Talking to Dana Carvey About His Return to Standup
Two minutes into our 40-minute phone call and Dana Carvey was deep into an impression of Bill Clinton talking to Donald Trump. He explained that he’s been at home doing short political sketches with cut-out puppets and posting them to Facebook and Twitter. I asked if that served as a nice creative outlet for him. He replied, “I have a thousand things I’m doing right now in and out of my so-called career.” The expression “so-called” career has many layers. Like most people in the entertainment industry, Carvey has seen his fair share of ups and downs. He is, at his core, a family man, who after a couple of self-proclaimed “awful movies” decided to take a step back from the spotlight and focus more on his home life. But now he’s back in a big way with a new Netflix standup special, Straight White Male, 60 (which premieres today), his first special in eight years. His return to standup was inspired in part by his two sons, who are both pursuing comedy and who both opened for their father at the taping of the special in Boston. Straight White Male, 60 is a sampling of the performer’s keen impression talents, his political perspective, and some rare insights into his personal life. I talked to Carvey about the new special, why he prefers performing in small rooms, and the elusive search for meaning in artistic pursuits.
How often do you get out to clubs and mics to work on material?
It goes through fits and starts. When I was getting ready to shoot the special I was going to a lot of clubs. I discovered when I started doing standup again that I’m better in a tiny room. When you get more fame you’re always playing big rooms. It’s not necessarily better. I write in sketch form. If I’m going to work out things like that a 50 seat room is better than a 2,000 seat room.
You used the term “so-called career” earlier. Why “so called?”
People who are more savvy or maybe just more emotionally stable might be more shrewd about being a careerist. They brand themselves, repeat that brand, and stay inside that brand as long as they can. When someone mentions a career it implies that there was a plan. I was just trying to get out of waitering and make enough money so I could do this. I’m a little eclectic and a little all over the place. I’m unintentionally enigmatic. I never was a good businessman. I never thought in those kinds of terms. But here I am still doing it.
It’s been eight years since your last special, Squatting Monkeys Tell No Lies. What made you decide that now was the time to release another hour?
My sons both decided to get into comedy. I started going back to the clubs with them. The whole thing is different now. They have bringer shows or you have to pay to do an open mic. I was looking at videos of my sons doing standup in rooms to five other comedians who are all checking their sets on their phones. I said, “Guys, that’s not really standup. I don’t know what you call it but…” So we started going around to clubs in LA doing showcases featuring me. I felt they needed to see both worlds. I had a brand from Saturday Night Live, but my sons started pushing me to stretch a little bit. I started taking more chances. Out of boredom I just started writing and riffing stuff.
You open up your special with a block of political material, but then transition into some really personal stuff. A lot of people only know you from your characters. You show a different, more vulnerable side. Like, you have a bit about waiting at the pharmacy that reveals some personal details about you.
I’m heavily medicated, yeah.
I think it’s fascinating to hear you talk about that stuff.
When I’m at The Comedy Store the audience is usually millennials and people in their thirties. I’ve been around so long and been gone so long I come out and I’m kind of this eccentric old guy doing kind of weird comedy. Confessional, revealing standup is in vogue right now. I don’t mind doing that stuff. I could talk for an hour on the operation I had 20 years ago.
Can you explain the title Straight White Male, 60?
It’s in the ether. My Irish cousin was at this acting school in Hollywood and they were giving out scholarships and they had a big sign that said “straight white males need not apply.” He’s from Ireland so he was like, “Man, what’s going on over here?”
You have a couple of great behind-the-scenes at SNL stories, political impressions, stuff about your family, some really absurd one-man sketches. This special felt to me like a showcase of everything that you’re capable of doing on stage right now. Kind of a way of catching people up on what you’ve been up to.
It was a fair representation. If I do another one I would try to do it with more multiple shootings in a really small room so it would be more intimate and revealing, not with a large crowd. If you’re a traditional standup, on your toes, yelling out a strong point of view — and there are some brilliant ones out there — that rock ‘n roll element in a room is conducive to a large crowd. When I’m doing Paul McCartney and John Lennon having a conversation for five minutes I’m working harder in a bigger room to feel the rhythms in a really organic way. Anyway, whatever. What does it all mean? I look at it and go, “Why didn’t I just do my brand? Why didn’t I just do Church Lady in a dress? Why am I even pushing it out like this? What is the point?” I have to go to therapy to figure that one out.