Friday, November 3, 2017

Too Funny To Fail: Regrets Be Damned

The documentary selection on Hulu was the impetus for me to start Consume + Consume. Now after a long hiatus of watching docs on Hulu (because I have access to more TV than I did when I lived on the cheap in 2011, and Hulu used to be free) I'm back reviewing a Hulu original doc, Too Funny To Fail. Directed by Josh Greenbaum, this 2017 documentary details the ups and downs of producing The Dana Carvey Show in 1996. Robert Smigel (SNL's TV Fun House, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), set the tone when he admitted his feelings for the show consisted mostly of regret.

The story of this show is like a Shakespearean tragedy, filled with a rise, a healthy amount of hubris, and a steep fall. Propelled by his success on SNL, Dana Carvey set out to do something very ambitious. In a time when Americans would stop dead in their tracks to watch Dana do impressions of George Bush, and he was a contender to replace Letterman, Dana wanted to create a sketch show that would showcase new talent with creative ideas about comedy. It looks like it's from the same vein as other offbeat sketch comedy shows made by amazing and wonderful people, like Kids In The HallMr. Show, The State, The Ben Stiller Show, The Upright Citizens Brigade, and The Andy Dick Show. So how could it be the big regretful failure that it's being framed as?

Dana Carvey and Steve Carell

Well, every show I just listed was either on HBO, Comedy Central, or MTV. Dana Carvey had ABC, which was already family friendly sitcom town, but on top of that, was bought by Disney during production. Risks were taken, ratings were abysmal, sponsors wanted out. The average American watching ABC in 1996 plain old did not get it. 

When you read the cast list, it's mind blowing to think ALL of these cast members were part of a show considered such a record-breaking failure. They had Steve CarellStephen Colbert, and Robert Smigel, with writers Louis C.KCharlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)Jon GlaserDino Stamatopoulos (Moral Orel ), Spike Feresten (The Simpsons), and Robert Carlock (30 Rock). While these are huge names today, the Dana Carvey Show was the first real TV gig for these relative unknowns. 

Little Baby Louie C.K

The cast and writers had freedom with Dana Carvey's name attached to this project, but at the end of the day the use of their freedom didn't mean diddly.  It was subversive comedy; the type of thing that might fly with Millennials today but was too weird for Baby Boomers. It was gross, politically incorrect, and wacky - but wacky in a random way. During the airing of the first episode an unprecedented wave of viewers turned off ABC seemingly all at the same time. And then the hate mail came in.  

A bold choice for the start of this show was a sketch that truly told the audience exactly what they were in for. It was a sketch that may be considered the iceberg that sunk the ship. It was a classic beloved Dana Carvey bit of impersonation, the type of act that everyone was expecting, but warped it into a grotesque precursor to a Tim and Eric style vignette. I don't want to give all the details away, but see below images for reference:

The Dana Carvey Show, 1996

Tim and Eric: Awesome Show Great Job!, 2010

I never saw the show when it aired. I was a bit young, but about a year later I was watching Steven Colbert and Steve Carell on to The Daily Show, and absorbing all the Dana Carvey era SNL I could in syndication, without any knowledge of his failed sketch show to taint it.  

Watching clips from this documentary, I can see the influence this program had on comedy despite being cancelled after seven episodes. I'm not saying that Tim and Eric is anywhere near ABC material now that twenty years have past. They call Cartoon Network/Adult Swim home, which is perfect for this style of anti-comedy. It doesn't reach everyone, but it reaches their audience and they have creative freedom; something the Dana Carvey Show ultimately didn't have with ABC. 

 SNL alumn Bill Hader makes an appearance in the documentary as a true Dana Carvey Show super fan, revealing that as a teenager he recorded every episode on VHS. It did manage to reach some people in it's short run. After it was canceled, Colbert and Carell would move on to The Daily Show and obviously become household names. The cartoon The Ambiguously Gay Duo which premiered on the Dana Carvey Show would be moved to SNL where Colbert and Carell would continue to voice Ace and Gary, and Smigel would continue to write. Louie CK would be a successful stand-up and produce his own show, while Jon Glaser would continue to star in offbeat comedies like Delocated and play characters on Girls and Parks and Rec.

While Smigel and others lament their decision to air certain sketches, it's hard to reconcile that they were in fact bad decisions when it's so clearly genius and hilarious, and the writers and actors are so successful now. It was truly ahead of it's time. 

Steven Colbert and Steve Carell doing their career defining sketch as waiters who are disgusted by food.
While watching you can't help but grin every time the "failure" is mentioned, because you know about the happy ending. The idea that there was at one time a hardship for these comedians is just a funny anecdote. It seems like a blip in their history that didn't negatively effect them in the ways that they thought it would, and isn't that funny? I'm not saying this takes away any kind of gravitas, it's not that kind of documentary. But you will be on the edge of your seat, laughing, and holding on to every word, enthralled by the stories that helped shape comedy as we know it today. 

No comments:

Post a Comment