Dana Carvey and Robert Smigel
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Episode one of The Dana Carvey Show opened in 1996 with a ridiculously odd sketch: Bill Clinton, played by the titular ex-Saturday Night Live star, opened his shirt and started breastfeeding a baby. Then the shirt opened further, revealing more teats, which were duly suckled by a pack of puppies. It’d be an understatement to say this was unlike anything else on TV, and unfortunately, the première turned off a lot of viewers. The show, executive-produced by Robert Smigel, managed to eke out seven half-hour episodes full of timely political riffs, silly non sequiturs, and comically blatant product promotion that bled into the title. (One episode was called The Mountain Dew Dana Carvey Show, and so on.) In spite of its early demise, the show managed to develop a cult following, and it kick-started an ensemble’s worth of careers, thanks to a cast and writing staff that included Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Louis C.K., and Charlie Kaufman. The Dana Carvey Show has finally re-emerged in the form of a DVD box set, which includes plenty of deleted scenes, and even an unaired eighth episode. The A.V. Club recently chatted with Carvey and Smigel about Carvey’s decision to jump out of the limelight, that lead-off Clinton sketch, and their rejected request for a parental warning.
The A.V. Club: Dana, shortly after The Dana Carvey Show, you stepped away from Hollywood and took time to focus on your family. How did you come to that decision?
Dana Carvey: Well, it’s very complex, and I’m the only one who’s ever really done it. No one would ever really believe it. Every celebrity in the world, if their movie bombs or whatever, they hold their kid up on a magazine and say “I’m really a dad.” There’s no leverage for me. What basically happened in shorthand was, I came off Saturday Night Live, I was in some awful movies… It’s funny when you’re hot and you’re in a movie, and you know it’s a disaster. But of course beforehand you don’t think it’s gonna be a disaster. I had two directors on their knees, begging me to be in their movies. I did one to work with Nicolas Cage, who I love. I did one for the guy who directed L.A. Story, which I thought was kind of cool. But anyway, you come out and you do those and you go, “Fuck the movie business, this is weird.” This isn’t like SNL, where you have control.
So I kind of backed off, which probably was a mistake. I had a couple movies that I was working on myself at the time, one with Robert and Conan [O’Brien] and Kevin Nealon, called Hans And Franz: The Girly-Man Dilemma, and another one with Bob Odenkirk called Tuscon; in the meantime, I had two little boys. It really was tough, ’cause once the kids arrived, it felt weird and awkward to hand the kid to a nanny, so that kind of went out the window. When I was doing the movie in Canada, we didn’t have a nanny, and one son had a lot of ear infections, and the other one got the flu. We were working all night in the snow, and I’d sleep a few hours, and then I was trying to entertain one of my sons in the basement by pushing his cart around. I was on antibiotics during that whole shoot, because I was doing both jobs.
Movies are kind of weird. You work for a year and it could suck, you don’t have control. At the time, [Adam] Sandler hadn’t done his whole giant production company, or Will Ferrell. It was between Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase. The people advising me were like, “You should do TV anyway, ’cause how many movie stars are there?” And I don’t actually have a giant ego. So really it was pretty quick, I was off in ’93, and by ’96 I was doing this show, because I’m the most mysterious, enigmatic performer in comedy, I believe. People don’t really know who I am. Sometimes people think I’m dead.
AVC: Have you purposefully tried to stay mysterious?
DC: No, not at all. We kind of did in the beginning, since my wife and I are middle-class and have been together since the 1970s—the whole money-fame-power-hey-you thing was kind of weird for us. The second time they asked me to host the Oscars, I faked an illness so I wouldn’t have to go there. I probably need therapy. But I never tried to be famous or have people mob me. It happened very quickly, and it was very bizarre. Then I did this show, and it was also very problematic having two little boys, living two hours away from the city. That was a mistake. And I didn’t really write on the show; Robert was really the creative force. I kind of was a zombie because I was so tired going home and helping in the middle of the night. The normal modern baby-boomer dad.
