THEY KILLED IT
Too Funny to Fail: The Life and Death of the Dana Carvey Show
Review by Paul Preston
I was a big watcher of The Dana Carvey Show back in 1996. Well, as big as one could be watching a show that only lasted seven episodes. But I watched them all until the show pissed off everyone at ABC and its sponsors and was never heard from again. The comedy drummed up on The Dana Carvey Show was legendary and the show’s demise was legendary, too. All the above is chronicled in Josh Greenbaum’s new documentary, Too Funny to Fail – The Life and Death of the Dana Carvey Show, now streaming on Hulu.
The talent put together to make The Dana Carvey Show is a who’s eventually who of great comic minds – Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Louis CK, Bill Chott, Robert Smigel, Jon Glaser and more, spearheaded by Carvey in a hot, post-SNL streak. We hear from all the above except Louis CK and the stories vary from how much they pushed boundaries (doing a whole sketch about how the show’s sponsor, Mountain Dew, looks like urine) to how much they stuck together as friends (Carell vouching for Colbert’s genius and encouraging his hiring).
The documentary chronicles well the lead-up to the show. After Saturday Night Live, everyone wanted a piece of Dana Carvey, and the post-Home Improvement time slot on ABC became his prize for a half-hour of weekly comedy. ABC, it’s assumed, wanted the hits – The Church Lady, George Bush, Hans and Franz, etc. What they got, instead, was edgy comedy skewering sacred cows like the VERY FIRST sketch they did – Bill Clinton proving how much of an empathetic President he is by literally suckling puppies during a TV address. Carvey played Clinton – yay! But he actually opened his jacket, exposing teats, and fed puppies – boo! ABC wasn’t happy. From then on, it was comedians vs. The Man. The comedy was ground-breaking and the conflict was addictive.
I remember these twenty year-old sketches to this day, and the doc wisely gives you ample glimpses of them. Most memorable for me were “Grandma the Clown”, in which a barely mobile, old grandmother awkwardly entertains children at a party (a clip remains on YouTube and I post it on people’s Facebook timelines every year). Also, “The Ambiguously Gay Duo”, who got their start here before they jumped to SNL.
The interviews are a can’t-lose scenario – some of the funniest people working today having a huge sense of humor about a laughably uncomfortable situation in the middle of their careers. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve all gone on to great success (this isn’t one of those docs that follows anyone’s downward spiral into death or drugs). A real gem is getting extended time with not-in-front-of-the-camera much Smigel, who’s done a great deal of animation and has clocked many hours as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog that you don’t get to see him much. I remember similarly hilarious people giving testimonials in the doc I Am Chris Farley, but I missed the real anger or frustration over what a loss Chris’ death really was. That eventually came in the form of Bob Odenkirk. Although Too Funny to Fail has a lot of fun, Smigel is the one guy who brings a real sense of pain over the whole debacle, and that’s equally as welcome, too. By the time he vents his frustrations, the doc has earned it.
But again, the doc doesn’t wallow examining the show’s failure, it celebrates what a risky game-changer it was. The high point for me being a commercial detailing the night’s offerings on ABC and the difference between what Home Improvement and The Dana Carvey Show were each presenting being so hilarious, that all interviewing stops as Carell, Colbert and more just laugh. I laughed, too. A lot.
This is a thorough once-over of an era of American comedy that deserves to be remembered more than it has been up to now.
Directed by: Josh Greenbaum
Release Date: October 21, 2017
Run Time: 92 Minutes