Twenty years ago, Saturday Night Live star Dana Carvey got an offer he couldn’t refuse after leaving the late-night NBC institution that made him a star: his own primetime variety show. But after seven episodes, ABC pulled the plug on The Dana Carvey Show—the most Dana Carvey project Dana Carvey ever had the chance to make, according to Dana Carvey—propelling future comedy stars like Louis C.K., Stephen Colbert, and Steve Carell toward their big breaks.
“People were kind of confused by my sensibility,” Carvey recalled to The Daily Beast while promoting his turn alongside longtime pal C.K. and fellow comedians Kevin Hart, Hannibal Buress, and Albert Brooks in this week’s animated The Secret Life Of Pets.
It didn’t help that he and Robert Smigel (aka Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog), who decamped from SNL to join Carvey, molded the show in the vein of 1950s variety hours, naming each episode after various corporate sponsors. Their first episode, dubbed “The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show,” cost them actual sponsorship from Pepsi-owned Taco Bell and Pizza Hut off the bat thanks to a show-opener in which Carvey played President Bill Clinton breastfeeding babies, kittens, and puppies from his teats.
“That was a big misunderstanding!” Carvey exclaimed. “The critics initially didn’t understand that that was Robert and I’s intent and idea, and we weren’t getting any extra money. It was all part of this retro post-modern, silly-smart Monty Python sensibility that the guy finally gets his big variety show but it’s called The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show.
“It was an inside baseball-type joke,” he laughed. “And then of course because we did Clinton breastfeeding the nation we lost the sponsors, and eventually it was [sponsored by] the Szechuan Dynasty Chinese restaurant in New York… you know, the kids were running the asylum. It was out of control. We needed to be on Comedy Central or HBO or something.”
For Carvey, the show was a chance to break away from iconic SNL characters like The Church Lady and stretch himself while exercising creative control over a show wholly his own. “I have a Disney face and I could just be friendly, but I have a more subversive side. Not blue, but just this other side to me. It was in that show.”
The infamously short-lived The Dana Carvey Show achieved cult status thanks to a legendary writers’ room of young talent cultivating a rebellious brand of comedy on network television—names like Robert Smigel (writer, Saturday Night Live), Robert Carlock (30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt co-creator), Dino Stamatopoulos (writer, Late Night with Conan O’Brien), Jon Glaser (writer, Inside Amy Schumer), Charlie Kaufman, Louis C.K., and the “two Steves”: Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.
With co-creator Smigel and head writer C.K., Carvey had handpicked his cast largely from the improv-trained Second City and SNL ranks, sifting through the audition tapes of young talent Lorne Michaels had passed on and pulling together up-and-comers they’d seen perform over the years.
When the show’s complete first season became available years later, including the unaired 8th episode that never made it to broadcast, it sparked renewed appreciation for the show that was ahead of its time and woefully out of place slotted behind Tim Allen’s family-friendly Home Improvement.
“I don’t consider myself a talent scout but I really wanted Carell and Colbert,” Carvey said. “Of course, so did Louis and Robert. I said, ‘Just gimme the two Steves!’”
SNL had shown Carvey that talented comics could shine given the right environment. Watch episodes from the first and only season of The Dana Carvey Show now and you see shades of singularly absurd sketches like “Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food,” featuring the two Steves, or “Stupid Pranksters,” in which Carvey and a young Carell pull inane stunts on unsuspecting strangers, including a baby-faced C.K.
“I’d worked with Phil Hartman and Mike Myers and Adam Sandler and Jon Lovitz and stuff, so I knew that they had everything they needed—they just needed a platform,” Carvey explained. After The Dana Carvey Show was cancelled, many of his alums moved over to SNL, resurrecting sketches there: Smigel’s Ambiguously Gay Duo (voiced by Carell and Colbert), Carvey’s Tom Brokaw bit—that had originally been written for Carvey’s show.
“The stuff we did on my show, they told me helped them get The Daily Show where Jon Stewart really shepherded them,” he said, proudly. “It didn’t surprise me at all. They’re incredibly nice and super talented.”
In GQ’s comprehensive oral history of the show, Carlock remembered his favorite sketch penned by future Oscar-winning filmmaker Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), with whom he and Delocated creator Glaser shared an office while Kaufman was working on his screenplays for Being John Malkovich and Human Nature.
“He’s a quiet person and a private person and didn’t exactly light up the writers’ room, but he was fun to hang out with,” said Carlock. “The one sketch of his I really enjoyed was Weird Al Yankovic and his brother, Weirder Al Yankovic—who took Weird Al Yankovic’s songs and parodied them so they would turn back into the original song. And then Weirdest Al Yankovic would take those songs and make gibberish out of them. The usual meta nonsense.”
Carvey says he’s been fielding interest for a documentary chronicling his short-lived series and is mulling the possibility of putting together a reunion show with his now-famous collaborators. “Colbert is doing his own late-night show and he’s been doing great for a long time. Louie kind of reinvented stand-up in a way, and his show is brilliant. And Charlie Kaufman got his Oscar. I’m still in touch with most of them. So we’ll see if the documentary gets made about it.”
He fondly remembers one sketch in particular that showcased his penchant for impressions, penned by future Community writer-producer and Moral Orel creator Stamatopoulos. “Everyone was on a similar wavelength. We had Dino Stamatopoulos, who’s a brilliant writer, and he wrote a really funny thing for the Rich Little Easter Special which I loved where I played like 12 different characters.”
“There were other cast members who were super brilliant too that haven’t gotten their big break but they’re doing all kinds of stuff: Bill Chott, Elon Gold, Heather Morgan,” said Carvey, who’s returned to the comedy scene after taking time off to raise his two sons—both now aspiring comedians. “It was just a quick, fun thing to do. But the kind of humor I like, the sensibility that I really like, was that show.”