‘The Dana Carvey Show,’ the Funniest Disaster in TV History, Now Has Its Own Documentary
The most unintentionally hilarious television commercial of all time aired in the spring of 1996. ABC was promoting its biggest show, Home Improvement. This was, in TV parlance, a “very special episode”; one of the major characters had a cancer scare. The trailer showed Tim Allen hugging his son, and promising he wouldn’t let anything bad ever happen to him. This was serious stuff; “an episode so powerful, it hits home,” the narrator gravely announces. And then, the commercial ends with a card listing ABC’s Tuesday night lineup and the announcer reading the following sentence: “A special Home Improvement, followed by The Diet Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show!”
In the thousands of years of human communication, there may be no segue more abrupt than that. It was emblematic of the uncomfortable relationship between the two shows, which aired back to back, very briefly, for several months in 1996. Home Improvement remained a ratings hit, and lasted for three more seasons on ABC. The Dana Carvey Show (minus Diet Mug Root Beer, which didn’t last as a sponsor for very long), was off the air after seven episodes. Now, 20 years later, those seven episodes, plus a final unaired show, are available on Hulu, along with a new documentary about the show’s meteoric rise and fall. The end of this show was like the part of Armageddon where an asteroid wipes out Paris.
The doc, Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show, is a funny overview of why a show starring one of the hottest comedians on the planet, featuring a cast and creative team that would go on to dominate television and film comedy over the next two decades, didn’t even survive two months on network TV. If, like the overwhelmingly vast majority of human beings on this planet, you missed The Dana Carvey Show during its run on television, and you’ve only read about it since, this is a great opportunity to discover and watch one of the most brilliant, bizarre shows ever on network TV.
The documentary, directed by Josh Greenbaum features extensive interviews with Carvey and the show’s co-creator, Robert Smigel, plus cast members like Bill Chott, Heather Morgan, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert. Yes, years before they broke through together on The Daily Show, Carell and Colbert were both together on The Dana Carvey Show; performing material that was written by future comedy legends like Louis C.K., Robert Carlock, and Charlie Kaufman (yes, that Charlie Kaufman). C.K. and Kaufman don’t appear in the documentary but Carlock does, along with Colbert and Carell, who talk lovingly about this brief but crucial period in their careers.
In 1996, I was 15 years old, and a huge fan of Carvey from Saturday Night Live and his 1995 standup special, Critics’ Choice, a title that seemed particularly cruel a year later when The Dana Carvey Show premiered. I anticipated The Dana Carvey Show like few television series in my life to that point. I didn’t know Carell or Colbert or Louis C.K.; almost no one did in 1996. But I knew Carvey, and that was enough. And then the show premiered with Carvey doing one of his famous impressions, as President Bill Clinton ... showing off a set of new, dog-like nipples. And then fed a baby from his nipples. And then he fed some puppies. And a cat.
In the 12:50AM slot on Saturday Night Live, this sketch would have been perplexing and enormously disturbing. At 9:30PM after Home Improvement, it was straight-up perverse. That was the point; Smigel says he and C.K. were trying to draw a “line in the sand” to find out who was with them and who was against them. As it turned out, most people were very much against them; I don’t want to spoil the documentary and detail you all the reasons The Dana Carvey Show bombed. But you won’t be shocked to know that opening its first show with this sketch definitely didn’t help.
It was an awkward start, but the show got better very quickly. In just eight episodes, Carvey and Smigel’s team cranked out some of the best sketches in comedy history. Like this one, starring Carvey and Carell, called “Germans Who Say Nice Things,” which I am incapable of watching without laughing hysterically. (Last night, watching the documentary, I had to leave the room because my wife was sleeping in bed next to me, and I was laughing so hard I was worried I was going to wake her up.)
The Dana Carvey Show is also responsible for one of the greatest sketches in SNL history: Carvey as Tom Brokaw, reading a list of death announcements for President Gerald Ford so that NBC is prepared in case of an situation where Ford dies. The reads begin relatively sedate and then quickly escalate into absurdity: Ford dead of a crack cocaine overdose, Ford eaten by wolves, Ford mauled by a circus lion in a convenience store.
The sketch is perfect; and it was written for (and recorded for) The Dana Carvey Show’s final episode, which never aired. When Carvey hosted SNL the following fall, he revived the sketch there and performed it live, to a huge reaction.
Too Funny to Fail features these and many other clips from The Dana Carvey Show. It’s an ideal use of a streaming site devoted to binge-watching. You get a fun documentary about a show, which you can then watch in its entirety immediately afterwards with a single button click. At another time and place, this documentary might have been a DVD or Blu-ray extra; Too Funny to Fail carries that tradition forward into the streaming age. Obviously Carvey’s show was too funny (or at least too weird and full of lactating men) to fail. But I hope this model succeeds and inspires more sites to do these sort of contextualizing documentaries for great shows that never connected with a mass audience — followed by a very special Home Improvement.
Watch Too Funny to Fail right now on Hulu.
Gallery - Our Favorite, Hilariously Terrible Bootleg DVDs: