An estimated 65% of all greenlit TV shows never see a second season. Today, we'll take a look at one of these unlucky ones, to see if it was a fate well-deserved or one most cruel.
Show: The Dana Carvey Show
Network: ABC (US, not Australian)
Original Run: 3/12/96 — 4/30/96
Number of Episodes: 8
Sunday night, NBC aired the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary special, a three and a half hour event that was supposed to pay tribute to the show's illustrious history, but mostly just served as a reminder that self-aggrandizement isn't a look that SNL (or its former stars) wear particularly well. But it also raised two important questions (in my mind, anyway): why the fuck did they pass on Stephen Colbert, and what the hell happened to Dana Carvey?
During his time on SNL, Carvey was a star. His range of impressions and memorable original characters made him a household name, but he never seemed to be able to translate his considerable talent into success elsewhere. The most bizarre of these failed projects is his eponymous show from 1996, something that should've been tailor-made for him to shine in, but shot itself in the foot with some of its creative choices and was canceled rather quickly.
Following his departure from SNL in 1993, Carvey attempted to transition to acting in movies. With the exception of the sequel to Wayne's World, this did not go especially well for him. He did a movie about an amnesiac called Clean Slate, which was widely panned, as was Trapped In Paradise, where he played a dim-witted kleptomaniac alongside Nic Cage and Jon Lovitz. According to this A.V. Club interview with Carvey and Robert Smigel, two other movies that he tried to develop, one of which would've brought SNL favorites Hans and Franz to the big screen, went nowhere. Carvey wished to have more creative control on his projects and time with his family, and the lack of both ultimately led him to become disillusioned with the Hollywood scene in general.
Opting to return to TV instead of continuing to pursue a movie career, Carvey started developing a show for ABC, as they were willing to give him a primetime slot and the most creative control. They were apparently very hands-off in the show's development, and only cared that it was a good lead-in to NYPD Blue. Smigel signed on as a producer, bringing along fellow Conan alum Louis CK with him as head writer. Joining CK was the likes of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Dino Stamatopoulos (Morel Orel), and Jon Glaser (Human Giant, Delocated).
Carvey's idea was to do a modern interpretation of the variety show, including prominent product placement in the show's episode titles and a musical number about the sponsor for that episode. Smigel and Carvey wanted the show to have a very distinct feel from their previous work on SNL, and settled on the idea of having the sketches be absurd and reductionist, essentially trying to create an American equivalent to Monty Python. Using rejected SNL audition tapes, an open casting call, and, in the case of one cast member, a homemade audition tape where his infant daughter was used as a puppet, a very small cast of 6 was hired.
Smigel joined Carvey and the rest of the cast in front of the camera, but Carvey's presence behind it was limited in contrast. As revealed in a 2009 interview with The New York Times, the long commute from his home in Connecticut to the studio in NYC coupled with the stresses of the show and the usual challenges of being a new father left Carvey physically and emotionally drained, and Smigel ended up picking up a lot of the slack.
The Dana Carvey Show premiered on March 12, 1996, nestled between ratings juggernauts Home Improvement and NYPD Blue. So, to sum up: you've got a show staffed by writers who specialize in dark, surreal comedy and are given the freedom to run with it, where product placement is vital to the core concept of the show, with an insanely family friendly lead-in, on a network owned by Disney. There's clearly no way this could ever have gone horribly, horribly wrong, right?
The very first sketch of the show, penned by CK himself, was meant to poke fun at the weak opposition to Bill Clinton's reelection campaign that year. While it's clearly evident that this sketch was written well before the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit, the sketch is especially infamous for showing Carvey, as Clinton, opening his shirt to reveal multiple teats. These fake teats then start expressing milk, and he uses them to suckle live puppies and kittens, as well as a baby doll. The whole thing really has to be seen to be believed, and you guys have no idea how badly I wanted to include a clip in the article so that you could all witness this insanity for yourselves.
