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Dana Carvey: A Retrospective

From his Oldest Youngest Fan.

I have this battered old VHS tape (VHS? What’s that?) in my office. On the label, in bright orange marker in my awkward seven-year-old handwriting it says: “Presidential Bash 1992.” Saturday Night Live does a “Presidential Bash” compilation of their best political sketches over its now 45-year history during every election year during the lead-up to Election Day. It’s safe to assume we’ll be getting one in late fall this year. I’ve seen them all since I was old enough to stay up to watch them, but that very first one for me from 1992, is the only one that I own, because for some odd, fateful reason, my parents decided to tape the broadcast when it aired that November while we were living in Chicago.

I have watched this tape easily over a hundred times in the past 28 years. Part of what draws me back to it is the nostalgia of the time period – all of these 1992-era commercials (McDonald’s was doing “Have you had your break today?” back then), and even more fascinating, the 1992-era political ads. There’s a comically over-the-top Republican attack ad against Carol Moseley Braun, who was the Illinois Democratic candidate for Senate at the time – spoiler alert: she won, and served as Senator until 1999. But mostly I go back to it because even though, as per usual, the “Presidential Bash” serves up old political sketches dating back to the show’s beginnings in 1975, in 1992, this special is absolutely dominated by Dana Carvey. Carvey was SNL’s biggest breakout star at the moment, and he was the go-to impressionist, not only for incumbent George Herbert Walker Bush, but also for Ross Perot, the Texan crackpot billionaire philanthropist who was running as an Independent candidate against Bush and Bill Clinton. I no longer have a VCR (VCR? What’s that?) so I haven’t watched this tape in a while, but I can hear Carvey-as-Perot squawking: “Can I finish? Can I finish? Can I finish?” And Carvey-as-Bush bleating:

“Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.”

“Stay the course, a thousand points of light.”

“As Commander-in-Chief, I am ever cognizant of my authority to launch a full-scale orgy of death there in the desert sands… probably won’t, but then again, I might!”

“…and this will not be another Viet-nam. For we have long learned the lesson of Viet-nam… stay out of Viet-nam.”

“I’m not afraid to say recession. Recession! Recession!”

"I will never ever ever never ever never never ever ever never never ever ever never ever never never ever ever never raise taxes again! And I mean never ever ever never never ever…"

I can hear Carvey as clearly in my head as if I were watching it all unfold in front of me.

At some point in my mid-twenties, I realized that every single fact I knew about George H.W. Bush’s presidency most likely came from watching this extended montage of Carvey-as-Bush sketches from the 1992 SNL “Presidential Bash.” Jury’s still out on whether that’s something I should be proud of, but regardless, it is something that still elicits warm fuzzy feelings in me when I think of Dana Carvey. And George H.W. Bush, for that matter. (Why yes, that is weird. Weird, wild stuff.)

Carvey is turning 65 on June 2, 2020, which is yet another celebrity birthday that just makes me feel old. When my family moved to the Bay Area in 1994, a friend tipped me off that he lived in the same San Francisco suburb that I did. Never one to shy away from quasi-celebrity stalking, I actually looked the guy up in the Yellow Pages (Yellow Pages? What’s that?) and found his listing. No phone number, but an address a few blocks away from my local library. This thrilled me to no end.

Alongside the 1992 SNL “Presidential Bash,” there’s another bit of Carvey’s work that has stuck with me for years: in 1995, two years after he left SNL, he did an HBO “Critics’ Choice” stand up comedy special filmed in San Francisco. I didn’t watch it when it was first broadcast because we didn’t subscribe to HBO, but Comedy Central got the rights to it a year later and inexplicably, for what seemed like months, it would air constantly. Like, almost every night. And, given that there wasn’t anything else on TV I found compelling to watch in 6th and 7th grade, I ended up watching this stand up special… ...more times than I can even count. There are bits of this comedy special that are literally burned into my brain as a result. I remember an introduction that seemed to consist solely of him yelling: “FUCKING 49’ERS!!!” for five whole minutes and the San Francisco audience howling and cheering endlessly (to be fair, the Autumn of 1995 was a fantastic time to be a football fan in San Francisco). I remember a long tangent about how his two sons – barely toddlers at the time – needed to have a scheduled one hour of “Naked Time” in the house, lest the whole place devolve into the anarchy of constantly naked little children. (I really wonder how his kids feel about this bit now that they are in their 20’s.) I remember a long, long, long riff on the O.J. Simpson trial (yes, it was that time, too). And I remember his impression of Neil Young writing a new song – right down to the made-up lyrics, which I would sing loudly with my friend Jacob in class, annoying our homeroom teacher:

