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Kidding TV Show Review – Kidding Is Jim Carrey’s Best Performance in a Decade
“You can feel anything at all,” Jim Carrey’s Jeff Pickles sings in the opening scene of Kidding. He’s transported an entire adult Conan audience (and a delightfully giddy Danny Trejo) instantly back to their childhoods with a puppet guitar and a song. His eyes are gentle, his smile soft and comforting and contagious. Even the camera man is grinning.
And over the next 30 minutes, Carrey’s performance makes that sing-along statement immediately true—you can feel anything at all while watching Kidding. For me, that feeling was often distress. Not because the show is tragic (it is) or because it juxtaposes childhood innocence with the horrors of adulthood (it does) or because it makes you feel guilty for laughing (absolutely). It’s because Carrey so wholly channels the man who inspired his character, Fred Rogers. His voice is soothing, his mannerisms slow and non-threatening. He’s pure, in every sense of the word, like the Mr. Rogers who raised generations of PBS viewers. But, in the world of Kidding, Carrey’s Jeff Pickles—host of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time—is a good man in a broken world. He’s also a broken man who’s an icon of goodness.
Jeff Pickles is a children’s entertainment icon, complete with his harmless-yet-playful parted hair. His show, like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, is a PBS staple—a long running institution that prides itself in providing kids with the building blocks of life. But outside of his puppet show—where Jeff Pickles is really Jeff Piccirillo—his life is falling apart.
Kidding picks up one year after one of Piccirillo’s twin sons died in a car accident. Since then, Piccirillo has separated from his life and is living in a run-down apartment complex filled with drunk college students. At work, his sister and chief puppeteer Deirdre (Catherine Keener) is struggling with raising her own daughter and maintaining her relationship. His father Seb (Frank Langella), Puppet Time’s executive producer, must maintain the show’s strict standards, refusing to let Jeff address his grief on air. And also, the puppeteers who perform as Snagglehorse are fucking inside the big blue character.
And the distressing thing is how close Carrey can call to mind a man whose kindness has become the stuff of legend. One cannot imagine Fred Rogers—the man who so bravely and sweetly fought congress and won, the man who could even make a whole subway car sing—submitted to the darkness of an everyday life. When Jeff’s son Will calls his dad a pussy, it really hurts the soul, like he’s attacking a piece of your own childhood or strangling King Friday XIII. “Please don’t use a bad word when you can use a good word,” he responds.
It’s in these moments that Carrey transcends a simple Rogers caricature. You can see the turmoil within Jeff—a man who, outside of his own TV show, is a real human with worries and problems. It’s a downward glance, a slight lapse in his perma-grin, a brief drooping of his eyebrows—that hint at the pain inside Jeff Piccirillo.
At one point, when Jeff fights with his father about airing an episode about death (Jeff wants to; Jeb thinks it’ll hurt the bottom line), the executive producer says, “You need to understand something. There’s two of you. There’s Mr. pickles the 112 million-dollar licensing industry of edu-taining toys, DVDs, and books that keep the lights on in this little charity of ours. And then there’s Jeff, a separated husband and grieving father who needs to hammer out a few dents in his psyche.”
During the lecture, Jeff’s eyes swell as he blows bubbles.
It’s a role and a tragicomedy that calls to mind Carrey’s last great performance in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It makes sense, as Kidding reunites Carrey with Eternal Sunshine director Michel Gondry. Kidding has all the whimsy of their earlier collaboration, specifically within the playful world of Puppet Time. It also explores uncomfortable areas of our minds and our perception of reality. How can a man as good as Jeff—and, in turn, Fred Rogers—actually exist and survive in our real world?
Carrey’s performance also calls to mind a meta-turn on his 1999 Golden Globe-winning portrayal of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. The actor’s descent into madness—his inability to disassociate a joke, performance, art and real life— is documented in the excellent 2017 documentary Jim & Andy. Kidding poses these same questions: Where does the man end and the performance begin?
When Carrey assures us via song that we can feel anything at all, he could be talking about the children who watch his show, the adults in the audience, ourselves, his character, and even an icon of children’s entertainment. Kidding lets us sort through all of these options—and it isn’t always easy to remember that the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is just that: a fantasy.