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The Dana Carvey Show

Last night I watched the Hulu documentary Too Funny To Fail, a documentary about The Dana Carvey Show that aired on ABC in 1996.

It’s hard to believe that the show was on 21 years ago. Even harder to believe is the caliber of writers and performers that were on the show. Dana Carvey (SNL) and Robert Smigel (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) were the Executive Producers and the head writer was a 29-year-old Louis CK (Disgraced Comedian). Writers included Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Jon Glaser (Inside Amy Schumer), Dino Stamatopoulos (Mr. Show with Bob and David), Spike Feresten (Seinfeld), and Robert Carlock (30 Rock). Among the other writers and performers included two guys picked from SCTV, two Steve’s, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell.

How’s that for comedy pedigree?

Watching the sketches from that show today, it’s hard to believe the show wasn’t wildly successful. Actually, strike that, it’s rather easy to understand why it wasn’t wildly successful. Some would say the show was ahead of its time, others might say it was too abstract and others would say it was too offensive.

It’s simply wrong to say the show was ahead of its time because good comedy is timeless (Abbott and Costello’s Who’s On First). It wasn’t too abstract because things that are too abstract are not “laugh out loud” funny and typically don’t work. And this show worked and fired on all cylinders (everything about Grandma The Clown says it shouldn’t be funny and yet it is simply flawless).

Well, OK, the show could be a little offensive, but only by today’s standards. For example, Skinheads From Maine.
Skinhead 1: Nice sunset we’re havin.
Skinhead 2: Ahyuh. The weather is about the only thing the Jews don’t control.

Susan Sarandon and Gregory Peck presenting the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Animated Short Subject pretty much plays into every racial trope you can think of for Indians, Asians and Iranians.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the envelope pushing both of these sketches remain wildly offensive and wickedly funny. 

I hate using a hackneyed and overused phrase, but here it applies. I think the show was simply too “punk rock” and too subversive to have ever been successful.

Aside from skinheads and racial tropes, to try to put the shows attitude into perspective one need only look at the very first sketch of the very first episode where Dana Carvey was playing Bill Clinton. A Bill Clinton who had himself surgically enhanced to have eight lactating breasts so he could be both father and mother to America; and American’s could suckle his teat during that election year. He also had his behind replaced with a hen’s ass. This was the first sketch on one of the most anticipated shows at the time, starring one of the most beloved SNL alumni.

The show was clearly making a statement.

Whatever that statement was, backfired. Robert Smigel points out that, according to Nielsen ratings, more than six million people had turned the show off during that first sketch. Lactating Clinton was not anywhere near the banality of The Dana Carvey Show lead in (and ABC’s big sitcom success), Home Improvement. But as far as absurdist comedy goes, that opening sketch belongs in the pantheon of great sketches like Monty Python’s Dead Parrot or The Whitest Kids U’Know Abe Lincoln.

Hindsight being what it is, almost everyone involved with the show agrees that this was probably not the best sketch to lead off with. But it certainly set the tone for the seven aired (and one unaired) episodes that followed. 

Other sketches from that first episode included Germans Who Say Nice Things and Carvey’s beloved (and wildly misunderstood) Church Lady doing a top ten on new names for Princess Diana (slut, in ten varying forms). 

The second episode saw the introduction of, what would later become a hit on SNL, The Ambiguously Gay Duo, voiced by Colbert and Carell. 

The fourth episode has Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food, which Stephen Colbert claims is the sole reason both he and Carell were hired at The Daily Show

The seventh episode contains Heather Morgan’s First Ladies As Dogs, which you wouldn’t think would be funny…and yet…

The unaired eighth episode, available on the DVD, contains two of the sketches that I consider to be the crown jewels of the show. In an interest to “garner younger viewers”, ABC’s This Week With David Brinkley takes place on a roller coaster, appropriately named Satan’s Revenge. Its oddness makes it its genius.

And then Tom Brokaw doing pre-tapes for Gerald Ford’s death. This sketch actually made it onto SNL when Dana Carvey hosted later in 1996. It’s sublime. 

Perhaps unknowingly, one of the more subversive things the show did was get an advertiser to sponsor the show by paying for their name to be included in the title. Kinda like how shows were sponsored during the dawn of television. So, that first episode was really called The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show. Suffice it to say, lactating Bill had Taco Bell running for the hills and the second episode was not titled The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show…but rather The Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show…and then The Mountain Dew Dana Carvey Show….and then The Diet Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show…and then The Pepsi Stuff Dana Carvey Show until all the national sponsors had run away and the sixth episode was sponsored by a local NYC Chinese restaurant, The Szechuan Dynasty Dana Carvey Show. Neither the seventh or unaired eighth episode had a sponsor.  

I’m pretty sure a show like The Dana Carvey Show couldn’t exist today. One, I don’t think some of the sketches would make it past any standards person, network, cable or streaming. Two, while there is certainly plenty of comedy talent out there, maybe folks are either looking to play it safe or searching for something that will go “viral” (whatever the fuck that means).

One of the most beautiful things about The Dana Carvey Show is that there was nothing behind it, nothing under it, over it or around it. Nothing was hidden. There was absolutely no subtext. It said what it was. Skinheads From Maine is about skinheads from Maine, Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food is about just that.

“We kind of did reductionist bits where we’d just get away from beginning-middle-end, where the wacky character would walk into a scene and frustrate a straight man for six minutes. Instead, we just said ‘And now, here are skinheads from Maine,’ and then we just did 10 jokes.”

—Robert Smigel

The show was initially panned by critics. Caryn James of The New York Times, claimed “the debut already looked tired and old” and LA Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg initially hated the show referring to it as “an artistic Chernobyl”. Ouch. After receiving a vitriolic piece of mail from a Dana Carvey Show fan, Rosenberg watched a later episode of the show and reversed his position, which is where I think we find ourselves today.

21 years later, and thanks to Too Funny To Fail, it appears as though we are taking another well deserved look at The Dana Carvey Show. Not every one of the sketches hits during the eight episodes, and a few do seem dated, but there are far too many that just kill and ultimately shine a light on the genius of the show. 

Sometimes all the stars are in alignment and creativity works flawlessly so that you can capture lightning in a bottle. The Dana Carvey Show is such a show and without question The Dana Carvey Show should, and will, be remembered as one of the benchmarks in American comedy.

History is proving that The Dana Carvey Show didn’t fail at all, it just took a little longer to catch on.