The New Hulu Documentary ‘Too Funny To Fail’ Spotlights The Short, Glorious Run Of ‘The Dana Carvey Show’

Cultural Critic
10.20.17

Hulu / ABC

Comedy typically doesn’t age well. Jokes that were shocking in their time seem tame to future generations, and edgy satire removed from the context of current events can appear toothless, even incoherent. And then there’s The Dana Carvey Show, an infamous eight-episode folly that came and went from ABC’s primetime lineup in the spring of 1996, and went on to become a cult favorite among comedy nerds everywhere. When it comes to the test of time, The Dana Carvey Show is forever weird.

Even now, 21 years later, there are bits from The Dana Carvey Show that remain genuinely surprising, shocking, and side-splitting — Grandma The Clown, Skinheads From Maine, Pat Buchanan eating “the still-beating heart of an illegal immigrant,” and of course that outrageous series-opening sketch about Bill Clinton nursing babies and puppies from his genetically engineered teats. These things confounded a mainstream ’90s audience when viewed in the time slot after Home Improvement, and they would likely confound a mainstream ’10s audience if a Dana Carvey Show-like sketch program aired after Modern Family.

This is precisely the sort of ill-fated, anti-establishment provocation that invites the documentary treatment. But while the amiable Too Funny To Fail, which premieres Saturday on Hulu, romanticizes The Dana Carvey Show as an archetypical anti-commercial gesture against the evils of heartless TV commerce, it doesn’t shy away from also explaining why it failed so swiftly.

Too Funny To Fail suggests that commercial disaster was practically baked into The Dana Carvey Show‘s artistic conception, in spite of its reputation as an incubator for some of the most successful and respected comedy minds of the last 20 years, including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Louis C.K., Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman, Jon Glaser, and 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock. Even with all that firepower, nobody ever asks “Why didn’t this show make it?” in Too Funny To Fail. To the contrary, it seems like a miracle that so many creative people apparently hellbent on career self-destruction managed to make even a handful of episodes. As one observer remarks, “When you bite the hand that feeds you that hard, there’s a good chance you won’t get fed again.” In the end, the people behind The Dana Carvey Show practially gnawed the fingers off ABC before the network finally pulled the plug.

In the beginning, it seemed like a surefire hit: Carvey had recently concluded a highly successful run on Saturday Night Live, and his executive producer Smigel was already recognized as one of the best comedy writers in television, due to his own stint on SNL and his role as the original head writer on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. ABC expected Carvey to apply his penchant for creating broad, popular sketch characters to a primetime setting. (One network suit describes Carvey as “safe” in Too Funny To Fail, and he means it as a compliment.) But Carvey wanted to be subversive, and he empowered Smigel to hire young, cutting-edge talent that could help him break the mold of mainstream sketch comedy.

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