A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
One of the most-seen sketches from The Dana Carvey Show never aired on ABC. On October 26, 1996, six months after his primetime series was canceled, Carvey returned to his old stomping grounds to host Saturday Night Live, and re-teamed with his former executive producer Robert Smigel to do a near-word-for-word reprise of a bit they’d taped for the eighth episode of The Dana Carvey Show—an episode that had been shelved. In it, the comedian plays Tom Brokaw, preparing for a vacation by pre-taping potential breaking news stories, including seemingly infinite variations on the death of former President Gerald Ford. Smigel is off-camera, prompting the anchor and keeping him on-task. It’s a one-joke routine, but the joke’s inspired.
What’s funniest about it is that even as Brokaw’s copy gets more and more outlandish—with Ford getting eaten by wolves, mauled by a circus lion, or killed by a zombie Richard Nixon—he keeps the same even tone and zippy pace, questioning his producer only briefly before getting back to work. This could be read as a hard smack at “trusted” news anchors who just read what they’re told, or it could’ve been an excuse for Carvey to do his pretty good Brokaw impression. Most likely, it was just an idle idea that made the writers’ room laugh, and Carvey and Smigel decided to run with it. They were making the most of their opportunity to take 30 minutes a week of prime network TV real estate and fill it with something that no other channel would have—for better or worse.
The Brokaw sketch went over well on SNL. It’s since been featured in anniversary and compilation specials, and even pops up occasionally on lists of the show’s best moments. But for the too-few fans of The Dana Carvey Show, that popularity is frustrating. This sketch was what the series was always meant to be: more subtly strange than pushy. But because the series was canceled after seven episodes—after having its order reduced from 10 to eight—it never really had the chance to fully develop that voice.
In an interview with The A.V. Club years later, Carvey and Smigel said they were working toward a style somewhere between the crowd-pleasing recurring characters of Saturday Night Live and the random, rapid-fire absurdity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The idea was to do subversive, counterculture-style comedy in primetime on a weeknight, for aging baby boomers who couldn’t stay up late any more. But it took them an episode or two to find their pitch, and by then they’d already lost a lot of TV critics and viewers.
Nowadays, when pop scholars talk about The Dana Carvey Show, they mostly mention the talented writers and performers who either got their start there or began to figure out their style during their brief time on ABC. Smigel was one of the latter. He’d been a writer on Saturday Night Live and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, but it was as a producer and performer on Dana Carvey that he started to migrate more toward the goofy, deadpan pop-culture riffs he’d later do on SNL’s animated “Saturday TV Funhouse.” (One of those cartoons, “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” actually started on The Dana Carvey Show.)
Even more prescient was Carvey and Smigel’s decision to cast two improv-trained comic actors that they found at Second City in Chicago. Steve Carell had already been pegged in comedy circles as a star to be, while Stephen Colbert (Carell’s understudy) rolled into The Dana Carvey Show directly from Comedy Central’s dark sketch show Exit 57. Meanwhile, in the writers’ room, Smigel and stand-up comedian (and fellow Late Night vet) Louis CK wrangled a team that included future Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman, and gag-men who’d go on to be major creative contributors to the likes of Mr. Show, Community, 30 Rock, and Inside Amy Schumer. All of these folks roll by in the closing credits of the unaired final episode, over a quirky “Rush Limbaugh on a roller coaster” parody.
What people don’t talk about enough is Carvey himself, and how he’d co-created what could’ve been the ideal showcase for his comic sensibility. By the end of Carvey’s Saturday Night Live run, he was locked into playing the same half-dozen broad characters over and over (The Church Lady, Hans, the first President Bush, etc.); and after The Dana Carvey Show, his highest-profile gig was co-writing and starring in the terrible spy spoof The Master Of Disguise. What sometimes gets forgotten is that Carvey broke through on SNL at the same time as Jon Lovitz, Jan Hooks, Nora Dunn, and Phil Hartman, all of whom had just as much affinity for the weird little sketches in the last third of the show as they did for the cold-open catchphrase generators. And at the time, The Dana Carvey Show felt like it’d been constructed entirely from ideas too off-kilter even for SNL’s last half hour.
