Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and the Best Doomed Comedy Show
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By Sean Braswell
Having a litter of puppies breast-feed from the nipples of a sitting U.S. president is a risky comedic venture in any age. When it’s the opening sketch of your brand-new national television show, though, it can be downright suicidal.
And so it was for The Dana Carvey Show, the eponymous vehicle of the versatile comedian and Saturday Night Live legend who played a suckled Bill Clinton in the sketch when he took his talents to prime time 20 years ago this month. The irreverent show lasted just seven episodes before ABC canceled it in 1996, but the program, and its alumni, continue to shape the landscape of comedy today.
Timing, as they say, is everything in comedy.
The millions of American families who tuned in on March 12, 1996, to watch ABC’s Home Improvement, starring Tim Allen, the No. 1 show on television, were treated to a not so family-friendly spectacle after it concluded. Live from the Oval Office, Carvey’s somewhat ham-handed version of President Clinton told the American public that he felt their pain more than ever and, thanks to hormonal therapy, would nurture them personally. Cue the open shirt, the teats, the puppies. “What a huge mistake,” the show’s executive producer — and former SNL writer— Robert Smigel later reflected to GQ. “I mean we literally killed our show in the first five minutes.”
Timing, as they say, is everything — especially in comedy. The Dana Carvey Show had a great lead-in and a stable of talent to rival any that SNL has assembled. But its awkward debut, inappropriate time slot and lack of a unifying creative vision — not to mention its quirky, deviant sense of humor (too subversive for a prime-time sketch-comedy show) — doomed it from the start. “Once an audience gets confused or loses confidence in a show’s sensibilities,” says Rich Markey, a longtime Hollywood comedy producer and author of A Million Laughs: The Funny History of American Comedy, “it’s awfully hard to win them back.”
Still, even in its brief life, the show offered up a rich, if scattered, comic bounty. In addition to Carvey, one of the best SNL performers in history, who declined to take over for David Letterman on NBC’s Late Night, the program showcased two improv-trained comedians from Chicago’s Second City and present-day megastars: Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. In the writer’s room, along with Smigel, was a veritable comedy hall of fame that included Louis C.K., Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, 30 Rock writer and producer Robert Carlock and Adult Swim creator Jon Glaser.
From this cauldron of talent emerged sketches that ran the gamut from more conventional SNL fare to more freewheeling Monty Pythone–sque absurdity. “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food,” for example, starred Carell and Colbert as the queasy servers, and “Pranksters” saw Carell and Carvey playing rebellious teens in a series of skits in which they perform idiotic pranks like paying for their food at a drive-thru and then speeding off before grabbing their order. The classic cartoon the “Ambiguously Gay Duo,” written by Smigel, also had its premiere on the show.
One of the show’s funniest skits never actually aired. Filmed as part of its eighth episode and reprised by Carvey when he hosted SNL later that year, “the Tom Brokaw sketch” stars Carvey as anchorman Tom Brokaw pretaping several versions of former president Gerald Ford’s obituary before leaving for vacation in Barbados. Written primarily by Colbert, who had witnessed Dan Rather doing something similar — and presumably tamer — with the premature demise of Ronald Reagan, the sketch features an off-screen Smigel feeding the dubious anchor an increasingly implausible series of Ford death scenarios:
And so on, as Ford gets strangled by Richard Nixon’s corpse and mauled by a circus lion. Here is the sketch as it aired on SNL, a gone but not forgotten taste of what The Dana Carvey Show could have been had it covered some of its own contingencies a bit better.