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Body Image Was No Laughing Matter in the Saddest Episode of The Drew Carey Show

In "The Bachelor Party," Carey dared to cut the laughter off and find some real pain behind it.
  • The Drew Carey Show (Photo: Warner Bros. Television/Graphic: Lem Rosenzweig)
    The Drew Carey Show (Photo: Warner Bros. Television/Graphic: Lem Rosenzweig)

    The Drew Carey Show made a lot of fat jokes. You might say they were the long-running sitcom's bread and butter, if that didn't sound like the setup for one of them. Over nine seasons on ABC, Carey subjected himself — and, occasionally, costar Kathy Kinney, who played office adversary Mimi Bobeck — to weight-related cracks. The fictionalized Drew, a blue-collar guy working a sometimes humiliating HR job at a Cleveland department store, caught plenty of mean nicknames, like Chief Rubbing Thighs and the more simple, direct Pig. His appetite was a running gag; long before a fantasy sequence depicted the comedian dancing with the food in his fridge, it was clear that he was willing to play his love affair with all things salty and rich for laughs.

    At least once, though, the series treated Drew's weight like more than a punch line. It was 25 years ago, during its third and most widely watched season, that The Drew Carey Show found some surprisingly sincere drama in the matter. Entering the peak of its popularity, the sitcom launched into a multi-episode storyline in which Drew's new relationship is threatened by his eating habits. The nearly season-long arc ends with the most heartbreaking episode of a TV comedy that, generally speaking, didn't aim to break hearts — which, of course, is one reason it was so effective, in a way Very Special Episodes often aren't.

    The third season immediately foregrounds Drew's weight, while only hinting at how seriously it will end up taking the subject of body image. The premiere, "Drew vs. Billboard," finds Carey swindled by a con man, who makes a giant advertisement for his weight-loss scam out of a shirtless photo of our hero. Countless blows to Drew's ego follow, but beneath the fat jokes, the show was already flirting with larger points. Drew, after all, only gets in the predicament because he's worried that his appearance is hurting his career. "More people in America look like you than how they want to look," notes best friend Oswald (Diedrich Bader) — a laugh line that maybe gets at the essential appeal of a sitcom that tried to tackle the problems of ordinary Midwesterners.

    Two episodes into Season 3, Drew meets Nicki Fifer, a real-estate agent played by a young Kate Walsh. It'll take a couple more episodes for him to successfully talk her into going out with him, and a couple more after that for us to learn that the character wasn't always Hollywood slim, that she used to be nearly 100 pounds heavier. Only later still will the show reveal that Nicki's initial reluctance to date Drew came down to her fear that she'd fall into old habits and put the weight back on — which is exactly what happens over the course of the season.

    Through this storyline, The Drew Carey Show subverted a sitcom trope that would gain new purchase that same year, when The King of Queens premiered on CBS: the overweight everydude paired off with a model-thin woman. Carey's series indulged in this convention, too, of course. "As an added bonus, she can eat like a pig and never gain an ounce," Drew gushingly said of his first love interest, Lisa (Katy Selverstone), in the show's second episode. The Nicki arc almost felt like a response to that line, acknowledging how difficult it might be to stay trim when dating someone who loves eating as much as Drew does.

    The conflict develops slowly. At first, Drew thinks Nicki's lying about her weight loss just to get him to go on a diet because she's embarrassed to be seen with him. (He learns the truth after challenging an actual pig to a watermelon-eating contest at the fair — again, Carey was never shy about making himself the butt of gluttony jokes.) Walsh disappears for a few episodes; when she reappears, it's under the first of a series of prosthetics she'll don, adding more artificial girth to her character with each successive episode. Fat suits remain controversial (just look at the divisive reception to last year's The Whale), but The Drew Carey Show didn't deploy them to comedic ends.

    Well, not entirely. The show wasn't above scoring some easy laughs from Drew and Nicki consummating their mutual love of food: One episode begins with a "sensual" montage of the two binge-eating the night away. That's typical of a sitcom that often toed the line between acknowledging the challenges of being overweight in a superficial society and finding a lot of comedic fodder in the foibles of a heavyset person. (Call it the Shallow Hal paradox.) But even this broad, jokey, raid-the-fridge cold open speaks to the deeper compatibility issues the writers were exploring with the Nicki storyline.

    It all culminates with Drew and Nicki breaking up, in what's easily the saddest half-hour of the whole series. For most of "The Bachelor Party," which opens with the two preparing to shoot a sex tape together (before cutting to the next morning after the title sequence), we're led to believe that it's Drew who's broken off the engagement, for reasons he won't disclose. It's only at the end of the episode that we learn the truth, as Drew sits down on his couch to watch the aborted sex tape, and we see what really happened: Nicki, revolted by how she looks on camera, decides she has to leave him. If she stays, she'll never take the weight off. And if she never takes the weight off, she'll hate herself.

    Whether this whole storyline would pass a modern audience's sensitivity test is debatable; as with everything involving Drew's crossdressing brother, Steve (John Carroll Lynch), it feels like a different era's idea of progressive television. But Carey and his writing stuff were after something real with the Nicki arc. Drew, it's clear, is a kind, supportive boyfriend: When Nicki bemoans her weight gain in an earlier episode, he's quick to reassure her that she's beautiful, and he would love her at any size. But he also enables her unhealthy habits; "happiness weight" takes on new meaning when you're both compulsive eaters. However The Drew Carey Show now rates on a body positivity scale, these episodes offer the relatable insight that it's possible to love someone and not love the person you are with them.

    From Friends to New Girl, plenty of sitcoms include characters who used to be overweight. It's much rarer to see a sitcom character who gains that weight back, even though that happens all the time in real life. Carey himself has struggled with the cycle of losing and regaining weight. He was, in the run up to the third season of The Drew Carey Show, already publicly discussing his desire to slim down. His fluctuating weight would remain a tabloid fixation across the whole run of the series, and in the years since it ended, up through the gastric band surgery the Price Is Right host underwent last fall. The Nicki storyline was one way to explore the realities of yo-yo dieting, a topic TV almost never broaches, probably because it's more complicated than the inspirational story of someone who kicks their addiction to McDonalds and never picks up a french fry again.

    All told, it was a tough and surprisingly poignant direction for The Drew Carey Show to take. And the way that final scene plays out is totally wrenching. Director Brian K. Roberts cuts back and forth from the breakup happening on screen — her lashing out as she dresses to leave ("You can't help me! You're the problem"), him pleading with her to stay, both awkwardly framed by the lens of the video cam — and Drew watching the tape, stone-faced. Even the studio audience doesn't seem to know how to react, a few stray chuckles not even remotely lightening the mood. For two seasons, Carey had made that audience laugh, sometimes at the expense of his own waistline. In "The Bachelor Party," he dared to cut the laughter off, and to find some real pain behind it. The result was as heavy as sitcoms get, no pun intended.

    A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.

    TOPICS: The Drew Carey Show, ABC, Drew Carey, Kate Walsh