In the 13 years since The Dana Carvey Show went off the air, its host has gone from being the show’s marquee attraction to being one of its biggest liabilities. So it’s curious that the frustratingly bare-bones, long-overdue DVD features a cheap-looking cover image of him half-smiling in front of a bare wall instead of highlighting cast members Robert Smigel, Stephen Colbert, and Steve Carell. As Carvey’s star has faded, the show’s legend has grown in proportion to the soaring career arcs of Smigel, Colbert, Carell, and a writing staff that included Charlie Kaufman, Louis C.K., Dino Stamatopoulos, Bob Odenkirk, Jon Glaser, and 30 Rock’s Robert Carlock.
Executive producer Smigel used Carvey’s Saturday Night Live fame and mainstream popularity to Trojan-horse in some of the most bizarre conceptual humor in the history of American television. After a tongue-in-cheek song-and-dance number celebrating a different sponsor each week (the sponsors’ names also became part of the series’ title), Carvey would kick off each episode with a labored Q&A session with the audience that was easily the show’s weakest aspect. Though it only lasted eight episodes, Carvey quickly developed a battery of recurring characters, like Germans Who Say Nice Things (Carell and Carvey barking pleasantries in a scary Teutonic Hitler shout) and the Stupid Pranksters (Carell and Carvey as giggling idiots whose pranks always backfire).
The Dana Carvey Show notoriously began its ill-fated run with a sketch where Bill Clinton brags that he’s so confident about his lead in the polls that he can afford to repulse the American public by exposing his genetically engineered teats; he then proceeds to breastfeed a baby, three puppies, and a cat before revealing that he’s had a hen’s ass grafted onto his body. That was the show in a nutshell. It began with the usual fodder for sketch comedy—recurring characters, celebrity impersonations, commenting on the then-current presidential election—then went in dark, absurdist, often surreal directions. Carvey’s Ross Perot, for example, begins a sketch by denying to Larry King (played by guest star Phil Hartman) that he’s running for president, then subverting the King’s conception of reality. In another gloriously representative sketch, Carvey’s Tom Brokaw pre-tapes news segments for a series of increasingly unlikely contingencies, until he’s soberly reporting on Gerald Ford being eaten by wolves (“He was delicious,” Carvey deadpans solemnly), Ford being murdered by Richard Nixon’s sentient corpse, and a U.S. invasion by Zimbabwe. The Dana Carvey Show’s aesthetic involved going too far, then continuing. In a revealing interview with Smigel—one of the DVD’s only special features—Carvey crows, deservedly, “Even our pandering was acid humor.” What’s surprising isn’t that a show this subversive, trippy, and packed with future comic giants was cancelled after seven episodes; it’s that it made it onto primetime network television (as a lead-in to Home Improvement, no less) in the first place.
Key features: A brilliant unaired eighth episode, an inspired deleted-scene reel, and a candid, revealing joint interview where Carvey and Smigel discuss things like Kaufman’s unhappiness during his time on the show.