As a revisitation of the history behind the extremely short-lived Dana Carvey Show, Too Funny to Fail is like a lot of documentaries. If you come in already well-versed on the subject — in other words, if you’re a comedy nerd or happened to read GQ’s oral history of The Dana Carvey Show a few years ago — you’re not going to learn anything terribly new. But if you know very little about the button-pushing ABC sketch-comedy series built around the former Saturday Night Live MVP and featuring a murderers’ row of writing and performing talent, the 90-minute film will be a revelation. And no matter which category you fall into, you’ll probably be entertained regardless, because it’s funny to listen to very funny people talk about making a piece of television that was an immediate, abject failure with the mainstream public.
There are a lot of lessons to take away from what happened to The Dana Carvey Show, which is one of the reasons it’s become somewhat legendary. One of the biggest is that you can have the most brilliant people in the world working on a series and still not be able to stay alive for more than seven episodes. (Actually, eight episodes of The Dana Carvey Show were made in 1996 but ABC opted not to air the final one. They went with a rerun of Coach instead. I mean, that’s just hurtful.)
As emphasized in Too Funny to Fail, which starts streaming Saturday on Hulu, The Dana Carvey Show really did have some geniuses in its cast and on its writing staff. In addition to Carvey, Robert Smigel of SNL and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog fame was executive producer; Louis C.K. was head writer; Jon Glaser of Parks and Recreation and Girls, among other projects, was a writer, and so was Robert Carlock, who would later co-create 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Two of the more prominent cast members were a pair of young Second City alums named Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. Oh, and then there was that quiet, very smart guy named Charlie Kaufman, who was also on the writing staff and, a few short years later, would be nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for Being John Malkovich.
All of these people, as well as their less famous but no less gifted colleagues, wanted to push the boundaries of sketch comedy. So did Carvey. Before a staff had even been hired, Carvey instinctively felt that what he and Smigel were envisioning was more suited to HBO, but his manager and Smigel insisted that ABC would be a better, less niche platform. “Yep,” Carvey says, in a tone filled with sarcasm and a pinch of leftover regret. “We went with ABC.”
Which brings us to another lesson that Too Funny to Fail drives home: A show can only succeed if it’s in the right place. Ted Harbert, the president of ABC Entertainment at the time, says that he wanted to shake things up by putting a sketch comedy in prime time. (It’s worth noting that even though ABC, NBC, and CBS weren’t airing sketch shows in high-profile time slots, the format thrived in the early ’90s, pre–Dana Carvey Show, thanks to In Living Color, The Ben Stiller Show, MTV’s The State, The Kids in the Hall, and Mr. Show, which was still on in 1996, on, yes, HBO.) Harbert also says in the documentary that he perceived Carvey’s brand of comedy as “always so safe.” Which is why he and the programming department decided to put it on after one of the most popular and safe sitcoms on TV at the time: Home Improvement.
But in the very first sketch of the first episode — which, like every episode, had a sponsor’s name in it, and was therefore called The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show — Carvey did something dangerous. He impersonated Bill Clinton, implied that the president had locked Hillary Clinton in a room under house arrest — did I mention that this sketch has not aged well? — and announced that, thanks to hormone therapy, he had developed multiple breasts. Then Carvey, as President Clinton, breastfed several live puppies and a kitten on national television. It was ridiculous and pretty ill-advised (real-time Nielsen tracking shows that millions of Americans turned off the show within the first five minutes) but something that felt like a statement to the Dana Carvey Show team.
“You know what I like about this breastfeeding thing?” Smigel recalls Louis C.K. saying. “We’re drawing a line in the sand right away. You’re either with us or you’re against us.”
A lot of viewers and TV critics were against The Dana Carvey Show after that inauspicious debut but, at least on the critical front, later revised their opinions. That’s because, as the documentary demonstrates, much of what the cast and crew did in subsequent sketches and episodes was indeed inspired and hilarious. (The Ambiguously Gay Duo cartoons, which Smigel later brought to SNL, were born on this show, among other things.) It also provided instant evidence that Colbert and Carell had chops that were on par with the Wayne’s World star whose name was in the title. (In “Germans Who Say Nice Things,” a sketch that is exactly what it sounds like, Carell nearly upstages Carvey entirely because of his ability to shout innocuous statements — “It was a pleasure babysitting Kevin!” — in a way that makes him sound like an insane man auditioning for Schindler’s List.)
The problem was that the staff seemed to operate in a bit of a bubble, which underlines another lesson: Know your audience. As Smigel explains, he had never watched Home Improvement until after a few episodes of The Dana Carvey Show had already been broadcast. Once he did, he was “horrified.”
To drive home just how incompatible these two programs were, director Josh Greenbaum includes a promo clip for an episode of Home Improvement in which it appears that the character Randy, played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, might have cancer. “I don’t want to die, Dad,” JTT cries. “A special Home Improvement,” says the announcer in a somber voice, “followed by the Diet Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show.” I’m not sure what’s funnier, that promo or seeing Carell, Carvey, and Colbert individually burst out laughing after watching it.
There are some issues that Too Funny to Fail — which, not coincidentally, streams on Hulu, where all eight episodes of The Dana Carvey Show also can be viewed in their entirety — doesn’t adequately address, including the obvious degree to which the staff was dominated by white men. Only one woman, Heather Morgan, was part of the cast and the writers room. While she’s interviewed as part of the documentary, she’s never given the opportunity in the final cut to discuss what it was like to work in such a male-dominated atmosphere, something that was and still is common in comedy. That GQ oral history suggests she definitely has some thoughts on the subject. (“Sadly, there was a boys’ club kind of mentality there,” she says. “And Carell and Colbert, none of them wanted that necessarily, but if you have 15 men in the room and one woman …”) The documentary overlooks a crucial part of the show’s history by not giving Morgan the space to address this.
What Too Funny to Fail does do is make it clear, more broadly, that groundbreaking comedy is hard even when you’ve got a dream team creating it. And it’s even harder when you’re trying to create it on the wrong network, in the wrong time slot, while immediately giving the president of the United States a set of fake prosthetic breasts.