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.
The Dana Carvey Show did just that with its first episode, though not in the manner that the creators intended. As Too Funny To Fail explains, Carvey and Smigel could’ve chosen to go with a different, arguably funnier sketch to kick off the series premiere. Instead, an Oliver Stone parody in which a coke-sniffing Antonio Banderas plays George Washington was slotted for later in the episode, while the “Bill Clinton has teats” sketch was put in the lead-off position.
At the time, the sketch enraged the media — one critic called the first episode “an artistic Chernobyl” — and drove away millions of Home Improvement viewers. In the documentary, Colbert recalls Carvey coming to work and apologizing to him and Carell, both unknowns plucked from obscurity at Second City in Chicago for their problematic big break. “I’ve ruined your careers,” he recalls Carvey saying.
But it’s not as though Carvey opted to play it safe after that. He and his staff continued to poke at ABC, implementing a running gag in which every episode was sponsored by a tacky corporation like Taco Bell or Mountain Dew, and then making fun of those sponsors mercilessly in sketches. When the network suggested toning down some of the more outré material, the writers reacted by passively-aggressively mocking the executives in bits like the Gentle News Network, in which the painter Bob Ross depicts the Menendez brothers in the midst of a bucolic mountain range. (“They killed their parents, but they’re friendly folk” is one of my favorite Dana Carvey Show jokes.)
In Too Funny To Fail, Smigel is still remorseful decades later about the show’s early, fateful missteps, particularly since he was the one who talked Carvey out of taking the show to HBO, arguing that the show’s audience would be bigger on a network. In retrospect, The Dana Carvey Show seems like a natural for cable, where it might’ve slotted comfortably next to Mr. Show, whose reputation as a progenitor of alt-comedy is greater, even if it seems a little less bold than the show Carvey and Smigel created, given that the stakes were so much higher on ABC.
Revisiting the Clinton sketch now, it seems a little cheap and not particularly funny. But it does square with the subsequent tone of The Dana Carvey Show, which was as much about the “Can you believe this is on after Home Improvement?” subtext as it was about the text. The joke of the Clinton sketch is lame, but the thought of Tim Allen fans mistakenly watching this grotesquerie is pretty hilarious. In that respect, The Dana Carvey Show was genuinely ahead of its time — it was a comedy show about subverting the conventions of comedy shows, a milieu that’s become pervasive in the Tim & Eric/Adult Swim era.
Other sketches, however, still both discomfort me and make me laugh. Grandma The Clown, in which an elderly woman dressed in clown makeup struggles to entertain children, is a masterpiece of agonizing silences and slow-burn humiliation, “highlighted” by a pie being thrust into Grandma’ face with the speed of a slow-motion car accident.
Considering the subject matter, Too Funny To Fail is a little too straightforward, dispensing the story in the conventional journalistic style of a 60 Minutes report. And the failure to land interviews with Louis C.K. and Charlie Kaufman — the former was a pivotal guiding force, the latter was a nebbish outlier on the writing staff who later applied his meta genius to meta-genius films — makes the documentary feel a little incomplete. Nevertheless, Too Funny To Fail should be praised for reminding people that this wondrously bizarre show exists. In fact, the entire run of The Dana Carvey Show is on Hulu. Make sure to watch that first. The documentary is fun, but the show is essential.