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Dana Carvey’s Bad Film Career Gave Us His Great Sketch Show

The ‘Saturday Night Live’ star was a master of impressions but couldn’t command the big screen. So he changed course and hatched ‘The Dana Carvey Show,’ one of the 1990s’ most beloved, canceled-too-soon series.

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

It was the spring of 1994, and Dana Carvey was promoting his upcoming movie, a comedy called Clean Slate. This was his first starring vehicle since leaving SNL in 1993 that wasn’t based on one of his popular characters. (Wayne’s World 2 had come out around Christmastime the previous year.) Clean Slate, in which he plays a man who develops a rare form of amnesia where he can’t remember what happened yesterday, would be Carvey not doing an impersonation or an SNL bit. It would just be him. And during that press tour, he admitted something.

“I feel like I’m a comedian,” he told the L.A. Times. “I’m not an actor, I’m a comedian.” He wasn’t diminishing his talent — rather, he was quantifying it. “People always go, ‘Don’t put yourself down,’ and I say to them, ‘Well, there’s 10,000 actors and about 50 comedians — I’m complimenting myself.’ And I think a comedian has to exert control over what he does. … You’re still a collaborator in film, but you need to exert your influence, because you know best how to make you funny. That doesn’t mean you know anything about film, or it doesn’t mean you understand the history of cinema, but you do — after being a stand-up for 10 years — kind of know what your strengths are comedically and how to play to ‘em.”

The moment when an SNL star makes the leap to movies is always perilous. Sometimes, you’re Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell and it goes great. Or you could be Joe Piscopo, whose name is synonymous with “It didn’t work out.” Carvey, who turned 65 earlier this month, probably would be placed in the latter category, but he’s an interesting, complicated test case. Carvey seemed to understand that film stardom probably wasn’t suited to him. For one thing, he never quite fit the part, as he even acknowledged. But he ultimately got something else: bragging rights to being the man who helped launch a lot of careers because of a short-lived show that everyone retroactively thinks was brilliant.

Carvey was born in Montana but soon moved to Northern California. He was a shy kid who developed a love for stand-up and doing impressions. “Hollywood wasn’t interested in me as a comedian. At all,” he said about his early years trying to break in. He landed a tiny part in This Is Spinal Tap, but soon after he decided that focusing on developing characters — and accepting what he looked like — would be his ticket. “Bill Murray, [Dan] Aykroyd, [John] Belushi — they were guys who might make you laugh, but they could beat you up if they wanted to,” he figured. “I looked like Timmy from the Lassie show.”

That pipsqueak everyman quality might have made him seem unremarkable, but it also proved to be his strength: He could disappear into roles. The Church Lady was a bit he’d honed as a stand-up, so when he came to Saturday Night Live, he (and she) turned into a national sensation. Carvey was a spectacular chameleon: He mastered fictional characters like the Church Lady, Hans (of Hans and Franz) or Garth (from Wayne’s World), alongside George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Stewart and others. We loved him because he was everybody other than himself.

If there’s a connection between the different SNL stars who have successfully transitioned to movies, it’s that they parlayed their small-screen persona into film roles that capitalized on their charisma, their very essence. But that was never going to be easy for Carvey, whose whole act was the people he embodied. In 1990, during his SNL heyday, he’d done a conman comedy, Opportunity Knocks, which bombed. In his review, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman nailed Carvey’s dilemma: 

“Carvey is an example of the master impressionist as blank slate. When he dons somebody else’s mannerisms, he can be richly, scathingly satirical — a subversive artist launching kamikaze assaults on a dishonest world. His George Bush is far more than a simple impersonation. It’s a profound study of the man, a giddy revelation of the thought processes behind the grammar.

“Between jokes, though, Carvey is just a nice, bland, friendly guy; he’s the soul of mildness. This is no coincidence. Great impressionists are almost always limited as comic actors. The skills that make one a crack personality parodist — a sensitive ear, minute observational powers — are based on being other-directed, on taking your cues from whoever’s in front of you. These guys have trouble holding the movie screen because, when they’re only themselves, a part of them isn’t quite there.”

The success of those Wayne’s World movies, where Carvey was safely ensconced as Garth (whom he had based on his brother Brad), probably inaccurately made the comedian’s nascent film career seem more likely than it actually was. But then came Clean Slate, which was painfully mediocre — his ordinariness had nowhere to hide — and his appearance in other commercial duds that same year, The Road to Wellville and Trapped in Paradise, only further cemented the feeling that he was just an “impressions guy.” Carvey was right: He was a comedian, not an actor.

Television seemed more suited to his talents. He’d been approached about possibly replacing David Letterman on NBC after the talk-show host left for CBS in 1993, but that wasn’t for him. (“I wasn’t sure how I would have managed five hours of TV,” he later said. “Maybe I could have done it if I was single, did the show and just slept.”) He was more interested in returning to sketch television, after what he later referred to as “these horrible movie experiences with directors who hated me, basically because they resented that the studio forced me on them.”

