"Mr. Holland's Opus is ze feel good movie of ze year!"
"Tragedy today as former president Gerald Ford was eaten by wolves. He was delicious."
Here's what unavailability can do to a good TV show: since its brief run was cut too short in the Spring of 1996, the since-unseen "The Dana Carvey Show" spent a decade building a reputation as being ahead of its time and unfairly cancelled. Those that watched it let their fondest memories brew; those that missed it had to rely on reports of ever-increasing praise and teases of notions of young collaborators now famous. This was before the lucky few who bothered to videotape the episodes had an outlet for sharing their favorite clips; by the time YouTube rolled around, the show's reputation had evolved from awkward flop to misunderstood masterpiece.
But once those clips finally did find YouTube, and once streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu announced they could let the episodes out of the vaults, fans were reminded that like any sketch comedy show, "Dana Carvey" had its hits and misses - mostly hits. Viewers (re)discovered moments of great genius, slices of absurd comedy that hits that sweet spot between daring, carefree, and brilliant.
In 1993, when Carvey announced he was leaving "Saturday Night Live" after a wildly successful seven-year run, NBC hoped to lure him into replacing David Letterman on "Late Night." Carvey declined, and instead returned to stand-up (an HBO special aired in 1995). Then came 1996, ABC, and "The Dana Carvey Show."
The idea was a return to the classic variety format, the sort of thing that had been missing on the airwaves since Carvey's youth. "The Carol Burnett Show" is an obvious key inspiration; repeated here is Burnett's tradition of answering questions from the audience. Another throwback would be the idea of sponsorship, with advertisers getting their name right in the title, just like in the Uncle Miltie days.
That's where Carvey and his producers added a naughty wink of subversion. The show would refuse to repeat a sponsor (that is, sponsor Pepsico's main product would rotate), leaving the program's official title changing from week to week. (The pilot was titled "The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show," followed by "The Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show," "The Pepsi Stuff Dana Carvey Show," and so on.) An opening song would praise the sponsor, but in an obvious mocking tone, laughing at the very idea of such integrated advertising. In one episode, Carvey devoted an entire skit to a joke about Mountain Dew's resemblance to a certain bodily fluid.
The show's insubordinate attitude toward the very sponsors it wooed must have been too much. After five episodes (and multiple viewer complaints over other controversial sketches), Pepsi withdrew as the series' backer. But this led the show's producers to make an even smarter move: the sixth episode was "The Szechuan Dynasty Dana Carvey Show," named for an independent Chinese restaurant chain in Manhattan. A network show boasting a local, low rent sponsor. Genius.
ABC must've grown tired of all the sponsorship hassles, and by the seventh episode, the concept was dropped and the show became simply "The Dana Carvey Show" for the first time. And, it turns out, the last. The network cancelled the show before the season finale, an already produced eighth episode, could air.
The shame is that by that eighth episode, the show's creators had finally found their groove. Gone were the clumsy results of a program still finding its footing - the skits were tighter, the ideas were braver, and the Carol Burnett-ish intro segment, a nice concept that failed due to sloppy editing and go-nowhere ideas, was effectively abandoned. Had the show been granted a second season (and had it been moved to a new time slot - the abrupt switch from the family-friendly "Home Improvement" to twisted grown-up jokes about Bill Clinton's nipples caused numerous problems for the network and played the most in the decision to drop the show), it just might've become a modern classic.
Indeed, many of its makers have gone on to great success elsewhere, leaving the show's roster a sort of hindsight dream team of comedy. Louis CK served as head writer, with Spike Feresten, Dino Stamatopoulos, and future Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman among his staff. Improv vet Bill Chott, actor/impersonator Elon Gold, and comic actress Heather Morgan filled out the cast. After the show, writer/actor/producer Robert Smigel would carry his recurring Bob Dole impression over to "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," while his strange cartoon invention "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" would later become a much-loved staple of "SNL."
And then, of course, we have Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. Both served as writers and cast members here, which gives the series a curious factor for web surfers eager to see the two in their pre-"Daily Show" days. And yes, they steal the show, most notably together in their two-man skit "Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food," or alongside Carvey in the brutally goofy "Skinheads from Maine" (Colbert) or recurring bits about "Stupid Pranksters" and "Germans Who Say Nice Things" (both Carell).
That's part of the key to the show's success. Carvey, despite his "SNL" star status, still felt he was just part of an ensemble and was eager to let his fellow cast mates shine. He's willing to give the best line - or an entire sketch - to a cast mate.
Above all, the show was all about risks. True, the show kept a safety net of familiar characters and easy premises on hand (although I'm convinced the pilot's skit featuring the Church Lady was a bitter satire, a response to ABC's hopes of wrangling their own mini-"SNL" with the star's gallery of recurring characters), and much of the political humor (based on the 1996 election) involved generic caricatures of its targets. (The show being taped days before broadcast meant the writers had to remain broad in their timely jokes, which damped those sketches.) But the producers were never afraid to let a premise rule the comedy, even at the cost of quickie punchlines; bits like the one with Clinton howling over a lame Howard Stern routine work because their concepts are solid, even if the little moments don't generate big laughs. Carvey even lets an idea swing around and mock himself, as with "The All-Rich Little Rich Little's One Man Easter," which lampoons not just Little's own dullness, but all impressionists' dependence on the same old tired routines.
The producers' love for random absurdities, meanwhile, allowed for such deranged skits as "First Ladies as Dogs," in which Morgan barks while dressed in Jackie O attire; or "Grandma Clown," with Peggy Shay as a tired, elderly party clown; or the insane ending of a deliciously vulgar "Wizard of Oz" parody, where we discover Gene Shalit's secret identity, a moment so out of nowhere that its very incoherence adds to the humor.
The unaired eighth episode, the best of the season, is a revelation, not only for its tightness of jokes, but for showing us that the writers had planned for two recurring bits - Smigel's Bob Dole character and Carvey and Carell's "Stupid Pranksters" - to grow over the season, leading slowly but surely to this finale. The prankster's bit finally wraps up with a smartly understated punchline, while Dole's misadventures builds to absurdist heights. Many sketch comedies use recurring themes to tie an episode together; with this season, the writers here had planned to tie all eight episodes together.
Even with the weaker skits, the show remains bold and crazy and clever. It's go-for-broke comedy that wins us over on its bravura, and even the dated stuff still feels fresh.
Shout! Factory collects all eight half-hour episodes of "The Dana Carvey Show" into a two-disc set. Episodes are presented in original broadcast order and are spread out four per disc; the discs are housed in a single-wide keepcase with a hinged tray.
Video & Audio
There's nothing fancy about the 1.33:1 full frame transfer, which ably recaptures the original broadcast look of the show with a crisp image. There's no room for improvement, considering the source, so we're happy with just having no complaints.
The stereo soundtrack is equally capable, crisply capturing the dialogue and laughs. No subtitles are provided.
A newly produced interview with Carvey and Smigel (21:18; 1.33:1 full frame) features plenty of fond reminisces of the cast and writing staff, and there's a nice chunk of time devoted to the problematic time slot and network stupidity.
A set of deleted scenes (12:18) showcase a goldmine of bad taste jokes and ridiculous nonsense, real envelope-pushing goodness.
Here's the big issue: Most fans have by now already caught up with the show since episodes were made available online, and if not, well, so far they're still there, waiting for you to click "play." And to those curious about the now-famous cast and crew, that's probably enough. But fans, serious and casual alike, will definitely want these episodes in their collections. The show's just that good. Highly Recommended.