After the show got canceled, stand-up was there, and they started paying me a fortune to do corporate stand-up. So I could make the same money being retired as if I was a major star, and yet design my own schedule with the family. It’s like, “Why should I go away for a year or deal with anything when I can make more money in stand-up than I could in television?” Only a major movie star would get paid a higher rate. I turned down hundreds and hundreds of gigs, but I took some so I could take the summer off for the kids. We moved out of L.A. and tried to have as normal a childhood for our kids as possible. Sandler came to me to do Master Of Disguise, which took me to L.A. for like a year, year and a half, and that felt weird, ’cause I was just not around. And the movie was okay. If you’re leaving your family and you’re making brilliant work like Saving Private Ryan, it’s one thing. But to go away for a year…
And now we’re here in 2009. My boys are 16 and 18, one’s going to USC film school, and the other seems to be a natural comedian. So now I have to go back into show business as a senior comedian. So I hope to get Walter Brennan-type roles, Gabby Hayes kind of stuff, be the old-timer. We’ll see what happens. That’s the asterisk: Now I’m moving back down to L.A. this summer while my son goes to USC film school, my other son will maybe go to the Groundlings. So I’m full circle. I wouldn’t believe anything I told you in the last 10 minutes, ’cause no one who’s ever interviewed me has, but that’s the honest-to-God truth.
AVC: Where do you live now?
DC: Northern California, up in Marin County, where my wife grew up. We literally grew up here, because her Irish mom was the only relief we could get with the kids without feeling guilty about leaving her with a nanny. So we moved up with her, and she became our go-to person. Also, my wife didn’t really love L.A. She said you can’t be a woman over 40 and be in L.A, though this was pre-cougar. So I think now you can be, but you need to have a good dermatologist.
Robert Smigel: One thing about Dana’s determination not to be a showbiz person: Dana was the only celebrity I knew who was offered Sesame Street when his kids were very young, and turned it down.
DC: So yeah, I made the decision to organize myself around my kids’ lives, and it made sense. But I was always thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll develop a movie or a TV show.” But now it’s almost 2010. Goes by fast. How old are you, Steve?
DC: Write that book now, Steve. That one that’s in your mind. Start writing.
RS: Make it a book, not a screenplay, because otherwise it won’t happen.
DC: And we’re experts at making things not happen.
RS: Girly-Man Dilemma should have been a 500-page novel.
AVC: When The Dana Carvey Show gets mentioned today, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on the people whose careers it jump-started, but not much is said about you, Dana.
DC: We got ripped like crazy when it came out, but that’s totally understandable in retrospect. I keep reading that people like it now; it’s kind of a funny turn. So now I’m looking like a genius. How did Robert and I know to pick out Colbert and Carell? How did we have such vision? So now we’re looking good, but back then, I was ripped. But that was normal. I mean, who are they gonna rip? “Unknown Steve Carell is annoying as the screaming German.” They’re not gonna do that.
AVC: How did you guys audition people?
RS: SNL was doing a big turnover at the same time, and I had actually turned down the opportunity to join that show again as a producer. It was a very hard decision, but I preferred the opportunity to work with Dana and do the show primetime. It was a more exciting challenge for me. But at the same time, I felt very deferential about SNL’s situation. They kind of went through everybody. One thing we did was… I actually got SNL’s tapes. They gave them to us after they hired their people. Jon Glaser auditioned, and he was the person who made me laugh the most of anybody on the tapes, and we ended up hiring him as a writer. Bill Chott was also on that tape. But Steve Carell wasn’t, for some reason. Sometimes things just happen out of bad timing, and Steve Carell just may never have had a shot to audition.
DC: His wife was on the show. Nancy.
RS: Yeah, I know. I don’t know exactly how that went down. We got to see Steve Carell just through our own audition process. He blew us away. I’d heard about him. But he was the most home-run guy that we saw through the auditions. Colbert also didn’t seem to get a shot at SNL, but he was somebody I’d seen two years earlier, when I was on SNL. He was an understudy for Carell at Second City, oddly enough, and we saw him in Chicago one summer, scouting mostly women. I remember him blowing me away, and I was kind of obsessed with him. I told him I had a comedy crush on him. I tried to get him involved in the Conan show, but we didn’t figure out how to use him well enough at that stage. So then when this came up, he missed the audition again, and he sent in a tape of him with his little newborn daughter—he was using her as a puppet. It was kind of funny, but it didn’t really show anything. I told Dana, “Trust me, this guy, we gotta bring him in and at least let him audition.” And once we did that, Dana loved him, and it was another obvious choice. We went through the ABC casting directors. We had a whole audition process. I think we saw people like Tracy Morgan and Jimmy Fallon and Ana Gasteyer. But we had a very small cast that we were trying to fill.
