Talking to Dana Carvey, you quickly realize that all he really wants to do is make whoever’s listening to him laugh, whether it’s the more than 10 million viewers who watched him every week at the height of his Saturday Night Live fame or an audience of one lone reporter on the phone.
The viewership for The Dana Carvey Show, which lasted just eight episodes in 1996, fell somewhere in between those two numbers. Two decades later, the short-lived series is the subject of the fascinating new documentary Too Funny to Fail on Hulu.
“It was just eight shows twenty years ago,” Carvey says, matter-of-factly, in a new interview with The Daily Beast this week.
And while the primetime show was a ratings failure, it produced some of the funniest sketch comedy ever committed to film, thanks to head writer Louis C.K. and a cast that included Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell—all before they were household names. On top of that, Robert Smigel (of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog fame) served as showrunner and future Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) was in the writers’ room.
As we learn in the documentary, directed by Josh Greenbaum, The Dana Carvey Show was primarily a victim of circumstance. With ABC’s cloyingly sentimental Home Improvement as its mismatched lead-in, brilliantly experimental sketches like “Germans Who Say Nice Things” and “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food” didn’t stand a chance. Against the advice of everyone involved, Louis C.K. insisted on opening the first episode with an infamous scene in which Carvey, as Bill Clinton, grotesquely breastfeeds a bunch of puppies and kittens.
Like so many canceled-too-soon comedies, The Dana Carvey Show was just starting to find its groove when ABC pulled the plug. Instead of airing what would have been the eighth and final episode, the network added insult to injury by showing a rerun of Coach. The unaired episode, now available with the rest of the season on Hulu, contains a sketch that Carvey still views as “one of the favorite things” he’s ever been involved in.
The sketch, in which Carvey—as Tom Brokaw—pre-tapes increasingly absurd death announcements for former President Gerald Ford, finally made its way to TV later that fall when Carvey hosted SNL. “That sketch was so funny it’s what I call too funny,” he tells me. “If there’s a human being who can come onto the concept of going through scenarios in case Gerald Ford dies and how absurd they got and not laugh, then I don’t relate to that person.”
Over the course of his long career, Carvey has impersonated every U.S. president from Ford to Trump—including his latest, hilarious take on Jimmy Carter, which he previewed for The Daily Beast (listen to the audio below). So it’s not surprising that he has some thoughts about how Saturday Night Live and Alec Baldwin have handled the current White House occupant. While he shares some concerns, he also trusts his longtime mentor Lorne Michaels implicitly.
Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Could you ever have imagined 20 years after you premiered The Dana Carvey Show that there would be a documentary about what a huge failure it was?
[Laughs] No. And obviously “failure” is a relative term. I think ABC and Disney, it was a huge failure for them. Because everybody got paid a lot of money. But, you know, I took a pay cut to do this show—just because stand-up pays more than anything you can do in show business, except for maybe being a huge superhero in a superhero franchise. But, to your question, no. There was no world wide web then, so the fact that it’s on a thing called Hulu, what? All of it is Star Trek-ian to me.
Did you have any reservations about revisiting this time in your life for the documentary?
Yeah, I wasn’t that interested—it wasn’t what I was thinking about at all. It was just eight shows twenty years ago. But Josh Greenbaum, the director, just wore me and Robert Smigel down. We said, “Is this a negative thing or a hit piece or what?” Because to us it’s such a distant memory. We had a lot of fun doing it, besides all the subterfuge and weirdness. But he was such a fan of it and said he kept running into nerds [who loved the show]. I was at an airport last year in Minneapolis and a guy came up to me and said, “Hey, just very quickly, I want to tell you not a day goes by when my friends and I don’t reference [the sketch] ‘Skinheads from Maine.’” And then he walked away. So I would get those kinds of things here and there. “‘Grandma the Clown,’ thumbs up!”
It feels like you were making a concerted effort to do sketch comedy on your own show that was different from what you were doing on SNL. How would you characterize the styles of each show?
Well, on SNL you are just sort of fighting for stage time. It’s also live and more of a rock and roll thing, in a way. Although, they do a lot of digital shorts now. But the stuff you do at home base, it’s intense, it’s live, it’s a big audience, it’s Saturday Night Live. When I looked at SCTV or Monty Python or other influences that I loved, they’re a little drier. Once we started thinking of ideas and could do whatever we want, Robert and I, and then brought in everybody, we all kind of went in the same direction. I guess that’s what comedians like, if you’re not worried about being on the air for a decade. We just did what we wanted. Everybody agreed all the time.
Was there ever a point after SNL when you seriously considered hosting a late-night talk show instead of going back into sketch?
