Can there be such a thing as a successful failure? In the case of The Dana Carvey Show, the answer might be yes.
The sketch comedy show only ran for seven episodes on ABC in 1996 — an eighth episode was uncharitably yanked in favor of a Coach rerun. The program’s brief rise and rapid flame-out is told in the Hulu documentary Too Funny to Fail, now in contention for Emmy nominations.
Director Josh Greenbaum was in high school when The Dana Carvey Show premiered.
“I vividly remember sitting down to watch the first episode with great anticipation,” he recalls. “I was a huge fan of Dana Carvey and here he was with his own show on the No. 1 network in the primetime slot with the No. 1 lead-in. So it seemed like the perfect formula.”
Carvey, coming off his run on Saturday Night Live and the Wayne’s World movies, qualified as one of the most popular comedians in the country. For his show, he surrounded himself with the kind of names you follow with the words “who would go on to”: executive producer Robert Smigel, who would go on to create Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog; writer Robert Carlock, future showrunner of 30 Rock and co-creator of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; head writer Louis C.K.; and future Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Oh, and there were a couple of sketch players getting their first big breaks on TV: Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.
“It was the launching round for such huge talents. It made me scratch my head about its unexpected collapse and how did it happen, why did it happen,” Greenbaum explains. “I thought, ‘What a great story to try to uncover just what went wrong’ and sort of approach the show like a detective — try to figure out who or what is to blame.”
A hint of what would go wrong comes from Carvey’s description of his intent.
“We had hired badass nerd pirates to blow up television,” he tells Greenbaum in Too Funny to Fail. “This show would represent anarchy. It was blowing up the system.”
An early sign of trouble came with an insistence on starting off the very first episode with a sketch about then-President Bill Clinton. Nothing too radical there, except in the bit, the president was revealed to be the father and mother of the nation, who “nursed” the country with multiple prosthetic teats. This aired on the heels of family-friendly lead-in Home Improvement.
“ABC, I’m sure, thought that they were getting Church Lady and all of Dana’s classic characters that are perfect for primetime,” Carvey Show director John Fortenberry observes in the documentary. “And they ended up getting weirder stuff, shall we say.”
Greenbaum says ABC fundamentally misunderstood Carvey as a performer.
“He’s a subversive kind of comic,” he notes. “He’s darker than I think you remember.”
Among the other subversive bits to make air was the cartoon “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” which would later migrate to SNL when Smigel headed there after the cancellation of The Dana Carvey Show, and “Skinheads from Maine,” which starred Colbert and Carell as folksy racists chatting on a porch.
Greenbaum cherishes a classic sketch where Carvey impersonated NBC anchor Tom Brokaw pre-recording obituary announcements for President Gerald Ford, attempting to cover all potential causes of death. Example: “Gerald Ford dead today of an overdose of crack cocaine.”
“That was my favorite, I think, hands-down, if I had to choose one,” he laughs. “That was a great one. There’s so many. Even the lost character from The Wizard of Oz [who laments], ‘If I only had an ass.’ It was so fun to revisit the show and to remember all this gold that they had created.”
ABC tried to bring in other writers to course-correct the show but pulled the plug before two months were out. The Brokaw-Ford sketch was part of the buried eighth episode and only resurfaced on SNL when Carvey later returned to guest host.
“Too Funny to Fail certainly is an underdog story if you tell it from the group of the boundary-pushing artists — Carell and Colbert and Dana and Smigel, and they were underdogs battling against forces much more powerful than them in the network,” Greenbaum tells Deadline. “But it’s also a cautionary tale about what often can happen when you don’t play by the rules of the game. You see they consciously choose not to. And in a way, I sort of celebrate that choice. I think had they changed their vision of the show and altered it and maybe it ran for another two or three or four years in a more watered version, I don’t think there’s a documentary made about it 21 years later.”