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Time Capsule: The Dana Carvey Show

I don’t really remember The Dana Carvey Show from the 1990s. I could, God knows I’m old enough. I just don’t. It was a flash in the pan, a show that suffered a fast demise like so many others. No, the reason I know about this show is that in the years since, The Dana Carvey Show has been regularly trotted out in entertainment articles and blogs. Sometimes it’s a cautionary tale about how primetime audiences don’t like edgy comedy the way late night audiences do. Mostly it’s as a curiosity, because the show was a launching pad for Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

In 1996, Dana Carvey was a massive star, a mainstay of SNL and the star of Wayne’s World along with Mike Myers. So it made sense for ABC to give him a primetime show. You know, the way it makes sense to eat an entire sack of White Castles at 3 am when you’re drunk. The show was cancelled after 7 episodes, and probably for the best. It was a classic mismatch between content and platform.

If you watch the excellent documentary about it, Too Funny to Fail, you’ll get lots of backstage stories from the group of truly hilarious people involved. Enough time had passed by then to make them all able to laugh their way through the tragic tale.

If you watch the actual show, however… well, let’s just say it’s an interesting experience. You just have to realize, going in, that you’re watching a time capsule of humor, politics, and culture in the 90s. First of all, it’s sexist. In the pilot episode, there are viciously misogynistic attacks on Hillary Clinton and Princess Diana, two of the most famous women of the 1990s. At the time, no one would have called them “viciously misogynistic attacks.” We probably would have just called them “funny sketches about women.” It’s sort of breathtaking to see how normalized sexism was, when at the time we all thought women had made so much progress. In the opening monologue of the second episode, Carvey jokes about how much America detested a sketch from the pilot–but it wasn’t the one of Hillary locked in a room with a reinforced door to keep her from being an impediment to Bill, nor the one where every nickname for Princess Di was “Slut.” No, the sketch America hated was the one where President Bill Clinton has grown teats–that actually lactate–and uses them to feed puppies. I could make an argument for that also being kind of a misogynist reaction–that breastfeeding is inherently gross–but honestly, the sketch was really gross, you guys. So gross that I found it funny, but primetime audiences in the 1990s apparently didn’t.

The show also uses a ton of racial stereotypes aimed at every race you can imagine. There’s a song about overweight people who should drink diet soda. It’s ageist in its depictions of political figures at the time (Bob Dole, Strom Thurmond). It’s homophobic, sort of. (Colbert and Carell voice the cartoon characters The Ambiguously Gay Duo, which traffics in the It’s Pat type of comedy about not hating ambiguous sexuality/gender, but desperately wanting to define it anyway. It’s a sort of sideways kind of homophobia that didn’t know it was homophobia at the time.) I could go on–Colbert and Carvey star in a racist sketch called “Skinheads from Maine,” for instance. Of course, they were mocking racists and racism, they were mocking all the various “isms”… but mocking somebody by spreading their terrible message is, we have now realized, still spreading their terrible message. And perhaps as importantly to a comedy sketch show, where is the line between funny and offensive? (The eternal question.)

The point is this: It’s a comedy show from the 1990s. We all thought we were very open-minded and evolved in the 1990s. Look at Carvey and Carell and Colbert–are there nicer people in the world? (We won’t talk about Louis C.K., who was the head writer.) I consider this show in the context of the time, and I don’t question their inherent decency. Comedians always push boundaries, that’s their job. It’s simply interesting to watch now and see how far we’ve come in terms of learning and acknowledging that maybe some things were never funny to the people targeted by them. I feel safe in saying that none of these men would participate in those sketches today.

But the obvious question is: Is the show funny?

Yeah. Sometimes. My favorite thing about it, though, is seeing that Carvey–the huge star–is not the funniest person on the show. That would be the young, unknown Steve Carell. Even in skits with only the two of them, Carell is the most hilarious, the most ridiculous, and the one who has Dana Carvey on the verge of breaking. He plays characters ranging from Pat Buchanan (talking about building a wall on the border!), to a stoner idiot, to Richard Nixon, to Fabio. He and Carvey have a recurring skit called “Germans Who Say Nice Things,” which is funny mostly because Steve Carell commits himself so completely to the harsh, screamy delivery. Colbert, meanwhile, is somewhat typecast, portraying a series of newscasters from Geraldo Rivera to David Brinkley, basically practicing for The Colbert Report whether he knew it or not.

I’m so used to Carell and Colbert being famous that it’s easy to forget just HOW FUCKING FUNNY they are and always have been. The Dana Carvey Show is a good watch just to see these two in “Waiters Nauseated By Food.” It’s the bit that eventually landed them both on The Daily Show, where they began to gain the notoriety they so clearly deserved.

Hmm. I wonder if early episodes of The Daily Show seem as funny now as they did then?

The Dana Carvey Show

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Revisit the 1990s on Plex:

3rd Rock From the Sun

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Just Shoot Me

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Written By

Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She's the managing editor of The Gist.

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