4 min read

Too Funny to Fail and the Gifts of Failure

Too Funny to Fail and the Gifts of Failure
Photo by Dan Cook / Unsplash

Dana Carvey, the comedic legend of Saturday Night Live fame, was riding high from 1986 to 1993. Best known for his impressions and character work. Garth from Wayne’s World, both Bush Presidents, many other President impressions, the Church Lady, and other parodies of people brought Carvey into the pop culture consciousness in full blaze.

Then the fires dimmed.

Carvey left SNL at the end of 1993 riding the coattails of an Emmy and a Rolling Stone cover. What at the time seemed like a smart career move, parlaying his fame into film and other opportunities moving away from the SNL machine made sense. Carvey said he liked the idea of doing work on his own terms and expanding his creativity in other forms beyond sketch comedy. In 1993, rumors surfaced Carvey would take over the David Lettermen time slot on NBC after Lettermen bailed for CBS. That never materialized and Conan O’Brien got the gig.

After Dana exited SNL, he made a couple movies which didn’t blow up the box office. He also made a stand up special and did some other smaller gigs, but nothing on the scale of SNL. But then in 1996, Dana did something he’d always wanted to do. Something SNL never afforded him. Carvey said he’d only do another sketch show if he would do it on his terms and with his people. He wanted to create something edgy and expressed more of Carvey’s comedic range and sensibilities. Carvey wanted to make a show with people who shared his same passions.

In 1996, the Dana Carvey Show was born.

On paper, this show couldn’t fail. You had Dana Carvey at the height of his powers. And then let me give you a taste of the Hall of Fame acting and comedic genius on the show:

  • Louis C.K.- former Conan O’Brien and SNL writer. Famed stand up and actor on many shows.
  • Steve Carell- from The Office, Daily Show, and now award winning actor.
  • Stephen Colbert- The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and now the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
  • Robert Smigel- from SNL TV Fun House fame, writer on many iconic TV shows, and movies.

I could go on. The pool of talent on the Dana Carvey Show was on a level most productions of comedy would die for. After watching a documentary highlighting the show and interviewing the former cast, many said it was the best job they ever had. The funniest stuff they ever created and Dana and the other writers made some of the best sketches ever shown on TV.

Yet with all the comedic genius and creative powers, the Dana Carvey Show lasted seven episodes. What happened?

In the documentary, it’s hard to nail down one primary cause of the demise of the show. One obvious thing was the show followed Home Improvement in a prime time spot and the audiences didn’t carry over. Tim the Tool Man Taylor and edgy sketch comedy were not great dance partners. The Dana Carvey Show pushed too many boundaries and wasn’t the Family Friendly fare of the goofy tool man. Others speculate many of the sketches made fun of the people who cut the checks like networks and sponsors and that wasn’t good for business.

Nobody will know for sure what ended the brilliant and subversive comedy show, but it surely was a mix of things and not because of lack of talent. By the last show, the reviews shifted from “What is this?” to, “The best comedy show on TV.” The show was also finding a devoted and cult-like following. But it was too late. The last episode wasn’t aired and was replaced by a Coach rerun. Money talks and ABC couldn’t give the Carvey Show another season.

If you get a chance, check out the documentary: Too Funny to Fail. Even if you don’t like Dana Carvey, or comedy, there is something beautiful and human in this story of a failed sketch show. These men and women believed in the show. They constantly, often in tears, talk about the experience of making the show and wish they could do it all again. The writers, actors, and producers knew the show wasn’t doing well almost from the beginning. Regardless, they didn’t live in fear of being canceled or losing their jobs. They wanted to make stuff they thought was funny and enjoyed. The cast and crew and writers were the best around, and thought with time, this show could keep going.

But they wanted to make something on their terms and if people watched it great, if not, they would still be proud of the art left behind. Multiple times in the show Dana felt in his bones what they were making was too edgy for prime time. And when things weren’t heading in the right direction, he worried he had ruined all of their careers. The show was the first enormous opportunity for many of them and they didn’t know if their only credit being a flop would provide any long term prospects.

Ironically, most of the people on the show went on to iconic and award winning work in TV, film, and in stand up comedy. The Dana Carvey Show, according to fans, was a big hit and inspired a lot of creative people. What on paper was an abysmal flop getting buried in the graveyard of comedic sketch shows resurrected and launched many people into the orbit of pop culture. Many of the sketches later found themselves on SNL and other shows through the years. They gave many of the actors work for merely being associated with the show.

I love this story because it’s a story about how life works. You never know when something fails all the good that comes around the corner. What some people find in our art or life might be repulsive, but for others, is’s life and light. You never know.

But like the crew of the Dana Carvey Show, you have to make the art you feel in your bones and not worry about the outcomes. Not to mention, making art with your friends makes it even sweeter. Isn’t a gift of grace in how much we learn from our failures. And even in failure, resurrection is often right around the corner?

-RJP