AVC: Did you have a sense of what you wanted the show to be?
RS: It wasn’t unlike [Late Night With Conan O’Brien] in some ways, where in my mind, I was defining the show by how I didn’t want it to be. In Conan’s case, I didn’t want to copy Letterman. I set down a lot of rules, some of which were crazy, but ultimately it forced us to come up with a lot of original stuff. We had the added onus of being Letterman’s replacement. This show, we were trying to come up with things to do that would make it different than SNL. Not that we didn’t like SNL—obviously we loved it—but we wanted to do a different show, have a different feel. So one of the big things we wanted to do was make a lot of the sketches feel more presentational. So everything was sort of in the context of a show. Or we would do something we’d seen on Monty Python. We kind of did reductionist bits where we’d just get away from beginning-middle-end, where the wacky character would walk into a scene and frustrate a straight man for six minutes. Instead, we just said “And now, here are skinheads from Maine,” and then we just did 10 jokes.
DC: Yeah, that was a little like Monty Python. “And now for something completely different,” where they would just have sketches or comic ideas like bookmarks.
RS: We wanted to do more nonsensical stuff. Some of it’s on the deleted scenes on the DVD. We had a bit like, “Meanwhile, at so-and-so’s house,” where we would cut away to Carl Sagan in his underwear, eating a sandwich. I don’t remember what the joke was.
DC: You did Paul Hogan ripping up a hotel room, or was that something else?
RS: That was a parody of celebrity bloopers. We did celebrity meltdowns or something. Then we had the presentational thing, which was a very specific choice that frustrated some of the writers at times, I think—anytime they have an idea that they think is funny, and you tell them, “Yeah, it is funny, but it’s just not what we’re gonna do right now,” that’s frustrating, because it feels arbitrary. We probably would have found a balance over time, but I think we got a lot of good stuff out of creating that restriction. Obviously we tried to do short films. And we did some really great ones, I think, like Heather Morgan impersonating the First Ladies as dogs.
DC: The Nixons.
RS: Well, that was a commercial parody, technically. And then cartoons was something—my whole career came out of the impulse to do cartoons on The Dana Carvey Show. I wanted to do that as something else that would make the show different, and the first idea I had was the Ambiguously Gay Duo. When the show got canceled, that summer I had a few more cartoon ideas. That was the thing I was most excited about.
AVC: That was the only cartoon that made it to the show, right?
RS: Yes, it was. We only had eight episodes. There was another Ace and Gary cartoon in the works. All that stuff would have ended up on The Dana Carvey Show at one time or another. And that’s very much to Dana’s credit. Dana could have played it barrier-safe, as a lot of people would have preferred, maybe correctly. But Dana is somebody who I wrote a lot of crazy things with at SNL. He’s a great writer, he’s one of the two or three people I connected most with, probably. Sandler and Conan and Odenkirk and Dana.
AVC: What was your working relationship like when you were on SNL together?
DC: Robert was brilliant. He was the one guy who—I could come in with just a notion or idea. He actually taught me how to do John McLaughlin. I used to do a goofy Johnny Carson. [Adopts Carson voice.] “That’s weird, wild stuff.” Robert’s ears perked up immediately, “Wow, that’s a funny rhythm. There is this new Carson paradigm.” So it was an instant kind of thing. Robert will just take things really far. I’m thinking about some of the most fun stuff, like Regis [Philbin] running across New York to go on Letterman. It’s very Robert to take the notion that Regis is always available to go on Letterman, which is still true today, and take that to where he’s wrestling a giant rat. I don’t know what you call that, but with the McLaughlin Report, where he took the idea that he would have nicknames for the other journalists, to take it to where I’m actually singing “Blue Moon…” I liked the acid humor and the dryness of Robert’s sense of humor.
