I am one of the six million.
Hulu’s Too Funny to Fail, a documentary about the rise and downfall of the short-lived ABC series The Dana Carvey Show, states that the first episode’s infamous opening sketch featuring Carvey as Bill Clinton breast feeding babies and small animals caused around 6 million viewers to either change the channel or turn off their TV. Yeaaaaaah, I remember doing that.
Like the rest of America, I’d been a Dana Carvey fan. I’d seen his mediocre movies (Clean Slate, anyone?). I’d read the Rolling Stone cover story pondering what he’d do next after leaving SNL. I’d made friends off the merits of my impressions of his impressions of celebrities (Johnny Carson, Jimmy Stewart) and politicians (George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot). Watching the Dana Carvey Show, then, was just a given. It was something I had to do. Liking the Show, on the other hand, well…
All these years later, I still think that’s a bad sketch, certainly not one which should have opened the Show’s pilot. However, what I and six million other people missed when we tuned out or changed the channel was not only the birth of a cult classic (since, not surprisingly, one bad sketch does not a bad show make) but also the opportunity to see the future faces of comedy hone their craft on the primetime stage. I certainly didn’t know who Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Louis C.K., Robert Carlock, Jon Glaser, Robert Smigel and others were at the time, but I sure do now. That they all worked together on The Dana Carvey Show (along with other future big names like Charlie Kauffman) has since become one of those interesting/annoying factoids pop culture obsessives like to trot out as a bit of “did you know?” showmanship.
And now there’s a documentary all about it.
A 95-minute documentary.
About a TV show which only ever produced (roughly) 160 minutes of content, 20 of which never even aired.
It’s easy to dismiss Too Funny to Fail in that way, but while this is undeniably a niche documentary director Josh Greenbaum (Becoming Bond) makes the most of it, successfully, as the AV Club put, examining the “failure of genius – and the genius of failure.” Through new interviews with Carvey, Carell, Colbert, Carlock, Glaser, Smigel, Spike Feresten (who joined the writing staff halfway through the show’s run), Bill Hader (serving as the doc’s famous fan whose career was influenced by the Show) as well as archival interviews with Louis, we learn just how the show came together, what it was like behind the scenes when it all went to shit and how it all ultimately turned out for the best. As so often happens in show biz, Show turned out to be the thing several people had to do before they got to the thing.
Smigel, a former SNL and Late Night writer brought into this by Carvey, came at it with the ambition of a man who’d never failed before in his professional life and never fully appreciated just how hard Lorne Michael’s job at SNL was and continues to be. What he and Carvey created was meant to be the punk rock of sketch comedy, staffed by young, desperate, but insanely talented comedic minds who felt liberated to do the type of things SNL wouldn’t dream of.
They were going to do it on primetime, airing behind TV’s No. 1 show, the family friendly Home Improvement, and they opened with that Bill Clinton breastfeeding thing.
Not surprisingly, much of Too Funny to Fail carries a tone of “what were we thinking?” as one interviewee after another openly laughs at the absurdity of what they’d taken part in. A clear highlight comes when Greenbaum separately shows Colbert and Carell an actual old ABC TV promo in which the announcer adopts a deathly serious tone to hype a “very special episode of Home Improvement” and runs clips of a teary-eyed Jonathan Taylor Thomas breaking down after receiving a potentially fatal health diagnosis. Then the promo completely changes tone as the suddenly peppy announced beams, “Followed by a brand new episode of The Diet Root Beer Dana Carvey Show.”
The contrast is too rich for Colbert and Carell. They both laugh so hard they cry, and you’ll probably end up laughing, too. Even if you’ve never seen the Dana Carvey Show, simply watching Carvey, Carell, Smigel, Colbert and the rest talk about it is often a joy to behold because they’re all comic geniuses. Them finding the humor in their failure is in its own way hilarious. Sometimes Greenbaum even catches them being funny independent of their discussion of the Show. At one point, for example, Colbert does an inspired riff about Nietzsche and syphilis, and over the closing credits Smigel pulls out Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to hilariously tear into Hulu’s low viewership totals.
Even the Show’s old nemeses, critics and ABC executives, are given a voice here via interviews with The Los Angeles Times’ Howard Rosenberg and ABC’s Ted Harbert, each of whom seem to look back on the experience with a smile. The narrative which emerges is just how little ABC actually paid attention to the Show until after that first episode, and how the critical reaction helped poison public opinion even though many critics, Rosenberg included, later returned and discovered their instant dismissal had been too hasty.
Several of the sketches showcased in the doc illustrate that Smigel and Carvey’s reaction to controversy and pressure from the network was to double down on their comedic instincts and fight back. They bit the hand that was feeding them by making repeated jabs at ABC, such as one sketch where they simply had a family watch an episode of (NBC’s) Seinfeld because that’s what most people would rather watch than anything ABC had at the time. And they went to some really dark places, such as Grandma the Clown or Skinheads from Maine. It makes their eventual cancellation in no way stunning; instead, you’re more surprised ABC actually stuck with them for 7 episodes before pulling the plug.
That this has now become the subject of a documentary strikes most of them as positively insane. Greenbaum opens with off-the cuff remarks from Carell, Smigel and Colbert questioning how it all came to this. It has the effect of putting us at ease, of offering voice to those who would ridicule the notion of a documentary about a sketch show which only ever aired 7 episodes. With that out of the way, we can all have a good laugh at a time when ABC briefly let the inmates run the asylum, and then had no idea they’d just fired the future stars of The Daily Show, Strangers with Candy, Colbert Report, The Office, Louis, Dislocated and writer-creators of 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Moral Orel, and TV Funhouse, just to name a few.