Tomorrow Shout! Factory is releasing The Dana Carvey Show on DVD. This show may be a beneficiary of the Hulu era (though we in Canada would never know it; for God’s sake, Hulu, make a deal already). Hardly anybody had seen it until Sony put all the episodes on Hulu.com a few months ago, including the eighth and last episode that ABC never aired. It had some of the elements that were required to make a cult show, but it wasn’t available to watch anywhere, and a show can’t build a cult following if nobody sees it.
The DVD appears to have all the episodes complete, and there’s a very substantial bonus feature in the form of a 20-minute interview with Carvey and executive producer Robert Smigel. They talk about the show, the casting, censorship issues, the highly impressive writing staff. (Not surprisingly, Charlie Kaufman was kind of a weird guy; one of his sketches was the one about nonsense-talking homeless people being paired up with others who talk like they do.) There’s also a collection of deleted sketches.
The show is famous for three things:
1) It was the show that Carvey wound up doing after he had turned down the offer to replace David Letterman on NBC; Smigel, who would have produced Carvey’s talk show with Conan O’Brien, instead wound up doing double duty for Carvey and O’Brien’s shows.
2) It was the show that introduced Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell to a wider audience. As Smigel and Carvey explain, they went to see Second City and were blown away by Colbert’s work, only to be told that the guy he was understudying was even funnier — Steve Carell. Both were hired as writer-performers on the new show, and Colbert and Carell provided voices for the most famous sketch, an animated short called “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” that Smigel re-located to Saturday Night Live after the Carvey show was canceled.
3) It had arguably the most impressive writing staff of any sketch comedy show of the ’90s, even more so than The Ben Stiller Show or other cult flops. Smigel brought along most of his writers from Conan O’Brien, including the master of dark sketch comedy, Dino Stamatopolous, and Mike Stoyanov, who left his role as the older brother on Blossom to go work for Smigel as a writer. (He later claimed to regret this decision.) Louis C.K. was the head writer. Colbert, Carell and the other performers were all writers on the show. Younger writers on the staff include the aforementioned Charlie Kaufman, Robert Carlock (one of the main writers of 30 Rock) and Spike Feresten of the recently-canceled Fox talk show. Greg Daniels and Bob Odenkirk contributed “additional material” to the first episode. It’s like a modern Comedy Writer Hall of Fame.
Whether they came up with a whole lot is a matter of personal taste. I wasn’t that impressed, really — and I say that as someone who likes The Ben Stiller Show in spite of its extreme unevenness and dated ’90s references. But at the low price, I would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself if you’re interested in ’90s comedy or any of the performers.
There are two problems I have with The Dana Carvey Show. One is that it’s almost entirely reliant on high-concept sketches — sketches whose premise is announced at the beginning and then rigidly followed for a minute or two. Whether it’s Stamatopolous’s “Grandma the Clown” (a little old lady as a party clown) or “Skinheads From Maine” or even “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” the format is like an online McSweeney’s piece: there’s not really much to the sketch that isn’t in the title. This is one area where the over-long sketches of Saturday Night Live are probably helpful. SNL relies too much on high-concept sketches too, but because the sketches are so long, they sometimes have to find something else to fill out the time. With the mostly short sketches on Carvey, the writers didn’t seem to feel a need to go beyond the pithy one-line premises. One sketch that I found went beyond its premise into something more interesting was the long sketch with Carvey as Ross Perot and guest star Phil Hartman as Larry King — and that sketch, of course, feels like it wandered in from SNL.
The other problem with The Dana Carvey Show is Dana Carvey. He’s a funny guy, but too low-energy and low-key to be a star. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful movies he ever made were the Wayne’s World movies, where he was the sidekick to the obnoxious but genuinely star-quality Mike Myers. When he’s paired with Steve Carell for the hilarious “Germans Who Say Nice Things” sketch (which, when it returns, is changed to “Germans Who Say Nice Things That Come Out Wrong” because the show didn’t trust us to get the joke), you can see that Carell puts every ounce of himself into his screams, holding nothing back; Carvey always seems to be holding back a little. Which may help to explain why one of them is a big star and the other isn’t.
Carell also has my favourite recurring bit on the show, co-hosting an Entertainment Tonight type show with Heather Morgan (what happened to her?). His insane showbiz-host phoniness is something he does brilliantly and would later repeat in the “We Love Showbiz” segments on The Daily Show.
Speaking of The Daily Show, the humour on Dana Carvey is kind of a time-capsule of the way political humour was handled on TV in the ’90s — incredibly non-specific and generic. Bob Dole = jokes about how he refers to himself in the third person. Clinton jokes = jokes about everything except his policies. Political humour on TV has gotten a lot more cutting and specific since then; today you see more jokes about specific policies and issues.