Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Dana Carvey and the burden of audience expectations

We've blown an awful lot of bandwith recently trashing Mike Myers' The Love Guru (and while I personally haven't see it yet, rumor around the office has it that our knee-jerk negative appraisal is pretty much justified). On a similar note, the lukewarm reception of You Don't Mess With The Zohan is proving that if there's a threshold to our tolerance of Adam Sandler, we crossed it approximately three gratuitous Rob Schneider cameos ago. So there's really no sense in pretending that I approached Dana Carvey's "triumphant return to stand-up," Squatting Monkeys Tell No Lies, with anything but apprehension–and okay, a mean-spirited glee that I was on the verge of engendering some grand theory on the slacker-centric '90s as a breeding ground for history's laziest comedians. "It can't be mere coincidence that we're being haunted by these three ghosts of Saturday Night Live past," I thought to myself. "It's as though the sins of the previous generation are being visited upon us, shaming us for not asking more of our entertainment in the first place."

Now, I've been a defender of Dana Carvey before–specifically The Dana Carvey Show, whose incredibly short lifespan no doubt accounted for its slightly higher than normal hit-to-miss ratio. But whether its sketches still hold up or not (and personally, I think a lot of them do), it's at least hard to argue that the show was not an unusually prescient assemblage of some of today's best comic minds–a rank that included Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Robert Smigel, Louis CK, and Dave Chappelle. The trouble is that Dana Carvey wasn't actually one of them. In fact, he was easily always the worst part of The Dana Carvey Show: Sketches featuring the stupid-smart dream team of Colbert/Carell or anything from Smigel's poison pen were, in my opinion, among the funniest and most subversive ever aired in primetime, but they were still buried in the stink wafting off of Carvey's hammy monologues–pandering affairs that drew from his eminently exhaustible stock of characters from The Church Lady on–and sketches based around tired impressions like Ross Perot.

In fact, his good taste (or was it just good luck?) in edgy collaborators aside, "pandering" is actually a pretty good word to sum up Carvey as a comedian. His few admittedly brilliant digs at his corporate sponsors on TDCS aside, Carvey's never really been one to take any chances–unless you count willingly committing career suicide with Master In Disguise, of course. That lack of perspective and almost pathological aversion to rocking the boat is most evident in the very thing he's famous for, his impressions, which are all incredibly broad caricatures shallowly focused on vocal tics and physical attributes stretched to the breaking point of absurdity, steering well clear of anything smacking of insight. In Carvey's version of political satire, Bill Clinton is a horndog, Ross Perot is kind of crazy, and George Bush is a nerdy stiff–and that's pretty much as deep as it gets. One could argue that Carvey's reductive take on politics is symptomatic of a wider problem, such as the way we choose presidents based on whom we'd most like to have a beer with—and given SNL's documented influence on voter opinion, maybe he's even slightly responsible for it. (But no, that would probably be giving him too much credit.)

Still, it's been more than a decade since Carvey had anything approaching mainstream stardom. His show was a bust, his burgeoning movie career was dead on arrival…In short, at this point the guy literally has nothing to lose. And in the interim between his self-imposed retirement in 2002 and Squatting Monkeys, he's dealt with four angioplasties and an open-heart surgery–the sort of brush with death that often leaves people more conscious than ever of their fleeting time on this earth and the importance of cutting through the bullshit. So how refreshing it would be to report that Carvey learned from that experience, had a Richard Pryor-like epiphany, and shocked everybody by dropping the middlebrow funny voices routine and actually started saying something funny. It would be a welcome sort of vindication for those like me who defended The Dana Carvey Show, a second act that would say, "People just weren't ready for the real Dana Carvey."

But then, that would be ignoring the fact that there is no "real Dana Carvey"–there's just a man-shaped grab bag of focus-grouped material with a grating eagerness to please that's never more on full display than it is in Squatting Monkeys. Bill Hicks famously complained, "I'm not a fucking jukebox" when people would call out requests, but Carvey always was and still is, absorbing quarters in the form of claps of recognition and cheerfully spitting out his "greatest hits" as though it never occurred to him that he has a say in the matter. Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his stand-up career: Even turned loose from network constraints on his 1995 Critics' Choice special, Carvey performed his best-known bits in an ingratiating manner that bordered on shameless, trotting out context-free sketches like "Chopping Broccoli" as though already perfecting his one-man revue in Branson. So with that in mind, Squatting Monkeys is shocking only in the sense that Carvey so unabashedly–to borrow from SNL–comes across like Unfrozen Caveman Comedian. I mean, it's not as though I expected him to have suddenly evolved into Lenny Bruce. But for fuck's sake, it's 2008 and he's still doing Ross Perot saying, "Can I finish?"

Predictably, Carvey's renditions of Perot, George Bush Sr. and Jr., Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger (which is basically just an excuse to slip into his "Hans" character), and Bill Clinton all make appearances in Squatting Monkeys, most notably in the show's centerpiece sketch, a groaning, Rich Little-like "imaginary roundtable" where Reagan acts as an "oracle," arbitrating the flow of American presidencies. Even more predictably, Carvey's attempts to update his bank of characters, like his established "classics," all draw on the most superficial of perspectives: John Kerry "has a face like Herman Munster." Hillary Clinton likes pantsuits. Al Gore "sounds like a gay Forrest Gump." ("Life is like a box of chocolates, girlfriend!") John McCain is old. Barack Obama "looks like a cross between the Mad magazine guy and Urkel." (Seriously: Urkel?) His impression of Dick Cheney even makes open reference to Burgess Meredith as The Penguin–bet you've never heard that before–and limits itself to jibes about Pacemakers and hunting accidents. And with eight years of material on George W. Bush to choose from, the sharpest knife in Carvey's drawer is pointing out that he talks funny. (I'm not even going to get into Carvey's take on John Travolta, a routine so old Exxon might consider cultivating it as fossil fuel.)

