrogator.
CHEADLE Oh, wow.
COHEN Again, this is reaching too high, but I thought, “Let me try it,” because it was hidden camera — if he’s ever going to admit it, it would be in a hotel room where he thinks he’s going to earn a lot of money. So I trained with supposedly the greatest FBI interrogator, and eventually he goes, “Who’s this for?” And I go, “It’s for O.J.” And he goes, “That’s going to be tough.” (Laughter.)
CHEADLE He’s not in your ear? You went in and just did it?
COHEN Yeah, the FBI have a way with people who are finding it hard to confess. There was a sequence that I memorized.
SIMONS I’m sort of nervous now to be sitting around this table …
CARREY I know!
SIMONS Like, we’re going to start getting these questions.
CARREY I’m hoping you’ll tear me open. I can’t live with this anymore! (Laughter.)
When was the last time you were genuinely nervous to tell a story?
CARREY I’ve only ever been disappointed when I wasn’t authentic, when I had reached for something that was not based in some authenticity — even if it’s a wildly animated character, I feel I’ve raped myself.
COHEN Which is painful. (Laughter.) I’d like to ask this question to you.
DANSON Careful … (Laughter.)
COHEN Your style of performance was completely unique. First, it was absolutely roll-on-the-floor funny, but you’d never seen anyone put as much energy into a performance. It was like seeing electricity somehow unleashed. When you were in the middle of performance, did your state change?
CARREY It’s like a fugue state. Like you wake up afterward and go, “What happened?”
COHEN That’s what it looked like.
CARREY I love actors who employ every bit of their instrument. You look at James Dean, this is a man who was expressing everything. He didn’t just get emotional, he was emotional. It was (shouting) tearing him apart! So I know the methods, I know Stanislavsky, Meisner, and I know what’s good from them for me, and I use it. At the same time, I’m painting, so don’t tell me the eyes can’t both be on this side of the head.
DANSON [What you were doing] was so unique that when I first saw it, I went, “Oh, no, no, no, no, turn it off.” (Laughter.) And then I came back and went, “Turn it on again.” It literally took me a while to go, “Oh, fuck, look at this.”
CARREY I had the most wonderful experience coming in. Before Ace Ventura came out, I was in Chicago doing a live gig, and my manager sat me down at a restaurant and said, “We’ve got bad news. Siskel & Ebert killed you.”
COHEN This is before Ace Ventura?
CARREY Three days before it came out. “The worst movie ever made, the worst actor ever.”
COHEN Because it was completely original.
CARREY It was so scathing. And what happened, to my absolute delight, was that by the time I had done Truman Show, Siskel and Ebert did an entire episode just about me and called it, “Jim Carrey, Clown With Class.” I get emotional thinking about it. It was incredible. They said, “We were wrong, we didn’t know what we were seeing.” I’d never seen a critic say that.
DANSON I get angry at myself when I play it safe, when I reach adequate and go, “OK.” And you (to Carrey) are the epitome of not playing it safe.
Speaking of validation, Henry, did your recent Emmy win for Barry feel validating, having never won for Happy Days?
WINKLER I loved winning it. It sits on my dining room table, directly opposite the front door, so when the man delivers my Lipitor he gets to see it. (Laughter.) But I never thought, “Oh, I deserve it.” I never thought, “Oh, it took so long.” I’ll tell you what I was not prepared for. When you’re nominated, you think, “That’s great,” and everybody says, “My gosh, just to be nominated,” which lasts until your tush hits the seat. And then you want it. But people treat you differently when you’ve won.
WINKLER Oh my God, on the street, in the industry, when you’re an Emmy winner, there is a patina they put on you.
DANSON I was nominated nine times in a row before I won. And when I won, people would say, “Well, you have, what, 10 of them, right?” People don’t know. And the mantle of “you were robbed” was taken from me when I won.
CARREY The “you were robbed” thing is a little bit tiresome.
DANSON I don’t know, I enjoyed it.
WINKLER I never felt robbed. I was just happy that I won when I won. The only thing that I wrote 43 years ago [on a piece of paper he read from when he won in 2018] was, “Kids, you can go to bed now.” And of course, the kids are now adults.
DANSON Oh, I was there that night. I was robbed. (Laughter.)
