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Why 'The Dana Carvey Show' failed despite its brilliance

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Dana Carvey's 1996 sketch comedy show with Robert Smigel, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell failed to capture an audience on ABC. Was it ahead of its time?

When Dana Carvey left "Saturday Night Live" in 1993, it was a big deal.  

His impersonations of George H.W. Bush, Johnny Carson and 1992 Presidential candidate Ross Perot, as well as his Church Lady character, had made him a household name. So when he decided to return to television in 1996, he was much in demand.

Dana Carvey was much in demand after he left Saturday Night Live in 1993. When he decided to return to TV in 1996, it was in a prime-time sketch show on ABC.
photo credit ABC
Dana Carvey was much in demand after he left Saturday Night Live in 1993. When he decided to return to TV in 1996, it was in a prime-time sketch show on ABC.

Carvey tapped SNL writer Robert Smigel (who later created Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) to help him create a sketch comedy show called "The Dana Carvey Show." They pitched it to all the big networks. With high hopes of bringing their comedic sensibility to a prime-time broadcast audience, they bypassed HBO in favor of ABC. 

The story of what happened to the show is told in the new Hulu documentary, “Too Funny To Fail,” by Josh Greenbaum. He spoke with The Frame's John Horn about what led to "The Dana Carvey Show's" premature death. (Click the play button above to hear the conversation.)

According to Greenbaum, the ABC pitch to Carvey and Smigel was: We're the number one network and we have the number one show — "Home Improvement" – so that's a huge lead-in. The problem was the audience for the family-friendly "Home Improvement" was not the most natural fit for the wild show Carvey and Smigel ended up making.

"We had hired badass nerd pirates to blow up television. This show would represent anarchy. This was blowing up the system."  Dana Carvey in "Too Funny To Fail"

Looking at the show's writers, you might think that Carvey and Smigel hired the right people. The team was full of future successes: Charlie Kaufman, Louis CK, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell.

Colbert and Carell were doing improv in Chicago at Second City in Chicago when Smigel hired them. "The Dana Carvey Show" was a valuable launching pad for them despite its short run. They talk lovingly in "Too Funny To Fail" about their time on the show. The documentary includes many clips from their sketches, which hold up today.

But the sensibility of the writing staff was not in sync with broadcast TV. And as much as that was deliberate, it also didn't help them succeed in that time slot on ABC. "Too Funny To Fail" director Josh Greenbaum told The Frame:

These guys — I don't think they know another gear other than, We're going to do what excites us. I think that's why they've had such successful careers. But it's also certainly why this show didn't work out. They should have never been on ABC on primetime with the mentality and the approach that they took. 

At no time was the evidence of their sensibility being out of sync more clear than in the first sketch on the first episode when Dana Carvey came out as President Bill Clinton and he began breastfeeding babies, puppies and kittens in an effort to show that he could be both mother and father to the nation.

The Bill Clinton sketch is grotesque and bizarre and, according to "Too Funny To Fail," it drove away viewers that the show had inherited from "Home Improvement." Sadly,"The Dana Carvey Show" never quite recovered. It was soon canceled. But now all the episodes that exist are on Hulu, along with the documentary that tells the whole story.

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