All in all, Squatting Monkeys offers a litany of familiar gags as worn and worried over as rosary beads–not to mention the kind of easy jokes that are falling flat every day at your local comedy club–but somehow it's graciously, overwhelmingly received by a ridiculously appreciative sold-out audience. (At one point even Carvey says, "You all are encouraging me way too much.") As a reviewer, the highest praise that I can give Squatting Monkeys is that Carvey avoids doing either Garth or The Church Lady–but then again, he may as well have, considering he recycles his old Church Lady bit about how a "bisexual is someone who reaches down the front of someone's pants and they're satisfied with whatever they find" (an eight-year old joke he recently revived for that half-assed Wayne's World reunion) yet blithely passes it off as new. Isn't that special?

There's an all-purpose H.L. Mencken quote that gets hauled out repeatedly by cynical media types in cases like this: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." And certainly the public (who is repeatedly shamed for its stupidity and terrible taste in things by stuck-up critics like me) shows no sign of becoming self-aware, or trying to better itself in the form of demanding more from their entertainment. Unlike me, the audience for Squatting Monkeys–judging by the crowd shots, most of whom were well over 40, and thus more susceptible to taking refuge in the familiar–probably came with certain expectations, and would have been sorely disappointed if it didn't get it. The same can be said of this weekend's audience for The Love Guru, who will pony up expecting another Austin Powers movie, despite the fact that they didn't even like the last two.

But my problem with Carvey's stagnant stand-up routine and the latest easy paychecks from Myers and Sandler isn't that they're shooting for broad acceptance by being dumbed-down and lazy (even though they are). It's that they're so defiant in their refusal to do anything new that they border on insulting–and the question I'm left with after watching Squatting Monkeys is whether it's our fault. Do they do it because they think we demand it? Or is it simply because we keep rewarding them for it, giving them no impetus to try harder?

Here's another example for further illustration: Recently, I gave Carvey and Myers' fellow SNL alum Tim Meadows a mediocre review for reprising the Ladies Man at Sasquatch. Now, I like Tim Meadows, and I'd even go so far as to say he's somewhat of an unsung comedy hero of sorts, the kind of solid comic performer who can raise the bar of whatever project he's in (though I'm still not watching The Bill Engvall Show). But to me, falling back on a decade-old character for easy laughs only suggests that you ran out of ideas long ago–and yet in the Random Roles we did with him, Meadows acted like "Leon Phelps" was a total liability, saying he "doesn't really enjoy doing it," but does so because "it's something that everybody knows," like the weight of audience expectations has hindered him from trying anything new ever again.

Kind of a defeatist attitude, no? Well, here's something you haven't heard: For calling him out and asking that he try a little harder, Tim Meadows thinks I'm a total dick. He was, in fact, so upset at my appraisal of his Sasquatch performance that he derailed his Random Roles for approximately 10 minutes to bitch about it, even going so far as to pass on his email address so I could contact him and offer myself up for further reciprocation. Now, in all my years of giving negative reviews (and there have certainly been a lot of them), this was the first time I've ever had a subject attempt to personally contact me about it so they could try to convince me that I was wrong–or more likely, in Meadows' case, to make me feel guilty for "just trying to put clothes on [his] kids' backs"–and needless to say, I declined. But it struck me as sad that the best defense Meadows could have possibly offered is that he's "just giving the people what they want," like he's the comedy equivalent of that fake touring version of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I mean, is that the message that we're sending–that all we really want from our artists these days is to have our expectations met? Maybe it's just me–and lord knows I often take such things far too seriously–but I find that idea really depressing.

Of course, in Meadows' case I'm inclined to be sympathetic. Despite being solid and talented, the guy never really broke out like his SNL brethren, and so he can be forgiven for being somewhat unsure of his audience and thus unwilling to gamble. (Though Tim, if you're still reading and quietly seething, a piece of unsolicited advice: Next time feel free to do what you really want, not what you think we want, and I guarantee people like me will at least give you credit for trying.) But Carvey, Myers, and Sandler have all definitely earned that right to try new things: In fact, Myers and Sandler have garnered their most resounding praise for experimenting, by dabbling in dramatic roles like 54 and Punch Drunk Love that proved they're more than just a wig and a funny accent. And as I've pointed out, Carvey has literally nothing to lose; there's no risk of alienating his younger fans (he doesn't have any) or compromising his movie career (he doesn't have one). In fact, burning some bridges with his audience might be the best thing Carvey could possibly do at this point, as it would prove he's still capable of free will.

So why doesn't he? Why does he, like Sandler and Myers, seem perfectly content doling out the comfortingly familiar, serving up warmed-over shtick like a big reheated plate of Mom's mashed potatoes? Is it, as Tim Meadows has implied, really all our fault for treating our celebrities like jukeboxes, only rewarding them when they play our favorite songs? I'd like to think that much of that is the side effect of too much success–the fact that at a certain point, performers become industries unto themselves, with staffs and shareholders that they can't afford to let down by trying something risky–but then, that would be assuming that inside every Myers, Carvey, and Sandler is a passion project they're sublimating just to pay the bills, which is a totally ridiculous notion. A more reasonable explanation would be that, Meadows' protestations aside, they actually enjoy resting on their laurels–and hey, who doesn't? Laurels are really comfy, and they're way better to put your ass on than the proverbial line. But it's also a good way to die slowly—and man, is that ever painful to watch.


Share This Story