There’re enough beloved, canceled before their time, underappreciated, brilliant sketch comedy shows to fill a graveyard. There’s Mr. Show, The State, The Ben Stiller Show, The Kids in the Hall, and probably Human Giant (which is in limbo at MTV right now), that for one reason or another (controversial sketches the suits don’t get, low ratings) are killed off before their runs are complete. Such shows are left to be worshipped only by a small, persistent group of devoted fans.
Of all the similar absurdist sketch comedy shows, The Dana Carvey Show was the most likely to succeed. It boasted as its titular star of SNL fame a man who was, like occasional comedy partner Mike Myers, on the way up to super stardom. He had beloved characters like Garth, the Church Lady, and had bankable impressions of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in his repertoire. But The Dana Carvey Show was axed after seven episodes of decreasing ratings and a show that increasingly failed to give Carvey’s established characters the kind of time ABC was sure it was paying for.
After becoming one of Hulu’s most watched programs in its infancy in early 2008, and after bit players Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert became comedy titans, a DVD release of The Dana Carvey Show show seemed imminent. It took too long to come to DVD, but Shout Factory released the show in a DVD set that features one episode that never made it to air (ABC apparently hated it so much, they threw out an episode), but little else as far as extras go (a brief interview with Carvey and producer Robert Smigel and a dozen minutes of deleted scenes).
Like a lot of shows from the era, particular bits on The Dana Carvey Show haven’t aged particularly well. The show was airing in spring of 1996, so the Republican primaries get heavy representation, and while Smigel’s Bob Dole was as pathetic as Dole impressions can get, the jokes have become fossils. Similar bits about Charles Grodin’s talk show, speeches from Newt Gingrich, Ross Perot and Larry King interviews, and Strom Thurmond send-ups all bear a heavy layer of dust.
But there’s still plenty of stuff that could work on a brand new sketch comedy show, and a lot of that has to do with the crack writing staff Smigel and Carvey roped into the show. In addition to Carell and Colbert, Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York, Being John Malkovich) wrote depressing sketches about a dating service for homeless men who want to have someone walking alongside them when they’re ranting about the government.
Stand-up Louis C.K. wrote the series most consistently hilarious continuing sketch that has Carvey and Carell as two pranksters who have misunderstood how to rip people off (they pay at a fast food restaurant before peeling off without their food), but still laugh uproariously. Louis C.K. also wrote one of the saddest sketches in the history of television, Grandma the Clown, which featured an elderly woman clown who is sad that death is near while she is trying to entertain children. The writing staff even included a young Dave Chappelle.
Curiously, the weakest part of The Dana Carvey Show was Carvey himself. He opened every episode with an incredibly awkward Q&A session with the audience that always seemed like an excuse for him to do the Church Lady voice, and he was often outshone in sketches where Carell and Colbert played second fiddle (especially the stupid pranksters sketch with Carell). Much of the material with Carvey as the focus featured him doing impressions he’d already done too much on SNL. He was obviously caught between wanting to do his own show, and drawing in audiences who were tuning in for the Carvey that appeared on SNL. The other performers on the show weren’t under that pressure.
The Dana Carvey Show was canceled mostly for low ratings, but also because of a number of sketches that were deemed too controversial for TV. The series ran after Home Improvement, and its very first sketch was an increasingly random address by Carvey as Bill Clinton where he’s reminding voters how he’s the complete president, so complete that he’s grown breasts to “feed America”. Just when you think they’ve taken it as far as it could go, Carvey rips his shirt open and reveals eight nipples, and then proceeds to feed puppies and kittens. Then he turns around and has a chicken’s rear end so that he can nurture the eggs of America.
Today, it seems like an absurd sketch, but it caused a mini-controversy as viewers of Home Improvement voiced their disapproval. There were also sketches about Vermont skinheads (who are apparently docile, but still racist), sketches where Carvey made fun of the sponsors of the show (he pretty much says Mountain Dew is human pee), and a hilarious bit that imagined the programming for The Food Network: After Dark and The Discovery Channel: After Dark (which amounted to provocative shots of hot dogs and elephants getting busy).
After its seven-episode run, Carell and Colbert went on to The Daily Show, Smigel went back to SNL (where he continued producing “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” a short that premiered on Dana Carvey), and Louis C.K. became a Conan O’Brien regular. Carvey unveiled, in the fall of ’96, a classic sketch as host of SNL that starred him as Tom Brokaw wanting to take a summer vacation. So Carvey-as-Brokaw had to record future stories like Gerald Ford getting eaten by wolves and Tom Brokaw coming out of the closet (which was the centerpiece on the eighth unaired episode of Dana Carvey), before eventually committing career suicide with Master of Disguise.
I have a feeling that if the show would have been picked up for more episodes, there would have been a bigger drop off in quality, because especially towards the end, there was a gluttony of Carvey doing voices of his famous characters in places they didn’t need to be (at the end of sketches, in the monologue, during sketches were he’d be someone else). But from the episodes that did get made, there’re loads of good to great sketches (I still haven’t mentioned the classic Carell and Colbert masterpiece, “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food”) and a show that deserved more accolades and viewers than it received.