He says he hasn't missed being on television, but Drew Carey is back anyway.
The droll, bespectacled alumnus of his own eponymous sitcom and the improv-driven "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" steers contestants toward potentially huge winnings -- $10 million for just five questions -- on "Power of 10." Executive-produced by Michael Davies ("Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"), the CBS game show premieres Tuesday, Aug. 7, then assumes its regular Wednesday slot the next night.
"I would have been quite happy to never, ever be on another TV show," Carey says, "but this sounded so interesting to me, I said I'd do it. It was a big thing that Michael Davies was doing it, and I think people who watch it will rethink what they believe America believes."
"Power of 10" uses a public-opinion poll's results to pose percentage-related questions. An example from the show: "How many Americans believe they are smarter than President George W. Bush?" The first question is worth $1,000, with the take from each subsequent answer multiplied by 10, thus setting up the possible $10 million payday.
Carey acknowledges NBC's "Deal or No Deal" and "1 vs. 100," along with FOX's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" have helped establish a new era of prime-time game shows.
"Yeah, they're huge," he says. "CBS wanted a big-money game. It was one of the only networks that didn't have one. It's going to be the biggest-money game show in the history of television, and I really hope someone wins the $10 million."
For the affable Carey, the job is relatively simple.
"I don't know the answers to any of the questions, so I get to play along," he says. "I'm at a podium, and I can see the question in front of me, so I don't get lost. There are no contraptions, there's nothing to spin, and you don't have to move anything. All you do is something with a computer screen, and the computer people really handle that. I just have to talk to somebody, and that's really all there is to it."
Even then, there's a certain art involved, as everyone from recently retired "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker to "Deal or No Deal" star Howie Mandel has proven.
"I guess I have a lot of empathy," Carey says. "I really do. I feel for people when they play the game. I want them to win, and I want to help them make the right decision. I guess that shows through.
"In the pilot episode we taped, we had a female doctor who still had a lot of bills from medical school. If she hit $100,000, she could pay off her bills and be clean. It's a really great feeling to be debt-free, whether it's paying off a school loan or writing the last check for your car. That is such a load off, and it makes every day so much better. It's really like a new lease on life."
Moving the game along while respecting a contestant's decisions is "the trick," Carey says. "You don't want to cheat anyone out of their opportunity to make money, but if somebody's making a guess that's so far off, you kind of have to go, 'Whoa! Don't blow it!' You're the Dutch uncle of the show, but they don't blame you if they lose. It's the best of both worlds."
Carey believes a resurgence of nighttime game shows was inevitable. "All those kinds of shows go on a natural cycle," he says. "Just like any other type of business, there's an up and a down. I remember 'The $25,000 Pyramid,' which was the big-money version of 'The $10,000 Pyramid.' Now if you give away $25,000 as the top prize, you can barely get people to watch the show.
"I love [Discovery Channel's] 'Cash Cab,' and you don't win very much on that show, maybe a couple of thousand tops. They're only picking up people at random in a cab in New York, so you don't expect much. For people who actually try to get on a show and go through a whole casting process, though, you'd better have some big money to give away. Some people won't buy lottery tickets unless the money is up in the $20 million or $30 million range."
One of television's busiest talents while he was doing "The Drew Carey Show" and "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" simultaneously, stand-up veteran Carey is glad to have only "Power of 10" on his plate now.
"I'm looking forward to the plane rides back and forth to New York," he says. "I have an excuse not to be in touch for six hours: 'Oh, sorry, I was on the plane!'
"I just got my iPhone," Carey adds, "and I've gotten all caught up on my calls and e-mails, but I find that people e-mail me more now. They're like, 'Oh, that's a good way to get hold of Drew.' I think I may have been better off the other way. You don't want to be dependable. That makes for a long, hard life."