Friday, December 2, 2011

The Dana Carvey Show

1996 -- DVD (2009)

If you look to the right-hand side of the screen, you will see the list of podcasts I regularly listen to. Most of those are comedy podcasts, if you didn't know already, and over an intensive 2+ years of listening to them I went from being an avid fan of comedy to an outright comedy nerd.

As a newly crowned comedy nerd, there's certain due diligence that must be done, and slowly I'm resolving those. I'm pretty well versed in the television comedy front but there are still a few nuggets that are out of my frame of reference. Besides the State and Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the most frequently mentioned titles on comedy podcasts that I have little to no experience with is the Dana Carvey Show, a short-lived, 8-episode (7 aired) ABC early-evening sketch/variety show which was home to some of the biggest names in comedy of the future.

Created by SNL veterans Dana Carvey and Robert Smigel, it housed over its short tenure Louis CK as head writer, Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert as writers and performers, and writers like Jon Glaser (Conan, Delocated), Dino Stamatopoulos (Conan, Letterman, Starburns), Spike Feresten (Letterman, Seinfeld), Robert Carlock (Friends, 30 Rock), Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), and even Charlie Kaufman

Of course, despite all the talent behind the scenes, it was a show built around the guy in the title. Carvey is best known for his impressions, and a few notable characters like Hans (or was it Frans) and the Church Lady, all of whom are drummed out here like a modern day freak show. It's easy to understand the intent behind it, especially early on in the show's run, as it helps ease the audience in by providing them with what they're familiar, but as a whole package years later, it just seems awkward and a little cheap. It's certainly not the left-field late-night-comedy-in-primetime feel Carvey says the show will provide.

Much of the show, from a 2011 standpoint, is bogged down by it's "topicality", covering then-current events like the dissolution of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's marriage (including a downright misogynistic portrayal of Charles which obviously in hindsight is in incredibly poor taste, but I'm not so sure it wasn't in bad taste at the time) as well as coverage of the Republican primaries, and the Clinton v. Dole campaign, covered ad nauseum. There's a reason why shows like Python, Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show remain standard bearers when it comes to sketch comedy... topicality doesn't age well.

Sketches that included Carvey's impressions of broadcasters like Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, Marv Albert, and political figures beyond Clinton, as well as any celebrities like Paul McCartney, Regis Philbin or Charles Grodin, often seemed in place merely to have Carvey do the impression, less with a comedic idea or any kind of joke, leaving it to Carvey to sell it, which across the 8 episodes was about a 50/50 proposition. (That said, Smigel sold Bob Dole as well, if not even better than Norm Macdonald did on SNL at the time)

A lot of the sketches as well hinged around a single idea, frequently they weren't fleshed out or honed, so they were toss aways. Certainly there were good ideas in many of them, like the "After Dark" Discovery Channel, Food Network, and C-Span which got in the requisite sexual allusion and got out. Something to be said for brevity in execution, but when the joke is so obvious from the on-set it needs to be pushed to another level.

A couple of reoccurring sketches were good ideas, but drilled into the ground. "Stupid Pranksters" found Carvey and Carrell paying for goods or services then running away before receiving them, laughing maniacally about their "prank" was funny the first two times but didn't have enough self awareness to remain funny long (the final one in episode 8 provided a nice capper to it). "Germans Who Say Nice Things", featuring again Carvey and Carrell found the two shouting in bad German accents kind phrases. Over and over again. It was SNL-style drilling-it-into-the-ground comedy.

From a modern perspective, each episode is about an even split of funny to not, and a lot of that hinges on the modern viewer having a familiarity with the people in question whom Carvey impersonates. The standout skits are those that can distance themselves from headlines or are even weirder now that they've aged.

Under 5

Grandma the Clown

Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food

Episode 7 was probably the best episode start to finish. Having dropped the "sponsored" title sequence and opening song and dance number (which were actually kind of cute) and minimizing the "host introduces the show/audience questions" it left more room for breathing. The opening sketch featured a Carvey impersonation of Newt Gingrich, but the joke is about the "practical modifications" to things like the Lincoln Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which holds up today and stands fine even if you don't know who Gingrich is. "World Leaders and their Baths" is a so-bizarre-its-funny idea while the epic NBA Finals Bulls vs. Heat is a spiralling array of impersonations, characters, set pieces and basketball jokes. Though the "Wizard of Oz: On the Cutting Room Floor" deleted scene and "Kennedy Memorabilia Auction" fell flat on their face, "Heather Morgan's FamousFirst Ladies as Dogs" is perhaps the funniest thing on the entire show, and the "Anonymous Interviews" is a brilliantly vague and madcap sketch that is perfectly executed. With this episode, one could see the direction the Dana Carvey show was taking, and I'm sure that had it had a full season it would have come into its own, and become something more akin to the legendary sketch shows.

The DVD features a good retrospective with Carvey and Smigel discussing what worked and why, ultimately it failed, as well as a host of deleted scenes, some of which were the funniest thing the show produced. I imagine a segment like Rockefeller Institute Animal Research Division wasn't cut because it was censored but rather because it was for a subsequent episode. While the "Onion News" (which was Colbert hosting a fake news program with stories pulled from the Onion newspaper) was most likely cut because it was an extended pot joke.

Fairly enjoyable, but certainly not essential.