Teaming with his friend, writer and performer Robert Smigel, Carvey assembled a group of young, hungry up-and-comers for his variety show. They grabbed two improv actors from Chicago, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. They hired a stand-up and aspiring filmmaker, Louis C.K. A quiet, brilliant writer named Charlie Kaufman was brought on board. And despite Carvey’s instinct that this program was better suited for cable — where it could take risks — he was coaxed into launching The Dana Carvey Show on ABC, premiering in the spring of 1996 right after Home Improvement. Sure, the Tim Allen sitcom was a massive hit, but it was also something far more anodyne than what Carvey and his team were plotting.

And to prove it, the first episode started with a skit in which Carvey did an impression of sitting president Bill Clinton, who (because of a freak accident) can now breastfeed puppies and kittens. Clinton wasn’t one of Carvey’s stock impressions — his SNL cohort Phil Hartman had done the 42nd president on the show — and between the comic’s unconfident portrayal and the shocking, not especially hilarious concept, The Dana Carvey Show alienated its huge lead-in audience almost immediately. 

And to think: ABC had gone with Carvey because they considered him tame and family-friendly, a reasonable expectation judging by his onscreen persona. But The Dana Carvey Show highlighted his edgier side and was promptly canceled after seven episodes. (The network refused to even air a completed eighth episode.) “I think it’s one of the most abstract variety shows to ever have been on primetime television,” Carvey said in 2011. “You were working on ideas that were so fucking funny. It’s very rare.”

After the failure of his movie career, the show’s flameout seemed to be another indication that Carvey’s brief magic at SNL (where he’d won an Emmy) wasn’t duplicable. Added to that, he was starting a family and felt the pull of being a dad. (He’s always claimed that the demands of fatherhood caused him to pull out of 1995’s Bad Boys, which initially was going to star Jon Lovitz and him. “I had a half-a-million dollar guarantee that I had to give back,” Carvey recalled. “When you get into a corporate movie and they back up a Brinks truck, you are just lost and untethered.”)

But he also had to look after his health. High cholesterol and heart disease were problems in his family, and about a year after The Dana Carvey Show got canned, he felt chest pains while running. “I was sweating an adrenal for 20 years with cholesterol of 450,” he later said. “That’s like a match to gasoline. So it was a matter of time, which I didn’t realize.”

Multiple angioplasties failed to work, so in 1998, he went in for double bypass surgery. Later, he received terrible news: The doctors had worked on the wrong artery. Eventually, Carvey made a complete recovery — another surgery wasn’t necessary, just more angioplasty — but he did sue Elias Hanna, the San Francisco surgeon who botched the procedure. At the trial in 2000, Hanna’s attorney asked Carvey about his business affairs. Carvey simply answered, “I’m just a comedian.”

After The Dana Carvey Show and his health scare, Carvey essentially faded from public view. His last attempt at a movie-star career was in 2002’s The Master of Disguise, one of the worst-reviewed films of this century. It reeked of desperation as Carvey did lots of silly voices in a family comedy that deservedly died at the box office. It was an ignominious end to his Hollywood aspirations.

Carvey kept working, kept doing stand-up, but his reputation would end up being revitalized not by anything new he did but, ironically, by the subsequent accomplishments of those he had hired for The Dana Carvey Show. Carell became a movie star. Colbert was the acclaimed host of The Colbert Report and then took over Letterman’s gig at CBS. Kaufman won an Oscar. Smigel brought The Ambiguously Gay Duo (which he’d developed on The Dana Carvey Show) to Saturday Night Live, where it became immensely popular. Robert Carlock, another of the show’s writers, went on to be a showrunner on 30 Rock and co-created Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. (And, of course, Louis C.K. was, for a time, just as big a name as any of the Dana Carvey alumni, although that has changed.) In the process, The Dana Carvey Show slowly began to earn a rep as The Show Too Brilliant For Its Time, as diehard comedy nerds waxed nostalgic about memorable skits like “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food” and “Stupid Pranksters.”

In 2011, GQ did a triumphant oral history of the show, and six years later Hulu released a documentary, Too Funny to Fail, that celebrated the short-lived program, featuring just about everyone who had worked on it. Carvey, the shy kid who liked doing impressions, was now viewed as a secret genius who’d had the foresight to shepherd such incredible talent. In retrospect, The Dana Carvey Show’s premature cancelation is a feather in his cap, probably the most subversive element of a career marked by its mildness.

He still does a lot of impressions — get him on a talk show and he won’t stop doing ‘em — but he seems content, even if it means being part of a cringe-y Wayne’s World reunion with Mike Myers while introducing Bohemian Rhapsody at the Oscars a couple years ago. He’s been married for 37 years and has two sons now both in their late 20s. It sure seems like a good life.

“I have friends who get stressed about fading or not being as hot. I never quite engaged that,” Carvey said last year. “I have a lot of drive to try to be the best I can be, have people be blown away by what I do and repeating it. But the other side of me is fine wherever I am.”

It’s a healthy attitude to have, and certainly Carvey has accomplished a lot. He’ll never be among the ranks of the Sandlers and Ferrells who blew up after Saturday Night Live. But having a Dana Carvey Show in some ways is just as good: It’s the permanent, tantalizing what-could-have-been that’s all the more perfect because it went away so fast. This chameleon probably never would have guessed that his best role was helping to guide other performers to greater heights than he himself ever achieved.