Jim Carrey on Getting Serious With a Mister Rogers-Style Hero in 'Kidding'

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From left: David Nevins, Judy Greer, Jim Carrey, Catherine Keener and Dave Holstein

The Showtime series' star revealed how creators mined the myth and mystique of the kind children's show host for poignancy and laughs at the premiere on Wednesday night.

After a long and frequently glorious age of television anti-heroes — the likes of Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper, who indulged in our culture’s collective worst impulses — Jim Carrey believes viewers are ready for the kinder and gentler Mr. Pickles.

“We need to be reminded that we have something inside us, that innocence inside us that cannot be destroyed,” Carrey said of his latest character, the Mister Rogers-esque protagonist of the Showtime series Kidding. In Kidding, Carrey plays a kids’-show host and icon whose family life has crumbled in the wake of his son's tragic death. Pickles' treasured professional brand subsequently teeters on the brink as he grapples with grief.

“I think he and I are familiar with each other,” Carrey told The Hollywood Reporter at Kidding’s premiere at the Arclight Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, noting that like his character (whose real name is Jeff Piccirillo), he too has lived a public life for several decades. “I'm always trying to preserve that part of myself that... somebody called one day the ‘divine spark.’ And you gotta take care of that little spark, because it's really all there is. If you extinguish that, you're pretty much gone.”

Throughout the series, Mr. Pickles tries to soldier through production of his TV series as he struggles on multiple fronts: his wife has left him and has a new relationship; his surviving son becomes closed-off from his father and tests boundaries; his domineering father and executive producers resist efforts to change his show..

The blend of pathos and humor is one that creator Dave Holstein, previously a writer on Showtime’s anti-heroine-lead comedy Weeds, thinks is ripe for today’s cultural moment.

“I love writing on premium cable, and I love the total palette you can have on cable where you can have some dark, some light, some comedy, some drama,” Holstein explained. “[But] I thought what a fun challenge it would be to take a character who's not trying to break bad, but stay good, someone who's just a kind, honest person fighting against all that cruelty and all that darkness in the world that you can populate premium cable with.”

Of being inspired by Mr. Rogers, Holstein said, “When I sat down to write that, I was looking at examples of who's the last, great, honest man, and Mr. Rogers kept coming up,” Holstein said. “When you watched him on all these late night shows with Joan Rivers and Rosie O'Donnell, they try to break his character, but it never broke because that's just genuinely who he was. And a show about the world trying to break a character like that seemed like a really great springboard for lots of things: Among them, the darker stuff, like sadness and grief and melancholy, but also the lighter stuff like optimism and hope to escape from all that darkness.”

Director Michel Gondry provides each episode with the eclectic tone that’s characterized his cinematic, commercial and music video work, including his previous collaboration with Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

“It's a good guy, but he also has a lot of flaws,” said Gondry, who jokingly noted that the primary evolution in his working relationship with Carrey was that the actor could understand him through his French accent much better this time. But he also provided a more reflective assessment of their collaborative rapport.

“He’s able to reach deeper emotional places very quick, and it was very easy to correct him,” Gondry recalled. “I could tell him, ‘This is a little bit too much like what you did in this movie…’ and he would never get upset about that — He would do everything to do a good job, and if it would take hearing things that are not flattering, he didn't care.”

Judy Greer, who plays Mr. Pickles’ increasingly estranged wife Jill, said she’s found herself inspired by the series’ delicate tone, especially at a time of fraught cultural divide. “It's more than ever important for people to learn to get in touch with their emotions, and I think that Jeff Pickles is going through that now,” she said.

“I feel like in the beauty of the heartbreak and the comedy and the darkness of this show, at the end of the day, I take away how much love and compassion Jeff Pickles still has for everyone around him, and I need to remember that a little bit more,” Greer said.

And there’s no shortage of pitch-black comedy in the show, some of it inspired by Fred Rogers’ own enduring mystique. “There's a lot of fun rumors about Mr. Rogers that are very rich,” chuckled Holstein. “There was two that we used in the first four episodes: one is we heard a rumor that some guy stole his car and then realized it was his and then returned it before he found out about it. So we open Episode Two with that, because we just thought that would be great.”

He added, “And then there's this Internet rumor that Mr. Rogers was a sniper during the Vietnam War, which of course is not true,” Holstein revealed. “But then we thought, ‘What a great thing to have in your back pocket, this rumor that you killed a bunch of people that some pothead teenagers might believe and how to use that to your advantage. So we've delved into the deep cuts of Mr. Rogers lore to pull out some inspiration.”