Dead dog lying in a ditch

Cigarette smoker has an itch

Secret whores with ancient vices

Lucky’s has the lowest prices

I’m getting higher… I’m getting higher… in the world.

Aside from this ubiquitous stand up special, when I think of Carvey, I remember him primarily for his famous characters and impressions on SNL. He was “discovered” by SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels in the stand up comedy circuit (where early in his career he had played a show at one point with a little-known Robin Williams, who blew the room away so profoundly that Carvey was almost too afraid to go on stage afterwards). But it’s clear watching his stand up that the material is mostly him playing characters (such as his toddler sons) or doing impressions (such as Neil Young), which is what I believe Michaels found so compelling about him. On SNL, I remember him doing impersonations of: Johnny Carson, Jimmy Stewart, John McLaughlin, along with Ross Perot and H.W. Bush. And I can clearly remember the Church Lady, Massive Headwound Harry, Lyle the Effeminite Heterosexual (a character that has not aged very well, alas), Hans from Hans & Franz, (played by Kevin Nealon) two Schwarzenegger-idolizing Eastern European body builders who hosted a show so they could “PUMP [clap] YOU UP!” and flex their copious muscles, the "Choppin' Broccoli" songwriter (please just Google this now if you don't know it; it's nearly impossible to explain and absolutely sublime)… and of course, Garth Algar, sidekick to Mike Myers’ Wayne Campbell of Wayne’s World.

I rewatched SNL’s “Best of Dana Carvey” compilation recently, and I was just filled with so many of my old warm fuzzies revisiting all of his old material. But when I go over this extensive body of work from his seven years on SNL, (an all-time record length stint at the time of his departure in 1993) what sticks out to me most is the fact that aside from the Wayne’s World spin-off movies, (in which he was a supporting character) none of these characters or impressions led Carvey toward any sort of lucrative movie career after his departure from the show. This is something that many SNL alums have aspired to and succeeded to various degrees: Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, the aforementioned Mike Myers, and Will Ferrell. Carvey also never really achieved true greatness as a stand up comic – he’s no Robin Williams or Steve Martin or Garry Shandling or Jerry Seinfeld. His stand up is indeed primarily a platform for his impressions and characters.

I actually found the 1995 HBO “Critics’ Choice” comedy special on YouTube a few days ago, and settled in to watch it, hoping for a happy trip down memory lane. After about 15 minutes, I had to turn it off. I just couldn’t keep going for the full hour. I didn’t even make it to the Neil Young bit that has stuck in my mind for over 20 years. It was a lot of intense, repetitive impression and character work, extremely frenetic and loud, and very low on… actual content. It almost stressed me out. I was bummed to close the browser tab, but close it I did, to spare my sanity.

The truth, I firmly believe, is that Dana Carvey’s real strength, (where his talent can be most broadly explored and showcased) is in being a sketch comedy actor.

And so this, I’m sorry to say, brings me to The Dana Carvey Show, which debuted on ABC in primetime in 1996, after a tremendous lead-in audience from the #1 show on television at the time… Home Improvement.

