"In 1996, some of comedy's greatest talent of all time came together to create a new sketch comedy show. What resulted was arguably one of the most spectacular failures in television history. Now, more than two decades later, they've reunited to tell the story of how it all came together, and how it all went to shit."
Those are the opening title cards for Too Funny to Fail, Hulu's new documentary that chronicles the swift and monumental demise of The Dana Carvey Show. The introductory words establish the inherent hubris of this real-life Greek tragedy of the comedy world: Coming off a historically popular run on Saturday Night Live and with two Wayne's World movies in the bag, master impressionist Dana Carvey created an absurdist alt-sketch comedy show on ABC instead of accepting NBC's offer to take over David Letterman's soon-to-be vacant spot on the network's late-night lineup.
Carvey chose to bring the show to network TV, instead of the more creatively tolerant and censor-free HBO, to capitalize on his popularity while attempting to shed his Church Lady image in favor of a showcasing more experimental comedic sensibility With the hottest comic at the time and a staff of writers and performers that included Louis C.K., Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and Charlie Kauffman, what could go possibly wrong? Apparently, everything.
Dana Carvey sat down with us to discuss Too Funny to Fail, how the Jenga tower that was The Dana Carvey Show collapsed on itself, and how the show's indelible influence is still being felt in comedy today.
VICE: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
Dana Carvey: I spent four hours in a car yesterday talking to Jerry Seinfeld for [Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee], so this is easy. He picked me up in a dune buggy. I definitely have bruises from getting in and out of it. [In his best Jerry Seinfeld voice] I don't know what he's thinking. Why would he do that? I'm still recovering.
Before we get into how The Dana Carvey Show came crashing down, let's talk about how it came to be.
It was three years after I left SNL. I missed sketch, and Robert Smigel and I had such a good partnership. He was looking to do something similar, so we said, "Well, let's just try it." We were having so much fun with the idea of deconstructing 70s variety shows, and all those ideas starting to come together. As a comedian, I was like, "This is hilarious."
Smigel's sensibilities are defined by being aggressively weird and subversive, while yours are known to be a bit cleaner. How did that dynamic play out in the writers' room?
Like I do, Robert enjoys the rhythms and musicality of jokes. When I was riffing around the office as Carson, he immediately loved it. We bonded over that—the details of the joke, not the actual joke. He had very entertaining, rhythmically fun instincts I could easily marry my sensibilities with. I had some subversive instincts as well—just not necessarily blue. Well, I guess you could say Triumph [the Insult Comic Dog] has gotten as bad as dogs fucking. But we share that dry, fun sensibility.
How did you arrive on the different fake sponsors for each episode?
Oh my God. We said, "Let's ironically—without us getting any money from it—have a sponsor." Like they did in the 50s, with the Colgate Comedy Hour. The critics—and certainly the viewers—didn't know that it was part of the comedy. I never got a check from Taco Bell [Laughs]. I thought it was so funny. When I was promoting the show on Letterman, I said, "It's The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show!" Letterman was like, "Um, no." What could be better? Smigel told me later that Mountain Dew loved us making fun of them. It's chemicals, and it looks like urine!
The Dana Carvey Show served as the launching pad for some of comedy's biggest talents. Was it hard finding writers and performers who understood the show's tone?
Louie and Smigel had written for Conan, which already shared a sensibility with some of SNL. From Letterman to Conan, you can see the connection to a similar sort of anti-humor. You could call it silly, or smart-silly—maybe Monty Python–esque. I think most comedians just like what we did.
We found Carell and Colbert at Second City, and they immediately clicked with everything we did. They did "Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food," and it was a perfect fit. Same for Dino Stamatopoulos, another ex-Conan writer. But I think some of the more precious comedy writers may have told Smigel they thought we were selling out because this show was on ABC.They didn't realize we were shitting all over the network.
The first episode was notoriously offensive.
[Laughs] Yes, the Bill Clinton breastfeeding thing. In the very first sketch! Believe me, we knew ABC was not the appropriate venue. It was never going to last. We thought what we were doing was rock 'n' roll, but it just turned into a debacle. I guess we should've anticipated that, since Home Improvement was our lead-in.
It must have been frustrating that just as soon as you guys were starting to hit your stride, ABC pulled the plug.
I think I already was mourning the show before that. I could see that it was inevitable. The network were hemorrhaging sponsors. By the time the cancellation happened, it was a little bit of a relief. There were probably a lot of different emotions around it. In a perfect world, we would've done it on HBO, which was my first instinct. I take responsibility for going against that—but I can't really blame ABC and Disney for what they did.
Did you have any regrets after cancellation?
I certainly mourned. I felt it hard, honestly. But I was fine. I was making more money doing standup than I was doing a television show or a movie—cartoon money. I really felt bad for the two Steves and the staff. They were so eager and young. I was thrilled to see what happened to them. Louie was only 25 at the time! So I was really worried about them.
Look, the show didn't work. It was a little embarrassing, but at the end of the day, it was less embarrassing than other things that I've done that didn't work, because I believed in what we were doing with the show. I liked the tone. That's unusual. If one of the shitty movies I was in tanked, it was just humiliating because I got the blame even though I didn't edit or direct it. I'm proud of The Dana Carvey Show.
Do you have a favorite sketch from the show?
I love that "Grandma the Clown" even exists. That makes me happy. What is happening? Why were the kids there? What do their parents think? It was disturbing [Laughs]. Also, "The Revolutionary War Done By Oliver Stone" really made me laugh. But the Tom Brokaw sketch was one my favorite "quiet sketches"—one of those stripped-down sketches that killed as hard as anything. [In a Tom Brokaw voice] Gerald Ford was killed by a circus lion today. Which were your favorites?
I really liked "Skinheads From Maine" and "Practical Jokers" with Steve Carell.
Those were both really fun to do. I mention in the documentary that I was really worried for Steve's health. He was so young and hungry that his commitment made me say "Wow!" The same thing in "Germans Who Say Nice Things." I really had to physically keep up with his instrument. He just commits, man. That big voice of his. He's always been that hysterical.
You'd already achieved massive success before The Dana Carvey Show and went on to achieve even more after it ended. What did you learn from that experience?
In a world where we all have been forced to look at the bottom line of our own commercial and creative interests, this group of people came together and did not—for better or for worse—look at the bottom line. They did exactly the show they wanted to do. They call it a noble failure for a reason. I think it's kind of badass now, years later, that the show is part of my résumé and that people wanna see it and think about it. They might want to get to know the different side of me, I suppose. In the end, I'm proud of it.