was the host and principal player on the show while Louis CK
served as head writer.
The show's cast consisted heavily of Saturday Night Live and Second City alumni including Dana Carvey, Steve Carell, Bill Chott, Stephen Colbert, Elon Gold, Chris McKinney, Heather Morgan, Peggy Shay, Robert Smigel, and James Stephens III. The writing team also included many future talents such as Charlie Kaufman, Louis C.K., Jon Glaser, Dino Stamatopoulos, Spike Feresten, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Robert Carlock.
The Dana Carvey Show aired for only seven of the planned ten episodes. While the program was short-lived and featured controversial material, it has since been considered ahead of its time. The show is also recognized for providing early exposure to Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, two comedians who would go on to have critical success many years later. In addition, The Dana Carvey Show served as a launchpad for Smigel's popular series of TV Funhouse cartoons.
Hot off his departure from Saturday Night Live, the popular Dana Carvey appeared in some films throughout the early 1990s. He also worked on two of his own comedy films that ultimately went undeveloped. Carvey soon became disillusioned with the film industry due to the lack of control he previously had in sketch comedy. He was advised to work in television and by 1996 was preparing his own program for ABC.
Robert Smigel turned down an offer to rejoin SNL as a producer, favoring the challenge of working with Carvey on primetime. Smigel and Carvey were given SNL's audition tapes which led them to hire Bill Chott and Jon Glaser. They were also joined by Louis C.K. who worked with Smigel on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Steve Carell, who would go on to major success, was hired through Smigel and Carvey's auditions in which Smigel recalls seeing future SNL alumni Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon and Ana Gasteyer; however, The Dana Carvey Show had but a small cast to fill. Smigel particularly cast Stephen Colbert whom he'd met years prior and tried to use on Late Night. Colbert sent them a homemade audition tape in which he used his newborn daughter as a puppet. He later noted, "I was completely desperate."
Carvey also saw the new show as an opportunity to move his family away from Los Angeles and raise his two young sons in New York. His family moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, however, causing Carvey to commute several hours to the studio during a brutal winter. As such, he regarded Smigel as the true writer and "creative force" behind the show while Carvey considered himself "kind of a zombie." This was due to his tiring schedule of balancing work and fatherhood which he later considered a mistake.
During the development, Smigel and Carvey focused on being different from SNL. The sketches would often be "reductionist bits" in attempt to feel more "presentational" like Monty Python. This would sometimes frustrate writers whose ideas, while creative, were sometimes rejected because they didn't fit the show's approach. Smigel has expressed satisfaction, however, in the outcome of working under such restrictions and believes the show would've found a greater balance had it been given more time on the air. This experimental approach also allowed the show to include short films and cartoons, starting with The Ambiguously Gay Duo. Smigel later considered the cartoons his favorite aspect of the program and noted, "My whole career came out of the impulse to do cartoons on The Dana Carvey Show." In the summer following the show's cancellation, Smigel continued to develop more cartoon ideas which would be used on SNL's TV Funhouse.
Smigel noted that the show had many options in terms of networks. Cable was present, and due to its lackluster status, CBS would have guaranteed several more episodes than what the series ended up receiving. However, the duo was "overly tempted" by the reigning profile of ABC and its primetime offer. The network originally planned in airing 10 episodes and did not interfere with the show's creativity, simply wanting a good lead-in to NYPD Blue.
The Dana Carvey Show also attempted to put The Onion on television with Stephen Colbert reporting as an anchor in deadpan style. This material long predated his time on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. However, the sketches went unaired and have since been subject to rights issues.
The show's humor varied between crude and sophisticated. It debuted on Tuesday, March 12, 1996 at 9:30 ET. On its premiere, following the family-friendly Home Improvement, the notorious first sketch featured Carvey as President Bill Clinton, demonstrating his compassion by having a human baby (which was a doll), several puppies (real ones) and a kitten (also real) suckle milk from his multiple prosthetic nipples. Years later, Carvey claimed that "having that right out of the box sent the wrong message about the show. The show got really panned because of that, and we were in trouble from that point forwards."
When The Dana Carvey Show first appeared, it was greeted with above average reviews and a lukewarm response from the audience. Despite the fact that ABC only aired seven episodes of the series, it has maintained a small but loyal following. The first six episodes that aired were officially titled based on the presenting sponsor of the show:
This was an homage to the classic television shows that Dana Carvey grew up watching, wherein a variety show would have a single sponsor whose advertising and promotion were integrated with the show.