RS: I was trained at SNL, and the audience respects and wants comedy that’s commenting on what’s going on in the world, and this show required that as well. It was a primetime network sketch show, and everybody definitely wanted topicality. But sometimes I find it funny when people just automatically dismiss topical humor as uniformly a lesser being: hackistry, as it were. I never felt like it had to be that way; it’s all in your approach.
AVC: Today’s landscape has changed: There’s The Daily Show and Colbert doing nothing but topical humor, and SNL is doing a lot more these days.
RS: After 9/11, I think priorities in a lot of… I felt it still being a part of the Conan show. You could see that the tide had turned, where there was a real hunger for relevant humor. There was so much anger, not just in the country, at Bush—we had a president who was overwhelmingly unpopular. And then imagine the comedy world’s opinion of Bush, exponentially triple that. There was definitely a need from the audience to comment on the world more.
DC: I think the audience is very in tune, too, just speaking for myself, because of the 24-hour Web. There’s stories that might have been on page eight of the New York Times, and now they’re on the front page of Google News. There’s a hyper-awareness of what’s going on that we didn’t have 10 years ago.
RS: I came from the school where if you do topical humor, generally it’s okay to make a point, but you don’t want to be… I mean, I was trained not to do message comedy. The laughs are what’s important, not applause. You see a lot of stuff now that kind of crosses into that commentary comedy, that gets as much credit for what it’s saying as how funny it is.
DC: This may get too esoteric, but if you have a political punchline, then the audience is rooting you on, because you’re reinforcing what they want you to say. That’s one way to go, but if you get down to either the political joke or the impression, or it could just be coming from any place where you want to abstract it to the point where you can’t really find the joke, it’s sort of elusive; it’s more of a rhythm. There may be some greater truth that’s extenuated out there. So I don’t think we—Robert and I would generally want to abstract stuff to some other place where I assume it would befuddle critics, essentially. Just wanting to create madness, wanting it to be ridiculous, wanting it to be so silly that it has this great bite to it, at least for me. If it’s something like 1+1=2, well, okay. But if it’s some other thing, like, “Why is that so fuckin’ funny? I can’t even figure it out,” those are the ones I love.
AVC: Like Bill Clinton suckling a litter of puppies?
RS: Louis C.K. had that notion. We had a simple sketch where Clinton was just—I thought Dana did a great Clinton, and I wanted to get it out there. Dana had a funny notion about Clinton trying hard not to laugh at the paltry competition that he faced in 1996. And then Louis separately had this funny notion that led to the breast-feeding, but it came out of a more subtle observation about Clinton: that he saw himself as this nurturing president. And at the time, Hillary was incredibly unpopular, so Louis had this idea that Clinton would, you know… It was more of a play on the “I feel your pain” act that Clinton had perfected by 1996. We weren’t all about, “Oh, this is gonna be gross, ha-ha, people are gonna be freaked out.” I took it too far. He had the breast-feeding idea, and then I came up with the multiple nipples and the puppies and kittens, because of my animal obsession that haunts me to this day.
DC: That’s the kind of abstraction I love. But I look at it again, and I was terrible. I had no Clinton, and I sucked. I thought that was as big a problem as the teats thing; I just wasn’t funny as Clinton at the time, I had no hook in him. Later on, I got into my own rhythm with Clinton, where he does these throwaway digressions that are kind of self-congratulatory. That was way after the show. I didn’t have any hook.
RS: But you didn’t have a hook on George Bush when you first did George Bush. That’s something anybody… Will Ferrell didn’t have a hook on George Bush Jr. when he started that. You just expect that that’s gonna come out.
DC: Yeah, that would’ve evolved.
RS: At the same time, I thought your Clinton was very funny. You were doing just fine in that sketch until the boobs came out. The audience went for it, but I understand. We just didn’t know, that was just me being a bad producer. I didn’t watch Home Improvement, and I had no idea that Home Improvement was a show that kids watched with their parents. I had no idea whatsoever. Had heard it was popular, I heard Pamela Anderson was on it, so I figured there was a male demographic that must like the show.
DC: There’s two sides to the coin. Basically, a lot of the stuff I worked on with you was just abstraction, and people could call it silly, I’d call it smart-silly. And we didn’t do a lot of sexual/poopy stuff.
RS: No, we hardly did any.
