Any time I fall in love with an artist’s work, the first thing I do is read their bio on Wikipedia. A while ago, I noticed that a significant number of my favorite comedians all shared one bit of backstory: they’d worked on The Dana Carvey Show. I had never seen it nor remembered it, which is surprising given that its writing staff included Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Robert Smigel, Louis C.K., Charlie Kaufman and Bob Odenkirk.
They may have been known only by industry types in 1996, but since then, four of those men have starred in their own critically-acclaimed shows; Robert Smigel created Triumph the Insult Comic Dog when he was on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and Charlie Kaufman won a screenwriting Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). For these titans to have all been in the same room—let alone write for the same show—is beyond mind-boggling. Surely, this show would have killed.
Too Funny to Fail explains why just the opposite happened. When Dana Carvey left Saturday Night Live in 1993, he was one of the hottest comics. NBC wanted him to take over Late Night when David Letterman left but Carvey wanted to spend more time with his family. The Dana Carvey Show was to be a happy medium. But the show’s first misstep was signing a deal with ABC instead of HBO which was then home to the Mr. Show sketch series starring Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. Even worse was the show was in prime time, following Home Improvement, which could not have been more tonally different.
These tactical errors could have been mitigated by choosing more mainstream material to front-load the episodes. But Smigel was insistent on not Trojan horsing around; the first sketch of the first episode featured Carvey as President Bill Clinton nursing puppies. Smigel says that within the first three minutes of that sketch, the show lost around six million viewers.
Too Funny to Fail is a reminder about the perils and perks of being fearless in comedy. Had it been on-air long enough, The Dana Carvey Show would have certainly been a cult classic, but the staff wasn’t willing to compromise artistically. Luckily, Carvey doesn’t seem resentful about its demise and Colbert still credits his and Carell’s careers to the show.