Don, I’ve heard you say that your showrunners take jokes as far as they can go and often you rein them in. What does that look like?
CHEADLE You don’t really know where the line is sometimes until you’ve stepped over it. Both of the [showrunners] are Jewish, and they like to throw in some anti-Semitic jokes, and I’m like, “I’m not doing that. You can say that one. I’ll make up the black joke we can play with.” (Laughter.)
There are a lot of drugs on Black Monday. Your producer Seth Rogen said that cocaine in the ’80s is funnier than cocaine today. Why?
CHEADLE It’s funny then because we are here and we can see where it’s headed. “I know you think now that this is brilliant juice, but it’s not going to work out.” (Laughter.)
CARREY It drove the industry, man.
CHEADLE Exactly. I mean, I know people who, when I started, were getting their per diem in coke.
DANSON The prop truck was where you got cocaine.
SIMONS I’m not trying to be a square, but my God, if I have half a glass of wine, I worry about call [time] the next morning.
CHEADLE It was just the culture.
CARREY And you’ve got to be deep into the addiction to actually be able to handle it.
What are the unexpected challenges of playing high onscreen?
CHEADLE You’re kind of wired already and the B12, doing it over and over again, it can get you to approximate the high.
B12? That’s what you take?
CHEADLE Yeah. Or coke. (Laughter.) Like Jim said, if you’re already there and your tolerance is so high that you need a little help, then, you know …
Sacha, what’s one of the craziest tales that didn’t make it to air? Did I hear you almost got Ben Carson?
COHEN Yeah, we managed to get an interview but at the hotel was a conference of other politicians like Condoleezza Rice, and the place was full of Secret Service. So even getting me to the room was a huge problem. There were probably about 50, 60 Secret Service there, and it sounds completely paranoid, but some of them disguise themselves as staff and then I’m obviously disguised.
DANSON Oh my God, balls!
COHEN So I realize he’s got his own Secret Service, and I get on the phone to my lawyer: “What happens if they ask to see ID?” If they see my ID and find out it’s me, I’m blasted. I said, “Listen, I’ve got fake ID, can I present my fake ID?” And they go, “No, you’re going to go to jail.” So you’re going into a scene knowing that and you’re trying to work out the percentage of something bad happening.
CHEADLE Right. (Laughter.)
COHEN We’d booked another room that I could go to in case we got busted. I made one slip-up, and this is the problem with the stuff that I do — one mistake and the scene’s dead. So [Carson] was stepping on set, and the White House press secretary pulled the interview because I was playing this Finnish unboxing character and I had these kids toys and he said, “Why do you have all those toys?” And I go, “Well, we’re going to do some unboxing.” He suddenly realizes that a member of the Cabinet is coming in to unbox and he had great instincts, this guy, and pulled [Carson]. But then the Secret Service are alerted to the fact that something is happening, so I go to the room that’s booked under a different name.
CHEADLE Oh my God!
COHEN But we have an ex-Secret Service bodyguard, and he’s like, “They’re listening in.” I thought he was paranoid, but he was right. Eighty percent of what I do is getting in and out of situations.
Do you get nervous?
COHEN Oh, absolutely terrified. But it becomes addictive. We did this scene where I pitch building a mega-mosque in this town and we knew they’d be upset. It got nearly violent because I accused somebody of being a Muslim. And they go, “You say that again and I’m gonna come …”
CHEADLE “Kill you.” Yeah, that’s on camera.
What’s going through your head?
COHEN I go deep into character. If it’s going to get violent, the worst thing you can do is crack and have them realize you’re playing a character. You can’t go, “Hey, I just want to mock you and expose your racism!” Then you’re really in trouble. And what I’m doing in my head is trying to edit the scene. So, know the setup to the joke, the joke, and I need an out.
DANSON Well, the shot fired is probably your out … (Laughter.)
SIMONS I’ve fucked up so many scenes where the only threat was, like, rolling into [the mandatory lunch break]. That’s the only shit that was on the line. (Laughter.)
CARREY My biggest problem is overhead lighting. I’m 57, man, it scares the hell out of me.
COHEN Then we wanted to do another take, and we were concerned the next group would get their guns. At that point, you’ve got to act as the producer. I said [to the crew], “Listen, I want you to opt in to the next scene. And I’m assuming everyone’s going home unless you say, ‘Now I’m going to stay,’ because we can’t guarantee that we’re not going to be stuck in this hall while everyone with their guns are outside not letting us out.”
