How Dana Carvey Got His Groove Back
The Saturday Night Live and Wayne’s World star opens up about his hiatus—and return—to comedy, as well as his upcoming Netflix stand-up special this fall.
After reaching icon status as a star on Saturday Night Live and co-starring in two Wayne’s World movies (and then, the disappointing Master of Disguise), Dana Carvey took a deliberate step out of the limelight to move his family away from the madness of Tinseltown.
“A lot of people move away to raise their kids away from Hollywood, I guess,” Carvey told The Daily Beast, newly returned to Los Angeles with his grown-up sons. Both of them want to follow in their dad’s footsteps, with designs on comedy careers of their own. “The plan was always to come back. I’m just amazed at how different L.A. is. I mean, I’ve seen it. I wasn’t on an island.”
The Carveys had decamped from Hollywood in favor of raising their sons “in a small town with trees, where we never had to lock our house,” he explained, revving up a punch line. “We’d get robbed a lot. We should have locked it!”
Relocating suited Carvey just fine since celebrity, he says, was never really his thing. Plus, he always had stand-up in his back pocket. “Maybe I’m eccentric for Hollywood purposes, but I always saved a lot of money,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I was super comfortable with fame. I was grateful for success but I wasn’t worried about fame dialing down a little bit.”
Of his films, he still names Wayne’s World as his favorite—and says longstanding rumors of friction between he and Mike Myers is just “web talk.” It’s been nearly 15 years since he last attempted to carry a Hollywood feature, and you get the sense that Carvey’ll do things a bit differently this time around.
“I wasn’t very good as a puppet. A lot of times in a movie you need a really good puppeteer, you’re sort of a puppet and you’re doing what you can,” he said. “But I always from the beginning was kind of making up my own stuff from stand-up and sort of directing myself, so I wasn’t very good in movies where I didn’t have control. I enjoyed all of it. I did the best I could. But I realized it wasn’t really for me unless I was going to be an auteur.”
When Dex, born in 1991, and Tom, born in 1993, set their sights on comedy, Papa Carvey figured, why not? “I mostly really wanted to help my kids get a foothold in how to navigate the emotional violence that can be a career in show business,” Carvey said. “They were playing some pretty bad open mics, doing stand-up [in clubs] where you can’t learn anything,” he explained. “So I said, ‘Let’s do some clubs.’”
He ended up getting back behind the mic in the process. “Eventually I thought, I guess I have new bits! It came from just being back in the clubs and I realized that I’m really better in a room the size of 150, 200, 300 seats because I’m doing sketch work, and it’s very nice to be in an intimate space. It’s hard to have a little quiet conversation in the Staples Center, where you tend to want to be a normal stand-up that’s yelling, projecting your point of view loud and clear.”
As a result, Carvey, now 61, is back in the comedy game—one he finds different in a host of enticing new ways than the world he left behind. Moving back to L.A. led to new opportunities, like voicing the character of Pops, a wheelchair-bound old-timer hound in Universal’s animated hit The Secret Life of Pets.
“[Illumination Entertainment CEO] Chris Meledandri had seen me do different voices over the years and one of them was sort of an old-fashioned grumpy old man, a Lionel Barrymore or It’s a Wonderful Life Mr. Potter-type guy,” he explained. He also appeared on an episode of Dan Harmon’s Great Minds, playing a time traveling—and nude—John F. Kennedy.
Impressions continue to be Carvey’s forte. His return to comedy and Hollywood has already seen several late-night stops delivering a new Donald Trump impersonation he first began picking up while watching the Republican presidential debates.
“Well lemme tell you something, lemme tell you something,” he exclaimed in an extremely Trump voice, “a lot of these movies, they’re disasters, Finding Dory… [Secret Life of Pets] is so, so much better…”
Carvey giggles, mulling his Trump. “I’m still learning it. I’m still making up hooks on it. I’ve added the ‘okay’ and I’ve taken it further. ‘These people are very stupid, okay? Okay? OKaaaaay?’”
“I’m still developing him,” he adds. “He’ll be famously funny for quite a while.”
Studying the speech patterns of a figure like Trump, one can’t help but meditate on his methodology. “I think we’re in a place we’ve never been before,” Carvey said of the GOP front-runner, “a reality show star who’s never been in politics.”
“I’m still trying to figure it out. I think the Brexit vote in Great Britain informing this populist movement of nationalism is kind of a global thing, and I think it’s no particular political party’s fault,” he said, getting serious. “People have been left behind and in America we’re used to going forward. It’s always like we’re going to be better, the next generation’s going to be better. That’s the brand of the country.”
“You just have to be very humble,” he added, “if America has really worked for you, like it has for me. Most of my friends are poor. Most of my siblings are poor. I see how hard it is just to get money unless you’ve got some incredible luck, or work incredibly hard. I want everyone to do well. I wish Wayne’s World money on you!”
Watching this election turn into a pop circus, it seems, has made Carvey consider a shift in approach to reintroducing his own brand of comedy to a savvier audience.
“I grew up when what you said was not exactly what you meant. When Paul McCartney wrote ‘Blackbird’ it was not about a bird,” he said. “Trump controlled an entire news cycle just by saying highly opinionated things over and over and over again. It’s very interesting. My stuff is more varied. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan said.”
“I might switch my style up. There’s room for both kinds. Monty Python never directly said, we’re liberals—they just did their sketches and you had to figure it out. Generally they were anti-establishment of course, making fun of the people in power. I think comedians, that’s their job—pointing out what other people might not notice and going, ‘Yoo-hoo, over here.’”
Returning to comedy and in particular to stand-up, Carvey says he’s had to take more care with certain jokes: namely, those more apt to offend. A few months ago he taped a new Netflix comedy special set to air this fall.
“In general if you get outside Hollywood and parts of New York it’s really the same,” he said. “In certain parts there’s a politically correct culture and lines you’re not supposed to cross. Say I do an Irish accent and my cardiologist is Indian. If I do an Indian accent they get quiet. That’s considered racist now.”
“When I lived near Chinatown I’d do a Chinese person speaking English and that I had to table, because that was too much,” he admitted. “When I did SNL I did this character who was Chinese, and it probably was insensitive—it’s just that I lived near Chinatown and I befriended this older gentleman who had a chicken he had on a leash, and it just came from that. So that’s one thing that’s changed.”
“I’ve learned to find where the rules are.”