Hence Limbaugh riding “Satan’s Revenge.” That little bit of pop surrealism is a callback to an earlier sketch that has the panelists from This Week With David Brinkley trying to discuss U.S.-Japanese trade relations while zooming and looping through an amusement park ride. Ostensibly, the joke’s supposed to be about how graying mainstream media gatekeepers get more and more desperate to appeal to the young. But like the Brokaw bit, putting political commentary on a roller coaster was more about indulging in sheer ridiculousness, just for its own sake. In the same unaired episode, Carvey and his writers also throw in a brief reimagining of the one-man-show Mark Twain Tonight with the cast of Stomp! playing Twain(s), followed by roughly a minute of cast-member Heather Morgan inarticulately yelping as an over-eager woman on a dinner date. The bar the writers were looking to clear each week was “whatever makes Robert Smigel and Louis CK laugh”—and those two guys have fairly kinky tastes in comedy.
What everyone on the show seemed to like most was impressions, which they’d squeeze into episodes every which way, often on the thinnest of premises. Episode eight opens with a parody of Charles Grodin’s halting CNBC political commentaries, imagining what it would be like if other movie actors (like Jeff Goldblum and Gene Wilder) had their own news and opinion shows. Later in the episode, The Dana Carvey Show cast riffs on ABC anchor Peter Jennings, Friends star David Schwimmer, and President Clinton and his then-challenger Bob Dole.
The quality of the impressions varies. Carvey nails Grodin, and Elon Gold gets the idiosyncrasies of Goldblum, Wilder, and Schwimmer, but Colbert has to stretch a bit to do Jennings (and David Brinkley in the coaster sketch), and Carvey’s Clinton is a grotesque cartoon. Still, for the most part the The Dana Carvey Show team got what was funny about the people they were impersonating, and had a keen sense of the silliness of American life and culture circa 1996. Why exactly did Charles Grodin have a cable news show? And why was David Schwimmer one of our biggest stars? Television needed more comedians questioning the medium itself back then; and if nothing else, Carvey and company were willing to do the job even if the American TV audience didn’t much want them to.
It’s also to Carvey’s credit that he let so much of his ensemble take the wheel of what was supposed to be his vehicle. In an interview included on Shout! Factory’s The Dana Carvey Show DVD set, he explains that he encouraged other cast members to shine, because it only made the show better. When he left Saturday Night Live, Carvey had a lot of offers to sort through, from starring in movies to taking over for David Letterman on NBC’s Late Night (a job that would ultimately go to Conan O’Brien, with Smigel and CK as writers). But he didn’t need the money, and he was happy being a stay-at-home dad to his two young children. It took the promise of returning to the sketch-comedy format he was comfortable with—and the opportunity to do something different in network primetime, alongside a bunch of fresh faces—to get him out of the house.
Carvey’s enthusiasm for the project was plainly evident, even as the ratings plummeted. Because they were taping every episode after the prior one had aired, Carvey could joke in the opening monologue about how they’d appalled critics and viewers with some of their most extreme ideas. (Carvey, Smigel, and CK still talk about the fatal miscalculation of opening the entire series with a sketch about a lactating Bill Clinton nursing puppies.) He also had fun with the corporate sponsors for each episode, putting corny dancing root beers on the stage in the week they were backed by Mug, and having a conversation about the urinary hue of Mountain Dew on Mountain Dew week. (By the sixth episode, the running sponsorship gag was over, apparently because no major companies wanted to be associated with a tanking show.)
But Carvey seemed to be having the most fun playing alongside Carell. Episode eight featured the final appearances of four of the duo’s recurring characters: two Germans who shout scary-sounding compliments, and two dudes who think it’s hilarious to pay for stuff and then leave before it arrives. (In the last “pranksters” sketch, they win millions in the New York state lottery and then skip out while Governor Pataki is giving them their check.) Carvey and Carell had great chemistry, similar to what the SNL star had with Kevin Nealon and Mike Myers. They’re both normal-looking guys with a willingness to act crazy and stupid on-camera. If they’d had a chance to team up more, they might well have come up with characters that lingered in the public imagination, the way Hans and Franz and Wayne and Garth have.
The Dana Carvey Show hasn’t been forgotten. It’s part of any origin story for Carell, Colbert, and CK, and to some extent it’s a cautionary tale for any network or performer who considers doing a late-night-style sketch or variety show in primetime. But the series doesn’t always get its due as a piece of comedy (as opposed to being a farm-club for future superstars). The Dana Carvey Show was wildly uneven, and at times plainly awful. But the writers stumbled into something genuinely funny more often than people who’ve never seen the show may think, and at the least, they were trying hard. Carvey and Smigel were like their version of Tom Brokaw, plugging away at every possible variation of a joke because if they weren’t going to do it, then who would? Stone Phillips?
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Ellen, “Like A Virgin”