DC: And even this show, as it continued on—if you take out the teats and a few things, maybe the Mountain Dew—mostly, it was clean and silly and abstract.
RS: The Mountain Dew thing is pretty soft by today’s standards. That would make it through any primetime lineup. I mean, Two And A Half Men is a much dirtier show than The Dana Carvey Show.
DC: If the show was on now, they’d be pushing us to go further.
RS: That’s probably true.
DC: But we never set out to be blue, or sexual, or poopy, or anything. But we weren’t censoring, we weren’t thinking. My kids were little, I wasn’t thinking about a parent with a 10-year-old watching Home Improvement, and then Clinton with teats comes on.
RS: We say on the DVD that Dana and I wanted a parental warning and they wouldn’t give it to us, because of advertisers.
AVC: Nowadays, that can be a good thing. South Park’s TV-MA rating helped early on.
RS: Oh, without question. But anyway, what I was saying about topical humor—it’s funny, ’cause there was even a tension within the writing staff, like, “Why are you doing a Regis sketch?” The show is looked at as adventurous and out-there, and I guess it’s a testament to our writing staff and the quality, as well as their desire to take risks. Even though the show is looked at as experimental, it wasn’t enough for the writing staff.
DC: Once again, it’s an abstraction. It was really just the idea of someone being a human being. It happened to be we were using Regis, as someone being that needy—no matter what hurtles he had to go through. I did a right cross on Carol Channing, you gotta love that.
AVC: Was there any place for the straight man in any of the sketches? The Tom Brokaw sketch, in the unaired eighth episode, is one of the only places anyone plays the straight man.
RS: The Tom Brokaw sketch was closer to a traditional SNL sketch in that there was a victim, as you say, with Tom Brokaw. That’s what was funny about the sketch, the straight man was delivering all the punchlines at the same time. But that was a sketch that represented a more traditional kind of comedy. It’s funny to say that, because it’s a sketch where you have lines like “Gerald Ford was eaten by wolves,” yet I’m calling that a traditional sketch. But it did have something that appeared in a lot of other sketches, which is the idea that odd behavior is treated as nothing odd. You didn’t see that in a lot of comedy. I mean, The Simpsons had a big influence on a lot of comedy that way. That was something you didn’t really see in sitcoms, that’s for sure. That kind of heightened reality, where odd behavior is normal and accepted. That sketch was more traditional in that somebody was actually acknowledging that crazy things were going on. But it’s easier to eliminate the straight man when you’re doing presentational stuff.
AVC: To go back to the unaired episode, it also contained the conclusion to the “Pranksters” series, which is something regular viewers of the show weren’t able to see originally.
RS: That’s right. Originally, it was even funnier. Unfortunately, we had music-rights issues. In the original version, when they come to the realization of what they’ve done, given up the lottery money, we actually played “The Sound Of Silence” by Simon And Garfunkel, and it was hysterical. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the rights in time for the DVD. They did what is called a “feel-alike,” which is a step down from a “sound-alike,” and a step ahead of a “feel-like-nothing.” They did their job, because it felt like “The Sound Of Silence.”
AVC: Nowadays, an early cancellation is seen as a badge of honor. Shows like Arrested Development and Freaks And Geeks get these followings partially through word-of-mouth, from fans angry the show was prematurely canned. Was the landscape like that in 1996?
RS: The second the show got canceled, Dana and I high-fived. “We got The Onion in 2009, baby!” Remember that, Dana? No, I got to be honest, I’m with Dana. I just want to take care of my kids. I’m so sick of having noble failures. I have all these DVDs on my shelf of my noble failures. Lookwell is the only one that hasn’t come to DVD yet, and that’ll be another worthless Fabergé egg that I can try to stuff down my child’s throat.
DC: I want to announce that I’m available for work-for-hire in Hollywood right now. Game shows, holiday shows, I’ll host things. Any work that anybody needs. There you go.
RS: All these failures pale next to Hans And Franz: The Girly-Man Dilemma, though. ’Cause that one would have worked. I mean, I went into Lookwell thinking “This is never gonna work.” I went into The Dana Carvey Show thinking, “Well, if they give us time, maybe it’ll work.” But The Girly-Man Dilemma would have been a huge hit. It really would’ve. It’s one of those scripts that you knew was gonna be hilarious, if only a studio would understand. But it just wasn’t to be. Anchorman took two years. Will Ferrell had to do three other movies before they were convinced that Anchorman would be something they would even put a dime in.
