MOVIE REVIEW – ‘Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show’

The story behind Dana Carvey's short-lived sketch show!

Review by J.T. Johnson

DIRECTOR: Josh Greebaum
WRITER: Josh Greenbaum
MUSIC: John Piscitello

Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman. Today, these four names are some of the most recognizable in the entertainment industry. Back in 1996, though, they were mostly unknowns yet they were hired by a comedian that was hot and just coming off “Saturday Night Live”.

After his seven year stint on “SNL”, Dana Carvey was initially considered as a replacement for David Letterman when the late night host left NBC’s “Late Night”. However, Carvey ultimately didn’t want to be stuck with a show that would take too much time away from his growing family. Eventually, Carvey teamed with “SNL” writer Smigel and they decided to develop a prime time sketch comedy show for ABC.

It eventually became known as one of the greatest failures in television history, having aired only seven of eight filmed episodes. Over time, though, the edgy show was considered one of the lost gems of the sketch comedy world. It also helped kick start the career of Carell and Colbert.

“Too Funny to Fail” is a documentary that attempts, and mostly succeeds, at telling what exactly happened. The one trap that it could have fallen into was to just blame the studio for not knowing what they had signed up for, but this documentary doesn’t vilify ABC. Instead, the creators and producer of the show talk about a project where neither side really knew what the other was doing or expecting.

Carvey was known at the time as a comedian that appealed to just about everyone. ABC thought that Carvey would bring his “SNL” characters over and they scheduled his show behind “Home Improvement”, the most successful show at the time. Carvey and his crew, on the other hand, wanted to do edgier comedy that didn’t sit well with the families watching “Improvement”.

Imagine watching Tim Allen’s family-friendly show with your own family and suddenly it’s followed by a show that opens with President Clinton breast feeding babies and animals through a prosthetic on Carvey’s chest. The ratings immediately plummeted and the critics rallied against the show’s humor. Eventually, the creators did hit their stride and most of the critics came around as well, but the damage was already done.

The truth is that many factors played into the show’s demise. Not only did they have an incompatible lead-in, but ABC had also just been bought out by Disney and there was no way that they wanted an edgy sketch show. On the creators’ side, they had set their path and didn’t want to suddenly water it down to satisfy the sponsors and the studio.

The documentary states that the show that should have been a sure hit was pretty much with the wrong network at the wrong time. No one is really at fault and it does have a good ending. Smigel returned to “SNL” and Carvey got to return to stand-up while taking care of his family. Thanks to one sketch in the show, a producer of “The Daily Show” hired Colbert and eventually Carrel and the rest is history.

Thankfully, Hulu is not just airing this documentary. After you watch this movie, I highly recommend you watch “The Dana Carvey Show” as well. Hulu has posted all the episodes on their site, including the unaired eighth episode.

“Ahead of its time” is an often overused expression. In the case of “The Dana Carvey Show”, though, the expression definitely sticks and I honestly think it would have flourished had the show been with the right network, such as HBO or the then developing Comedy Central. Thankfully, this brilliant documentary will allow even more generations to learn the secret origin of several brilliant comedians and writers.

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