The show was videotaped at the CBS Broadcast Center at 524 West 57th Street in New York City. As an inside joke to the fact that an ABC television show was being recorded at a rival network, each show's opening announcement stated, "from the ABC Broadcast Center in New York, it's The ________ Dana Carvey Show!" The blank was where the sponsor's name is heard as a man stands at the top of a ladder outside of the Broadcast Center placing the ABC logo over the CBS Eye logo. Dana would then begin the show surrounded by dancers wearing (for example) gigantic Mug Root Beer soda can costumes.
Each of the first five sponsors were products of PepsiCo, Inc.. Shortly after the show's debut, however, PepsiCo announced that its units Taco Bell and Pizza Hut had pulled advertising which would have cost $600,000 per episode. A spokesperson for the latter told Variety that the company didn't "feel comfortable" with the show based upon the premiere episode's content. An ABC spokesperson also told Variety that some sketches in the premiere "went too far." Nevertheless, Pepsi-Cola and sister company Mug Root Beer remained sponsors. The sixth sponsor was a famous Manhattan-area Chinese restaurant chain while the final episode had no presenting sponsor.
Cancellation and beyond
Due to the controversial content and declining ratings, the show was canceled prematurely of its planned ten episodes. Smigel and Carvey recalled wanting a parental warning for the show but were not granted it because of advertisers. However, the duo consider the program not very racy for today's standards, stating, "If you take out the teats and a few things, maybe the Mountain Dew—mostly, it was clean and silly and abstract." and regarding Two and a Half Men, a later CBS sitcom, as "much dirtier" than The Dana Carvey Show. "I think that [ABC] wanted a little edgier Carol Burnett Show, and they got something that was a little more than they bargained for," Carvey recalled. The two also believe the show could have been more successful had it been given more time to develop much like Late Night with Conan O'Brien did. Smigel put it simply, "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."
Nevertheless, Carvey expressed pride in the program serving as Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert's launchpad and in its creative approach: "We did not compromise anything, literally, in a completely commercialized environment, and did exactly what we wanted - for better or for worse." Colbert has also offered credit to the show's format for developing his satirical onscreen persona, stating, "If you have an opportunity to give it right to the audience, there’s a special connection that you make by looking at the camera."
Upon the program's cancellation, its writers rearranged their office in an askew fashion as a parody of destroying it in anger. They quickly corrected its appearance after angered security guards complained. Carvey returned to stand-up comedy, specifically corporate shows, where he was in high demand and turned down many gigs. His family moved to Los Angeles where he could revolve his schedule around raising his children. Smigel's Ambiguously Gay Duo concept carried on with further installments on Saturday Night Live and led to the creation of several other cartoons. Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert were led straight to Comedy Central's Daily Show where its co-creator, Madeleine Smithberg, was a fan of their nauseated waiters skit. The two went on to have significant comedy careers in film and television.
More recently, The Dana Carvey Show has become available via a variety of Internet-related outlets. The series in its entirety (including an eighth unaired by ABC) are available on iTunes, Joost and at no charge on Hulu, Crackle, and YouTube. After Hulu added the show to its lineup of programming in 2008, The Dana Carvey Show was nominated as one eight finalists for the "Shows we'd bring back" category in the first annual Hulu awards.
In addition, a 2-disc DVD set of the show was released in May 2009 by Shout! Factory. This includes deleted sketches, the unaired eighth episode, and commentary extras featuring the show's creators. This release was met with numerous editorial retrospectives of the program.
Critical reception and retrospect
Upon its debut, Joyce Millman of Salon called the series a "rousing blast of kamikaze satire" and summed up by declaring, "In his relentless flogging of the advertiser-driven TV biz, Carvey delivered prime time's funniest biting the-feeding-hand stuff since Michael Moore's short-lived NBC (and briefly, Fox) series TV Nation." Caryn James of the New York Times, however, gave a negative review, claiming, "the debut already looked tired and old" adding, "Right now, the Carvey writers had better be thinking up something edgier than a dancing mug of root beer."
In 2009, New York Times writer Dave Itzkoff lamented, "Comedy fans may remember it as a crucible in which many future stars were forged. But for the people who created the show, it was a stark lesson that when idiosyncratic talents are given the freedom to follow their personal muses, a mass audience does not always follow."
Entertainment Weekly's Alynda Wheat gave the DVD a B- and proclaimed "You can see why Carell and Colbert became famous [...] But just as clear is that Carvey was too wildly hit-or-miss to work." Paste Magazine gave a "respectable" 73 rating and noted that while the show's topicality hasn't dated well, "when the Dana Carvey Show is on its game it’s outstanding, especially towards the end of its short run when it really found its voice."