New Documentary Explores The Spectacular Failure Of 'The Dana Carvey Show'

Oct 19, 2017
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Saturday, the Hulu streaming service presents a new documentary about a TV show from 21 years ago, one that lasted for only seven weeks. That series, "The Dana Carvey Show," starred the former breakout star from "Saturday Night Live." The documentary is titled, with lots of irony, "Too Funny To Fail." Our TV critic David Bianculli makes his case for why you should care and watch.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Too Funny To Fail" is written, produced and directed by Josh Greenbaum, who threw all his efforts into this new Hulu documentary, even though it begins by calling its subject, "The Dana Carvey Show," one of the most spectacular failures in television history. In 1996, it aired on the No. 1 network, ABC, right behind TV's No. 1 show at the time, "Home Improvement," yet it lost 6 million viewers by the time its opening sketch was over, produced only eight episodes, and the last one wasn't even televised.

But still, what a show, what a cast and what a writer's room. Dana Carvey was white-hot by then for his "Saturday Night Live" antics as George Bush, Ross Perot, the Church Lady and Garth on "Wayne's World." The head writers of "The Dana Carvey Show" were Robert Smigel, the man and arm behind the hand puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and Louis C.K.

Another writer was future Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and the then-unknown cast members included Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. The superhero cartoon spoof called "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," voiced by Carell and Colbert, was made famous on SNL but started on "The Dana Carvey Show."

That sketch and others made for some of the biggest and most absurd fights between a network and a TV staff since "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" battled CBS in the '60s. Like Tom and Dick Smothers, Carvey, Smigel, Louis C.K. and the rest wanted to bring comic edginess to prime time, but ABC had just been bought by Disney and was hardly on the same page.

This isn't so much a rise-and-fall story as just a story about a very rapid fall, and even the documentary's participants have trouble taking the subject seriously. But that just makes the stories they tell even funnier. Here are Steve Carell and Dana Carvey on one recurring sketch in which they appeared, "Germans Who Say Nice Things."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TOO FUNNY TO FAIL")

STEVE CARELL: I can't believe I'm even talking about this in a documentary. Like, tell me the genesis of "Germans Who Say Nice Things." What was in your mind? How did you create...

(LAUGHTER)

CARELL: So I'm sure I thought of it five minutes before an audition and went, OK, maybe that - it's loud, and maybe it'll get their attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DANA CARVEY SHOW")

CARELL: (As character, yelling) That cloud looks like a pony.

Dana really liked that. And so he was like, can we do that together?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DANA CARVEY SHOW")

CARELL: (As character, yelling) It was a pleasure baby-sitting Kevin.

DANA CARVEY: Every time he screamed, I tried to at least match him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DANA CARVEY SHOW")

CARVEY: (As character, yelling) Let's make snow angels.

(LAUGHTER)

CARVEY: And I went as hard as I could, and he always had this other gear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DANA CARVEY SHOW")

CARELL: (As character, yelling) You are not getting older, you are getting better.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: The clips from this little-seen show are very funny, and the behind-the-scenes stories are even funnier. Carell and Colbert, both of whom came from the same Second City company in Chicago, auditioned for "The Dana Carvey Show" one right after the other. Carell went first and killed, then saw his friend Stephen Colbert in the wings and went over to say hi.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TOO FUNNY TO FAIL")

CARELL: But we were chat (laughter) - we were chatting, and I didn't realize he was kind of preparing and getting ready to go on.

STEPHEN COLBERT: And I'm doing the rundown in my head of everything I'm doing - like, the nine things I'm about to do, and I'm running through it in my head. And Carell walks up to me and he goes, how's Evie? How Evie doing? I just - Nancy just - we just - we miss seeing you guys out there. It was like - I was trying to, like, remember the combination to a safe, and he's going, four, 28, seven, six, 3.14, like that.

CARELL: And I was like, so anyway. And I was just talking to him about stuff, and he said, please, please, I - I'm about to go on. Please, go away.

BIANCULLI: But Colbert shouldn't have worried. He got hired along with Carell and got to introduce some well-crafted comedy bits of his own, like his impersonation of George Harrison reminiscing about his days with the Beatles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DANA CARVEY SHOW")

COLBERT: (As George Harrison) Yeah, I was frustrated sometimes, you know? I wrote this little skiffle song, you know, once called "Me And My Squid," and that went (singing) squidy, squidy, squidy, love my little squidy. Squidy, squidy, squidy, rock and roll.

And I took it to John and Paul, and they said, the Beatles don't do songs about mollusks. And only six months later, Paul comes back with "Octopus's Garden." I mean, there was a lot of crap like that.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Robert Smigel in "Too Funny To Fail" raves about them both.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TOO FUNNY TO FAIL")

ROBERT SMIGEL: Now, if people had told me in 1996 that in ten years, those guys would be dominating comedy, I would've said, hmm, five years. (Laughter) That's how highly I thought of them.

BIANCULLI: In its seven short weeks on the air, "The Dana Carvey Show" did some very wild things and swung for the fences in a way too few comedy shows do. The entire series, including the unaired finale episode, is available on DVD - hard to believe, but it is. And as for "Too Funny To Fail," I have no problems recommending a documentary on a streaming service few people watch about a TV show from 21 years ago that almost nobody saw.

That's because "Too Funny To Fail" on its own terms is entertaining and enlightening from beginning to end. And make sure to stay for the end because several participants, including Robert Smigel in his alter ego as Triumph, save the best for last.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TOO FUNNY TO FAIL")

SMIGEL: (As Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) And of course, we'd like to thank the entire Hulu audience - Sharon Harding (ph) of Columbia, Mo., Bruce and Catherine Summers (ph) of Elmont, N.Y., Melissa Campos (ph) of Chandler, Ariz. She's actually on the free trial for "Handmaid's Tale," but fingers crossed. Paula and Howard Kirsch (ph)...

GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University. His latest book, "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific," is now out in paperback. "Too Funny To Fail" becomes available on Hulu this Saturday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX BROWN'S "LAMENTOS")

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon, writer Amy Tan, who has a new memoir, Jane Mayer, who just wrote an in-depth New Yorker article about Mike Pence, and Matthew Walker, who studies what happens when we sleep and has advice on how to get a better night's sleep, check out our podcast.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX BROWN'S "LAMENTOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.