It is a rare From the Archives article that covers something that not only was made in the last fifteen years, but something that was released within this year. However, when a documentary is released that digs deep into 1996’s subversive and hilarious Dana Carvey Show I must do my duty and spread the word. Too Funny to Fail is a fantastic tribute to one of the greatest gone-too-soon shows that is (almost) as entertaining to watch as the source material.
If you’ve never heard of The Dana Carvey Show, here are the bare bones that you need to know: fresh off a star-making run on Saturday Night Live, Dana Carvey teamed up with SNL and Late Night with Conan O’Brien writer Robert Smigel to create a subversive sketch show for TV. There was talk of taking the show to HBO, but ultimately the allure of appearing in front of all those eyeballs on network television was too strong and ABC became the home. The show assembled a just unbelievable roster of talent including Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and on the writing side, Louis C.K, Charlie Kaufman (yes, that Charlie Kaufman), Jon Glaser, Dino Stamatopoulos, Spike Feresten, and Robert Carlock.
Then the show premiered. And it didn’t just start with something that, for example, would have been better suited at 11:30pm on a Saturday night. It started with a sketch that involved then-President Clinton breastfeeding a bunch of puppies from his surgically enhanced row of nipples. This sketch aired on a Tuesday night, immediately following an episode of Home Improvement.
Critics were tough and audiences who just didn’t change the channel after Tim Allen’s show were none too happy. In short, the show was doomed. It lasted for six more episodes before fading into obscurity.
Too Funny to Fail will basically tell you that same story over the course of 90 minutes, but here’s the great thing about the film: (a) that crazy list of talented people I mentioned earlier? A lot of them are the ones who actually tell you the story of how this show came together. And (b) you’ll get both sides of the story. In addition to hearing from Dana and Robert, throughout the film, Ted Harbert, chairman of ABC Entertainment, chimes in to give the business perspective of the whole debacle. It’s easy to be mad at a faceless corporation for canceling a brilliant TV show, but hearing from a guy who was really pulling for it only to have his hands kind of tied makes you understand how difficult the situation really was.
With twenty years worth of distance, it’s great to see how the talent behind the show see The Dana Carvey Show now. Everyone is very proud of what they’ve done, but Carell and Colbert in particular look back with true love for the show. This is the show that moved them both to New York and was the first step of their careers. As part of their story, we also get to see them before they broke – Carell in the form of a series of local commercials, and Colbert through his strange audition tape for the show (featuring his infant daughter) which Colbert thinks is “what actually got him the callback” and Carvey refers to as “very disturbing.”
But for me, the best thing about seeing these people talk about their show was the sort of guerilla warfare attitude they had about what they were making. Sure, it was a network TV show with one of the biggest names in comedy in the title of the program, but at the heart of it, it was a bunch of guys (and Heather Morgan, the only female in the cast) holed up in an office in Manhattan, making their thing. Smigel describes fellow writer Louis C.K.’s (who did not participate in the film) attitude towards the Clinton breastfeeding sketch: “‘We’re drawing a line in the sand right away. You’re either with us or you’re against us.’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right!’ It was the absolute last thing we should have done.”
From the airing of that sketch on, it became a battle between the network and The Dana Carvey Show. There were concessions on both sides along the way, but ultimately it was a battle that the show could never win without completely compromising the show that they wanted to make.
For me, the funniest moment of the film perfectly encapsulates this moment. We are shown an actual network promo for the Tuesday night lineup from 1996. An announcer somberly intones, “ABC Tuesday. A parent’s worst fear: losing a child…” and we are shown footage of a somber Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor and a crying Jonathan Taylor Thomas who sobs, “I don’t wanna die, dad!” The announcer continues, “A special Home Improvement followed by The Diet Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show.” We then see Steve Carell, Dana Carvey, and Stephen Colbert explode into laughter, watching this very commercial. Colbert, in particular, must remove his glasses and lowers his head, unable to do anything but laugh at the incongruity. “That just says it all,” Dana responds. “That just says it all! I mean, what were we doing?!”
The show wasn’t perfect. In the documentary, Colbert refers to a sketch as “possibly the most racist sketch ever committed to tape,” involving the Academy Awards with Carell playing a dimwitted Indian stereotype and Carvey as a character very similar to his incredibly offensive SNL recurring role, Ching Chang. And, as the Vulture review of the doc points out, in GQ’s oral history of the show, Heather Morgan discusses the “boy’s club” nature of the office, which is never touched on in Too Funny to Fail.
For those that are already familiar with The Dana Carvey Show, this is a wonderful supplement to those eight episodes you’ve no doubt already watched and rewatched. It’s not the same as getting more episodes, but it’s certainly the closest we’re going to get in 2017. And for those that are brand new to this show, buckle up. Too Funny to Fail is a great introduction to a show that may have been both too funny to fail and too beautiful to live.