I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Network Television is a Bitch Indeed: The Dana Carvey Show

by Jake Goldman
March 31, 2018

If you trace the history of comedy across American television, you will find more than a few oversights and blunders in programming. Gigantic television networks are at the mercy of advertisers, and the people doing the advertising care, not about a show's content, but the numbers it produces. Got a impossibly huge audience in the coveted 18-49 demographic? You'll get the shiniest, most precious time-slot available. And, who cares if your show is filled with the same inane, recycled story-lines, with the same, neatly categorized characters you've seen a million times: the chauvinistic husband, the jolly-yet-stupid fat guy, the angry wife in high heels and on and on and painfully on. Who cares? You're pushing Pepsi and Pepto Bismol. You're moving mounds of Mounds and scads of Skittles. You're spoon-feeding America what they want to hear; you're doing the work for them, letting them kick their feet up and sit back, only moving when they laugh, on cue, with the fake audience that's also laughing. What a deep, Pavlovian mindfuck.

I've gone off the rails. What I'm trying to say here is: often times shows that take risks and go against banal convention are not rewarded. And it's a damn shame. There are many egregious examples: Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, Frank's Place, The Ben Stiller Show, and, case in point: The Dana Carvey Show.

In 1996, Carvey joined forces with Robert Smigel and created the half-hour sketch comedy show. Smigel had turned down another year with Saturday Night Live to work with Carvey; clearly, they had vision. The show, which was slated for a 10-episode run, only aired seven times before getting yanked off the air. It introduced us to the likes of Steve Carrell, Steve Colbert and the writing of Louis C.K., late-night staple Jon Glaser and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Heavy hitters, truly.

Quite possibly, the most amazing thing about the show is the way it began. The first moment of the first episode shows Dana Carvey playing Bill Clinton seated behind a desk, addressing the camera. It's a pretty standard cold-open, the likes of which we'd seen before on Saturday Night Live. It was 1996, which meant Clinton was up for re-election and America was about to endure the theatrics the campaigns of Clinton, Dole and yes, Ross Perot. Carvey, as Clinton, laughs at his potential opponents saying polls show he should be able to just "walk in" to a re-election, especially if he just does nothing. He calls his opposition a "freak show," and then the sketch takes a sharp left turn into one of the funniest moments in sketch comedy: Carvey's Clinton reveals that he's been taking hormone pills and now has the ability to breastfeed. He unbuttons his shirt to prove his point and an aide walks in with a baby that latches on to his new, milk-producing chest. He invites America to "suckle at" his teat and then stands up to reveal EIGHT teats, much like a mother-dog at which point, several more babies, puppies and kittens are invited to feed off the President. Milk pours out the bottom of Carvey's plaster suit and he struggles to keep a straight face. The sketch goes even further to show that Clinton has had his own ass removed in favor of a hen's rear so he can have the ability to hatch eggs. This, to me, is fall-on-the-floor-funny. ABC didn't quite agree.

What balls you have to have to start your entire television series with that sketch! You are not simply lampooning your nation's Commander-In-Chief -- you are chopping him up and roasting him over a ferocious fire.

The impact was immediate. Advertisers pulled out saying the content was a bit much, a bit too dirty. Even some critics agreed. Carvey later admitted he felt opening the series with the sketch was a mistake, but I'm glad he did, and I'm actually a little bit disappointed to hear him say such a thing.

Too often we are spoon-fed what's comfortable. We soak in entertainment that's predictable and saccharine; we don't want to have to think or analyze or be forced to form an opinion, even over a silly, four and a half minute sketch. And why is that? Why should Carvey be lambasted for what he did? Have you seen the United States so-called "democracy" in action? We wage wars in which we don’t belong. Our nation was recently in danger of going into default. Clinton stuck a cigar in a person’s vagina. It’s all absurd and yet, somehow, if this absurdity is translated into milk spurting out of a President’s chest, it’s dismissed as crass and disrespectful. How? It’s so incongruous. Sure, there are different, perhaps “classier” ways to rake someone over the coals but why give in to the same hackneyed Leno-esque rat-tat-tat jokes with telegraphed punchlines when you can do something interesting and surprising?

Don’t get me wrong – the show was not designed to be politically or socially charged. In fact, that was one of the few big, ridiculously outsized risks the show took. But to me, it exemplifies the problem with massive media companies; they don’t let things breathe and grow. Look at the careers this show launched, and in such a short period of time. Carrell and Colbert are powerfully funny, especially in the "Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food" sketch where they dry-heave while reading the specials of a hoity-toity restaurant.

In a way, though, it’s nice that we only have this brief glimpse of the show. The series did seem to just start to find its voice around the last two episodes, but Carvey, along with his cast and crew, left behind a show now seen as classic. And, while another couple of seasons and the cash would have been nice, it’s better that Carvey and company to have an unfinished masterpiece. Rather than slowly fading out, he's left his fans wondering what could have been.  

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.