DC: But to answer your question, you didn’t get the kudos back then. It was just sort of painful when it got canceled.
RS: Yeah, it was very painful. I mean, we had so many talented people on board. It was just obvious to us that it was gonna work if it was given time. The exact same thing could have happened to Conan. I’d already been through it, where it was a “There but for the grace of God” situation. We were basically canceled at Conan, and then they changed their minds in August of ’94, gave us a reprieve. And now he’s hosting The Tonight Show.
DC: He was late-night. We were in primetime, and we couldn’t have time for a lot of reasons. One was that parents must have been writing ABC going, “I’m gonna never watch your network again.”
RS: We ended up swinging for the fences. We had other options; CBS was a dead network at that point, and they would have guaranteed us many more shows. We could have gone to cable. There were many other places we could have gone. We ended up just being overly tempted to go to ABC, which was the number-one network at the time, giving us their best timeslot.
DC: Yeah, I think that once again, for myself, I’m not really branded as a comic. I’m sort of eclectic, and I confuse people. And it was true back then. Is The Church Lady subversive, or is it actually sort of cute? A lot of stuff that I did with Robert on the show, some of it could be considered silly and cute, and then some of it was subversive. And also because I had sort of the harmless Tim Conway look, or whatever you want to call a baby-faced person—it also led to more confusion. I think that they wanted a little edgier Carol Burnett Show, and they got something that was a little more than they bargained for.
RS: It’s harder in a sketch show, especially when you’re trying to be on a network like that, to cue the audience in on what you’re trying to do. At least on Conan, when a joke went badly, the host is able to make light of it and comment on it. With a sketch show, there’s no safety net at all. Even at Conan, we ended up compartmentalizing a lot of the weirdest bits. In the original year, when I was head writer, things would sometimes just happen on that show. Characters would walk in, maybe interrupt an interview even, and by the time I left the show, we had made a concession, started to compartmentalize bits and identify things as weird. In the subtlest way possible, but still cueing the audience that something weird is about to happen. As opposed to just having anarchy.
DC: Well, that’s five nights a week. We were a half-hour a week. You’re right, it could have happened that they would get into our sensibility and where we were coming from, but we needed more time, for sure.
RS: Bottom line, the network was the wrong fit, wrong timeslot. Cable obviously would have been—we would have been given credit for what was good instead of attacked for what wasn’t. Which is what happened at Conan. They gave us credit for all the things we were doing. From the beginning, they understood that we were doing something original, and they knew that Conan was a funny guy, and that we just needed time. They focused on the positive, and that was all the difference.
DC: Well, what should I do now with my career? My kids are grown up, I can do stuff. I’ll be 70 next March, but I want to do something, and I’ll do whatever you say. That’s what I said to The New York Times. I can’t bring this show back, Carell and Colbert would be so expensive now.
AVC: Could you do a one-off live reunion or something?
DC: [Laughs.] Yeah, okay, that’d be great! Louis C.K. can open up with stand-up.
RS: The only thing I actually wanted to say, and I never got to it: when we were talking about things that made the show different, I would love for you to let the readers know that our show was the first show that attempted to put The Onion on television [like The Onion News Network]. Bob Odenkirk had showed me The Onion about a year earlier, and it jumped out at me as something completely original and great, and I really wanted to use it on the show. Colbert was our anchor for that, ’cause he has a great voice and he does great deadpan. We actually had Ben Karlin and Scott Dikkers come in. Colbert recorded about four [segments], and unfortunately only one of them was—well, a crazy thing happened. Sony and Universal split the rights to this thing, and neither of them have any of the deleted scenes. All the deleted scenes were on a VHS tape that I found in my office about three months ago. They were all that I had. I only had two Onion sketches on there, and one of them had a rights issue because I think we used Mr. T’s photograph or something. It was an old Onion headline, “Mr. T To Pity Fool.”
DC: I’ll try to do another show and it’ll get canceled, and then I’ll talk to you again in 2019.