You should see all of your faces as he tells these stories …
CARREY Comedy is dangerous. There were many nights at The Comedy Store where I ended up on someone’s table with a broken beer bottle.
COHEN You used to stay up there for hours, didn’t you?
CARREY There was one night where I stayed up for two hours because the audience hated me. It was an exercise in self-punishment and punishment for them.
What drives that?
CARREY I’d rather get hit than back down.
WINKLER I’d drop to the floor.
CARREY One night I stayed up so long that chairs were flying through the air. It was a Saturday night in the main room at The Comedy Store, 250 people paying top dollar, and it became a war.
DANSON Were you Jim Carrey yet or was this en route?
CARREY I was en route.
Who won the war?
CARREY I finally got offstage to huge applause just because I mentioned I was going to leave the stage. (Laughter.) Then I crawled through the audience on my hands and knees, popped up behind the piano and started banging on the keys, singing, “I hate you all, you gave me cancer.” It was an entirely improvised song, blaming them for the cancer cells that were being formed.
COHEN And they loved that?
CARREY No, they got up one at a time. (Laughter.) The entire audience left except for five people, who stood around the piano and when I was done, in a sweat, they said, “This is the greatest thing we have ever seen in our lives.”
COHEN That’s performance art.
CARREY And then I got in the car and I cried all the way home.
CARREY Because I don’t want to make people unhappy.
Let’s end on a lighter note. Complete this sentence: I knew I made it in Hollywood when ….
CHEADLE I think there’s a bit of imposter syndrome that comes up for many of us. It’s like, at some point you know they’re just going to go, “Yeah, we’ve had that flavor, thank you — next guy!”
SIMONS I feel like everybody I’ve met, outwardly you look at them and think, “Oh, well that person’s sailing, they’re never going to have to hustle.” And then you meet them and they still hustle.
WINKLER You bet.
SIMONS So that feeling of, like, “I’ve made it in Hollywood,” I don’t know that that actually exists. Though I did meet Steve Buscemi at a party once and I will fucking tell you that was amazing!
CARREY Yeah, a lot of times it’s the people you meet and get to hang with. I mean, I grew up with Dick Van Dyke, and I was a complete lunatic for Dick Van Dyke.
DANSON Me too.
CARREY And I’ve been able to meet him, and he wants to hang out. I just drew him a cartoon. Or that time in Chicago when Siskel and Ebert hated my movie — because that Friday happened and it was a giant hit and the hotel staff where I was staying, I think it was the Four Seasons, put a dog bowl in my room with candies in it.
DANSON It’s this balancing act because if you celebrate your career in the moment, then it feels like you’re slowing down.
CARREY But at a certain point, you have to pick up the crown and wear it well.
WINKLER I knew people were watching Happy Days when I went for my first personal appearance in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was going to sign autographs for the newspaper, and I got off the plane at 11:30 p.m. There were 3,000 people in 1950s clothes. I thought it was a party and the stewardess said, “No, I think that’s for you.”
DANSON OK, so we just discovered the rest of us have not made it. (Laughter.)
COHEN I used to do a character called Ali G. I was shooting in L.A., and I met Jimmy Miller, who was Jim’s manager, and he said, “Jim loves your stuff, he wants you to come over to his house.” So, the next night, I turned up at Jim’s house. And he was the biggest movie star in the world and obviously brilliantly talented and hilarious and he knew what I was doing?! He opened the door and my other hero was there, Garry Shandling, and I couldn’t believe I was there. I was terrified because I remember Jim and Garry started making jokes, and I thought, “My God, at some point they’re going to expect me to make one.”
CARREY I had two choices with you: admiration or jealousy. And I chose admiration.
COHEN Oh, that’s very kind.
CARREY When a new voice comes along and you’ve been the voice, there’s a part of you that goes, “Wow, have you lost your place?”
CHEADLE For sure.
CARREY But I’ve always tried to make the choice of [trying to figure out] what this person is doing that’s making me feel uncomfortable and laugh my ass off. It’s admiration. That’s the only way to go.
Roundtable edited for length and clarity.
This story also appears in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.