Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Looking Back at The Dana Carvey Show

Since its short run 15 years ago, quite a bit of myth and mystique has developed around the Dana Carvey Show. For years the show has been lamented as a work of comedic genius shot down before it could find an audience or establish itself. Because only seven episodes of the show ever aired, I speculate that much of this mythmaking has been based upon the show's impressive cast and writing staff, rather than the show itself. Some of the most respected comedy minds in the world can be found in the show's credits, including Robert Smigel, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Charlie Kaufman, and Dino Stamatopoulos.

Any show that brings together so many funny people is bound to have some pretty good sketches. There are many moments of comedic brilliance in the show's eight episodes, but what people often forget is that due to a number of factors, the show was never able to fire on all cylinders. As a result, there are a number of sketches that simply fall flat, which contributed to the show's early termination.

The show got off to a rocky start, beginning with the opening sketch featuring Carvey as Bill Clinton. To demonstrate how nurturing he is Clinton has had several extra nipples surgically added to himself. He then proceeds to feed a baby doll, several live puppies and a kitten with milk squirting from his teets. It was funny, but it also instantly scared off much the show's potential audience. The show debuted right after an episode of Home Improvement, a sitcom with a sensibility almost completely opposite to the Dana Carvey Show.

Before leaving in 1993, Carvey had become one of the biggest stars on SNL with beloved characters like the Church Lady and Garth. When millions of families tuned in to watch his new show the last thing they were expecting to see was milking pouring out of Bill Clinton's many nipples.

Of course this also gets to the heart of why they show didn't do well on primetime. The show probably would have faired much better if it had been on cable or late at night, where it could appeal to more of its niche audience rather than the broad appeal that's demanded of a prime time program. Robert Smigel would later say in an interview with the A.V. Club, "Bottom line, the network was the wrong fit, wrong timeslot. Cable obviously would have been — we would have been given credit for what was good instead of attacked for what wasn’t."

Smigel and Carvey also later admitted that they shouldn't have lead with the sketch, considering how unrepresentative it is of most of the show. The show rarely did much body humor or gross-out jokes besides that piece, but the Clinton opener did exemplify the outlandishness and bizarre humor the show became remembered for. One of the best sketches that showcases this is "Skinheads from Maine."

In addition to being bizarre, this bit also shows how minimalistic some of the sketches on the Dana Carvey Show were. There is no plot whatsoever, the entire sketch just consists of two stereotypical Mainers saying racists remarks. Considering how poorly such a sketch could go over, it demonstrates how much risk the show was willing to take, and just how talented they really were.

And then there was the wonderful "Waiters Nauseated by Food," which paired up future Daily Show co-workers Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell as, well, waiters who got sick when they had to talk about food. It's as straightforward as a sketch can be, essentially a camera pointed at the two of them as they try not to vomit:

Of course there was also a number of forgettable sketches on the show too. There are numerous bland sketches about the '96 presidential race and some bits that just plain fall flat, like this one about foreign filmmakers at the Oscars:

Carvey is a master impressionist, a skill he showcased very well on SNL, but he didn't actually do much writing on his show. Due to a two hour commute from Connecticut at the time, Carvey was not actually able to contribute much to the writing of the show, crediting Smigel as the main creative force behind the episodes. Smigel's voice is readily apparent, especially in bits like the first Ambigously Gay Duo, but Louis C.K actually served as head writer.

Because only eight episodes of the show were produced, it's tough to compare the show to other sketch programs. The show was very clearly still finding its footing during its short run so it's hard to guess what the show could really have been capable if it had gone on longer. I'd like to hope that the show would have continued with its absurd and surrealistic tendencies, and done more sketches like the one that has Regis Philbin fighting sewer rats to get to David Letterman instead of generic sketches on the presidential race, but who can say. What we do know is that everyone on the show pushed the envelope for sketch comedy, and that's never a waste.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.

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  • Bradford Evans

    I don't think Dave Chappelle actually wrote for the show. It seems like something that was erroneously put onto IMDb and everyone has just accepted as fact. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think he was ever credited.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martin-Schneider/1569671098 Martin Schneider
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martin-Schneider/1569671098 Martin Schneider

    Somewhere or other — recently, maybe on Maron's WTF? — LCK discussed the choice of the Clinton bit to open the first show. The hitch was that the first sketch pretty much had to be a Carvey impression, and that bit was the only one available, for some reason. LCK swears that he advised them not to use that sketch as the very first one of the series.

    He also talked about the time slot — I think it was 9pm, where network execs supporting the show could argue that it was "just before Law and Order" or whatever, whereas detractors could say that it was "right after Full House" (talking about what is appropriate in those slots now, not the actual shows) — if it had been more successful earlier, the people who wanted to argue that adult fare could exist at 9pm might have won the day, but when it wasn't instantly a universal success, the people who were worried about the younger people in the audience had all the cards.