Dana Carvey’s infamously short-lived sketch show is rightly lauded as both a launching pad for a shocking number of original comedy minds and an ahead-of-its-time conceptual comedy machine. It’s really not surprising that the show’s daring blend of absurdity and outrageousness wasn’t embraced by either its network or audience. What’s most surprising in retrospect (and part of why viewers and advertisers felt like victims of a bait and switch) is that it was built around Carvey himself, one of the most amiable comics in Saturday Night Live’s history.
With his enthusiastic impressions and affection for big, broad types, Carvey was always a people-pleaser on SNL. In that respect, he’s the model for later Saturday Night Live alum Jimmy Fallon (though Carvey’s hammy adorableness came yoked with a lot more performing discipline and professionalism). On The Tonight Show, Fallon found the perfect vehicle for his ingratiating energy, one that’s vaulted him to post-SNL superstardom. And it’s not hard to imagine Carvey having ended up in a similar situation had he followed his natural inclination toward crowd-pleasing versatility to where a more receptive audience was waiting for the Church Lady, Garth, and his discursive, stammering George Bush.
All those characters (plus Carvey standbys like Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Tony Montana, George W. Bush, Bernie Sanders, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, and more) make appearances throughout Carvey’s new stand-up special. Dana Carvey: Straight White Male, 60 starts out with the comic introducing his Donald Trump, to a few hoots and boos from the crowd at Boston’s packed Wilbur Theatre. The thing is, Carvey is about as interested in being a political comedian as Fallon is, his Trump skating even more lightly over the surface of the divisive Republican candidate’s policies than SNL at its laziest. “An impression can be anything, in my mind,” explains Carvey at one point, and, as an impressionist, Carvey’s an observer of behavior, plucking out minutiae—a gesture, a quirk of speech—and enlarging it until it becomes the person in toto. That’s not a criticism, really—his George Bush didn’t come to life on SNL until he found the hook to hang it on. When he hit on Bush’s often inelegant digressions and repetitions, it caught the public’s imagination to the extent that Carvey’s impression has been incorporated into our recollections of the man.
That’s another way of saying that Carvey’s impressions, as enthusiastic and amusing as they are, have never been very good. He’s not a technician like Darrell Hammond or Jay Pharoah, but a harvester of tics and audience appreciation. Leading off his special with impressions of political figures like Trump, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama seems like a statement of purpose. And it is. But Carvey’s purpose is to get the audience to recognize and applaud, something the wildly appreciative crowd at the the Wilbur does, unceasingly. He imagines Bill feeding a strident Hillary tips on being laid-back, notes Trump’s blustering cadence and arm gestures, and does a bit about Obama’s pause-heavy oratory lending gravitas to nursery rhymes, and it’s all as amusing as it is disposable.
At 60, Carvey still carries the impish, open-faced inoffensiveness on stage he had when he was doing stand-up in the 1980s. Looking both youthful and weathered (like if William H. Macy’s Shameless character cleaned up his act), this Carvey is doing material that would also be right at home in front of that era’s brick-walled Evening At The Improv. The title of his special makes it sound as if Carvey’s planting a confrontational flag, but when he picks satirical targets (millennials, Instagram, teenagers, those darn cellphones), his material is pleasantly forgettable. What keeps Carvey’s set coasting along (and his audience in happy stitches) is Carvey himself, his enthusiastic embodiment of characters making up for the fact that those characters don’t have much meat on their bones. His teenage sons didn’t appreciate fine art, millennials don’t have the baby boomers’ work ethic, older women make better lovers—a great comic bit can come from such mundane beginnings, but what energy Carvey’s takes have here comes mainly from how tickled Carvey is with himself in acting them out.
That goes for his, let’s call it “cozy ethnic humor,” a constant theme that could be offensive if it weren’t so bland. Back on SNL, Carvey was bewildered when his stereotypical Chinese character, a squinting, pidgin-accented, chicken-loving guy named Ching Chang drew condemnation, and his love of old-school minority caricature endures throughout the special. Again, it’s hard to be offended by something so blithely lazy, but there’s also no point being made in Carvey’s bits about the Irish, the Italians, and, again, the Chinese beyond the fact that Carvey likes doing accents and obvious jokes. He flew on Aer Lingus, so, naturally, the pilots drink Guinness and sing Irish folk gibberish over the intercom. Italians are so lazy and carefree that he learns to communicate by simply putting a vowel sound on the end of every word. (Picture Carvey doing a Chico Marx accent while exclaiming, “Why go to the moon when you can sing to the moon?” and you get the idea.) His China bit actually builds up something of a rhythm, as his translation of a dour documentary builds a dystopian portrait of the country’s industrial regularization to absurd heights, but his portrayal of an indecisive ISIS leader waffling over how strict and violent religious extremism is goes on and on until it’s just Carvey doing a Middle Eastern accent for its own sake.
A pattern in the special is for Carvey to feint toward revealing something personal, as when he walked away from show business to be there for his kids, only to hop immediately into yet another impression. The resulting piece, about a New York-accented actor discovering his three sons have picked up the inflections of their nannies (general British, Michael Caine, and Liam Neeson), elicits either delight at the hoary shtick (the audience) or a weary, “Here we go…” (this reviewer). Carvey never actually says, “I think… it might go something like this” at any point in the special, but he introduces an interminable bit about Al Pacino’s Scarface character having Thanksgiving dinner with a desultory, “This is something I like to do. I hope you find it amusing.”
The best bits are the ones where Carvey delights in something other than his own cuteness. Imagining that the offstage Hitler cooled down from his overheated rhetoric with catty showbiz banter with his underlings sees Carvey happily following the silly character he’s created until he outruns his own punchline. “I don’t have a final line for this bit,” he grins sheepishly. Anecdotes about the Church Lady going off-script on a humorless Bill Gates at a Microsoft event and the decade spent trying to ferret out exactly what Richard Pryor meant by a particular, profane remark about his dinner have a well-structured, lived-in feel. And while his description of growing up indifferently Lutheran doesn’t go deep, his depiction of the “agnostic hymns” Lutherans use to prop up their moderate beliefs are smartly conceived, as is a funny bit about sending an alcoholic Jesus to rehab, since he can change water into wine and all.
In the end, though, it’s the finale of the special that sums up Carvey’s style all too well. As Carvey trots out his Paul McCartney impression, the crowd tellingly bristles at the idea of McCartney collaborating with Kanye West. Not to worry, however, as Carvey instead slides into a chummy conversation where McCartney explains to the ghost of John Lennon, basically, what’s the deal with cellphones, Pinterest, and Kim Kardashian’s bottom. That the crowd roars says a lot about how The Tonight Show With Dana Carvey would have been a huge success.