It always takes a while for the culture to catch up with the best and brightest; what’s on the cutting edge today becomes tomorrow’s gold standard.
By Matt Hanson
In early 1996, Dana Carvey was on a roll. Fresh off a stellar run on Saturday Night Live, creating beloved characters like The Church Lady (“Say-TAN!?”) and his increasingly absurd impression of President George H.W. Bush (“na-ga-do-it!”) had made him a household name. Coupled with the wildly successful Wayne’s World films, Carvey finally had the momentum to start calling his own shots. Carvey decided it was time to create his own comedy show, featuring writers and sketches that matched his sense of humor. Too Funny to Fail, a hilarious new documentary on Hulu, tells the story of The Dana Carvey Show’s brief but memorably catastrophic run.
The idea was to offer a modern version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; offering countercultural humor in primetime for Baby Boomers who couldn’t stay up late for risqué, edgy, envelope-pushing comedy. The writing staff consisted of promising but relative unknowns in the comedy world (Carvey called them “rebels in sweaters”) who have gone on to become household names in their own right: Louis C.K., Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Charlie Kaufman, Robert Smigel, and others.
Louis, having made a name for himself in stand up and writing for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, was the head writer and producer. Colbert and Carell were old hands at Chicago’s famed Second City, but were at loose ends career-wise. Carell had one TV spot for takeout chicken to his name and confesses that his agent told him that if his career didn’t take off soon, it probably wasn’t going to happen. Colbert and his wife, both desperately unemployed, had just had their first child. Colbert’s audition tape consisted of him holding up his newborn daughter, her diaper drooping, and mock-pleading into the camera “Why did I go into acting!? All my brothers are lawyers!”
Carvey and Smigel briefly considered signing with HBO because of its promise of hands-off programming, but were eventually convinced to go with ABC. It was the leading network, with extensive resources, and the show’s lead-in would be Home Improvement, which was the highest-rated show on TV. Everyone involved expected a breakout success — and why not? the show had a charismatic host, a brilliant staff of young writers, and all the promotional exposure in the world. Carvey explains that it was a chance for a bunch of talented young nerds to blow up the system. What could possibly go wrong? They had no idea that the answer was, in a word, everything.
For one, resolutely family-friendly Disney had bought ABC shortly before the show was going to air. The show’s producers were reassured that there wouldn’t be any problems, so the staff was content to let their imaginations run wild. The second bad sign was that ABC had published a glossy advertisement for their new lineup of fall programming that featured Carvey’s face photoshopped onto a model wearing a ridiculous blazer with a pink t-shirt and making a goofy gesture, appearing to high-five Kermit the Frog. Carvey was furious, told his staff he wasn’t about to do that kind of show, but kept his hopes up.
The very first sketch immediately set the show’s surreal tone. At the giddy premiere party, the writers patted each other on the back for “drawing a line in the sand.” They had no idea that the line they’d drawn was a lot deeper and farther out than the millions of people watching even expected; they had been conditioned to seeing the Church Lady and Carvey’s playful impressions every week.
In a cold open, Carvey impersonates Bill Clinton sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office. He earnestly explains that he’s the “caring, nurturing President” and assures the nation that he takes this role seriously- so much so, in fact, that he has undergone hormonal treatments and implanted a series of milking teats across his chest, with which he will gladly suckle babies, puppies, and kittens. In a coup de grace, Clinton stands up and demonstrates that he’s also been fitted with the backside of a hen, the better to keep his nest of eggs warm.
The sketch is every bit as hilarious and daring now as it was when I first saw it twenty years ago, but evidently mainstream America was too busy clutching its pearls to laugh — several million viewers got up and simultaneously turned off their TV sets. ABC had paid extra to keep track of the ratings minute-by-minute, and the fallout was swift and brutal as entire states disappeared from the viewership. Outraged viewer complaints flooded in, the critics panned the show in no uncertain terms, and Taco Bell pulled its sponsorship. One writer cracks wise — at least the opening sketch had brought the whole country together for a few minutes.
Airing the show in a primetime slot meant that the promise of delicious weirdness soon became a burden. After contentedly sitting through a couple of hours of family friendly TV, viewers didn’t have the nerve for sketches about Gary and Ace: The Ambiguously Gay Duo, a superhero team whose crime fighting tactics leaned towards the homoerotic, or Prince Charles singing a British Invasion inspired ditty about taking after his ancestor Henry VIII and beheading wayward Princess Diana (and then actually doing it), or a brilliant satire depicting famous first ladies as show dogs, with Jackie Onassis standing on her hind legs to catch a tossed treat.
It didn’t help that the staff weren’t typical TV consumers: Robert Smigel explains that, once he sat down and actually watched Home Improvement, he immediately knew that the show was doomed. There’s a telling moment when the former cast members watch a “very special” episode where one of Tim Allen’s kids gets dangerously ill only to watch the screen fade to an advertisement for “The Diet Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show” and each of them helplessly cracks up.
In an homage to the variety shows of yore, each episode featured a different sponsor.“The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show” became “The Mountain Dew Dana Carvey Show” with a series of Broadway dancers prancing around dressed as Citric Acid, High Fructose Corn Syrup, and Yellow #5. This didn’t make survival any likelier. Aggressively kooky comedy is bad enough, but mocking the companies that paid the bills is another thing entirely. After running out of willing sponsors, the seventh and final episode was brought to you by a nondescript Chinese Restaurant in lower Manhattan, a favorite of the writing staff.
Luckily, Hulu has rescued the entire show from oblivion, including the unaired eighth episode. Watching them all over again for the first time in years, it’s surprising to see how hilariously accurate so much of the jokes still are. Quality satire is news that stays news and while some sketches (the idea of Bob Dole as international super spy, for instance) are kind of dated, many are eerily, almost prophetically, on point. The Tea Party and the Trump coalition seem like new phenomena, but we shouldn’t forget that they both have their political roots in the right-wing culture wars of the mid-nineties. Hard to imagine what that writing room would have done with a Donald Trump presidency — a concept that sounds like something that could have come out of the writer’s room.
In one sketch, Steve Carell plays a crazed (redundant, I know) Pat Buchanan who promises to ban all immigrants and eats a live, pulsating Mexican heart during a campaign rally, crowing about its delicious spiciness. A bulbous Newt Gingrich does an infomercial that promises to sell off our national parks to giant corporations, an idea which is already in play in Washington. In one unnervingly timely sketch Carvey and Colbert play “Skinheads from Maine”: a middle-aged pair of flannel wearing, whittling old coots chatting on the porch whose rustic, folksy, salt-of-the-earth charm is belied by their casual bigotry: “Nice sunset we’re havin’ today.” “Ayup. Looks like the weather is the one thing the Jews don’t control.”
The show had a small bunch of rabid fans. Luckily, the producers of The Daily Show, then in its infancy, loved the “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food” sketch, an old standby from Colbert and Carell’s Second City days, and hired them as correspondents. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s also striking how the show’s anarchic sensibility wouldn’t be out of place in today’s comedy. It always takes a while for the culture to catch up with the best and brightest; what’s on the cutting edge today becomes tomorrow’s gold standard. It all comes full circle, in a strange way — I couldn’t help laughing when I noticed that Too Funny to Fail was sponsored, in part, by none other than Disney.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.