What can I even say about this? I was 11 years old in 1996, and Dana Carvey’s return to television was a hugely anticipated event - not just in pop culture at large but in the microcosm of the Banerjee household. We cued up our VCR to tape the first episode. Dana Carvey! In prime time! I just knew it was going to be groundbreaking and tremendous! Maybe Monty Python 2.0, even? Who knew? I was so excited. My parents were so excited. We were all SO EXCITED. This was the literal definition of appointment television.

Okay. So.

The very first sketch of The Dana Carvey Show that ever aired featured Carvey as Bill Clinton, talking about how he couldn’t wait to face the clown-show of ridiculous Republican candidates challenging him for the presidency that fall. It was funny. We were laughing. And then… it just all went off-the-rails from there. Carvey-as-Clinton rips off his shirt to reveal that he has genetically modified himself to be able to breastfeed so he can feed babies, and then further reveals that he has a full set of six teats (not just two nipples), so he can also feed puppies and kittens and any other creature who needs feeding. All the while, Carvey demonstrates with a (fake) baby and actual real live puppies and kittens being handed to him by his aides, and milk is visibly squirting from the teats. Then, he stands up to reveal that he has had a hen’s ass grafted onto his body where his real ass was –

And this is where my mother turned off the TV. “What the hell kind of nonsense was that?! I didn’t want to see that! No one wants to see that!”

She was right. No one wanted to see that.

Literally no one.

The Dana Carvey Show lasted only 8 episodes. In retrospect, it is painfully clear that choosing to start the very first episode of this highly-anticipated program with the Clinton-teats sketch was an unmitigated, disastrous mistake. My household was not the only household in 1996 who turned off the TV or changed the channel before that sketch was over. Far from it. Carvey lost almost 90% of their lead-in audience from Home Improvement because of that sketch.

And the show never quite recovered after that. There’s a documentary from 2017 on Hulu called: Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show that shows exactly how things went so horribly wrong. I watched it the other day, and it was absolutely fascinating.

I should clarify: the entire 8-episode run of The Dana Carvey Show is also on Hulu, and for the heck of it, I tossed Episode One onto my queue to revisit it before delving into the documentary. Yes. I went back, on purpose, to watch Sketch One, Episode One, the beginning of the end of The Dana Carvey Show.

Readers, it is awful. I turned it off, again. 24 years later and I still couldn’t watch the Clinton-teats sketch all the way through.

But then I went to the documentary, and it’s really very well done. The general consensus is that the show tanked miserably because prime time was not the right venue for the kind of comedy Carvey excels at. Plus they had no real understanding of their lead-in audience. Executive producer Robert Smigel – probably most famous in the mainstream as the creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog – admits that he had never watched a single episode of Home Improvement until about four or five episodes into production of The Dana Carvey Show, and when he finally did, his heart sank. On top of that, ABC had recently been purchased by squeaky-clean Disney, and network executives, especially after the debacle of the Clinton-teats, began to micromanage the show more and more, to keep it from alienating more people and losing more sponsors.

But what is truly, truly incredible about The Dana Carvey Show is that it had a hugely stacked cast and crew aside from Carvey. Smigel was executive producer. Louis C.K. (oh yes) was the head writer. Charlie Kaufman (yes, that Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Charlie Kaufman) and Bob Odenkirk (yes, the Saul Goodman) were on the writing staff.

And then, on top of that, there were two completely-unknown actors plucked from the famous Second City improvisational comedy troupe in Chicago to round out the cast.

Those men were Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

Yes. Really. Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert’s television debut consisted of eight episodes of the nearly universally critically panned Dana Carvey Show.

The show was finally cancelled after consistently disastrous ratings and being absolutely eviscerated by TV critics. In the documentary, Carvey describes going back home to his family, who were living in Greenwich, CT, and realizing that he had hardly seen his kids in months, and that he was exhausted. Carvey has since been reluctant to appear in movies or more television shows, and has devoted most of his time since then to being a father to his kids. He returned to stand up – more of the same stuff that I remember from that HBO “Critics’ Choice” special – but otherwise he has remained fairly low-profile ever since.