Oh yeah. I had a whole year to think about that. Warren Littlefield and NBC, they just really pursued me to follow Letterman, because I was having a good time on SNL. They just thought I’d be a natural at that, so they wooed me for a year. They paid me a million dollars and I didn’t have anything I had to do. I don’t know how I got that contract, but it was just to hold me. I didn’t have to do the show. Then they bought me a Meet the Beatles original album they got at Sotheby’s for $5,000, signed by all four Beatles. I still have it. It’s probably worth about $200,000 now. I almost did that, but I just thought with my personality I didn’t think I could do that and be a family man in the same way. Maybe in retrospect I could have, but I just thought, wow, an hour of TV every day?
The decision to go with ABC is framed as a very fateful one in the documentary. How do you think things would have been different if you had opted to produce the show for HBO or another cable network?
My first instinct was to do it with HBO. I thought about it for two weeks and said I want to do it with HBO. But my manager at the time had a deal at ABC and Robert Smigel sincerely believed we could do it as a network show, so I went that way. But that was my first instinct back then because you could do 10 shows, not 22. And then take a break and do 10 more. That still seems like a cool model and now obviously, all these other platforms have that. At the end of the day, 20 years later, it just seems really funny to me that it exists. You can see by the documentary, it’s really funny what was happened. The mismatch between us in New York and the network is hysterical.
One of the funniest and most revealing moments of the documentary is when the director shows you the promo for a “very special episode” of Home Improvement that was your lead-in for what turned out to be the final episode. What was going through your head when you watched that so many years later?
Well he showed me Colbert’s response ahead of time, so I was laughing so hard I thought he’ll show me again and I won’t be able to laugh. And I’m not going to fake it. But it really hit me hard the second time. And it would hit me hard if I saw it now. Mostly, I’m just kind of proud to be part of that. Certainly, the conceit of people in show business is that we’re all careerists and the goal is to get bigger. And when is enough enough in terms of fame and money? I feel so lucky that I’ve made money doing this and the reason that that all went down at the time is that I wasn’t feeling that way. Now, maybe I should have been, but I wasn’t. I was so affected, and I don’t know about you, but most artists and writers, you just see stuff, whether it’s a Kubrick movie or Dark Side of the Moon or Peter Sellers or Monty Python. You’re growing up and you’re blown away by it and all your friends repeat it all day long. And then you get into a situation where you’re like, well don’t do that, do what’s popular, do what wins. There’s a contradiction there. But I always wanted to do stuff that would blow people away. And I hope high school kids go watch some of the sketches. The Gerald Ford sketch, “Grandma the Clown,” there’s some of them that just really hold up, that are fucking funny.
The Gerald Ford sketch has always been one of my favorites.
I think it’s one of the favorite things I’ve ever been involved in. [As Tom Brokaw]: “Gerald Ford is dead tonight after he was killed by a circus lion at a convenience store.” Certain things are too funny. That sketch was so funny it’s what I call too funny. You just want to hear it at first and then the more you hear it over the years the funnier it gets.
So the story behind that one is that it was going to be on the last show that didn’t air and then it somehow ended up on Saturday Night Live?
Yeah, well, it was there, we knew it was great and it was banked. And we just asked Lorne [Michaels]. He’d never seen it, but we read it at read-through and it killed and Lorne was like, this’ll be great. And then we did it there live the exact same way we did on The Dana Carvey Show. And Robert did the stage manager. And again, when you’re ahold of material like that—and I’ve only had it a few times at SNL, some of the Johnny Carson sketches—where I think it’s so funny that there’s no pressure. Like if there’s a human being who can come into the concept of going through scenarios in case Gerald Ford dies and how absurd they got and not laugh, then I don’t relate to that person.
Given how much heat you took for the way you portrayed Bill Clinton in the show’s premiere, I’m curious to hear what you think about the way SNL and Alec Baldwin have tackled Trump so far.
Well, the Clinton thing wasn’t really incendiary in a political sense. It really came from Louis’ sense of Clinton being, “I feel your pain” and taking it to this abstraction. Obviously, in the last 8-10 months, it’s so different, the political climate. And it’s kind of interesting. When I was doing George Bush Sr., I had Jim Downey, who was sort of conservative, and Al Franken and we were writing those together. When George Sr.’s poll ratings were huge after the Gulf War, the joke was how popular he was. And then when it went down, the joke became something else. Now I actually do a bit in my stand-up, if George Sr. had Twitter when I was on SNL. [As George H.W. Bush]: “Dana Carvey, doing me again, making me look like a spastic monkey. Hashtag dick.” The humor to me is all over the place. It doesn’t always have to be flame-throwing at Trump. There’s funny stuff. Like, for example, Jimmy Carter says he’d love to go to North Korea, right? So that’s funny if he goes in there on behalf of Trump and he’s using Trump’s rhetoric. [As Jimmy Carter]: “Now, I just want to say, little Rocket Man, that we will rain hellfire on you, and they’ll be fury and fire, little Rocket Man, if you don’t compose yourself.” So that’s funny.