And this was how they chose to introduce the world to their brand-new show. All the people who tuned in expecting to see something like Church Lady (who did, incidentally, show up later in the episode) or Hans and Franz instead got an eyeful of the president breastfeeding baby animals. To say that this sketch was not well received was a massive, massive understatement.
The rest of the episode was very tame by comparison, but the damage had been done. Carvey knew that the sketch would be controversial—he quips about being canceled because of it at the end of the episode—but I don't think he fully anticipated just how bad the backlash was going to be. Sponsors started pulling out almost immediately, the ratings sank like a stone, and ABC cut production after only 7 of the planned 10 episodes had aired.
Though the general audience wasn't paying attention to the show, it did develop a bit of a cult following, and it's not hard to see why. Although the topical humor can be extremely painful to watch at times, there are a number of very good sketches that still hold up today. The first "Ambiguously Gay Duo" cartoon premiered here, the "Food Network After Dark" bit was especially prescient, and, most importantly, it introduced America to a couple of guys named Stepvhen.
Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell had worked with each other at Second City, and while they don't get a lot of chances to work together onscreen, it's damn near magical when they do. In addition to the "Ambiguously Gay Duo" cartoon, they costarred in a little sketch titled "Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food" (sketch starts at 2:15):
The whole thing is genius in its simplicity, taking a very basic concept and running as far as they can with it. If you saw the SNL 40 special, you might have caught a glimpse of an early version during Colbert's audition tape. Both he and Carell attribute this sketch with essentially starting their careers; as described in this Hollywood Reporter piece, The Daily Show hired them based on the strength of it, and the rest is history.
Carell's manic energy is in full force on this show, with recurring sketches like "Stupid Pranksters" and "Germans Who Say Nice Things" setting the stage for the shrill idiot persona he'd use in later projects like Anchorman. He works extremely well as a team with Carvey, and steals virtually every scene he's in. Colbert gets much less screentime, but you can see him start to develop the satirical newscaster character he'd later bring to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. As stated in that Smigel/Carvey A.V. Club interview, before the show's cancellation, he was actually slated to be the anchor for the Onion News segment that they had planned to start. Four such segments were filmed, but none of them ever made it to air, and they are now held up from being released due to a combination of lost footage and rights issues.
Where the show really fails hard is when it has to deal with women and minorities. Heather Morgan is the only female member of the regular cast, and she isn't given much to work with. Basically if they needed a woman in a scene, she was it. To add insult, many of her scenes are completely nonverbal. Her portrayal of Hillary in that Bill Clinton sketch? She's snarling like a wild animal, fighting like hell to get out of a windowless room that she's been trapped in. Even just addressing the subject of women seems to be too much for the writers. I'm reminded especially of the sketch where Carvey, as Prince Charles, sings a song about wanting to kill Princess Di so he doesn't have to divorce her. While this was certainly problematic in 1996, in the wake of Diana's actual death barely a year after the sketch initially aired, it is horrifying and nigh-unwatchable. Then there's "Grandma the Clown", where the entirety of the joke is that she's an old woman, which makes her a bad clown.
The cast also has one token Black castmember, Chris McKinney, whose job is essentially to portray O.J. Simpson. He's not seen much outside of that role, and I'm curious as to why they felt they needed a Juilliard-trained actor to do so little. Minorities in general are honestly just kind of ignored by the show, and given the portrayal of women, this may be a blessing in disguise.
There's also a sketch about mentally ill homeless people, where they're partnered up video dating style to make it look like they're not talking to themselves instead of being given proper care. Which is probably more of a comment on how fucked our healthcare system is than anything, but I digress.
I realize I'm not making the show sound very attractive, and honestly? It's not. The topical humor really doesn't hold up in 2015 (and there's a lot of it), and the show ultimately wasn't given enough time to find its footing. I'd seek out the good bits on YouTube or Dailymotion instead of watching the series as a whole, unless you're a really hardcore Robert Smigel or Louis CK fan or somesuch. As for me, I'm not sorry I watched it, but I don't think it's necessarily worth a repeat viewing.