I’ve been bagging on poor Dana Carvey for a while in this piece and honestly, it hurts my heart that this is where my train of thought is going because still, to this day, when I think of him, I think of that old VHS tape of the 1992 SNL “Presidential Bash” in my office with my seven-year-old handwriting on it, and how honestly, that 90-minute special was the genesis of a genuine admiration and fanhood of Carvey’s talent for me at a very young age (probably too young to be watching him, honestly). He demonstrated and defined what was funny to me for a long time. (I mean, holy crap, I have held on to that tape for nearly three decades!) He was like electricity in a bottle when he was on SNL. And it seems that the failure of his attempt to conquer prime time with The Dana Carvey Show has dimmed some of that electricity, and it makes me sad.

Carvey did a comedy special for Netflix back in 2016 called: Dana Carvey: Straight White Male, 60. My boyfriend and I watched it the other day and it was actually pretty good – still fairly impression-heavy, but with some great observational humor. Although he did spend a good ten minutes making fun of Millennials, which irritated me. (Anger at Boomers mocking Millennials for struggling in an economy and society that the Boomers ruined is one of my favorite drums to pound as an “old” Millennial and I hope his younger Millennial sons gave him some crap for that later). He also recounted some really great, hilarious, and endearing backstory about how he based the character of Garth on his older brother Brad, an engineer who pioneered early movie and television video production and editing techniques.

Carvey has mellowed considerably since the HBO “Critics’ Choice” stand up special that I used to know by heart, and recently abandoned to save my sanity – the electricity and manic energy that used to suffuse his very being has been tamped down quite a bit. But, such is what happens as we age. I’m no whippersnapper myself anymore. And you know what? It doesn’t matter, because he was still pretty damn funny. We were laughing a lot. He’s not lost his sense of humor in the slightest, and he’s still one of the most spontaneous and versatile impressionists I’ve ever seen (he does a really good Obama voice - no joke - and yes, he has a Trump impression now, and yes, it’s just terrific, fabulous, wonderful, the best ever).

As I think about how to wrap this up – how to somehow encompass the legacy of Dana Carvey (as if it’s even appropriate to consider the “legacy” of a performer who is still alive) – I keep coming back to one thing. And that is the tragedy of The Dana Carvey Show: a program developed solely to showcase Carvey as a sketch comedy star, doing more diverse material than he was allowed to as a player on SNL – which bombed so spectacularly… but also introduced two of the funniest comedians working on the planet today: Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. Both men openly admit that the producers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart hired them based off of one sketch they did on Dana Carvey called: “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food.” Basically Colbert and Carell spend the sketch trying and barely succeeding to read the specials on a menu to restaurant patrons without vomiting everywhere. That was the premise of the entire sketch, and that’s why Jon Stewart hired them. For real. And the rest is history.

Think about that. If there hadn’t been a Dana Carvey Show, we wouldn’t have gotten much of what made The Daily Show so good in its heyday. (Remember the Carell/Colbert point-counterpoint "Even Stevphen"?), The Colbert Report, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Stephen Colbert’s famous (and infamous) roast of George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006, The Office, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and all of these Oscar-nominated movies Carell seems to be doing these days.

Imagine a pop culture world without Carell and Colbert in it, right now. Just try. I’ll bet you can’t.

So, thank you, Dana Carvey. Thank you for giving us the uncanny impressions, the indelible characters, the laughs, the electricity, the joy, this old Millennial's entire political education of Bush the First's single term as President, and also for giving us Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. Happy birthday. I will never forgive you for the Clinton-teats sketch, but it’s a small crime within an uneven, but still unambiguously vast and hilarious career. I was going to buy a VCR this weekend so I could watch you as George H.W. Bush on my 1992 SNL “Presidential Bash” VHS tape again, but given the COVID-19 economic downturn, spending money probably wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture…


Reeya Banerjee

Reeya is the Communications Director for Song-Smith, Inc, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that produces song•smith, a bi-monthly web series that spotlights songwriters in the Hudson Valley. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, sings and plays bass guitar, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.




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