'Too Funny to Fail': Dana Carvey's failure is our pleasure

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Too Funny to Fail: Dana Carvey (Photo: Hulu)

If you like behind-the-scenes show-biz stories, Too Funny to Fail, a new documentary streaming on Hulu starting Saturday, has a doozy for you. It’s about The Dana Carvey Show, the 1996 sketch-comedy show that aired for less than a season on ABC. At the time, Carvey was a huge star; he’d just come off a long run on Saturday Night Live that had turned him into a familiar face with characters such as the Church Lady and impressions of prominent figures like President George W. Bush. In this documentary directed by Josh Greenbaum, Carvey says he’d always admired Monty Python’s Flying Circus and wanted to do an American variation with that kind of absurdist tilt.

Carvey assembled a writing staff and cast consisting of people who would go on to become big stars on their own, including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Louis C.K., Robert Smigel (the man behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), and Charlie Kaufman (who’d go on to win an Oscar for writing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). In interviews for this film, Colbert, Carell, and Smigel summon up vividly the heady atmosphere that went into creating The Dana Carvey Show — the sense of freewheeling fun Carvey offered as a work environment, the encouragement to stretch the sketch-comedy format to new extremes.

Now successful, they can all laugh at the What could possibly go wrong? feeling they had, and how quickly that feeling evaporated after the show premiered on March 12, 1996. Scheduled to air right after the most popular sitcom of the time — Tim Allen’s Home Improvement — Carvey Show was instantly too weird, too out there, for Middle America. The opening sketch featured Carvey as Bill Clinton suckling puppies with teats he’d grown via hormone injections. Yep. Former ABC exec Ted Harbert is on hand in Too Funny to Fail to tell us that 7 million people tuned away from The Dana Carvey Show within the first five minutes of its broadcast. Few of those viewers came back to give the comedy a second chance.

Too Funny to Fail succeeds in being funny about failure. The clips from The Dana Carvey Show are sharply edited to show us the very best the show had to offer — not the many dull patches I remember from when it was on the air. (This is not the story of a forgotten classic.) The talking-head interviews with Smigel, Carell, and others are full of very amusing details, such as the real-life origin of a Colbert-Carell sketch called “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food.” The documentary is so confident that you’ll be interested in inside-baseball details, it devotes a couple of minutes to a letter written to Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg responding to his negative review of the show. (There are few things more obscure than old TV reviews.)

Too Funny to Fail moves quickly past the worst parts of failure. The show was yanked from ABC’s schedule at the last minute, just before airing its eighth episode, which must have been a rude shock to Carvey. Everyone was instantly unemployed, and we don’t learn what happened to some of the writers and performers interviewed here who did not go on to fame and fortune. Carvey puts the best spin on his own subsequent career. And Carell provides the most gracious appreciation of the final product, praising The Dana Carvey Show by saying “it wasn’t cynical” and that “everybody wanted it to be great.” Be sure to stick around for the closing credits, over which Carvey does a terrific Donald Trump impersonation, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog spends a few sidesplitting seconds insulting Hulu.

Too Funny to Fail starts streaming Saturday on Hulu.

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