Primetime broadcast sketch comedy shows don’t exist for a reason. Though it’s all underwritten by intense brain power, sketch comedy requires a certain level of emotional immaturity and recklessness to pull off, as well as a broad approach to what is and isn’t worth talking about. Broadcast comedy is as narrow as a pinhole when it comes to what will and won’t be acceptable to the masses. It’s not down to a formula — there are shows like Seinfeld that surprisingly take hold while offering a refreshingly different product — but the networks tend to play it safe while pushing the weirder fare (what little there is left on broadcast) to late night.
It’s hard to know if ABC knew what it was getting when they gave Dana Carvey a half-hour in primetime for a variety show in 1996. They probably expected 10 minutes of George Bush impressions, some songs about broccoli, and a bit of the Church Lady to bring it on home every week. A sort of sanitized version of what he had done during his legendary run on Saturday Night Live. But what they got was the product of Carvey allowing former SNL and Late Night with Conan O’Brien writer Robert Smigel and Louis CK to run wild and blend the former’s penchant for the weird and silly with the latter’s love of brashness and boundary pushing (which has earned him so much success with Louie).
Armed with a staff of writers and performers that included Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Jon Glaser, Charlie Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos, Spike Feresten from Seinfeld, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt co-creator Robert Carlock (but not Jimmy Fallon), The Dana Carvey Show was unlike anything on television at the time. Brilliant, funny, and dead after just seven episodes. Thankfully, the final product is scattered in bits across the Internet and YouTube (and collected in a DVD box set), allowing us the chance to appreciate something that feels both ahead of its time and above the sketch comedy offerings that we’re used to today.
Bill Clinton Breastfeeding Puppies
For some reason, I can’t find the full version of this sketch online and it’s not worth posting something that cuts out before the then sitting President of the United States nourishes puppies from his teet. Honestly, I wouldn’t even include the sketch here based on its comedic merits alone, but its notable because this was the way that Dana Carvey, Robert Smigel, and Louis CK decided to introduce their show to America, and thanks to ABC, they were able to see that it was the precise moment that damned their show and caused millions of viewers to flee in terror. It’s also the moment that The Dana Carvey Show sounded the horn and let comedy fans know that they were going to be fiercely and recklessly different. And Louis CK is the demented fellow who came up with the idea in the first place.
Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food
This is just a silly sketch featuring Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell as two waiters who want to throw up anytime they talk about or hear others mention food. Carell’s exaggerated dry heaving is what really makes this sketch work and he and Colbert play off each other really well. Something that comes from having worked together at Second City in the ’80s and ’90s.
Skinheads From Maine
Just a couple of bigots relaxing on the porch, whittling a hate stick for the purpose of beating Spaniards. This sketch would never live on broadcast TV today and it’s probably too politically incorrect for cable. Are the writers trying to make the point that racism and bigotry exist where you least expect them? Is this high-minded satire, or did they just think that it would be funny to have stand-ins for the “Bartles and Jaymes” guys talking about Jews controlling the weather? To some, the latter might not be a good enough excuse for the language used, and I don’t think a contemporary show would want to deal with the blowback that would come from trying to sell something that gets laughs out of two guys talking about gay bashing.
Leftover Beatles Memories
Carvey subtly trolls the censors as Paul McCartney by demonstrating the dangers of using the word “Peanuts” with the right accent and Smigel and Colbert follow as Ringo Starr and George Harrison, with the latter getting the payoff after a long set-up when he cooly admits that he killed a man once.
We’ve all seen ads for Jazzy scooters that promote increased mobility for elderly folks, but this takes that concept to the extreme thanks to a recliner that becomes an exoskeleton for the elderly. Carvey didn’t feature a lot of ad parodies, but this is the kind of thing that would have been an instant-classic on SNL.
The Ambiguously Gay Duo
Robert Smigel’s Ambiguously Gay Duo lives in the zeitgeist thanks to SNL, but it debuted on Carvey. More evidence that Carvey, Smigel, CK, and their staff were onto something and that this show could have flourished on the right network.
Kermit and Bryan Adams Sing
This throwaway gag that features Carvey as Bryan Adams singing with Kermit the Frog about Braveheart and severed limbs feels like a dig at ABC, which frustratingly photoshopped a picture of Carvey next to Kermit for a promo shot before the start of the show’s run. A move that helped to obscure the show’s true tone just as much as ABC’s decision to schedule the show after Home Improvement, a family-friendly juggernaut that did not share an audience with the kind of show that Carvey, Smigel, and CK were looking to make.
The 11 O’Clock News That’s Easy To Take
It’s a bit interesting to ponder the idea that the news media would be worried about scaring people since that often seems like their bread and butter, but this sketch is a well executed delight that keeps doubling down on the ridiculousness as it moves from Carvey’s calm voice to Colbert rubbing his face with puppies. The Bob Ross/Menendez bit at the end is super dated but it still works because of the build-up.
And also the line: “They’re going away for life, they deserve a tree.”
Bill Chott is far from the biggest name that came out of this show and he isn’t well represented in these clips, but his physicality and his cherubic face work perfectly for this sketch about a bus company whose biggest selling point is that they won’t drop you 30,000 feet like those other guys in the air travel industry. His terrified scream sets the tone and he looks like a big kid when he slams the plastic plane into the ground. Weird and wonderful.
“Gerald Ford Dead Today From An Overdose Of Crack Cocaine”
This sketch defies the laws of comedy. It’s premise — Tom Brokaw pre-records death announcements so he can go on summer vacation — is too thin for its four minute runtime, but the circumstances of Gerald Ford’s theoretical death keep getting more and more ridiculous and you can’t help but forget to notice that you’re going round and round. The sketch was filmed for the show’s eighth episode, but was never aired. It was later re-shot and aired on SNL when Carvey hosted, and led to Colbert (who wrote it) getting a short-term job as a writer on SNL.
Again, they don’t all have to be clever deconstructions. This is one of those sketches that make you actually say the words, “This is so stupid” while you’re laughing harder than you think you should. And that’s everytime, because this was a recurring sketch that saw Carvey and Carell pull their pay-and-dash prank on a prostitute and an old lady whose walk they had shoveled as well.
The alarm clock that reminds you what ethnicity you are when you wake up may be the perfect mashup between CK’s taste for pushing the PC limit and Smigel’s absurdism. The internet milk portion proves that these guys were seers.