Listen to Carvey’s new Jimmy Carter bit below:
I’ve never been a proselytizing comic, like, hey folks, listen up. That being said, Trump is just, rhetorically so over the top and he’s fighting the world right now. He’s fighting everybody on every cylinder. But it’s different knowing a comedian’s politics. It’s the modern era. Obviously, certain late-night hosts don’t do that and they don’t matriculate. “Colbert annihilates Trump.” That just comes up on my newsfeed.
I probably wrote that headline.
Right, yeah! Well, if it’s outrageous, it’s contagious. Every site has to compete for eyeballs, so we’re just in a different place. I think Alec Baldwin’s take on it is great. It’s a brilliant move to have him there. He admits it’s not the greatest impression, but there’s something he’s capturing. But I do wonder about Trump fatigue. I wonder where it goes. Where Trump goes and where the satire goes. Do you? Like, where’s it gonna go?
Yeah, I mean, especially when SNL sometimes feels like it’s just almost repeating what Trump actually says. When it’s so absurd that all you have to do is recreate it, does that lose an element of satire?
I do lines from Trump where I don’t actually have to write material and I tell the audience that in my stand-up. His pattern of speech and the way he talks is so eccentric, there’s so many sub-rhythms to it. But it’s fun to have the political jokes on top and also have this rhythmic thing that kind of gives you an insight into the person underneath. [As Trump]: “Many people—excuse me—many people are saying—so sad.” He interrupts himself. There’s so much there. And the way, when he gets to the podium, he would turn around and do his seal clap with his back to the audience. That is so fucking funny that I don’t know why. But I’m from another era. I’m from, you make fun of both sides and you don’t find a choir and preach to it. I always felt like, well, that’s a short cut.
Do you think SNL is in danger of that now? Not playing to both sides?
Lorne Michaels wrote the constitution of SNL and that is a breathing constitution. And Lorne allows the young writers—he may not agree with everything they’re doing, but he’s not trying to control it. If this is where the culture’s going, if this is the zeitgeist…So I don’t try to be a fuddy-duddy about it. And, just in my own stand-up, I’m finding ways to thread the line for certain audiences. I want them all to listen and maybe move people on the left a little this way and move people on the right a little this way. That’s what’s interesting to me. But this is where it’s at now and I don’t judge it. What are we supposed to do? We threw an orange firecracker onto the world stage and it’s exploding all over. The more shrill Trump gets, the more shrill the comedy gets. It’s like a race. We’re living history live in real time. We’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know where it’s going, but believe me, there’s smart people at 30 Rock trying to figure all this out—how often to do it, when to do it, how to do it, in what context to do it.
It’s not easy.
No, it’s not easy. I’ll find myself getting Trump fatigue in my stand-up and then something will change, I’ll find a different rhythm, it’ll get interesting again. But I’m just as interested in doing other presidents around Trump and juxtaposing. But the whole thing is hilarious. “Little Rocket Man?” My god. He is a good comedy writer. I think the asymmetrical angles, I would explore more of those, and still have the Trump, but keep your powder dry.
You don’t want to oversaturate it.
Yeah, but you know, Lorne’s very smart. He’s thinking about all of this. The writers used to hate it when Lorne would call up another Bush Sr. “Not again!” But Lorne has a sense of it.
Going back to the documentary, you mentioned that Louis C.K. wrote the Clinton sketch and was your head writer on the show, but he’s notably absent from the film. Do you have any insight into why he decided not to participate?
Not at all. Dino Stamatopoulos, too, who’s a friend of mine and we’ve done some work together, he just didn’t want to go back there. I just told everyone, just do it if you feel like it, but there’s just no pressure. Because there was so much tape we had of Louis talking about it anyway. But I think he was probably on a world tour and directing four films.
It’s great to see Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert in there, who both got their big breaks on the show. What has it been like for you to see where their careers have gone?
It was awesome. When Colbert started doing his late-night talk show following Letterman, he sent me an email saying, “Everything I’ve done in my career started on your show,” which was very sweet. When I see them from time to time, a couple of years ago, I say, you guys would have made it anyway. And then [Steve’s wife] Nancy Carell was like, “Oh no, we really needed that at that moment.” Because they’d been passed over. They’d passed age 30 and you just never know. So I don’t consider myself a talent scout, but once we started looking at everyone, those two kept matriculating up. It’s just a pleasant part of my personal history that those guys were great. Life is very, very strange, isn’t it?