Saturday Night’s Children: Dana Carvey (1986-1993)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

From the prissy and repressed Church Lady to the schwinging cable access sidekick Garth Algar, Dana Carvey remains one of SNL’s all-time fan favorites for his mimicry mastery with the definitive George Bush Sr. and transforming the presidential spoof into the essential facet to SNL it is today. Thanks to versatility and chemistry with his cast mates, Carvey helped save SNL after a period of bleak ratings and reviews by taking it to some of the most extreme, absurd, and abstract heights.

Born in Missoula, Montana, Carvey grew up in the San Francisco Bay area where he started playing drums and guitar at an early age. During his time at San Francisco State University, he worked out impressions of Howard Cosell, John Wayne, and James Stewart at local comedy clubs and performed stand-up regularly after graduation. Several years later in 1981 he moved to Los Angeles to find work, landing a small part in Halloween II the same year as well as a development deal with NBC, which led to his role opposite Mickey Rooney (“I was the number one star…in the world!” Carvey would say in his Rooney impersonations) in 1982’s One of the Boys costarring Nathan Lane and Meg Ryan. Prior to SNL, he also appeared in the ABC series Blue Thunder as well as 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, where he had a small role as the mime opposite Billy Crystal (“Mime is money!”).

When Lorne Michaels returned to produce SNL in 1986, he hired an all new cast and writing staff including Carvey. Alongside Phil Hartman, Dennis Miller, Jan Hooks, Nora Dunn, Victoria Jackson, and featured player Kevin Nealon, Carvey helped usher SNL into a new realm of powerhouse players, highbrow presidential mockery, and recurring characters, most notably the uptight Christian Church Lady in the “Church Chat” sketches (“Could it be….Satan??“) and Garth Algar from “Wayne’s World” with Mike Myers, a character loosely based on Carvey’s older brother Brad.

Other characters included duos with Kevin Nealon like Hans and Franz, “Couple of Sammies,” and the Elevator Fans, songwriter Derek Stevens (“Choppin’ Broccoli,” which he used in his audition tape), Ching Change, The Grumpy Old Man, gangster-type Larry Roman, Pat’s equally gender-neutral significant other Chris, Lyle Billup the Effeminate Heterosexual, Brad the group therapy-goer, the impish fairy tale mime Mishu from “Miss Connie’s Fable Nook,” and Buddy Precisely, host at “Celebrity Restaurant.”

While Carvey had plenty great original characters, his vast stable of impersonations came with both an accuracy and trademark weirdness that solidified his place as a chameleon star for SNL’s comeback era. His repertoire included presidential figures and politicians (George Bush, Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle, David Duke, Richard Gephardt, Strom Thurmond, Jerry Brown), singers and songwriters (Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, George Michael, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, David Lee Roth, Frank Zappa, Jordan Knight, John McLaughlin), actors and entertainers (Johnny Carson, Jimmy Stewart, Charles Grodin, Mickey Rooney, Woody Allen, Keanu Reeves, Michael J. Fox, William Demarest, Siegfried Fischbacher, Gallagher, Dennis Miller, Garry Shandling, Kirk Cameron, John Travolta, George Burns, Gary Crosby), hosts (Robin Leach, Casey Kasem, Bert Convy, Ray Combs, Regis Philbin), and journalists and commentators (Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, George F. Will, Joel Siegel, George Plimpton, Bill Moyers, Jim McKay), and more.

Over six seasons, Carvey earned five Emmy nominations and one win in 1993. After completing his role as Bush during the 1992 presidential election season, he decided to leave SNL. Looking back on his run, he says in Live from New York:

I had such a lucky run on that show that it felt like the right time. I still feel that way. I have no regrets. If I’d left after five years, I’d have missed out on a lot, but if I’d stayed two more years, into nine years, I don’t think it would have been the right move for me. A lot of people stayed a lot less. Martin Short only did twenty shows. I feel bad for those guys. They didn’t get to really explore it.

NBC courted him to take over the 12:30AM slot after David Letterman, but Carvey rejected their offer – Conan O’Brien was ultimately given the spot. Beyond 1992 and 1993’s Wayne’s World films and his starring role in Clean Slate, Carvey’s biggest project was The Dana Carvey Show in 1996, which boasted talents and future stars like Louis C.K., Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman, and more and gave birth to Smigel’s TV Funhouse and “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” Unfortunately, ABC’s push toward family programming (and The Dana Carvey Show’s 9:30PM time slot after Home Improvement) worked against the edgier and more cable-friendly comedy, and ABC canceled it after only eight of its ten scheduled episodes aired.

Since The Dana Carvey Show, Carvey’s only had one starring film in the 2002 bomb Master of Disguise (which has a 1% score on Rotten Tomatoes) and scattered guest appearances in television (The Larry Sanders Show, Just Shoot Me!), film (Sandler films Little Nicky and Jack and Jill), and SNL reprisals (including four episodes as host). Health problems curtailed further work, especially after a botched heart bypass surgery in 1997 that led to a medical malpractice suit and a desire to be a more present husband and father. He told The New York Times in 2009:

I’ve had so many offers to do different things over the years, and it’s ad nauseum when any entertainer says, “Yeah, but my family.” Because everyone says that. But how my personal nature interfaced with having children, my mojo for show business was muted. Whereas before I thought, “If I continue with my own drive and ambition to do this stuff, I will destroy my family.” And now, it’s like, I can help them by doing it. So, yeah, maybe you’ll see me back. What happens is, you get to a point where, is it better to do something or not do something? Because you know the pain involved. That’s how you end up not doing anything. [laughs] It’s better to be wide-eyed and naïve.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Dana Carvey (1986-1993)